Saturday, August 31, 2013

2012 Films Ive Seen Ranked from Best to Worst

1. Dark Knight Rises-I had the reaction to it that many people had with Nolan's first two films: profound, definitive for the superhero genre, a story with great dramatic weight, add whatever other superlatives you want. I felt Batman Begins had too much exposition and Dark Knight was too focused on making its villain as grotesque as possible while Dark Knight Rises was primarily about its story.
2. Argo-Not much to say here that hasn't already been said. It's a very solid film that evoked a similar feeling of greatness as the Flight and Dark Knight Rises. It felt slightly less profound than Dark Knight Rises and slightly more broad than Flight.
3. Flight-One great crash scene, a great use of Denzel Washington's star power, and a great balancing out of two or three different story lines that draw from the best of different genres (i.e. disaster films, courtroom films, films with alcoholic characters).
4. Silver Linings Playbook-There were a few moments that didn't work emotionally (Robert DeNiro trying to be sappy comes to mind) that could easily have been discarded, but much of the film worked and the acting by the leads was phenomenal. The film was brave in showing characters who were really mentally ill.
5. Les Miserables-A grand spectacle but didn't have as coherent of a narrative as the top four entries. Hugh Jackman was a big highlight
6. Prometheus-A pretty squicky (read: nausea-inducing) film but one with an immensely imaginative vision and completely immersive narrative. It was also a film that can be described as highly intellectual.
7. Hyde Park on Hudson-Dare I say better than the Kings Speech? Its a quieter film but had quite a bit to say about politics and the illusions of power between all the subtleties. Plus, I've never seen a film that made polyamory seem so wholesomely American.
8. Wreck it Ralph-A film that's a lot of fun for anyone who grew up in the age of Nintendo. The film feels like it takes you deep into a wondrous world because it worked out its infrastructure and plot holes well. Great casting choices and chemistry between the characters.
9. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel-Slightly less memorable than on first viewing, I felt the Altmanesque story structure worked which is a hard task to pull off. Stories like this are often disjointed. The film nicely gave some of its characters a happy ending while leaving others hanging but apologetically gave the Dev Patel character a magical happy ending that felt a little Bollywood to me.
10. Robot and Frank-Not all films about the dangers of robots have to be dystopian sci-fi films. This one feels more like the kind of broody character piece you'd see at Sundance and that's a refreshing twist on the genre. Frank Langella is wonderful and Susan Sarandon shows she should be in more supporting parts. The hipster in charge of revamping the library makes for a great villain. Might have ranked higher if a better actor was cast in place of James Marsden
11. Quartet-Billy Connelly's character doesn't exactly fit but Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Sheridan Smith and Tom Courtenay are all terrific. The film can be a bit schmaltzy and sensationalistic but the overall sentiment and its anti-ageist credo are not lost. It's a film that takes us into another fascinating world but not all corners of that world are properly fleshed out.
12. Pirates Band of Misfits-This animated entry had the sort of fun spirit and inventiveness that work well for this genre. With Queen Victoria, the archetypal 19th century pirate, and Charles Darwin all fair play for reimagining (I don't think Queen Victoria was a supreme martial artist though I might be mistaken), there was a playful sense of fun in these historical archetypes. Good pacing as well.
13. Zero Dark Thirty-Less exciting than 80% of the episodes of Homeland. That's the consequence of the Golden Age of TV for you. The final scenes of the raid and the closing shot of Maya's short-lived catharsis before looking to the next challenge were highlights.
14. Pitch Perfect-Anna Kendrick probably shouldn't have done a film like this but she did and elevated the material significantly (and she now has a single that's topping the itunes charts). It successfully immerses the viewer into an interesting subculture, is written with a great sprinkling of humor (a 30 Rock writer penned the script), has great music and a pretty good collection of cast members.
15. Dictator-A great comedic effort on par with Baron Cohen's other comedic works that was still risky without the unpleasant byproduct of knowing that innocent people (who gave up their privacy by signing a misleading waiver) were hurt. I think it says more about our society's voyeuristic tastes that the film didn't come close to the general buzz of Baron Cohen's other efforts.
16. Compliance-Haunting and effective. A little sparser and less cinematic than it should've been. In other words, would it not have made a better play?
17. Paperboy-I read the book and saw the film and thought some good and bad choices were made Director Lee Daniels. At the end of the day, it was an interesting story and its a credit to the acting that these seemingly baffling choices weren't godawful. Nicole Kidman was the biggest snub of the year. 
18. Casa de mi Padre-A noble experiment that had its moments. Didn't take full comedic advantage of its premise leading to the humor not resonating 100% but Ferrell and crew went all out on replicating the world they were parodying.
19. Safety Not Guaranteed-A winningly clever film knocked down a couple pegs by two elements that rubbed me the wrong way: The unnecessary and implausible romantic pairing of two characters and the painting of Jake Johnson's character as more of a jerk than Johnson projects. Other than that, much to like about the film as an inventive indie film.
20. Beasts of the Southern Wild-Yes it's highly imaginative but kind of slow and the dad character is awfully hard to like. I ultimately did come around to appreciating Dwight Henry's character as a tough-love dad and applaud the performance but why did the film make it so hard. 
21. The Master-The film had some great performances and a few scenes that resonates but did the film really have anything important to say? It rode high in critical appreciation on the backs of Paul Thomas Anderson and the love for Phil Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams so I know I'm in the minority but I'm struck more by the anticlimactic ending.
22. Men in Black 3-Looking back, I don't think I've ever been in love with the Men in Black franchise. I've watched all three simply because of a fondness for Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The second installment was the one that had the best flow and comic rhythm. This one had a few more bumps and an immensely complex plot (for a series that's not supposed to take itself seriously) but was still enjoyable nonetheless.
24. Trouble with the Curve-It's an adequate popcorn film that alternates between moments that are slightly cheesy and high notes that are genuinely earned. Timberlake gives the first performance I can genuinely see him as an actor in, Amy Adams is great as always although Clint Eastwood's performance seems like a Gran Torino imitation. The main reason it's ranked so low is that the entire premise is just dumb: A man who looks well past retirement age and losing his sight is protesting retirement?
23. Hunger Games-Gary Ross is a great director, but I don't think he gave the film that much of an auteur stamp. It was pretty simply a by-the-numbers adaptation with a few small upgrades: The map room and the fireballs were both pretty impressive, for example. Still, even megastar casting moves like Jennifer Lawrence, Lenny Kravitz, and whatever semi-random hunk of the year they get to play the love interest isn't enough incentive to advise someone to just read the book instead.
25. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter-Wasn't a disappointment in relation to my expectations. The special effects were pretty up there (even when compared to your average $200 million dollar budget film) and the performances of the supporting actors (Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson, Alan Tyduk) were strong (although those three rarely disappoint). 
26. Bernie-It wasn't necessarily a flawed film and it stayed faithful to the story it was based on. I would simply argue that neither the story nor the lead character (though quite endearing) were never that interesting. In addition, it's a film heavy on a sense of place and I never quite fell in love with Carthage, Texas.
27. The Impossible-On the upside, the film set likely beat Titanic out for most gallons of water taken from the public reservoir for use on a movie set. We can also point to Naomi Watts' Oscar nomination but she is pretty much Oscar-worthy in everything she does. For a film that was about arguably the biggest natural disaster of my lifetime, I found it surprising that the film was devoid of any interpersonal conflict nor did I find very much of an intriguing man vs. the elements through-line like Cast Away or Alive.
28. Seven Psychopaths-A Martin McDonagh shoot-em-up film with a gimmick that I don't even think Martin McDonagh took very seriously. It had some nice moments but I don't think it came off as much of a clever twist of the genre as it meant to be. The end result was less entertaining than a straight-up version of the genre that had a better sense of what it was.
29. Madagascar 3-I enjoyed the first two for their clever humor and interplay between the well-developed characters but this one seemed haphazard and even illogical (a tiger fitting inside a wedding ring? the quartet of zoo animals swimming to Europe from Africa?) by the standards of a cartoon. The set pieces (particularly Monte Carlo) were uneven, the additional characters took away from the interplay of the original quartet, the villainous zookeeper was treated kind of ridiculously and the film felt rushed.
30. Struck by Lightning-Chris Coffer has veered away from his flamboyant diva character on "Glee" (although he admittedly got more likable in later seasons) to an ungrateful brat. How is this considered a good career move? The film lacked enough of a positive pole to counterbalance it's depressing aura. I believe Chris Coffer is talented but it wasn't the right vehicle for him, even if he wrote it.
31. Ted-I was hoping for Seth McFarlane to make a great transition to movies and I'm happy others liked it but I found the film highly disappointing, juvenile and somewhat of a cop out at the end. Mark Wahlberg still gets massive points for bravery with this role.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Camp Review: Parents Weekend

When it comes to being a critic, I maintain that you ultimately should judge a show by emotion. A show might be flawed in ways that you can spell out, but if it moves you in some way, that trumps anything else in consideration. Your job is then to explain how the show arrived at that emotional response.

Up until this episode, Camp was a flawed show and moved me only to the point that I would have called it watchable. A lot of the characters are flat, some of the dialogue is predictable and the setting is a mixed bag: Camp Otter is a very inviting place for our escapist needs but it's not particularly fleshed out.

But the show has some strengths. I find three of the characters-- Kip, Marina, Mac -- pretty strong and well-developed, two function nicely as wild card side characters capable of amusing with their sheer eccentricness - Chloe and Grace -- and one guy, Cole, who's marginally interesting.

This episode revolved around yet another "camp tradition" that American audiences largely would not recognize as part of the camp experience: A parents' weekend for CITs. A camp is supposed to serve the campers and subsequently, most of the special events are aimed for brightening the experience of the campers and not paid employees like the CIT's. That would be like if my swimming pool advertised that "tonight is senior lifeguard night where all our high school senior lifeguards wear special hats and we sing for them." I'm here to swim and generally don't care about the lifeguards. I know it's an imperfect perfect analogy since campers do bond with lifeguards but it reinforces Camp's flaw that it doesn't know whether they want to define their teenage characters (outside of Grace) as part-time counselors or quasi-campers themselves. Despite the amount of word space I've devoted to this, it's relatively small potatoes.

We have the Cole-Mac subplot rearing it's ugly head and disappearing. For all we know, the possibility of romance might be squashed forever and that is IMPORTANT with this show. When every possible permutation is turned into a romance, then the show becomes predictable, uninteresting and asymmetrical to real life where not every romantic notion successfully goes in that direction. Additionally, one of the show's big strengths is that the romances all are organic. Even if the characters can be flat and unconvincing, their various romantic pairings all occur for convincing reasons. A romance between Cole and Mac might put a smile on your face, but Mac deciding not to engage in a romance with Cole would be more interesting, truer to her character, and a little less predictable. Romantic shipping is born out of a desire for happy endings which we've largely evolved out of in other areas and are the better for it. We no longer view movies as overly tragic when the good guy gets killed or doesn't get what he wants in some other form.

The plot with Kip and his dad was the perfect example of something that's flawed but moving. Kip's dad seems a little stereotypical of a character which is a problem compounded by the fact that this is the show's biggest flaw. This subplot worked partially because it was centered around Kip who is, in my opinion, the show's strongest character and one who's evolution has kept pace with my expectations. More than that, the storyline was just surprisingly well-written and as a result, it was moving. On top of that, this was also a subplot that moved along nearly every other plot (Rachel-Buzz, Marina-Marina's mom, Cole-Mac, Marina-Kip) which enhanced the flow of the episode.

The one subplot that had little to do with the Kip storyline was the Sarah-Robbie-Don Juanish novelist love triangle, which is significant to note because Sarah and Robbie have long seemed disconnected to the rest of the Little Otter staff. When Sarah finds out the news that Kip is in the hospital, she puts an arm around Chloe but it wasn't a particularly convincing moment being that Sarah has had little on-screen interaction with anyone but either of her two lovers. It seems easier to believe that Sarah doesn't know Kip by name.

I've never cared for any of these three characters but if the show is going to continue with this love triangle, I think we can all agree it was preferable that the big reveal happened sooner than later so we can get to some genuine drama.

As for Buzz, considering his desperation makes him annoying to watch, I was he finally got some action. On the flipside, I was even more pleased that it went disastrously enough that he probably wouldn't think of it as an unabashed success and therefore, will still likely be looking for more boobage. While a desperate Buzz is annoying, it would also be jarring to give him a steady source of sexual satisfaction. In short, Buzz is best when he's desperate but not too desperate.

The Buzz-Mac relationship has a lot of potential but still needs some work. The main question here: Is it the heart of the show and should it be?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Camp: Heat Wave Review

"Camp" probably might not be worth watching if it weren't airing in the programming void of the Summer time and didn't so perfectly capture the time of the season.

Carrie Raisler's review at the AV Club (famously known around the internet as the frenemy of introduced a new compound word into my lexicon when she described the show as "low-stakes." In a way, this is a profoundly appropriate description of "Camp": The show offers an escapist appeal, the plots (examples include a campwide game of capture the flag and a social intercamp mixer) are largely inconsequential, and the show clearly has little interest in developing most of its characters.

With the exception of Mac (the main protagonist played by Rachel Griffiths), Kip, and Marina, the characters can easily be sorted out into stock stereotypes from the pilot on and every subsequent episode only serves to confirm those initial classifications. A rough list of the minor and major characters whose hope for expanding beyond one dimension has died by the fifth episode: Cole is rugged and spontaneous, Sarah is self-aware that she's hot and therefore kind of stuck-up (although that's likely not what the writers intended), Steve is a cartoonishly irresponsible father,  Buzz is a sex-starved teenager, Roger is smug (in the show's defense, Roger's flatness is heavily lampshaded), Greg is a sensitive slimeball who attracts the ladies, and Cheryl is a doppelganger for the hornier side of Mac.

Slightly above this group of seven is Asian with high self-esteem (TVTropes, can you do something about that?) Grace and crazy, dark Chloe. They both are a little caricatured but each has the potential to surprise and they are heavily entertaining as side characters.

At the bottom of the character development ladder are two characters that exist solely as different options of arm candy for Sarah: Safe choice Robbie and the road less traveled Miguel Santos. Despite the show's forgettable attempt to give him a backstory with an irresponsible mother, Robbie has nothing to define him. I might be inclined to give the show credit for using the Santos character ironically-- he's a famous novelist and a caricature of a Don Juan character in a romance novel -- but there's no indication that much foresight was given to him. As I previously stated, Sarah is far less interesting than she's intended to be, so a love triangle centered entirely around her falls flat.

That being said, "Camp" does a couple things terrifically. Aside from the Sarah-Boring Guy 1-Boring Guy 2 love triangle, nearly every other romantic relationship works and that's more than I can say about most shows on TV. We're living in the age of shipping: shows like "New Girl", "Bent", "How I Met Your Mother", "Parks and Recreation" (at times)  and "Castle" feel obligated to throw their characters at each other romantically even when it doesn't make sense. "Camp" feels kind of like a soap opera with its inevitability of romantic entanglements, but it earns points over all those other shows because many of these romances make sense: 1) Mac needs to feel wanted in middle age so she goes for Roger; 2) Cole wants Mac because she's a source of stability to her and the two have a great familiarity; 3) Buzz is quite simply a 16-year old kid in summer camp; 4) Marina has rarely felt special before Greg made her feel that way; 5) Kip sees himself as an outsider and Marina understands him; and 6) Chloe sees someone like-minded in Kip and her need for romantic attachment is strong because she's a little off.  It also helps that sleepaway summer camps are generally regarded as a time where kids become more adventurous with the opposite sex, lending some plausibility to the  "Love Boat" vibe the show is going for.

The other thing the show does well is create an escapist tone. The ironic thing is that the show is about a family camp and it has an ill-defined sense of what that is. Off the top of my head:
1) Why are Mac's three friends there for an entire summer?
2) Is Grace seemingly the only teenage camper and if so, why would she choose to go to a camp where most of her peer group is working there?
3) Why are some counselors like Robbie and Sarah doing jobs that appear to take up much of their time while other counselors pretty much just play summer camp games and party?
4) If Grace is such a high achiever, why is she spending one of her prized summers before college as a season-long camper (which can't look good on a college application) when she could easily just work a couple hours a day like Marina and Kip.
5) Roger doesn't appear to be a man who likes kids, so why does he run a family camp as opposed to a resort for adults? Is it even a family camp?

Still, without knowing what a family camp is, it's convincingly a place we want to be. It's easy and breezy and that's enough to tune into a nine-episode run.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Episode 9 "F*cksgiving"

I don't ordinarily have the resources to do episode-by-episode reviews (I honestly don't have the resources to do this blog, period, unless I get donations), but I wrote some thoughts down after seeing Episode 9 of Orange is the New Black that I thought made for a good stand-alone post. I have finished the entirety of OitNB at this point and found it to be one of the best shows I've seen in what has already been an outstanding year of television.  

As a kid, watching a movie is a simpler process. There's a hero and a bad guy and you root for the hero and against the villain. 

But what happens to that dichotomy in adulthood? Once you understand that Silence of the Lambs' Anthony Hopkins is actually a pretty pleasant guy in real life and not a consumer of human livers, it's no longer convention for adult viewers to judge a movie's merits based on whether the bad guy or good guy wins. 

I'd argue that rooting for good and against evil is still a part of the moviegoing/tv watching experience, even if we've been conditioned not to look at plots in that dichotomy. Otherwise, how could the movie's emotional core have meaning?

It's a longer discussion I'd be interested in taking part of, but the point is some of the most memorable moments in my TV/movie watching has been the catharsis of seeing the good guy win. 

"Orange is the New Black" has done a great job of eliciting that catharsis and the high point was this week when Piper finally stood up to Healey. Was Healey the sole perpetrator of her injustices? No, but he was wrong to lock her up and she did something about it.

From a standpoint of wanting to see the good guys win, I'm hoping Piper can take this new confidence and do something with it. Her "oh s--- what have I done?" tantrum had me worried, which made it all the sweeter that she gets her groove back when released by prison in a moment that doubled as the series' next shocker: Piper is having sex with Alex.

This is certainly an earned moment of "WTF?!" and if you were marginally invested in the series, you're definitely invested now.

And how about Healey? He just made a run to displace Mendez as biggest bastard among the prison staff. An argument can be made that Healey is more hateable than Mendez on the grounds that at least Mendez knows he's rotten.

In terms of both these bad apples, the episode was also significant because it marked the first time any sense of checks and balances were present in the system. Apparently someone like Mendez and Healy can be called out on it if they do something "illegal" and if enough outside attention is brought on something out of the ordinary, Fig and Caputo have incentive to respond to that pressure.

As for the Taystee storyline, I found it a nice counterbalance to the main action. The little highs such as Taystee's release balances the show's darker moments, while her arrival back to prison provides for some necessary social commentary.

Why Taystee doesn't just go back to social services when she discovers her cousin isn't there is somewhat baffling? One would think she has a transition counselor assigned by the parole board. The show loses a little bit of a lose-wn dichotomy that the prisoners are almost always screwed no matter what they do, but I sometimes have trouble believing things could be that bad in certain situations.

Still, the high of Taystee's unexpected release, however short-lived, along with Piper's newfound liberation indicate that this show can reach great dramatic heights similar to a great uplifting prison drama like Shawshank Redemption. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

CollegeHumor's Coffee Town Underwhelms

Coffee Town is kind of a dud and somewhat of a baffling move for the CollegeHumor team for their first movie. CH's comedy is ordinarily a go-for-broke approach which makes sense since they don't have network heads to appease. Theoretically, CollegeHumor "produced" the film while Arrested Development staff director Brad Copeland wrote and directed it so you would think that CH would have let him run with his idea or why bother attaching your name to the film?

I'm only speculating but Coffee Town felt safe. It feels as unambitious as a network sitcom's off-episode. The concept itself -- a man who telecommutes from a coffee shop deciding to save his precious workspace through robbery -- is so low-stakes, it's almost charming.
But a low stakes film like Coffee Town needs to be about something -- off the top of my head, maybe how our present-day societal dilemna of determining how to reconstruct value in place when we can professionally thrive in placenessness* -- or it's just a paper-thin plot about a guy sitting at a coffee shop. The film doesn't succeed on this level as any attempts to infuse this sitcomy plot with meaning feels corny and forced. When Dennis Reynolds (or whatever the guy's name is) is explaining to his love interest that he likes to go to the coffee shop to be part of the world, there's a sense of the films initial intentions to being diluted. That leaves a film overly reliant on a plot that's paper-thin. They're supposed to be robbing a coffee shop but this isn't Ocean's 11 where much of the screen time is centered on an elaborate heist.

Glenn Howerton proves he's got enough of a leading man quality to transition into film as a comedic straight man a la Jason Bateman or Jason Sudeikis. The problem is he's not helped out by his supporting cast.

Ben Schwartz is very talented in sketch comedy and in recurring guest roles (Parks and Recreation comes to mind) but he starts to wear thin playing the same character for 90 minutes (in case you think I discriminate, I have the same complaint about House of Lies). His character traits walk a thin line between being a well-developed comedic character and being a "Who's Line is it Anyway" player picking party quirks out of a bag. Steve Little is equally forgettable as friend #2 and the leading lady (Adrianne Palicki) has no chemistry with Howerton. Her conversations with Howerton's character and her general appearance/demeanor (for one, she's dressed like a slob who just got out of bed) seem so mundane, it's hard to believe that he could possibly get that worked up about her, let alone believe that two different guys would want to put that much effort in pursuing her.  There are a number of actresses (including Aubrey Plaza who got her start in internet videos) who have appeared in CollegeHumor's video shorts which have magnetic and charismatic personas that would have been better choices for the lead.

Josh Groban (a wonderfully odd choice) isn't bad in his role but the problem is that by not being that bad of a guy, he inadvertently makes the good guys less likable. He's slightly disgruntled at a lack of tips and has dreams of playing in a rock band, but the Little-Schwartz-Howerton gang treats him as an arch villain and gets a little abusive of him. Insulting his band while going to his show is a little low. In fact, for someone who "likes being part of the world" Howerton's character doesn't seem to really appreciate the camaraderie of his follow coffee shop goers and mostly wants to avoid them.

Then again, the film is wonderfully relatable in this sense: Sometimes coffee shop barristas or restaurant managers who insist you constantly pay are annoying as Hell. And the film has its moments (especially on the comedic front: some of the jokes hit) or even a worthwhile movie to watch in the right circumstances. This isn't a definitive thumbs down. It just felt underwhelming in relation to its potential.

I should also add that I personally have gotten to know CollegeHumor in the last calendar year through the PR department and it's truly been wonderful being let in.

For that matter, I do feel conflicted because I'm now raining on the parade of my new friends with this negative review. I should add that a movie made by CollegeHumor is a big step for them but not representative of their comedic output. Its one of some 2,433 creative endeavours they've undertaken so if it's not one of their best works, it matters slightly less. It's pretty amazing that a group of twenty-somethings working on the top story of a sky scraper in New York could come up with that many videos in the first place.

*I was a geography major. I can spit out place construct terminology until the cows come home