Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Yap: Soul Kitchen

When a farce doesn’t feel like a farce and just feels like life, then the film is completely working. The latest film from German director Fatih Akin (Head-On) is a delightful comedy centered around a restaurant owner named Zinos whose life is constantly being tested.

It’s just the little things originally. He has a bit of his back ache; his brother Illias needs a job so he can be out on parole; an old childhood friend keeps bugging him about the Soul Kitchen; his new cook is a bit of a snob; he’s behind on his taxes; his girlfriend, Nadine, got a job in Shanghai and wants him to travel out there. Life is composed of all of these miniature conflicts and the real story is how they all come together.

The screenplay by Akin and Adam Bousdoukos, who is also the star of the film, is so smart by just letting everything be organic and fun. It is not structured in the usual path of resolution or comedic breakdown. The friction is allowed to ebb and flow in a way that is so much fun. All of the actors have the right chemistry with each other that saves time on worthless exposition.

While still being comedic, Akin has the camera still place everything with the highest stakes possible. The shots are composed so impressively that works within the elements of the farce. Just like the complex nature of the script, each frame masterfully aligns the characters into their perfect positions and centers the movement around them like an axis.

Just like Zinos is trying to achieve with his Soul Kitchen, the tone of the film really means everything. The music and the look isn’t of a heightened Germany, but of the fun and danger we have in this reality. The only time that slips is a few questionable moments of slapstick that are fun but just seem to be in the wrong comedy.

The DVD is awfully bare, but it does have one great bonus feature. The making-of featurette is well produced. It bounces from an informal interview between Akin and Bousdoukos to while they are filming the movie. A few of the cast members are fun to talk to and it’s exciting to see the evolution of a scene. The biggest problem with the DVD is that the synopsis on the back gives away things that happen in the final 30 minutes. Also they have a plot statement in there that isn’t true at all. Avoid reading it.

The film has done well at a number of film festivals including Venice and Toronto. It even made the list of Best Foreign Films on this year’s National Board of Review. Yet, it still isn’t making enough waves in America. This is such a shame because this movie completely works.

Film: 4.5 Yaps

Extras: 3.5 Yaps


Higgens Network: The Fighter

The Fighter was a movie that was being worked by Darren Aronofsky and the reins were eventually handed over to David O. Russell. At this point he needed a victory as much as the subject matter. It has been a long six years since I Heart Huckabees, which was a critical failure. Since tapes have surfaced of Russell mishandling a set and one of his projects was completely canceled. This new movie could break him.

Instead it is a surprise victory. The story of Mickey Ward seems very conventional. He’s a boxer who isn’t well respected and hasn’t had a big chance yet. What’s holding him back is his two-faced family led by his brother Dicky and his mother Alice. Wisely Russell and his screenwriters focus on the journey of the family, instead of the underdog aspects of the sport.

Right away the movie plays with expectations. Mickey and Dicky (Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) are talking to the camera for an interview. However the interviewers are not interested in Mickey, but they want to talk about Dicky’s planned comeback. This is especially odd considering Bale resembles The Machinist not Batman. It is this sort of script direction that makes this movie exciting as well as Russell’s experimenting camera.

Some elements in the movie work better than others. Amy Adams plays Charlene, the bartender who starts to date Mickey. Thankfully she wasn’t the clichéd “I don’t want you to get hurt!” sort of girlfriends, but she did have to be very blunt throughout the movie to get the ball moving. Some of it felt natural and some of it didn’t. Her being dismissive of the family makes sense from her perspective, but the film takes a more complex look.

Bale and Melissa Leo are fantastic as they never come close to villainizing their characters. There is just as much love as there is neglect every time they are on screen. There is no easy answer to what is best for Mickey and his career. Wahlberg keeps everything minimalistic almost too much. He has to be passive because that’s the core of the story, but there needs to be a little bit more. He’s solid in the ring and as a reactionary in a conversation, but when he has to step up it doesn’t always sell.

Through all of this, The Fighter sells this world and these people thanks to very solid storytelling. Hopefully this marks the creative return of Russell, a director that used to creatively turn heads back in the 90s.


Higgens Network: Black Swan

There is an admirable intensity that radiates with Black Swan. So many people are at the top of their game in this movie. Natalie Portman and cinematographer Matthew Libatique both deserve Oscars for their masterful work. Different elements can be studied and appreciated for what nuances they’ve accomplished but there too many things stopping this from being its potential masterpiece.

Ballet is a medium that requires a lot of subtly to accomplish its goals. The way the dancer moves across the stage means everything to the character and the performance. Black Swan portrays the ballet scenes with amazement with the way the actors are handling the material, the camera is in the middle of the action and the way the music is just incredible. However what’s missing is the subtly. What really hurts this film is the lack of subtext.

Portman plays Nina Sayers who desperately wants to play the lead of Swan Lake. Can she be able to transform herself into the Black Swan is the main conflict of the film. From the beautiful opening dance sequence, it is obvious this film will run parallel to the ballet itself. If that wasn’t clear, it will be stated in the dialog over and over again. The black and white symbolism is radiating off the screen almost to the point of a drinking game.

This is only a real issue in the first act of the film and parts of the second. A second viewing will be able to constitute whether or not it effectively worked as a set-up for the characters. Right now it feels clunky but it can be excused for how well the finale was executed. The film is electric and becomes a powerful piece of art.

That accomplishment can be attributed to Darren Arnonfsky’s enthusiasm for the project and Natalie Portman’s tour-de-force performance. Stories of duality allow the actor to show their range. Look how innocent and corrupted they can be! Portman clearly has the range, but she nails the transformation with physical excellence. Her character is obsessed with the ballet in such a troubled fashion. So it only makes sense that the way she composes herself will reflect that institution. As she ebbs and flows with her confidence, there’s something impressive going on which shows that Portman is incredibly controlled as an actress but also plays with the organic principals of the character.

There are enough bizarre elements of the film to make this an “arthouse” flick. It becomes weird in a Cronenberg fashion, but because of its insistence to make everything clear it’s never entirely out of the blue. There is still enough there to form a intelligent dissection of it but it could have left more to the audience.


Film Yap: Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

There’s a new film phrase I’m going to introduce in this review. It’s “The Greatest Character Ever.” That is what happens when a film creates one new character and is so impressed by them, all of the other characters are constantly talking about how deep/mysterious/fantastic they are. For the best example of this watch Get Low (or just the trailer even.)

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo falls into this trap as well as so many others. Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, The Brothers Bloom) plays Ryu, an incredibly interesting woman who is a hired assassin. The reason we know she is incredibly interesting is because there is periodic voice over telling us about all of the secrets she keeps and how deep she is. If only there was a way they could show and not tell this…

After several tangents, the story finally begins. Ryu is hired to kill David (Sergi Lopez), a Spainard who runs a wine shop. Instead of killing him, they have a flirting encounter, which leads to a date, which leads to several sex scenes. Now she is caught in the same moral quandary every single hitman faces when their target is the opposite sex.

It’s a very clichéd story and the only new parts of the movie are the randomness that fills the rest. Writer/director Isabel Coixet throws so many things into the movie, hoping some of them will stick. Yet it just makes the film feel even more uneven. There is plenty of odd things around the city of Tokyo like a flash mob that devotes each interaction to a basic emotion (lust, anger, etc.). What that has to do with this story is beyond anyone.

If the whole movie is built around this character study of Ryu, why not let Kikuchi be more front and center? She is a fantastic actress who has already been Oscar nominated at her young age. So many of her scenes keep her away from the camera, where you can’t see her face from that angle. Eventually the movie abandons the narrative and just focuses on a series of sex scenes between the leads. Each interaction doesn’t add anything to the characters that hasn’t already been established earlier so the pacing is destroyed.

Without adding anything new to the story, the movie just falls completely flat despite having Kikuchi in its arsenal. No, the title doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

The bonus features only include a dull 6 minute “Behind the Sounds” as well as two trailers for the film.

Film: 2 Yaps

Extras: 1.5 Yaps


Film Yap: Best Documentary Shortlist

Of all of the Oscar categories the Best Documentary is the weirdest. They are almost infamous for selecting the most random films for its nominees. Critical and audience favorites like Grizzly Man will get snubbed for something that only played at one film festival. That’s not necessary a bad thing, it’s just goofy.

It is also one of the categories that unveiled its shortlist of nominees months before the official selection. Sure enough it has its good and bad marks as well. I’ve seen 9 of the 15 so here is the full list and my comments.

--Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. I haven’t seen this one, but this expose of the former New York Governor is getting a lot of good buzz. The DVD comes out in January.

--Enemies of the People. I haven’t seen this one. It’s about the genocide of two million people in Cambodia. This sounds insanely depressing which means it has a chance.

--Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is one of my absolute favorite films of the year. It’s so much fun as a puzzle and an examination of street art. It is on DVD on December 14th.

--Gasland. My review for this film will be up on Sunday but I will say this is another very good entry. It’s a bit controversial, especially since Mark Ruffallo’s name is now on a watch list because of his public support of this film.

--Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. Haven’t seen this one either. It’s about the beloved pianist. This is just one story, not 32.

--Inside Job. Another one of my top films of the year. This one is getting a lot of attention for its intelligent and biting attack on those who may have caused the economic crisis. This is still in theatres across the country.

--The Lottery. This is an amazing and well-made look at the poor state of the American educational system. This is far better than Waiting for Superman in every way. This is currently on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

--Precious Life. Another one I have not seen. This is about an Israeli pediatrician and Palestinian mother trying to find a cure for her dying baby. It’s topical, but I haven’t heard anything about it.

--Quest for Honor. I haven’t seen it but it’s an investigation into the killings in Kurdistan. Again very depressing.

--Restrepo. In my review for the site, I praised this movie for being one of the best war documentaries in a long time. It’s now on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

--This Way of Life. This played at this year’s Heartland Film Festival. It’s a charming movie about a family’s simpler and peaceful existence and what is happening to it.

--The Tillman Story. Very well made movie about Pat Tillman and the political cover-up that followed his death. The DVD will be out in February.

--Waiting for Superman. Incredibly overrated and simplified take on the educational system. Unfortunately it’s the frontrunner.

--Waste Land. This one sounds really good. It’s about art and a landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro. The DVD will be out in March.

--William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. This one is all right. Kunstler’s daughters made an interesting documentary about their father the famous civil rights lawyer. It’s on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

So what’s missing? Here are 15 films and somehow they still missed a lot of favorite documentaries from this year. Some people noted that Catfish and I’m Still Here didn’t make the list because there’s too much doubt on whether they are real or not. I think it’s just because they’re terrible movies. I think it’s more shocking that Best Worst Movie, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and Waking Sleeping Beauty didn’t make the list. I don’t know why Hollywood doesn’t like documentaries about Hollywood. All of those had high praise and they were really innovative. Documentaries don’t have to be insanely depressing and it’s a shame they didn’t even make the shortlist.

So who will make the final five? Sadly Waiting for Superman is probably going to win which is a complete shame. Inside Job could pull an upset. Exit Through the Gift Shop and Client 9 has enough appeal to grab their spots. I want to say Restrepo will take the final slot but since this category is so freakin’ random it could really go to most of them. Just not The Lottery because they won’t do two education movies even though it’s incredibly deserving.

Are there any more documentaries you liked this year that should have been recognized? Do you have other predictions for what will be the final nominees? Are there any documentaries you still want to see?


Film Yap: Frenemy

There’s a cliché about a certain type of scripts. They are the ones that seemed to be made when you’re in film school. Sadly that’s not a compliment. This has been an age of filmmakers that are strongly influenced by the former masters. Instead of being original voices, they become the echoes of others.

Frenemy has a quote on the back of the DVD box saying, “A DAVID LYNCH meets KEVIN SMITH style, with a dash of TARANTINO.” Yuck. First of all, that doesn’t exactly make sense and it definitely doesn’t fit with the movie. For about 75 minutes, two banal characters played by Matthew Modine (Weeds) and Callum Blue (Dead Like Me) walk around town and having some of the worst conversations in recent memory.

It’s so deep! They’re talking about fate and free will, good and evil, God and insomnia and blah blah blah blah blah. It’s not the subject matter, but how it’s written. The movie has no range so every character sounds exactly alike. Also it is the dumbest and simplest approach. It is an endurance contest every time they want to have a conversation, which constantly loops towards aggravating dribble. These lines are actually spoken at a (contrived) key moment: “Are you evil?” “Aren’t we all?”

Of course there is also violence, misogyny, and more disgusting acts that are romanticized and possibly even encouraged. It should probably also be noted that the title doesn’t make any sense. Also the director doesn’t know how to film dialog as he randomly incorporates 360 shots. That may just be his treat for the audience.

They run into very small supporting characters, which add nothing to the overall mess of nothing. Zach Galifianakis plays the owner of a porn shop. Even though his scene only lasts about ten minutes, Galifianakis is all over the DVD to trick you into thinking he’s the main character. There is also a Jerry Springer-esque talk show host whose show keeps intercutting the film. There lies the ultimate question of the movie. Which is easier to watch: obnoxious shouting or asinine pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Either way…

There are no bonus features. I apologize; there are English and Spanish subtitles.

Film: 1 Yap

Extras: N/A

Film Yap: Micmacs

Writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a gift for showing why the smallest things can be the most fantastical. His films including Delicatessen and Amélie have dazzled audiences all around the world. After a five-year hiatus Jeaunet returns with the odd film Micmacs.

Bazil (My Best Friend’s Dany Boon) was accidently shot in the head when a fight was going on outside his store. He survives but the bullet is still lodged in his skull. He becomes homeless and moves in with a group of quirky misfits who are all living the motherly Tambouille. This includes the adorable Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) who can instantly deduce the measurements of everything around her; daredevil Fracasse (Dominique Pinon); and the remarkable contortionist La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier).

With their help, Bazil has decided to take revenge against the arms manufactures in the most Jeunet way possible. The film is full of these miniature cons that are unique, colorful, and imaginative. However what worked best were the small visual jokes, not the main conceit. That becomes true of the movie as a whole. All of the characters are enjoyable and the opponents are quite villainous in a fun simplified manner.

There’s something missing to make this work as a cohesive whole. Perhaps it’s not enough jokes or the team doesn’t work as a balanced whole. Many times throughout the film it really just became the La Môme show as it continuously showed off her ability to stretch in every direction and fit into the smallest of spaces. The scenes that worked better is when every gets to play along like as they worked on the cannon.

With all of its bumps, Jeunet’s innovation still shines through and it a welcome change of pace for the regular routine of comedies. His worlds are unique and inviting despite the darker elements that tend to reign. His films inspire the underdog without ever asking them to change. So when he makes a film with flaws, it’s still worth a recommendation because it shows he’s still trying new and fun things.

The extras are great. There is a 45 minute behind the scenes look of the movie which isn’t consisting of those stupid cast interviews. Instead it’s footage of Jeunet directing the cast and crew during key scenes. There’s also a Q&A with Jeunet and Ferrier, a commentary by Jeunet, and a set of animations. All of them are must sees for Jeunet fans.

Film: 3.5 Yaps

Extras: 4 Yaps


Film Yap: Gasland

It’s scary knowing where you live may not be safe. The water you drink may be corrupted in some way. It’s gross, obviously, but it can also make you very angry towards whoever made this possible.

Documentarian Josh Fox became angry at the United State’s policies on natural gas drilling. It’s a personal story because it impacts his land in Pennsylvania that he has known for many years. If he sells his land to allow for hydraulic fraturing (or fracking) it can damage the city around him. He travels across the state to where this has already happened. There is he able to go to their running tap water, pull out his lighter, and see the stream ignite.

Fox continues to travel around the country finding more personal stories and starts pointing fingers to who is responsible for this. What he uncovers is very shocking and has plenty of important information. Not all of the interviews are as impactful as they could be, but that’s the problem when you’re being an attacking journalist.

The most effective information is seeing the political system work in favor for the natural gas drilling. Dick Cheney’s name comes up a lot during his film. It’s always discouraging to see the system be twisted to benefit something flawed like this.

Fox’s style can be a bit off-putting at times, but it gets the information really gets across. He treats it like a ragtime investigation at times but the lack of polish works in its favor. Recently the film garnished a bit of attention because the U.S. homeland security has placed actor Mark Ruffalo on a terror advisory list because of his outspoken support for this film. That alone deserves a short follow up on this problem.

The DVD has over 45 minutes for more footage that serves as deleted scenes. They are mostly just new coverage and extended interviews with some of the subjects.

Film: 4 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps


Film Yap: Nanny McPhee Returns

There is CGI and there is magic. CGI is the ability to use technology to make fantastical things appear on the screen. Magic involves using various storytelling aspects to make a whimsical reaction from the audience. Nanny McPhee Returns has CGI.

This is the sequel to the 2005 hit(?) where Emma Thompson plays the ugly version of Mary Poppins. She arrives at your home, teaches five arbitrary lessons and will disappear to go to the next family. In this installment, the family in question is run by the British(?) Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her husband is off at war and she is left to take care of the farm with her three children. Her misguided brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) wants to sell the farm to pay off his gambling debt. To top it all off, her nephew and niece have come to stay with them and they are insufferable brats


So the grandmother, played by Maggie Smith, suggests, “What you need is Nanny McPhee.” So she arrives after some odd sequences and starts to teach the children some lessons about how you shouldn’t fight or how it’s important to work together. Except it’s not really lessons, but magically messing with them until they do it once.

The first film primarily focused on the parent and his problems. This has more of a focus on the five kids, which is too bad because they’re either very bland or infuriating. The two cousins are so irritating and bizarrely cruel, there is no interest in their redemption. There is too much going on as the film keeps going back and forth between all of its subplots. Despite the title, Nanny McPhee begins to feel like a supporting character in the story.

The film mocks some of the imagery from the first movie, but it still takes itself very seriously in certain aspects. Whenever Nanny McPhee taps her magical stick the camera always has to be incredibly epic in its movement despite that there is very little visual payoff from the act. There is an attempt at more emotional depth in this movie, but it doesn’t really work. The film tries to walk the line from being a fairy tale and a movie set in a form of reality, but it doesn’t gel. Having a synchronized dance sequence with piglets while also dealing with the possibly dire whereabouts of their soldier father may work for individual scenes but not the movie as a whole.

The rest of the movie is way too many poop jokes, more CGI animals, and really random British cameos. There is too much talent involved with this film for it to be this bland. Emma Thompson was a fantastic screenwriter for Sense and Sensibilty and Wit. Director Susanna White was brilliant in capturing emotions during her episodes of Generation Kill. Everyone knows this cast can do great things, but this just feels like too many are phoning it in with poor results.

The extras have a handful of featurettes focusing on small parts of the film like the pigs and Thompson’s makeup. There are also a ton of deleted scenes, which is surprisingly because the film is too long as is. There is also a commentary track from White without Thompson surprisingly.

Film: 2.5 Yaps

Extras: 2.5 Yaps


Straight Up & Peleliu 1944

Straight Up: Helicopters in Action

The joy of watching an IMAX documentary is to see something new from a beautiful perspective. Straight Up: Helicopters in Action was made for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Throughout the 40 minutes director David Douglas shows a variety of ways helicopters are used in noble settings.

They can be used in rescue missions and used to help work on power lines. Some of the recreations fall towards the cheesy side, but the shots really captivate the audience. With these cameras, the wide look at the scenery really shows the spectacle. Watching the short documentary at home cannot match the gravitas of the IMAX screens but the transfer to Blu-Ray really helps highlight the impressive aspects of the filmmaking.

The rest of the movie suffers in comparison to the filmmaking. A lot of the narration is a bit clumsy even with the classy Martin Sheen behind the mic. There isn’t a lot of focus with the structure of the film. It tries to explain how the machine works and their history but it’s too short to really have an impact. All of the vignettes go by before anything has any lasting values.

The rest of the Blu-Ray has an assortment of features. There are two documentaries highlighting the two major parts of the movie. One is showing how some of the filmmaking was possible and the other shows more information about the jobs that use helicopters. Both of them are solid, but still nothing special. There is also a director’s commentary track by Douglas.

It’s silly to boil down a review to a simple statement of advice, but this is a film worth renting if the material sounds interesting but only then.

Film: 2.5 Yaps

Extras: 2.5 Yaps


Peleliu 1944: Horror in the Pacific

There are two major reasons why people are interested in war battles. Some are interested in the strategy behind it. Why the troops moved in this direction and how a victory can be achieved shows the war from a very impersonal but intelligent perspective. The story that is more commonly told is the personal experience from the men who were on the ground.

The American Hero Film series created four documentaries four sets of soldiers from famous wars. This DVD, Peleliu 1944: Horror in the Pacific, covers one of the significant battles during World War II. They interview five soldiers who were part of the Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. These men are the ones who were characterized in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. This includes Eugene B. Sledge who was played by Joseph Mazzello.

The filmmakers of this series were very smart in letting the five men completely be in control of the documentary. There is only a limited about of voice over because these men are the true voice of the story. There is plenty of archival footage, which works well, but it’s surprising how much they just show the five men sitting in chairs telling their story.

The information they give is fascinating and personal. They try to explain the fear they were experiencing. This was a battle that 60 years ago for these men but they are able to recall an impressive amount of detail about their situation. The DVD is only an hour long, but it is just full of great information and heartbreaking moments. Hearing how “Dear John” letters almost always led to suicides is something that didn’t need any visuals because we can all picture the grim scenes ourselves. A recreation would just be tacky.

This is a DVD that is incredibly respectful and is worth tracking down, especially if you are a fan of WWII stories. I imagine the rest of the series is up to this level of quality.

Film: 4 Yaps

Extras: N/A


Friday, December 3, 2010

Film Yap: Doctor Who Series Five

“Amy Pond, there’s something you’d better understand about me cause it’s important and one day your life may depend on it: I am definitely a mad man with a box.”

For all the newbies, Doctor Who is the longest running sci-fi show in the history of television. It has been a staple of British television since the 1960s. For a brief period it was off the air and it was brought back in 2005 with a reboot that was still faithful to the previous continuity.

It is the story of The Doctor, an alien who is the last of his species. Even with the TARDIS, a time machine, at his disposal, the rest of the Time Lords are gone. So he has spent the past 900+ years traveling through space and time saving worlds by using intellect over violence.

In Series Five, everything feels new. Russell T. Davies, the man who rejuvenated the show, retired and passed the reins to Steven Moffat. Moffat is already a legend fo his sitcom Coupling (Highly recommended for fans of How I Met Your Mother) and the miniseries Jekyll (I’ll go ahead and say this is the only fresh take on the material.) Moffat had written a few Doctor Who episodes during the Davies era that handled the material in a new way. His storylines were fresher, wittier, and instantly iconic. His episode “Blink,” starring a young Carey Mulligan, serves as a stunning hour of television and The Doctor is barely in it! (It’s on Netflix Instant. Watch it immediately. The Weeping Angels are a magnificent horror creation.)

Now Series Five has begun with a new showrunner, new TARDIS, new sonic screwdriver and most importantly, a new Doctor. Time Lords have a nifty part of their biology where when they die they regenerate into a new body (i.e. actor). They retain all memories and core values. They just have new elements to their personalities, just like when a new actor plays James Bond. David Tennant was brilliant as the Tenth Doctor but Matt Smith powerfully made the character his own. Tennant was more of a gallant knight, while Smith is a crazy Sherlock Holmes.

All of the wonder and possibility of the show is exemplified in the premiere episode, “The Eleventh Hour.” Despite just being regenerated, The Doctor has twenty minutes to save the planet from being incinerated. It’s mixed with hilarious moments, innovated structure, and scenes that put the biggest smile on your face.

It also introduces Amy Pond (Karen Gillian), the companion for The Doctor. She is feisty and sweet and easily the best companion the show has ever created. She’s a well-rounded female character, who is not just constantly kidnapped or used as a romantic interested. She is along for the ride due to her love for adventure and she is running from something that will happen the day she ever returns.

While each episode is a stand-alone story (or two-parter), Moffat also ingeniously structured the season around the mysterious cracks placed throughout the universe. Also there is the threat that “The Pandorica will open and the silence will fall.” Instead of just teasing all season saving it for the finale, everything is more involved throughout the run with great success. There is one twist that is so clever that it reminds you there are still ways to surprise audiences with time travel stories. (Only clue: Pay very close attention to his jacket throughout the season.)

There is a joy in storytelling in these thirteen hours that isn’t seen in many other TV shows. It’s not just love towards the mythology or its history, but stories in general. They can make you laugh, make you afraid, excited, inspired, elated, and curious. They tackle some weighty issues like loneliness and death with respect towards all ages who watch Who. Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) penned an episode called “Vincent and the Doctor” where they met Van Gogh. They have to fight an alien only the suffering artist can see. (What a wonderful metaphor for depression.) Amy tries desperately to bring light into his life so he won’t follow through on his suicide years later. It culminates in a beautiful fashion, equipped with a monologue by Bill Nighy that is so profound and is not seen in other family shows. It just shows this is something special.

The extras on the DVD share more of that joy as the actors giddily record video diaries around the sets. There are commentaries that show the excitement in their work. Bonus scenes, outtakes, and mini-documentaries fill the rest of the discs. It is also worth noting that the show looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-Ray.

This series excels on every caliber. At the end, after the most complicated time travel story told this side of Primer, it sets up the next season with more exciting possibilities. This is why I love television right now.

Season: 5 Yaps

Extras: 4.5 Yaps


Higgens Network: Tangled

Disney appears to work in waves. It had the classic period with Snow White and Cinderella. Then it entered a new Golden Age with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Since the early 90s it hasn’t really recaptured that magic, until now?

Tangled is impressive. It’s funnier and more exciting than expected and it is doing so much right. Last year The Princess and the Frog tried to replicate some of its previous successes by its return to hand-drawn animation and princess stories. That movie was fine, but didn’t have a great story at the core. Tangled takes on the story of Rapunzel and properly expands into a “proper princess tale.”

Princess Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has magical golden hair that can rejuvenate people’s youth. The cruel Gothel (the glorious Donna Murphy) discovers this and steals the baby away from the castle and hides her away in a tower. This works well for 18 years until the scrapping Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) finds the tower and the adventure begins.

There are the usual princess movie tropes where true love and dreams prosper over anything. Yet Tangled treats those idealistic goals with its foot set in a form of reality. There are a few meta jokes, but never in a cynical manner a la Enchanted. All of the humor is organic, fun, and it knows how this story is usually told. It doesn’t restructure the genre, but plays with some of the nuances.

Mother Gothel isn’t treated like the evil villainess seen in films like Sleeping Beauty. She is less subtle with her manipulations as she condescends Rapunzel while talking to her with a sweet surface. The entire movie is filled with unexpected choices in its characters that it’s refreshing. The movie allows the romance to actually develop and the plot twists in a way to honestly defy your expectations.

This is not going to top The Lion King in anyone’s books. It’s not as emotionally resonant, but it is a completely delightful movie that won’t be a chore to rewatch over and over with the kid demands it. Disney finally proved that it cannot be completely shadowed by Pixar. People turn to Disney for a certain type of movie and Tangled is their strongest entries in years.


Film Yap: The Extra Man

Most people are familiar with Jonathan Ames through his HBO show Bored to Death. This is where the fictional “Jonathan Ames” is a sad neurotic novelist who decides randomly to be a private detective in which he interacts with an assortment of eccentric people. In The Extra Man, Jonathan Ames is named “Louis Ives.” This time he is a sad neurotic playwright who decides to randomly move in with Kevin Kline’s Henry Harrison in which he interacts with an assortment of eccentric people.

The movie is even staler than the TV show. Paul Dano plays Louis Ives unfortunately. (This is how you get typecast.) As dull and miserable as Louis is, Kline’s Henry is supposed to make it all better. He does outrageous things like boast that his masterpiece was stolen by a hunchback and paints on his socks. He’s crazy because he enjoys Christmas balls.

Kline is a hysterical actor who has done wonders playing similar characters in A Fish Called Wanda and A Prairie Home Companion. He knows how to humanize the characters while still playing up the gravitas of their imagination. The movie let him down because there was no wonder in his situation. The wit isn’t there and the plot doesn’t provide any curiosity on how much of Henry’s world is true.

It’s barely even his world. Louis is still the main character and he is worthless as a protagonist. He has a crush on his co-worker Mary, who is played by Katie Holmes. Her character is an underwritten environmentalist who is too fake to be taken seriously. The only other thing Louis does in this movie besides sigh, gasp at Harry, and crush on Mary is fantasizing about wearing women’s clothing. He steals clothing and learns from prostitutes on how to be more feminine. This feels like it’s dramatically from a different film that would know how to handle this material better.

Things move at a slow pace and ends up looking like a novice sitcom writer. Everything culminates in an obvious and contrived manner but none of it really felt like it mattered that much. It’s not a horrible movie; it’s just a movie without anything to recommend. It’s a movie that’s completely forgettable and bland. I would have thought better from the team who made American Splendor.

The extras include a cool featurette about making the score of the film. There are two commentary tracks: One with Ames and Kline that has them discussing philosophy and trivia; the other with the filmmakers and a moderator. I love the idea of a moderator. This really helps guide the commentary towards something meaningful. The other things like deleted scenes and HDNet’s brief documentary about the film are not memorable.

Film: 2 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps


Higgens Network: 127 Hours

The harrowing story of Aron Ralston is an intense journey of internal endurance. It doesn’t seem like a very cinematic struggle since it is just him, his arm, and that rock. Yet Danny Boyle (Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire) challenges the use of the camera and editing to craft an incredible movie out of a more incredible feat.

James Franco only has a few scenes to set up who Aron is. On Saturday he happily goes out to the canyons, meets a few girls, and continues hiking before he falls and traps his arm. For the next several days he is stuck as his food and water depletes.

Boyle plays with how to creatively express Aron’s emotions he experiments with a split-split-split screen and a surreal mixture of reality. It’s such an exciting take on the material that still feels completely organic. It also provides and excellent balance to Franco’s naturalistic performance which serves as the very best in his underappreciated career.

The movie moves at a surprisingly smooth pace. I wish there were more moments of unnerving stillness in order to comprehend the hours where nothing is going on. AS he crafts a pulley system or waits for a raven to return, it’s fascinating but it doesn’t really make the audience feel the total duration of 127 hours.

Aron’s regrets play a powerful portion of the film as it humanizes him but also hurts him more than the rock. Minor things like wishing for his Swiss army knife fall to the wayside as he looks to the people in his life that he loves deeply. In order to pull off the inevitable ending, Boyle and Franco really had to get the character to the right spot. They pulled that off admirably, but still, more time could have been devoted towards it. With such a difficult premise, I feel they didn’t want to stretch this out too long but I would love a director’s cut if one exists.

Still, this is a very emotionally resonant film that shows the triumph of the human will and the innovation of filmmaking. It’s a challenging film that will reward audiences as long as they can stomach some of the more intense sequences.


Film Yap: Deadwood the Complete Series

The city of Deadwood is a horrifying and fascinating concept. It’s a city without law during the 1870s. It’s not legally part of the United States because it was territory that was given to Native Americans. They were driven out and the city has been taken over by prospectors and men wanting to make their fortune. Or die trying.

David Milch mixed in historical accuracy with new characters to make one of the most beloved shows on HBO. It ran for three seasons before abruptly being canceled. A few years ago there were rumors that there would be two movies to finish the storylines, but it seems like it is officially dead. Especially considering that HBO is releasing this incredible complete series collection on Blu-Ray.

This is one of the best television transfers to Blu-Ray I’ve ever seen. The city looks so crisp and striking, which somehow makes the grime even more fascinating. The show begins with Seth Bullock (Justified’s Timothy Olyphant) leaving Montana to go to Deadwood. He left his life as a lawman to run a hardware store. Deadwood doesn’t have any system of justice, but there is Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Swearengen own the Gem Saloon and is the man in charge of the city. All of the corruption and greed stems back to him. He is the king of the sandbox.

Conflicts arise immediately as Seth and his partner Sol Star (Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes) refuse to give in to Al’s ways. The same goes for Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) who is at the end of his career. All he wants to do is gamble and avoid all of the annoying publicity. In the first season another saloon opens, The Bella Union, which is run by Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth) and Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay).

The plotting of the show is rather incredible as it always moves forward in all of its storylines. There is never a weak thread, which is very rare in a show like this. Part of that can be congratulated towards the writing staff, which also includes LOST’s Elizabeth Sarnoff. The rest of the praise can be directed towards one of the most impressive set of character actors. In addition to the ones mentioned, the show also features Molly Parker, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, Robin Weigert, Anna Gunn, Jeffrey Jones, Titus Wlliver, and Stephen Tobolowsky.

The show plays with the artificial creation of order in a very organic way. Most of them fear the idea of annexation because that means playtime is over. The beginning of the series has a very high body count per episode, which is shocking even for an ensemble show. Having these men compose their own world makes for an amazing narrative that can be examined several times to catch all of the nuances.

There is so much to talk about from its characterization, themes on civilization, and even its use of profanity. (One word is used so often it’s almost comical.) One surmising article doesn’t seem to give this series justice. This is a great set to check out for any fans of serialized television and those who enjoy using genre fiction to achieve impressive goals.

The Blu-Ray set has every episode as well as a lot of bonus features. There are plenty of commentaries from Milch and the cast for several key episodes. The best time spent is the small documentaries about the making of the show. There is over an hour devoted to Carradine and Milch having a conversation about the show’s themes and how it blended historical reality. It’s really fascating. In addition to what has already been released with the stand-alone seasons, there is also another disc of bonus features that includes talking about the ending and looking back on the show. All of the discs are in a very cool case that looks and feels like an old book. Its rough content makes this something that won’t appeal to everyone, but if you can tolerate the roughest part of the Old West, this is the set for you.

Show: 4.5 Yaps

Extras: 5 Yaps


Film Yap: Fair Game

Hot-button topics come in waves with Hollywood. Right no we have shifted into a lot of documentaries about the economic crisis and more narratives about the Iraq War. Just enough time has passed for a proper look can be made, but it’s still close enough to be emotional. The new Fair Game walks that line with the scandal involving Joe Wilson and his wife, who was improperly unveiled as a CIA agent.

That’s the premise, but it’s a long road to get there. Doug Liman and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth take their sweet time before Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is revealed to the world. She’s seen in the field and at the office. The film avoids the typical clichés by having her the greatest mission ever to prove she’s valuable. Instead it’s just business as usual.

The real shift in what’s going on is the new interest in Uranium sales. The White House wants to know what is going on in Iraq after the fear caused by 9/11. Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) is sent to Niger on a fact-finding mission. He comes back and reports there is no way they could have received the shipments. This and other information is contradicting the narrative Scooter Libby (David Andrews) so actions are made.

I’m simplifying a lot of things in the summary, but Fair Game takes its time and focuses on a lot of the details. Sometimes it oversimplifies. Andrews plays Scooter Libby like the Devil. There are a few dinner parties where Joe Wilson seems so progressive as opposed to his fearful friends but it seems more like it was something from hindsight.

Beyond those bumps, everything else is a fascinating tale. Watts is brilliant as she avoids the typical spy performance and works towards an incredibly subtle portrayal of disappointment. Penn is bigger—shocking!—but it works because Joe Wilson is very angry about what’s happening. He was someone who tried to use the news circuit to convey a sense of truth. He’s incredibly patriotic about the potential of the government, but knows there needs to be checks and balance.

As Joe tries to be an angry Mr. Smith and Valerine is internally struggling, there is some amazing tension. Their marriage is in trouble and the public is destroying their names. Liman was very smart to use as much archival footage as possible. To see the way stories were spun and went out of control had a lot of impact because Fair Game treats this as a very personal story.

Some of that personal aspect is cheapened by Liman’s handheld camera. This is a bit odd since this was the director of The Bourne Identity, the one Bourne film without that aspect. Despite that bad decision, this is his strongest movie in many years. This is a return to form because, once again, he had a really engaging story that was worth telling.

4 Yaps

Film Yap: The Expendables

Watching The Endpendables is like being in an amateur film class. At the end of the term you watch everyone’s short films and most are pretentious. Then the football player who took this class as a blow-off shows his video. It’s him and all of his friends running through the woods with their fake guns and screaming most of the time. They think they made the most awesome thing in the history of cinema, but it’s just embarrassing.

The Expendables is that movie with a giant budget and worse actors. In an attempt to be the greatest 80s action movie made today, they just made a really boring 80s action movie made today. Blah blah blah. Some country has some evil guy in charge. The evil guy has to be Eric Roberts because he was born to be evil in a suit. So a mysterious guy hires Sylvester Stallone to take him out.

Sorry, his name is not Sylvester Stallone but Barney Ross. Jason Statham is Lee Christmas. Jet Li is Ying Yang. Dolph Lundgren is Gunner Jensen. Steve Austin is Paine. Terry Crews is Hale Caesar. Mickey Rourke is Tool. Why have characters when you can just have ridiculous dumb names.

The names reflect the rest of the movie as they go around shooting bad guys and throwing quips to each other. Both are lame in their execution. There is not one memorable action scene because everything is unimaginative and poorly shot. The jokes are so painfully bad that it’s impossible to even laugh at them out of pity. Yet, the film still pauses for you to laugh like it’s expecting uproarious laughter.

The entire existence of this film is to bring together a bunch of stars that used to be beloved. But Stallone’s camera doesn’t even use that to their benefit. Almost the entire movie is filled with single shots of the actors instead of showing them together. They all do individual things and when they’re together it’s too confusing to figure out anyone’s purpose. Why does this group need so many people? Also do they know they’re not very competent?

There is nothing to connect to and yet people still saw this in droves. It’s not as good as the other 80s films and not even as good as the rest of this summer’s fare. There were four films this year about a ragtag team of mercenaries (The Losers, The A-Team, and RED to an extent). This is the only one to not have any worthy characters (or even amusing archetypes) and not a single cool moment to validate them. Expendable, indeed.

The extras are absolutely amazing for all of the wrong reasons. The gag reel is void of anything worthwhile aside from Eric Roberts burping. The making-of treats Stallone like a valiant hero risking his own safety to make this movie. It is hysterical how melodramatic it is. None of it matches to Stallone’s commentary. The film is completely forgettable, but Stallone breaking it down like it’s Citizen Kane is the most wonderful thing. It’s so idiotic, it’s endearing. Rent the DVD only to listen to this; skip the film.

Film: 1.5 Yaps

Extras: 5 sarcastic Yaps


Film Yap: Flipped

Sentimentality is not a bad thing. The canon of Frank Capra is full of rich characters and stories that are so earnest they can even warm the heart of mean Mr. Potter. People love those films because of how warm and respectful they are without ever treating you like an idiot. This must be stated because Flipped does not get a pass just because it wants to be sweet.

Flipped continues the line of bad Rob Reiner films but this one is especially odd because it feels like he’s ripping off his own films. This movie’s portrayal of younger kids is nowhere as natural as Stand By Me. Its look at the battle of the genders and their different perspectives pale in comparison to When Harry Met Sally….

Flipped is based off the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen. Oddly that book is not set in the 1960s but apparently Reiner felt he could pull that off. It’s not like there’s any insanely popular AMC show that is noted for being meticulously accurate and would serve as a damning comparison. I digress. Madeline Carroll (LOST, Café) plays young Juli Baker who instantly falls in love with Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe)when he moves in across the street. But—uh oh!—he doesn’t like her! Wakka wakka.

The rest of the film is this insanely contrived and pestering “will they or won’t they”? The two have no chemistry and Bryce is in the running for the dullest protagonist this side of Doug Funnie. He truly is empty upstairs; I know this because he narrates half the film with the most asinine comments imaginable. Yes, Bryce, what IS up with Juli Baker?

It’s usually pretty easy to figure out what is up with Juli Baker. There is no subtext in this film. Everything is right on the surface and often just bluntly said aloud. Too bad the movie thinks we’re stupid and repeats every single scene from Juli’s point of view and narration. It’s more like Vantage Point over Rashomon because there is no new information when they flip sides. (GET IT?)

Every embarrassing sequence must be endured twice like some sick hellish punishment. The worst offense is this messed up auction. Apparently their middle school randomly selects 6th grade boys without their permission to be auctioned off for dates. Then the girls buy them—up to $50. Why do these 10 year olds have $50 in 1963? Weren’t then also the same kids who were teasing them for being romantically interested in each other? What the hell is going on here? No, don’t show it twice!

Every character is written horribly especially Bryce’s abusive father (Anthony Edwards) who seems to be really well versed in salmonella for the 60s. Also the movie has a scene with Juli’s mentally challenged uncle (poor Kevin Weisman) that continues the consistency of being insanely incompetent and a horrible attempt of characterization. Thank God Bryce wasn’t there.

The extras are as equally terrible. The Blu-Ray only has four tiny featurettes, all dumb. Of course I would love to watch 5 minutes about chickens? How did they make that lame looking volcano? (The weirdest thing is that Callan McAuliffe has way more charisma during this small bit than the entire film. Where was this performance?) The only shining light is Madeline Carroll questioning why she had to sniff Bryce’s head during a scene. Excellent question.

Film: 1 Yap

Extras: 1 Yap


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Higgens Network: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Now we near the end. The best finales are the ones that make it seem like there can never be another installment. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I accomplishes this with gravitas.

At this point in the story, hope is slim. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is back in power, Dumbledore is dead, and Harry Potter is being hunted down by every Death Eater in his path. The only chance for survial is to track down and destroy the final horacruxes, pieces of Voldemort’s soul, so that the man can fall as well.

With no clues or guides, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have no choice but to hide. They have no choice but to take dangerous chances, but now there is a new level of stakes. This isn’t about winning the House Cup, but life and death. This is a horrifying film. It is filled with death and despair as the characters are tormented externally and internally.

They are frustrated by their lack of direction—which should not be seen as a fault of the film, but as high praise. Breaking the film into two parts means director David Yates can accomplish all of the powerful emotional moments. The cinematography is jaw-dropping at times as it conveys the toils these three are facing This is the most impressive movie on a technical level. Familiar sets have shifted into a more fearsome arena and the score matches the power.

This is an epic and serious movie. There are other films in the franchise if you want the light-hearted whimsy. This film is here to validate all the build-up of tension and darkness. There are moments of respectful levity, but it’s still with the context of fear.

Despite all of its impressive qualities, there are imperfections that arise. Screenwriter Steve Kloves should not have added so many new characters and elements into the final part. Having a new prime minster makes sense in the book but it doesn’t mean much in the movie, aside from having the chance for Bill Nighy to give a speech.

It can’t be the book but the film knows how to have the emotions that matter. Radcliffe gives an Oscar worthy performance that shows how much has led up to this point. The final installment will be this July. It has been a very bumpy road to the conclusion, but thanks to the direction of Yates the end has the potential to be extraordinary.

Film Yap: The Success of Harry Potter

This Friday, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I will open to thousands of theatres across the country. This new film has been labeled as one of the cinematic events of the year and it’s not even the final chapter. If you’re not a fan of the series, the title seems foreign to you. What are Deathly Hallows? What is this Part I nonsense? Why are so many midnight tickets sold out?

Franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings have had decades to build up a strong fanbase. Comic book heroes like Batman and Superman have been around for just as long and have had plenty of iterations to excite fans. So how did Harry Potter become one of the movie events of the year, when his first book came out just over ten years ago?

The success of the book series has been talked about by a million other sources. It was a phenomenon that captivated audiences, especially young readers in an unprecedented way. Warner Brothers was smart and started working on the first film while the books were picking up steam. How they approached the first book set the standard for what made everything possible.

They took the property seriously. Handling this book was like filming The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby. This wasn’t a time where they could just call it “Harry Potter” in name only and have it be about young wizards in love. It was an expensive project and it paid off. As the train pulled into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, fans were gasping that their beloved image was realized in a wonderful way.

The people behind the movie were top notch as well. Having actors like Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and John Hurt brought a level of prestige to the picture especially with them bringing their A-game. Director Chris Columbus was a success from his Home Alone films and screenwriter Steve Kloves was just off his Oscar nomination for Wonder Boys.

This dedication continued as the cast expanded to include Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, Jason Issacs, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, David Tenannt, Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, and now Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans. These are some of the finest actors working today and their performances reflect this isn’t just a simple thing to amuse the kids.

This was a level of respect and trust that still isn’t seen today as other studios try to replicate the success of these films. Films like The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief, and The Spiderwick Chronicles are made in hopes they will catch fire like Harry Potter. All of those are bestselling series, but not in the same caliber as Harry Potter. (But what is?) Those movies just dipped their toes in the water instead of really focusing on making a special film. Starting a franchise is a risk but if all the pieces are there then that has a better chance. People did not flock to Pirates of the Caribbean because they loved the ride so much. People saw the movie because it had a great story with great performances and everything looked amazing.

Asking Hollywood to make good films is a frivolous request but the stats speak for themselves. The All Time Domestic Box Office is filled with movies that are still beloved to people’s hearts. These are the films like Avatar, Star Wars, The Dark Knight, E.T. and The Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of films on this list that I think are dreadful, but they made an impact with someone because of the consideration that was put in to them.

The Harry Potter films are not perfect films, but they can show how you can make a modern franchise into a success.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Higgens Network: Morning Glory

Bare in mind, that we all know Broadcast News exists. That’s a fantastic romantic comedy that played with convention while still being very funny. Morning Glory isn’t trying to be Broadcast News; it has more in common to be the next The Devil Wears Prada, which isn’t a coincidence since they have the same screenwriter.

Rachel McAdams gives another strong performance as Becky, a chipper neurotic news producer. She was in charge of a small morning show in New Jersey, but was laid off for budgetary reasons. Desperate, she applies to every show in the area. The only one she can get is Daybreak, another morning show that is unhappily ranked 4th in the ratings.

The show has been rotating producers because no one can get it to work. Instead of falling into the usual tropes, Becky does not get overwhelmed by the difficult nature of the show. She immediately fires Modern Family’s ­­­­­­­Ty Burrell and starts to find a new anchor to match up with Diane Keaton’s “Colleen Peck.” She goes through a ton of network legal documents to discover she can use Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford). He has been a beloved news correspondent for decades, but now he’s become infamous to work with.

Roping him into Daybreak is not the jumpstart the show needs. He refuses to take part in all of the frivolous segments or be helpful to anyone on the crew. Ford’s performance really reminded me of how he is during interviews. He’s annoyed at the praise from his past performance and just seems bitter. Yet Ford knows how to play that for some solid comedy and an honest performance.

The story is too conventional. There are no surprises at any turn because when it presents Becky with a fork in the road of A and B, it’s always the overly traveled A. This really applies to the relationship subplot with Patrick Wilson, which is too separate from the story. There is nothing to challenge, which means most of the details of the movie will fade over the years.

The lasting power of the movie is the tone it creates. It’s a very solid cast and the movie has a surprisingly competent visual style to it. Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler has been on an impressive run lately with Sunshine and director Roger Michell has done some unconventional films since his Notting Hill days, including Changing Lanes and Enduring Love. Together they experiment with shots and movement to subtly add some nuances to the storytelling.

Beyond just the technical elements, there is a clear sense of fun to this movie. It’s light and not very ambitious, but it provides for a lot of solid laughs and an enjoyable use of its time.


Film Yap: Wallander Series Two

Kurt Wallander is a name that is not as well known in the United States as other fictional detectives. He is the protagonist from the Henning Mankell novels. They have sold very well in Europe as well as here. Sweden made its own cinematic versions of the books and now BBC in cooperation with Masterpiece Mystery has created their own set with Kenneth Branagh.

The latest DVD set is Series Two, which includes the adaptations “Faceless Killers”, “The Man Who Smiled” and “The Fifth Woman.” Each tale is 90 minutes long and they are irregularly compelling. They are slow moving stories but there is something unique at the core of them.

What stands out with this series is not the cases, but how the cases impact Wallander. He’s a very good detective, but in a realistic setting. He’s not the exaggerated genius of Holmes or Poirot, but a devoted man to justice. He takes on such a burden with each case that it seems like he could psychological collapse at any moment. There is such sadness in the character and it’s conveyed perfectly by Branagh.

The most compelling part of this season (and the whole series) is the personal life of Wallander. The scenes with his daughter and father always stood out as something special, because it wasn’t just his reactionary status from the daunting and troubling cases. Once the themes go beyond the procedural aspect, it’s also fascinating. The questions it poses about society and existentialism are complex and thrilling in their own nature.

Sometimes the details of the mysteries fall by the wayside as it’s unclear how each clue lead to the next person. Some of this is the pacing and the stillness. It requires patience and dedication because nothing will be spoon-fed to you. Its presentation is interesting in that it ranges from amazing imagery and scene construction to more standard fare. What is absolutely working is Branagh’s masterful performance. As an incredibly accomplished actor, it’s riveting to see him give perhaps his best performance of his career.

Dissecting the three episodes, the greatest of the three would be “The Fifth Woman” because it’s the most personal of the stories for Wallander. No his daughter isn’t kidnapped by terrorists, but to say any more would ruin the impacting moments that were heart-breaking.

The DVD and Blu-Ray of Series Two has two featurettes. The first is called “Wallander Country” which looks at the production, specifically how it uses the Sweden landscape. This was a really cool examination on the expectations of locations and how to use it as a style. It’s a bit too overnarrated, but the anecdotes are worthwhile. The other one is called “Being Kurt Wallander” which is the cast musing on the character and the audience reaction to him. I wish this one had more of Branagh talking about Wallander and less film clips.

Faceless Killers: 3.5 Yaps

The Man Who Smiled: 4 Yaps

The Fifth Woman: 4.5 Yaps

Extras: 3.5 Yaps


Film Yap: Monsters

The word “monsters” is wonderfully vague. It can mean vampires or werewolves or any sort of creature that mysteriously stands in your way. In the new film by Gareth Edwards, the monsters are aliens. They are not here to make diplomatic communication or to blow up the planet. They are similar to animals in that, they just found a new environment and a new threat.

Years after they landed around Mexico they have started to spread their terrain. People around the world call it the “Infected Zone” and scientists are devoted to calculate how quickly it will grow. Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) is a young heiress who wants to return to America. She is going to be married soon and her father wants her home. Andrew Kaulder is a photographer in Mexico who photographs the grim images because that is what sells. In order to appease Samantha’s father who owns a newspaper, he agrees to get her back to American and through the Infected Zone.

When Paranormal Activity was made for such a low budget people were impressed but not surprised. It’s a movie in one location with trick effects instead of complicated ones. Monsters is reported to just have cost $15,000 and that is incredible. The two characters travel through beautiful and frightening terrain and every once in awhile they catch glimpses of why they should be afraid. The CGI is fantastic and looked better than big budget films like Clash of the Titans.

Unlike other films of its genre, it’s structured more like last year’s Sin Nombre. The performances are more naturalistic and that allows for more honest intimacy between them. It is this sort of care that Edwards puts into this movie that makes this special. The plot is nothing really extraordinary, but it has such a delicate atmosphere that feels fresh. There are all of these opportunities to examine this changed world from a smaller level. It shows how individuals are affected, not world superpowers.

I don’t want him to be in charge of the next Hollywood disaster movie; I want him to continue with this niche he’s created. This chance to have personal films with an exemplary use of special effects. This does not mean Hollywood should pull a Paranormal Activity 2 and quadruple the budget for no reason. Having it low means Edwards gets to make the movie he wants to make and that’s what allows Monsters to feel special.

4 Yaps

Monsters is currently available OnDemand and in select theatres across the country.


Film Yap: Mysteriously Masterful Masterpiece Mystery

The past few weeks have been a lot of fun on Twitter because every Sunday my feed explodes with comments about the latest episode of Sherlock on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. I had tuned into the show because I’m a big fan of the writer Steven Moffat, who has written some of my favorite programs in recent years including Coupling, Jekyll and the current season of Doctor Who.

Moffat is quite the draw for some, but why else are so many people suddenly tuning into PBS programming? Don’t they know The Walking Dead is also on?! It’s because lately Masterpiece Mystery has become incredibly compelling. Sherlock just finished its three episode run (90 minute episodes) and it was such a hit here and in England a second series has been commissioned.

It is a modern take on the famous detective that focuses on what made the original stories so compelling. It isn’t just blogging and texting, but a return to really clever cases with a fun spin on it. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as “a high functioning sociopath” and Martin Freeman (BBC’s The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) does not play Dr. John Watson as a buffoon, but a worthy friend.

Every episode is exciting and fun (and leagues better than Robert Downey Jr.’s version). This is a different pace than the usual Masterpiece Mystery fare, which is usually a bit dry. But there are more shows that reaching a wider audience. Kenneth Branagh stars as the titular Wallander based off the bestselling Henning Mankell series. Branagh’s presence brings in a new audience and his performance is so outstanding it causes people to keep watching.

The show itself looks rather amazing at times, as well. It’s full of haunting imagery and deep themes. This is an excellent response to what people are clamoring for with mysteries. With the popularity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Red Riding Trilogy, people clamoring for quality mysteries that have a focus on intelligence.

Masterpiece Mystery is putting out high quality productions that rival things that are in theatres. Television is becoming a hotbed for cinematic storytelling, often with higher emotional factors. I’ve seen more enthusiasm about one episode of Mad Men (or even…Glee) than any non-Inception summer film. Television is becoming something incredible special and inventive and Masterpiece Mystery is setting itself up as the staple for high quality intelligent mysteries. I only expect more and more great things from them, especially with this heightened attention.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Higgens Network: Due Date

Todd Philips has become one of the most profitable comedy directors after his hits like Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover. The latter is now the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. So will Due Date be a success?

It definitely has a great cast. Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong right now and Zach Galifianakis is finally a popular name. They both use their comedic skills to make their characters seem fresh in a routine movie. Downey Jr.’s Peter Highman is a busy architect who is trying to get from Atlanta to Las Angeles to be home in time for the birth of his first child.

Galifianakis is a lovable but stupid want to be actor named Ethan Tremblay who keeps inadvertently causing Peter to detour his trip. It’s the standard road trip movie almost identical to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Some tropes work better than others. Having the characters use drugs isn’t that funny, but these two make it fun. The random characters they meet aren’t that great but, again, actors like Danny McBride know how to raise the material.

That’s the major difference between this and The Hangover. The script for this doesn’t work as strongly on the comedic level. Few lines are worth repeating because they require someone like Galifianakis to make it work.

On the other hand, there is something that Phillips knows how to do really well. He knows how to have very realistic relationships between men. The friendships in Old School and The Hangover were top-notch beyond just the actors’ chemistry. Phillips has really tapped into how males behave around each other and that pays off really well in key scenes.

The romance of the movie is between friends, which is odd since the crux of the movie is about Peter racing to be a father. His wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), is constantly worried about them. Through a contrived subplot, their marriage is actually in jeopardy but there doesn’t seem to be any actual stakes at hand. The real focus is whether or not Peter will be pushed to the point of killing Ethan or they will become best friends. Not all elements of this arc works, but when it does it ends up being rather special.

There are still laughs throughout but there aren’t any really great comedic set-pieces. It doesn’t reinvent the road trip movie but just provide a consistently entertaining entry into the tired genre.