Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Film Yap: Where Are The Wire Actors Now?

As we all know, The Wire is the greatest television show in the history of the medium. No other show has broken every rule in TV to create one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever seen. It is a cold portrayal of Baltimore as a proxy for America. It's not compared to other cop shows like Law and Order or CSI but to Charles Dickens and Greek tragedies.

It ran for five years on HBO to universal critical acclaim. That means that no one watched it. Since its conclusion in 2008, more and more people have picked up the DVDs and have caught on to this underappreciated phenomenon. Unfortunately I don’t think any of those people are casting directors.

The show has a huge ensemble and there was never a weak actor in the batch. They all played such rich parts; it would be difficult to differentiate them from the characters. So logic would suggest they would be stuck playing similar characters in other movies…but that’s not the case. Take a look.

Jimmy McNulty aka Dominic West

The Wire had a large cast but there was one guy that was easily labeled the lead. Dominic West played McNulty, a detective who didn’t know when to shut up but was more surprisingly noble than the rest of the force. He was the one determined to take down the vast drug trade in Baltimore. West took familiar aspects like alcoholism and made it fresh and nuanced. It was a very popular role that should have been able to get him plenty of strong parts around Hollywood. Instead he’s been stuck in big-budget movies where he has been wasted.

In 2006, he was the villainous senator in 300, which was a fun part but not enough to really show his chops. He then played the villain in Punisher: War Zone, a movie that was so panned many have forgotten it even existed. Thankfully. This weekend he’s in a Neil Marshall movie called Centurian where once again it looks like he’s playing a one-note character in an expensive action film. Despite him being paired up with Michael Fassbinder, the movie looks more like Doomsday than The Descent. Yuck.

Lt. Cedric Daniels aka Lance Riddick

This is the only actor of the set who I think is still doing pretty well. Lt. Daniels was such a complex character. A lot of the times he was a tough company man in the Baltimore police department, but he was also quite honorable. He respected McNulty, but didn’t always tolerate him.

Lance Riddick is an intimidating looking actor. He’s very tall and has a stare that could kill small animals. So it was very cool casting to place him as Matthew Abaddon in LOST. He wasn’t on the show for very long, but he had a distinct presence. Abaddon was a man shrouded with mystery (On LOST?!?!!? Get out!). Riddick was able to bring a lot of cool elements to what could have been a one-note character. He is not a regular on the show Fringe, which is a lot of fun. He plays a thankless character who doesn’t get to do very much every episode. Every once in awhile he gets a good scene, but he’s easily underused.

Kima Greggs aka Sonja Sohn

The Wire is often seen a male-oriented show but there were a few strong female characters as well. The largest role was Kima Greggs who was a detective who was brought in from narcotics to help bring down Avon Barksdale. She’s incredible competent, often surpassing the male members of the squad. Her home life wasn’t perfect, but being in a lasting lesbian couple ended up being one of the more healthy relationships on the show.

Despite being one of the strongest actors in the set, it’s hard to find Sonja Sohn in much anymore. She had an arc on Brothers and Sisters and has popped up in a few other TV shows. Her largest film role was in Step Up 2 the Streets and she was barely in the movie. Just enough to make me say, “Wait, was that Kima?” Sadly, it was.

Stringer Bell aka Idris Elba

The Wire was a show that showed every angle of the city. Just as much focus was spent on the inner workings of the drug dealers as it was on the men trying to bring them down. One of the most memorable characters from the Barksdale group was the right-hand-man, Stringer Bell. He was a scary guy and most of that was because he was so intelligent. Watching how he operates convinced me that the war on drugs will never end because the criminals are now this smart.

Idris Elba has been constantly in movies ever since The Wire ended, but they’re just not very good movies. Obsessed? The Losers? Now Takers? These are just clichéd African American parts in lame movies. I did think he was well used in a stint on The Office as an intimating new boss. However, I think there is some hope. He was cast in Thor. Hopefully Heimdall is a solid part and will lead the way to more three-dimensional characters.

Omar Little aka Michael K. Williams

Everybody has a favorite character on The Wire. I lean more towards Lester Freamon, but almost everyone else responds with Omar Little. And why not?! He was the most bada** character on the show with the large scar on his face and the shotgun in his hands. He was a guy who only robbed drug dealers. He was the wild card in this game. Omar’s coming…

I haven’t seen much of Michael K. Williams’ post-Wire career, but it seems like he’s looking for stronger roles than the others I’ve named. He had a short, but satisfying part in Gone Baby Gone. It was so weird to see Omar in a police outfit. He was recently in Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s quasi-sequel to Happiness. Williams actually reprised the role originated by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Willams will soon be seen in my most anticipated show of the fall: Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese’s show about prohibition.

So some of the actors turned out all right, but most of them are stuck. They are such good actors! It’s like they went from performing Shakespeare to…The Losers. Now there are many more actors I wasn’t able to cover. Amy Ryan is doing really well. A lot of them are now on David Simon’s new show Treme. Some have had solid work on other shows, like Damages. Yet most are stuck doing jobs like Heroes, Happy Town, and (ugh) Did You Hear About the Morgans?.

So Hollywood, I’ve already asked you a big favor to ignore Scott Pilgrim’s box office. Now I’m going to beg you to hire these actors and give them good parts. Everyone else, just catch up with The Wire on DVD. It’s kinda the best show in the history of the medium.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Film Yap: Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Series

When the TV show Flight of the Conchords began in the summer of 2007, not many people knew of the comedy band Flight of the Conchords. The Conchords are a two-man band composed of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. They often refer to themselves as the “New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody duo.” That description of odd honesty and self-deprecation really is the best introduction to the band.

For years Jemaine and Bret have been touring the country as a stand-up act performing their deadpan parody songs. Transforming their material into an HBO TV show is a fascinating decision. They are never obscene which is part of their humor so having a show on premium cable is odd. Their stage presence comes from them having no charisma. They are dry and passive, but once they start performing they suddenly become animated and passionate.

The show keeps up that mentality but letting them not only bounce off each other, but also the rest of New York. When the show opens the characters of Jemaine and Bret have lived in NYC for a year or so. They usually have no money, but they have one insanely passionate fan played by Kristen Schaal of The Daily Show fame. They also have their band manager Murray, Rhys Darby, who also works at the New Zealand consulate.

These four actors are absolutely hilarious. None of the plots of the episodes are as memorable as the scenes where everyone gets to play off each other. Murray’s incompetency easily rivals The Office’s Michael Scott. There is such blissful wit and idiocy with this trio. It’s such a simple joke, but every time Murray demands they take attendance for their three person band meetings I always laugh.

Most of the episodes are revolved around two of their songs. This is the biggest draw of the show. Songs like “Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenoceros”, “Inner City Pressure”, Bowie”, and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” all make for fantastic scenes that also work as music videos. Their lyrics are incredibly clever and their low-budget production makes them even more endearing.

Since the songs are the crux of the episodes, they are what make and break the shows. During the first season they used up almost their entire catalog of songs so they had to invent new ones. Some of them were catchy like “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor,” “Hurt Feelings,” and “Rambling Through the Avenues of Time” but most of them aren’t as memorable as the ones from the first season. Also their plots are either repetitive (Just how many times can they quit the band?) or too absurd to gel with the rest of the show.

The show only lasted two seasons with 20 episodes total. They ended on their own choosing. The show was starting to wear thin at the end, but in the final episode they end it like a series finale. I was surprised that I was actually sad to see them go. The humor of the Conchords remains very unique and I hope to see more of them years from now. Clement is becoming a Hollywood star by being a featured actor in Gentlemen Broncos, Dinner for Schmucks and will play the villain in the upcoming Men in Black III.

Unfortunately the complete series doesn’t offer many bonus features. There is not a single commentary track, which was sorely missed. There is a half hour documentary that showed how the show came to be. It was made three years ago so most of them talk about how they hope the show becomes a success and they get a Season Two. (They do.) There are also a few deleted scenes, outtakes, and a few short comedy bits. All of that only lasts about 20 minutes.

A bonus disc contains their HBO concert show, which is only 30 minutes long. It is very funny and features one of the only songs that didn’t make it into the show: “Jenny”. It’s a duet of dialog about a woman who meets up with a man who has completely forgotten her, despite their embarrassingly extensive history. The concert is a blast, but it’s so short. Why are these discs so bare?!?

Season One: 4 Yaps

Season Two: 3.5 Yaps

Bonus Features: 2 Yaps

DVD Set: 3.5 Yaps


Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Yap: Piranha 3D

In comparison, I suppose Piranha 3D is a less subtle title than films like My Bloody Valentine 3D or Snakes on a Plane. Like those movies this is one that begs you not to take it seriously. Immediately a tone is set when Richard Dreyfus is fishing on a lake and he accidently drops a beer bottle. The bottle slowly falls to the bottom where it cracks open the lake and unearths a lake within a lake. Inside lie thousands of 2,000,000-year-old cannibalistic piranhas. Oh yeah, it’s spring break.

Like any good campy horror movie, there are plenty of plotlines going on at once. Elisabeth Shue plays the sheriff who is working with Adam Scott and the other marine biologists to figure out what is going on in their lake. Meanwhile her kid, Jake, is neglecting his babysitting duties so he can go out on a boat with a porn producer (Jerry O’Connell), some “actresses” (Kelly Brook, Riley Steele) and his love interest (Jessica Szohr). Also Jake’s little siblings are randomly on a little fishing island and hundreds of nameless college kids are in bathing suits off the shore just waiting to be slaughtered.

Oh they shall be slaughtered. In a brief scene, Christopher Lloyd explains to us that these are really vicious piranhas. That’s all we need to know. Limbs shall be mangled, blood shall paint the waters, and there may or may not be a torn-up CGI penis thrown at the screen. (Of course there is.)

The film knows how to have its ridiculous moments, but it’s difficult to maintain the moments beyond the blood and breasts. I’m not wanting character development or even characters, but just let the actors have a good time. Scott, O’Connell, and Paul Scheer are all fun comedians and they should have just been allowed to riff more throughout the movie. Even if it’s just screaming profanities at those God-forsaken demon fish.

Horror films keep insisting on having a “relatable” protagonist but Jake is just too whinny and annoying. He manages not to have a good time while Brook and Steele are having a naked underwater dance sequence.

The 3D is silly, just like the rest of the film. Piranhas, limbs, and weapons fly into the theatre but the technology is still not perfect. It’s still too dim! There are some underwater sequences that amusingly tinted red but that makes it very difficult to tell what is going on. I know some horny teen is dying, but which one!

There are plenty of discussion worthy moments in this movie, but not enough to sustain the 90 minutes. It needed to take a page out of Spartacus: Blood and Sand if they want to how have insane depravity while still keeping the audience’s interest for every moment. Talking about the film is more fun than actually watching the film as seen by the video below. Did I mention Ving Rhames shoots piranhas with shotguns in this movie? It’s awesome.

3 Yaps


Higgens Network: The Switch

The modern romantic comedy is all about the gimmicky plot. Reese Witherspoon is a dumb blonde going to Harvard Law School to win back her old boyfriend. Heath Ledger needs to be paid to date Julia Stiles so Stiles’s sister can date Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Matthew McConaughey is going to date Kate Hudson for only 10 days and then during that time….God that plot is too stupid to type.

With The Switch it’s not as frivolously as those. In a drunken state, Jason Bateman’s Wally accidently replaces Jennifer Aniston’s ideal sperm donor’s ingredients with his own. Seven years later she returns to the city with a child who acts remarkably like him.

There are two movies going on here. There is the grumpier version of Kramer vs. Kramer and then there is a McConaughey Dumb Flick. The first kind is great, the second kind is…disappointing. While the rest of the cast knows this movie isn’t Shakespeare, Bateman is firing on all cylinders. There have been plenty of “cynical” characters in romantic comedies. Those are just mistaken for boringly sarcastic. Bateman’s Wally is someone who does not smile. People are irritating and they are usually stupid.

His performance and his dialog is something that isn’t seen in a typical romantic comedy. (Sans his clichéd blind date gone awry by pessimism.) He handles his neurotic nature not as a punchline but as a sad way of life. So when Sebastian, his child played by Thomas Robinson, shows the same morbid tendencies he feels really sympathetic towards him. He never outright says this, but he knows he can help him get through the hard stuff in a way no one did for him.

The two of them together were just great. There is a long sequence when he has to be like a dad and clean the child of his lice. It was honest and not full of KOOKY gags like Bateman falling into the tub.

When the film doesn’t work is when it’s forced by its gimmick. Actors like Jeff Goldblum and Patrick Wilson bring a lot of fun nuances to their familiar characters. Aniston, on the other hand, just brings it down to utter cliché. There is no reason whatsoever that Wally should keep this a secret. All it does it lead that portion of the plot down the same tired and annoying paths. Despite Bateman’s earnest attempts, his relationship with Aniston is never believable or pressing.

With a script so smart in select characterization, it’s depressing to see it fall upon such an obvious structure. Since this movie is targeted to those who like typical romantic comedies, won’t they be the ones to first recognize the same scenes and speeches repeated with nothing new to add? Instead of listening to Aniston complain about lies and interrupting by saying “I know what you’re going to say” I’m just going to hang with Wally and Sebastian and buy picture frames.


Get Low

The title of this film comes from the belief that Robert Duvall’s Felix Bush think “It’s about time I get low.” Felix has lived a long time and most of it has been isolation. He is known only as legend in his 1930s Tennessee town. He is the hermit with a hundred stories about him. One day he returns to the city in order to plan his own funeral, which he would like to attend. Alive.

Bill Murray and Lucas Black run the local funeral parlor. Everybody dies, but business is slow lately. So even though Felix’s request is unorthodox, they quickly agree. Felix wants everyone to attend that has a story to tell about him. Director Aaron Schneider does a great job with creating an uneasy town around Felix, but I wish we were able to hear more of these mysterious stories.

So much of Get Low is about what people know and don’t know. Felix has a secret that only a few people know about. It seems to be what caused him to retreat to his cabin in the woods. His old girlfriend played by Sissy Spacek knows the truth and his friend, Bill Cobbs, wants him to confess his sins. There are hints and dream sequences, but none of it is very satisfying once it is all revealed. It never challenges our perception of Felix.

There is a contradiction inherent with Get Low. I was never interested in Felix’s story, but I was interested in Duvall’s performance. Every moment is so well realized and enthralling. When he and Murray are bouncing back and forth it’s endlessly entertaining.

The film really works when it is more focused on the funeral home. Murray gets all of the best lines in the movie and handles them as a mixture between his former sarcastic persona and his new Rushmore tired man. I liked his relationship with Black as an occasionally distant co-worker and then a father figure to him. Black’s morality towards his profession was also relieving.

There are a lot of likable things about this move, especially the acting. The script falls apart when you dig deeper. Too often characters describe Felix in interesting ways and not allowing the film to just let us see him do interesting things. Still, Get Low knows how to work its dialog and the actors know how to fill the scenes with life.

Get Low is currently playing at the Keystone Landmark and other theatres across the country.

Film Yap: Who is Scott Pilgrim and Why is He vs. the World?

Last weekend not enough of you saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Before you criticize me from atop your ivory computer chair, I would like to say I skipped the press screening and paid for my midnight showing like the fanboy that I am. Then I paid for another ticket two days later. I’m not saying this to brag. (Okay not entirely). I’m saying this because I loved this movie so much and I’m convinced that this movie and its original books are more accessible than audiences realize.

Scott Pilgrim is based off six graphic novels from Bryan Lee O’Malley. The story is about a Canadian slacker named Scott Pilgrim who becomes infatuated with a new girl named Ramona Flowers. However, before they can start dating Scott has to defeat her seven evil exes. Literally.

Let’s back up. When I started this series, I was never really big into comics. I think before this, I had only read Watchmen. Yet I had heard so many fun things about this, I had to try it out. The first volume was called Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. It came out in 2004. It’s hard for me to rank the books because it’s easier to see it as one large book. This is the one, I’ve read the most times. It’s a fun introduction to the universe, which is drenched in pop culture loving. Scott’s world is a mixture between comics and video game logic but still sweet. Characters burst into coins, there are floating extra lives, and giant hammers can that fit in purses.

At the very beginning of the series he is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau. Knives is the biggest fan of Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb. The other members are Stephen Sills (“Do you always say his full name?” “Who? Stephen Sills?”) and Kim Pine. My favorite character is Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. He owns everything in their apartment including their sole mattress on the floor.

Once Ramona enters the story, the plot picks up. Her League of Evil Exes starts to ruin Scott’s life. Each of the volumes has at least one major fight in it that all moves towards the final confrontation that will determine whether Scott and Ramona even have a chance.

The fights are inventive but the best parts of the series are the characters bouncing off each other. Not literally. The Battle of the Bands in Precious Little Life is such a fun parody of independent music. Also Wallace is drunk so double amusement points.

O’Malley was smart and knew that in order for this relationship to have legs, Scott and Ramona need to be fully dimensional characters. Ramona’s backstory is part of the entire plotline since Scott needs to deal with her baggage through cartoonish violence. At first Ramona is perceived as a “manic pixie dream girl” but as Scott becomes weighs down by the fights the honeymoon period begins to drain. Most romantic tales only cover the flirty part, but the entire series takes place over two years there is a definite feeling on whether or not these two will last.

Finding out more about Scott’s previous break-up is my favorite subplot in the story. This is covered prominently in the third volume, Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness. It is the tale of Envy Adams who ended up being a famous singer and started dating one of Ramona’s exes Todd Ingram. Todd is my favorite ex because he has psychic powers and looks like a character from Dragon Ball Z. (Don’t be ashamed. We all watched it for about two weeks in our youth.) Why does he have psychic powers? Well he’s vegan of course.

I don’t have too many complaints about the series. It’s true that some of the character faces aren’t drawn the best at times. Scott and Ramona have become iconic, but a lot of the secondary characters start to look alike. Thankfully they’re still written very well. I really like the final volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, but just after one reading I couldn’t help think the big epic fight lasted a little bit too long.

After having read these books for a few years, I had very high expectations for the movie. Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors for his work on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. To me, his biggest achievement was his unique vision on the TV show Spaced. Like Scott Pilgrim, Spaced has a world that seems familiar, but uses the characters obsessions to create a new exciting world.

He accomplished the incredible with this movie. He combined all six books into one epic movie that focused on all of the best features of the book. The cast was the perfect counterparts to the characters. Michael Cera gives his best performance as the titular character. The book version of Scott Pilgrim was a bit more youthfully enthusiastic, but Cera’s Scott uses that stupidity in a different form of sincerity. Since the time frame shifts into two weeks, Scott only doesn’t have time to forget about getting into fights. So once the fights start, he is more worried than the book version. Both are very entertaining and realized.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a great job with playing the elusive Ramona Flowers. Although she is idolized, it’s important that she underplays every scenario because she thinks she’s too cool to care. Kieran Culkin perfectly masters the timing of Wallace and his ability to switch from giving great advice and terrible advice. (“Hey Scott. It’s that guy!”)

The second half of the movie is less faithful to the series. This is expected since all the books weren’t out when the movie started filming. The fight with the Katayanagi Twins is very different, but I actually like the movie’s version better.

Even though the movie changes some of the plot points, Wright amazingly keeps O’Malley’s tone and emotional connection in tact. It’s easy to capture the big set pieces of the series, but Wright made the movie work because he focused on the major themes.

Scott is fighting through the emotional turmoil of a new girlfriend, but the movie also focuses on other aspects of modern relationships. The series and film says a lot about the power of break-ups from all perspectives. I knew the film worked because the ending completely paid off. Not only because the final battle was as inventive as the rest of the movie, but because the film earned its moments with Scott, Ramona, Knives, and the rest of the gang.

In Joe’s review, he called this the “Xbox’s ‘Say Anything.’” That is very true, because at the end of the day this is a romantic comedy that can work for both genders. You don’t have to understand all of the nerdy references to enjoy Scott’s quest. The emotional journey, the humor, and the undeniable aura of fun is what makes this set essential viewing.


Cheat Sheet

The Books

1)Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

2)Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

3)Scott Pilgrim’s & the Infinite Sadness

4)Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

5)Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

6)Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour

The Movie

1)Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Film Yap: Cemetery Junction

It’s a shame this movie never came out in theatres in the United States. I can’t really understand the logic. Is it because movie distributors don’t think that people could fathom a coming-of-age film that doesn’t take place in America? We did nominate An Education for Best Picture last year.

The confusion continues because the co-writers and co-directors are Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the geniuses behind The Office and Extras. Together they form this nostalgia of 1973 England. Three friends are living in the titular Cemetery Junction in Reading, which is often described as a terrible place to live but they’ll throw a punch if you talk bad about it.

Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) doesn’t just want to end up in the factory like his father (Gervais). So he gets a job at a life insurance firm that is run by a powerful businessman who is played by Ralph Fiennes. In many ways Fiennes is what Freddie wants to aspire to. He rose up from Cemetery Junction and became someone who is very respectful and wealthy.

Bruce (Tom Hughes) is always conflicted about the city. He talks about leaving every day, but it seems he never will. He likes his friends and he doesn’t mind a factory job. He does mind his father, whom he doesn’t respect after he didn’t fight to get back their mother.

Snork (Jack Doolan) is the misfit of the group, but it is never broad. He’s a doofus, but I would still totally hang out with him everyday because he’s sincere and fun to be with.

The script could be criticized for not being ambitious enough, but that’s rather a ridiculous complaint. Coming-of-age films have lost respect over the years because too many filmmakers take shortcuts. This film has such a delicate focus on these boys’ arcs that the movie always feels fresh. The film isn’t focused on making sure it hits the epiphanies or the revelations, but that the characters are real at every moment. It’s refreshing and delightful.

When looking back at Gervais and Merchant’s TV work, I always forget they know how to balance the comedy and the sentimentality. With Extras, I may watch Ian McKellen’s breaking down acting over and over again, but the first thing I remember from that show is Gervais’s character breaking down inside the Big Brother house in the finale. With a film, they don’t have the time to build up the relationships to characters like a TV show can but there are still wonderful emotional moments that feel completely earned. Just hearing the year “1964” has such a sadder meaning for me now.

It’s also funny. It’s a very funny movie. David Earl is hysterical as this café owner who rants with blunt and terrible anecdotes. Steve Speirs balances the fun and the serious as a police sergeant who is trying to keep Bruce in line. Also Spork delivers these great nervous comedic monologues.

The extras for the DVD and Blu-Ray are very well done as well. Gervais and Merchant are hilarious together and provide a lot of laughs and insight as they discuss the creation of this film. With their featurettes and commentaries, they are enthusiastic of course but they are very honest about their young actors and what they wanted to accomplish. The three boys are actually allowed to shine in the DVD as they have their own fun commentary and featurette.

There are also a handful of deleted scenes and a blooper reel that’s surprisingly well edited. The Blu-Ray has exclusive featurettes that show how they captured the 70s through ton, sets, and costumes. It also has five production videos as well.

Film: 4.5 Yaps

Extras: 4.5 Yaps


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

When you think of the great comedy directors, who do you think of? Ernst Lubitsch? Leo McCarey? Billy Wilder? Blake Edwards? Kevin Smith? Judd Apatow? I think these men are all very talented but they’re often considered for their ability to work with actors. It is their canon that is remembered more than a specific style their bring. If I present a single frame from one of their pictures, there will be very little for you to guess which director crafted it unlike auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock or Akira Kurosawa.

Edgar Wright has changed that. He’s wowed me with his amazing TV show Spaced and his movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. With his latest film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World he proves the full extent he’s putting on the comedy spectrum. This is not just a frivolous genre where you just put the camera on a tripod and let the actors go.

There is not a boring frame in this movie. Yes, there are visual gimmicks like having the cartoonish “POWs” and “RIIIIINNNNNGGGGGGs” or having the characters break out into stylized video game fights. Those were incredible, but Wright is as interested in how to cleverly transition from scene to scene as he is on having proper CGI for a laser sword.

This movie is so good that I am not afraid to call Wright one of the best filmmakers working today. He is up there with Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. To me he’s even surpassed the other geek God Christopher Nolan. He’s done the incredible. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not just a visual triumphant or wall-to-wall with successful jokes. (It is that by the way.) This movie even manages to work on an emotional level.

I caused a stir among other local critics on Facebook by comparing this to 500 Days of Summer. In particular, I made the brash notion this achieves where Summer failed. Scott Pilgrim is a slacker Canadian who, like most kids of his age, grew up on a lifestyle of music and video games. The premise of the movie is that in order to date his new romantic interest he has to literally defeat her seven evil exes. The film uses this reality as experimental as musicals are. If you watch West Side Story and wonder when the Jets go to dance practice, you’ve missed the point. In the same vein, do not question when Scott Pilgrim learned to fight (or why his enemies turn into coins).

Through this venue, there are plenty of profound moments as they dissect relationship and the baggage they bring. The struggle isn’t about getting married at the end, but being allowed to have a chance. There so many refreshing takes on romance and ramifications in this movie it feels like the genre has been revived.

I have seen this twice now and if asked, I will see it again this week. This does everything right. It understands the power of having memorable supporting characters. It understands that audiences respond positively when the CGI actually looks good and not rushed together. (I’m looking at you every non-Inception summer movie!) It knows how to make you laugh with characters. When comedy actually has “characters” and not just “setups for jokes” then it all becomes more memorable. Scott Pilgrim is not just laughing and having a good time throughout this film. Most of the time he’s being thrown into buildings or being punched in the face. We can smile at his foolish attempts, but the film proves the most effective is when we stop when he actually hurt.

I adore this movie and encourage everyone to see this. It’s not necessary for you to know all of the Nintendo references or to identify with hipsters. At the very least, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can show you the power and the strength of comedies. This film won’t be up for any Oscars this year and that is as evil as anything Gideon Graves accomplished.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Higgens Network: Eat Pray Love

There was a point during Eat Pray Love when I worried my cynicism was actually affecting what I was seeing on screen. After squinting, I realized I actually was seeing an angelic light on Julia Roberts’ head for most of the movie. (Sadly not kidding.) She plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a professional writer who famously devoted a year to living in Italy, India, and Bali.

Why she does this is never clear in the film. The first scene she’s in Bali, being paid to cover an article. She meets an adorable old medicine man who says she will someday return to Bali. Then she’s back in New York with her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) and her friends at a party. Liz talks about all of the places that she wants to visit before she dies and then mentions she has to go to Aruba to write another article. Remarkably, I’m not pitting her life.

But I was wrong about that opinion! For out of nowhere Liz is in her bathroom crying to God about her existence and her horrible life. I felt like 20 minutes were randomly cut out where we were supposed to at least hint at a failing marriage. So she abruptly divorces Stephen, who I’m still convinced is a good guy. She starts dating a guy who is acting in a play of hers (James Franco) but then decides what she really needs to do is travel for a year. The movie suspiciously leaves out the part where she was paid by her publisher to live in these places.

Before she even starts going around the world, I was starting to feel nauseous. The camera would never stop moving. It kept unnecessarily spinning around and around the characters and up and down and up and down and sideways. Everything was over-edited and just a nuisance. This style starts to simmer during the film, which means they’re trying to imply that her life was in chaos? Boy, I hope that isn’t what they were trying to do.

Writer/director Ryan Murphy and his co-writer Jennifer Salt never give us a proper idea of who Liz Gilbert is. The entire movie features various characters bluntly telling her how to live her life, but I still don’t know how to describe Liz. Roberts brings a lot of likability to her, but she’s still a very two-dimensional character, which makes it impossible to enjoy her journey.

Now if she’s two-dimensional that means everyone else in the movie only has one dimension. Everyone in this movie is just supposed to adore Liz for all that she’s “doing.” You go girl for eating pasta in Rome? The film over romanticizes every single bite during some of these meals, I can’t decide if it’s trying to appeal to the senses or mocking the character. I hate to say it, but that applies to the spiritual side as well.

This never feels like a real movie, but just a series of vignettes. They are not long, but only lasting about a minute or two apiece. Now stretch that over two hours. Some of them may be entertaining, but none of it gels as an actual movie. Just like anecdotes on a day-by-day calendar isn’t a real book. Without any sort of emotional connection to this story or even a basic sense of storytelling, this is just a boring look at beautiful places.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Yap: White Women Take a Holiday

This is a subgenre of film that I don’t believe has been named. I shall do my part and named it “White Women Take a Holiday.” It is a very wondrous thing when this occurs in a movie, because only good things come from it. In many ways these films are basically expensive travel documentaries but with just a dash of plot. (Don’t worry, just a dash.)

The plot usually means the White Woman will find love. It will usually be the first attractive native from that area who talks to her. It was as if these men were just waiting for them to take a vacation and need a tour guide. In the most recent addition of this subgenre, Julia Roberts fell for Javier Bardem after she appropriately ate and prayed.

Most of the times, the tour guide just does this out of the goodness of his heart. Sure Gregory Peck had ulterior motives to lead Audrey Hepburn on her Roman Holiday, but ultimately just accepted it and knew it was all about love. During their tour the camera goes all out for its wide luscious shots of oceans, landmarks, and cities. This allows the audience members to live vicariously through the characters as they are usually in awe.

Now I’ve noticed that the less motivation the White Woman has, the better her vacation will be. Katherine Hepburn goes to Venice simply to have a vacation in Summertime so her trip is smooth sailing. In When in Rome, Kristen Bell travels to visit her sister’s wedding and ends up creating a curse that has random men fall in love with her. Same with Leap Year. Amy Adams had some slightly sexist agenda to cross Ireland to propose to Adam Scott, but she should have just been focusing on Matthew Goode. They’re creating too much plot for themselves! Just let the perfect vacation come to them.

Now most of the holidays are trips to Europe. My guess is because of two reasons: they speak English in a lot of those places and if they don’t, they have spectacular accents. Shirley Valentine went to Greece, Diane Lane ended up Under the Tuscan Sun, Carey Mulligan took a subplot to Paris to further An Education and Cameron Diaz spent her White Woman Holiday in England.

Sometimes the White Women choose to go elsewhere, but the films never seem to have the same effect. Fans and critics didn’t take it too well with Sex and the City 2 when the White Women quartet went to Morocco. I think Romancing the Stone is a fun movie, but Kathleen Turner ended up having her life threatened quite a bit during her stint in Colombia before she could end up with Michael Douglas. Scarlett Johansson went to Japan in Lost in Translation and ended up with…Bill Murray? Sorta. Not really. The point is stick with Europe, according to Hollywood.

At the end, they go back home full of happiness and culture. Or they don’t. They go back home and realize that cities and friends and jobs are stupid and retreat back to Europe and into the arms of some guy. Then the movie slowly fades to credits overlooking yet another beautiful landscape just before the White Woman can realize how adorably impractical she’s being.


Film Yap: Twelve

One of the biggest contradictions with the MPAA rating is how to deal with teenage life. According to the regulations of the R-rating, most teenagers are not permitted to see a movie like Twelve without a guardian. Yet…this isn’t a film to see with a parent.

This is the story of a handful of teenagers living in New York City. Within one weekend, a lot of things happen but only a few of them would seem like a big deal to any of them. The drinking, the drugs, the betrayals, the lies, the violence, and the pain are all part of their lives.

The hub of this ensemble is White Mike who is played by Chace Crawford who is apparently in Gossip Girl. He is a drug dealer who only sells weed to various rich kids. He wants to be like “good help” which means to move like a ghost and not to be remembered. Crawford is incredible in this role and I guarantee he will have a strong career after the CW lets go of him.

There are many more characters played by talented young actors like Rory Culkin (Igby Goes Down), Emma Roberts (Valentine’s Day), Emily Mead (Assassination of a High School President), and several more who will become bigger names. This is one of the best ensemble writing I’ve seen in long time. Every jump across town makes sense, moves the plot forward, and there is not a single strand that wasn’t fascinating. It’s all being juggled by a grisly narrator voiced by Kiefer Sutherland.

I’m going to step a little bit into this review, because I feel it is my duty as a “Young Yapper.” The one thing I’m always asked is which movies or shows get it “right” about kids today. People get worried when I say Heathers, Veronica Mars, and Brick because a lot of people get murdered in those tales. They are obviously heightened situations, but the way the teenagers acted towards each other was on the nose.

Twelve is now joining my list. Everyone in the movie speaks and acts like the right age. There is no belittling these characters or trying to give them Juno-esque dialog. Everything feels naturalistic. Being a filthy rich New Yorker was not my high school years, but everything still felt familiar. The people are the same, the stories are different.

Despite what I’ve said this movie does not play only with gritty realism. The director is a bit fearless as he plays with surrealism and radical filmmaking while still being a fly-on-the-wall through the whole experience. What’s even more shocking is that this is Joel Schumacher. I admit, I have not seen his earlier stuff, but what he’s been doing the past few decades have been underwhelming to put it gently. With Twelve, he’s a whole different filmmaker. This is the type of fresh material you’d expect from someone who was just starting out, not a 70 year-old director who has been working in the studio system for decades.

Since this opened this weekend with no buzz or advertising, this movie seems destine to fall under the radar. Do yourself a favor and check this out. It’s one of the best of the year.

4.5 Yaps


Film Yap: Restrepo

There have been a lot of movies and documentaries about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lately. Plenty of very good ones like No End in Sight or The Hurt Locker. They tell the stories of how we got there or what happened once we did. None of them had the emotional impact that Restrepo brought to the table.

This is not a traditional war documentary. There are no interviews with generals or government officials. The only people who are talked to and filmed are the men in the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment stationed in Korangal valley. The film follows them for one year in what is considered the most dangerous stations in the entire military.

Early on, a medic of theirs was killed. He was a man with a lively sense of humor and joy. In his honor they named an important outpost in his name: O.P. Restrepo. Their Captain is a courageous man named Dan Kearney. Kearney is a very inspiring soldier who believes he can bring down the violence in Kornagal valley, where being shot at is a daily event.

Kearney and his troops try to press forward and weed out the Taliban from the area while trying not to disrupt the locals. Every day they have to deal with the unseen terror. There is not one frame of the movie where they show the enemy, but it is always on everyone’s mind.

The personal interviews with these men are inspiring and heavily emotional. They are professionals and well trained, but that doesn’t mean they are ready for every aspect of what’s out there. Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger don’t try to edit characters out of these men or put them in any sort of cliché. They are just observers and letting them tell the story.

The two directors are brave as the soldiers during this year. They are right in the middle of the action. There is not a scene from any movie this year that captures the intensity and fear portrayed when their unit is under fire. The movie is building up to a mission called Operation Rock Avalanche. How that is handled and edited together is truly one of the best achievements I’ve ever seen in a documentary.

By the end of this powerful experience, I’ve grown an even greater appreciation for the men and women who choose to do this. The film strays away from the greater politics of it all, but shows all of the moments and emotions not usually seen in these films. The scenes that stuck with me are not just the ones of suspense and turmoil, but the ones where I saw the soldiers try to give the locals penance for their cow or them talking about the loss of their sister squad.

I always respond to people who are very good at their jobs. Restrepo shows the men who accomplish the unbelievable in one of the most difficult places in the world. See this film.

Restrepo is playing at the Keystone Landmark and other select theatres across the country.

4.5 Yaps


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Film Yap: Step Up 3D

After watching all three Step Up films, I think it’s fair to assess that these films are secretly musicals. The producers would never say they are musicals, because musicals are typically associated with Julie Andrews-type productions. That’s not as hip and flashy as street dancing. But these films undeniably follow the protocol of early musicals from the 1930s.

The plot is not important. At all. Just like Busby Berkeley movies were showcases for their new songs, these films are just vehicles to get from one dance scene to the next. Step Up 3D had a bit of a tricky situation since the first two films already used up most of the clichéd storylines associated with teenagers. Thankfully there’s still the “group is going to lose their home/workplace/whatever to the bank unless they win the big competition and its prize money.” It takes two lines of dialog to explain and the audience instantly understands all of the rules.

Of course to get to the big championship they have to go through a few rounds of competition. This is the laziest technique so far to have the characters break out into synchronized dance scene, but again…the story doesn’t matter. I’m an old fashioned poop who would prefer to see Ginger Rogers to Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson, but there is very watchable quality to this style of dance. It looks ridiculous and often it seems more random than choreographed, but a lot of the movies are incredibly impressive.

The sequences often successfully walk the line from being likable or just silly. However when the dance crew dons million-dollar light outfits that switch colors depending on the beat, then it’s hard to accept it. (Especially since they’re trying to win money…you know, to not be homeless.) I will buy the idea of a water pipe going off in the middle of a battle so they can dance new moves with the water, because this is not reality. This is a musical. They say they “rehearse” these numbers but when they are performing it is the same logic as everyone in West Side Story knowing all of the words to their impromptu songs.

So in order to make a good Step Up film, all they need to do is keep the scenes between dances simple enough. Step Up 3D came close, but still had way too much stupidity. Luke (Rick Malambri) apparently wants to be a documentary filmmaker so he’s working on a film about his dance crew. If I was reviewing his film I would give it 1 Yap, but everybody else in the film thinks it’s the next Thin Blue Line. His plotline is so dumb and so distracting from the important part of this film: illogical dance scenes. There is one point when Vinson asks something about how do you be a great filmmaker. Luke says, “I see the world in a way no one else does.” So he shows her his world and, sure enough, his world is ripping off the iconic image from Manhattan. (Woody Allen and Errol Morris references; I am reaching this movie’s audience.) If you cut majority of his scenes, this instantly becomes a stronger movie.

The major subplot is what holds true to a simplistic 30s musical. Moose (Adam G. Sevani) was one of the characters from 2008’s Step Up 2 the Streets and he’s now enrolled with his childhood friend Camille (Alyson Stoner) at NYU. They’ve grown up together but have never realized they’re romantically perfect for each other. This is perfect. The actors are very likable and this requires very little screen time to accomplish this arc. This is a perfect Step Up plotline. Bing Crosby could do this in his sleep.

This plotline features the one scene I can legitimately call “great.” I’m not being sarcastic or lowering my standards; this one works. After Moose and Camille had a little fight and they apologized, they hear a song play on the streets. It’s Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance (Don’t Ask Me).” In one long single take, the two of them dance down the streets of New York over a variety of props and sets. It’s a nice blend of both worlds and is completely charming.

If the movie was more like this and less of anything Luke is doing, then I could give the movie a surprisingly recommendation. Instead its insistence on having a movie around the dance scenes only makes people remember all of the dumb moments over the entertaining ones.

Finally a quick note on the 3D. The movie did look crisp throughout it but I had this glare on the side of my glasses and I’m not sure where that came from. The 3D made a few things blurry and since the dancers are moving at such a quick pace, it definitely lessens what they want to do. Yes, a few times they perform some moves into the theatre, but too often it was easy to tell a difference between what was filmed on which plane. So it’s decent 3D, but still not worth the money. Just enjoy asking for a ticket for “Step Up 3D in 2D.”

2.5 Yaps


Best Worst Movie

I’m going to paraphrase The Big Lebowski in commenting, “sometimes there is a movie, sometimes, there is a movie.” That simplifies what Best Worst Movie does by looking at the phenomenon that is Troll 2. IMDb listed it at one point as the worst film of all time. It still has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. When it was released it had no publicity, but over time a cult movement has really taken hold of this movie.

Michael Stephenson played the little boy in Troll 2 who has to try to convince his family to leave the town before the goblins turn them into plants. He was so excited to star in a major film, but when he finally saw the finished version, he was horrified. For years it had been an embarrassment, but as fans started growing for appreciation for Troll 2 he decided to make this film. He made a terrible film and now he wants to make a good one. Congratulations Michael, you achieved equilibrium.

The main focus of Best Worst Movie is the dynamic George Hardy. He is a full time dentist who starred in Troll 2, almost as a lark. He’s always enjoyed acting even though he’s not the best at it. For years he always shrugged off his patients saying that he was in that random horror film, but once the movie blew up he jumped into the limelight.

People have been having personal Troll 2 parties for years. People bring their friends and they treat it like Rocky Horror Picture Show. They repeat lines, laugh hysterically and just watch in horror at a film that fails on every level. The Upright Citizen Brigade is a improv comedy theatre in New York that wanted to screen Troll 2 and they had a sold out show. Several members of the cast, including Hardy and Stephenson, were guests of honors. This started similar showings all around the country.

What makes Troll 2 such a hit with people is that there is actual love for it. Comedian Patton Oswalt calls it “tragically beautiful.” People have a great time watching it because of how it was made. The insane director, Claudio Fragasso, never thought he was making a bad film. In fact he still thinks it’s very good and the rest of the world just doesn’t understand it. This bubble means there is no winking at the camera in Troll 2 or any cynicism. It’s just genuinely…bad.

Fragasso and his wife/screenwriter provide a lot of the laughs in this movie. When confronted about the concept of there being no trolls in Troll 2, he simply says, “You just don’t understand.” He is constantly yelling at the actors and calling them dogs, even today! So much of the movie is funny because enough time has passed since Troll 2 was made everyone can joke about it. (Except Fragasso)

What surprised me is when the film wasn’t funny. Revisiting some of the cast led to some rather poignant moments. Margo Prey, who played the mom, has isolated herself from the world in order to care for her sick mother. She looks likes she has had several rounds of plastic surgery and reminded me a lot of the women from Gray Gardens, but with possible mental problems.

It was the scenes like that made this a really great documentary. It works as a movie about films and the power and community of it, but it is also a very nice examination into some of the key players. Hardy is quite a character and even though they spend too much time on him with the beginning, he is vibrant enough to carry this film.

I was lucky enough to see this movie at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Hardy was present along with one of the film’s producers. I’m happy to report the film perfectly captured Hardy’s enthusiastic persona. After a Q&A, they showed Troll 2. I hadn’t seen it before that night and…wow. The film only teases of how bad and bizarre it really is. I encourage everyone to see that with a group of friends.

Best Worst Movie is traveling the country now in limited release. It should be on DVD this November.

Film Yap: And the Nominees Were - 1935

Austin Lugar, Keith Jackson and Kenny Jones started a podcast called And the Nominees Are. On this show they are attempting to review every single Best Picture nominee starting from the very beginning. Here Austin recaps the plot summaries of each set while teasing the longer discussions.

Remember last time when I complained about 12 nominees? That didn’t feel like such a big deal especially because two of the movies are impossible to find. This time we had all of the nominees in our possession for 1936 and…it didn’t feel too bad. Sure there were the usual batch of duds, but there were plenty of winners that made this a pretty good year with the Academy.

Alice Adams

I take it all back. This was easily one of the worst of the twelve this year. It’s a starring vehicle for Katherine Hepburn. She plays a poor girl who wants to have new dresses and be able to go to the ball. Unfortunately for us, Alice Adams is extremely unlikeable. This may have been a hit when it came out, but too many elements didn’t work for us.

Broadway Melody of 1936

On our second episode we were a bit harsh to The Broadway Melody, the Best Picture winner that year. In comparison, we want to apologize a little bit. This “sequel” has nothing to do with the previous incarnation aside from it’s another story told on Broadway. Jack Benny is a newspaper columnist who is (sorta) forced to write slanderous stories about a new show that is opening up. Forgettable songs and even more confusing plotting really hurts this one.

Captain Blood

Personally, I love pirate movies. No matter if they’re heroes or villains they are usually a blast to watch. Captain Blood is a movie that further proves that. This is one of the early ventures by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and the very first movie to star an unknown actor named Errol Flynn. Flynn is a doctor who was wronged into slavery and then rebels by being a pirate. It’s a lot of fun and filled with great cinematic action scenes.

David Copperfield

Pardon our ignorance, but we felt out of the loop on this movie. None of us have read the classic Charles Dickens novel and it seems like it would have been better if we had. It’s a great cast (Elsa Lanchester, Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, etc.) but the film was a bit empty for us.

The Informer

This is the next John Ford film up for Best Picture after Arrowsmith. It’s the story of a man who rats on a friend for money and then faces guilt for the rest of the picture. There’s a bit of clunky dialog, but we spent the most of this segment really bringing up interesting things Ford did with the camera and how he’s progressed as a filmmaker.

Les Miserables

This is one of the films we differed a bit on. I loved it and thought it did everything that David Copperfield didn’t. However, the other guys criticized some of the transitions and the later part of the film. This is, of course, an adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel about a man who suffers unjust repercussions after getting out of jail for stealing some bread.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Now our trio swapped a little bit. Keith was the one in high praise for this Gary Cooper movie, but Kenny and I were a bit cautious. It is one of the adventure war films from this era that showed the romantic qualities of it. The Lancers are stationed in northwest India and face external and internal troubles. Watch the movie and listen to our discussion to decide who to side with.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I love the play, but I had never seen a filmed version of the classic Shakespeare comedy. This film was very revolutionary with the way it was filmed, but occasionally lost focus due to some terrible performances. In fact there is one performance we declare to be the worst we’ve seen so far on our show! (How’s that for a tease?) Aside from that, I thought it was great.

Mutiny on the Bounty—WINNER!

Again the team is split. This is the famous story of the USS Bounty starring two guys who were the top of Hollywood: Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. (Laughton actually appears three times in this set.) The film knows how to capture the epic look, but I would argue that it didn’t know how to capture the emotional arc towards mutiny. We can all say that it’s a step up from director Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade.

Naughty Marietta

Even just causal listeners of our show know we adore Jeanette MacDonald. She was wonderful in the Ernst Lubitsch films and here is another movie to show off how awesome she is. So she is a Princess who switches identities and runs away to America to avoid marrying someone she doesn’t like. Unfortunately her new love interest is the worst part of the movie.

Ruggles of Red Gap

This one caught many of us by surprise. Charles Laughton plays a butler who was accidently lost in a poker game. He travels to the middle of America and now lives a very different lifestyle. This whole thing is hilarious and is one of the great underseen American comedies. It’s smart and even emotional at times and I attribute that to the director Leo McCarey and Laughton to pull it all off.

Top Hat

Is there anything more likable than an Astaire/Rogers musical? They’re funny, well shot, and have plenty of beautiful dance sequences. We have a good time on the show breaking down our favorite numbers and compare it to their film from last year, The Gay Divorcee. It’s too bad their next film, Swing Time, isn’t up for Best Picture so we don’t have the excuse to talk about that one as well.

We discuss these movies with a lot more detail on our show And the Nominees Are. This set was covered over three episodes both of which can be found for free on iTunes. Our show is also on Facebook and Twitter.

The next year returns to 10 nominees. If you would like to play along we will be reviewing Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, and Three Smart Girls.