Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 4

January 22-28, 2013

15. HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (Tommy Wirkola, 2013) (2K DCP) (3D) (Arena Grand) (January 25)

There are indications within HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS that this was supposed to be a comedy rather than whatever it turned out to be.  Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are credited as producers, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself other than funny movies being their business.  Then there are the comedic touches hinting at a more irreverent film than the fantasy-action hybrid that dominates.  Drawings of missing children are attached to milk bottles.  When a young beauty is accused of being a witch before the assembled villagers, some of the shouted comments recall Monty Python.  Hansel has diabetes from his youthful captivity and has to give himself a shot on a regular basis.  These elements suggest this might have been developed as an elaborate goof along the lines of CASA DE MI PADRE.  Except apparently it isn’t.

Grade: D/30

16. MOVIE 43 (Various directors, 2013) (2K DCP) (Gateway Film Center) (January 25)

It’s common practice for folks to harp on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for the lameness of its sketches, but after seeing MOVIE 43, a loosely linked collection of gross-out one-upmanship short films, I think everyone ought to cut them a break.  The worst of what SNL writers come up with in a week is exponentially better than everything in MOVIE 43, which took years to make.  

The ads have touted the galaxy of stars appearing in it, which is true enough and meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  Maybe they were doing favors for friends who needed a break.  Maybe they wanted to make something silly in their free time, except someone decided their horsing around ought to be released to the public.  Maybe a marketer designed it as a test to see if a movie could be sold on the basis of a poster with as many little heads in boxes as possible.

The jokes are supposed to be daring, but this is outrageousness in scare quotes.  Kate Winslet is horrified to discover that blind date Hugh Jackman has a scrotum on his neck that no one else seems to notice!  Anna Faris wants Chris Pratt to poop on her!  ChloĆ« Grace Moretz is having her first period, and the boys and man in the house don’t know what to do!  African-American basketball players don’t realize that they’ll crush their white counterparts on the court!  Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry’s blind date becomes a series of escalating offensive challenges!  Imagine if an iPod was a life-size naked woman with a cooling fan put in an orifice where it might cause damage to its aroused male owners!

The one short with potential features Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts as parents who are giving their son the full public school experience despite educating him at home. They subject the teen to all the bullying he’s otherwise missing out on, which is worth a couple laughs with Watts as a mean girl.  This short is also the only one with any discomfiting content, as mom and dad don’t want to deny their boy a dating life.  It doesn’t all work, but at least it’s shooting for something subversive that the others aren’t.

The through line finds Dennis Quaid as an aspiring filmmaker holding studio executive Greg Kinnear hostage as he pitches his ludicrous ideas and forces him to bankroll it. MOVIE 43 looks extraordinarily cheap and doesn’t have the energy to stick to its barely developed concept by the end.  No explanation is provided for the generic title.  .

Grade: F/16

17. PARKER (Taylor Hackford, 2013) (35mm) (AMC Dublin Village) (January 26)

I’ve probably disliked more Jason Statham movies than I’ve liked, but if he’s the lead, I’ll give the film a shot.  (The same goes for Dwayne Johnson/The Rock.)  Based on a character from a series of books Donald Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark, PARKER is a more respectable entry in Statham’s filmography than the actioners that could pass for (or are) direct-to-video fodder.  The career criminal Parker could be his James Bond, the defining character he returns to every couple years and eventually passes on to someone else.  PARKER’s box office performance probably scuttles any ideas of sequels, which is unfortunate even though I don’t think this film is good enough.

The heist at the Ohio State Fair gets PARKER off to a good start, and that’s not just me feeling local pride because this part was shot in Columbus.  (Alas, the butter cow didn’t make it into the film.)  From there it’s a decent mix of hard-nosed guys roughing each other up and Parker plotting, plus an inordinate amount of time given to Jennifer Lopez’s real estate agent and her troubles.  Lopez plays her as being too nice for the conniving she gets involved in.  She could have stood to flash her OUT OF SIGHT toughness.

PARKER ends up being to Statham what JACK REACHER is to Tom Cruise: an average, book series-adapted programmer with an above-average cast and ultimately unsatisfying arc.  In other words, it’s a perfect movie to run endlessly on cable TV.


18. KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, 2011) (HD stream) (January 27)

I first saw KILLER JOE at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and was not entirely sure what to make of it.  I found it somewhat off-putting in its excessiveness and funny in a really bleak way.  Mixing uneasiness and humor can be a volatile combination, especially in a film so eager to rub the viewer’s nose in it all, and I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be laughing at parts when I was repulsed by others.   

On second viewing I felt like I had a better grip on the tone William Friedkin is striving to maintain.  It is primarily a comedy, just an exceedingly dark one.  I also realized I’d made one major misinterpretation.  I mistook the age of Juno Temple’s character, who’s given to the contract killer as a retainer in case her father and brother can’t pay.  At one point she says she claims to be a twelve-year-old.  She means that’s her mindset in a specific moment, not her actual age, but I thought she was speaking literally.  KILLER JOE goes pretty far in trying to shock, but even it has limits.

So KILLER JOE played better to me this time, and the performances of the four main actors look all the stronger for it.  The film’s view of society is pretty jaded, but this is a fairly accomplished, if nasty, piece of work.  (Review)

Grade: B/66



I’m trying to stretch myself as a viewer, so I went back to the Wexner Center for another round with experimental cinema.  Chalk it up to physical weariness--I worked out for an hour before the program--or the struggles I can have with non-narrative works, but I had to fight off the desire to fall asleep.  The ideas of both films play better to me in memory than they did during the experience of watching them.  Maybe that just means I was tired, or maybe it’s indicative of me only being able to appreciate this type of cinema to a point.  Time will tell.
10s. SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE (Ernie Gehr, 1992) (35mm) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 24)

In theory SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE should be a good gateway film for me.  The strong horizontal and vertical lines that make up downtown San Francisco are displayed like an architectural Mondrian, and the shifting perspectives of these buildings and streets grants unique views of the urban landscape.  The camera rides up and down on an elevator to provide different, sometimes disorienting ways of seeing the space.  Ernie Gehr doesn’t need any CGI to make INCEPTION’s folding city.  At least for me on this night, though, a little of it went a long way   

11s. BARN RUSHES (Larry Gottheim, 1971) (16mm at 18fps) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 24)

A little going a long way applies tenfold (or more) to BARN RUSHES.  This study of light presents virtually identical tracking shots of a barn at different times of the day and year. While there is an aesthetically pleasing element to seeing how the object transforms according to the quality of the light, the repetition wore on me.  


12. Frank Ocean CHANNEL ORANGE (2012)

Noel Murray wrote about how his reaction to this good album didn’t match the extraordinary reception and wondered if the hype ultimately is doing a disservice to the artist and record.  In reading what he considers the albums shortcomings, I found he was pointing out why I never embraced CHANNEL ORANGE with the enthusiasm that the music press did.  Listening to it again, I appreciate it more than I did last summer, but it still sounds like a rough draft.  If the album’s highs were plucked out and sprinkled throughout a playlist, I’d be tempted to agree that it’s the contemporary R&B classic that many believe it to be.  On its own I find plenty to like and enough to be frustrated by in its incompletion or doodling.

Key tracks: “Sweet Life”, “Pyramids”, “Lost”, and “Bad Religion”

Live Music

2. BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY (Wexner Center for the Arts Performance Space - Columbus, Ohio) (January 25)

I know what kind of music Will Oldham plays and some of the various names he releases his work under, but I’m not well acquainted with his artistic output.  Watching OLD JOY is probably the most time I’ve spent with anything he’s done.  I had no intention of going to this concert, but a preview article about this show in the next-to-last issue of THE OTHER PAPER, a Columbus alternative weekly, convinced me that I really ought to check it out.  That was the right decision.

Accompanied by Cheyenne Marie Mize and Emmett Kelly, Oldham’s somber folk songs cast a spell over the room.  His occasional stage patter lightened the mood, even when he favored saying darkly humorous things about the end of the world.  The best live music can catch you in the moment and transport you.  This performance did that for me in a major way.  It’s a greater achievement because I was coming into the concert unfamiliar with anything that would be played.  Guess I have some digging to do into the music of Oldham and his collaborators.

Live Sports

2. NHL: Dallas Stars at Columbus Blue Jackets (Nationwide Arena - Columbus, Ohio) (January 28)

What a difference a week makes.  The previous Monday the arena was sold out and rocking.  In my regular seat this night, I had the entire row to myself.  (My seat is about as low in my preferred section as it’s possible to get in a package, so it’s not like it’s out of the way.)  Attendance was over 10,000, so the crowd wasn’t nonexistent, just spread out and more subdued.  For good reason.  The Blue Jackets came out really flat early yet somehow managed to pull out a regulation win.

You always want your team to come out on top--no complaints there for this game--but live sporting events are more fun when the whole place is into it.  I’ll give credit to game operations for working hard to keep folks engaged, especially when the play on the ice is less than stellar.  Having been to two games this season, it seems like they’re emphasizing the sport more during breaks and being more judicious in peppering the audience with ads and silly time-fillers.  In other words, it seems like there’s a bit less pandering to the casual fans.  If there’s one thing that can be tiresome at games these days, it’s the scoreboards and sound systems practically screaming, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” when there’s the briefest lull in the action.  If the Blue Jackets are dialing it back a little in favor of game-focused content, that’s terrific.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 3

January 15-21, 2013

10. MAMA (Director, 2013) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 18)

In short time Jessica Chastain has become one of the best working actresses.  It’s surprising to check her filmography and find little there prior to her breakout 2011. Granted, she amassed several projects that all happened to see the light of day in the same year, but her emergence felt like it occurred overnight even if it didn’t.  While she won’t be winning any awards for MAMA, she’s very good in this contemporary fairy tale by way of a horror movie.  This kind of film can often feel like it comes off the assembly line, but MAMA displays some thoughtfulness and visual flair to set it apart. (Review)

Grade: B-/63

11. BROKEN CITY (Allen Hughes, 2013) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 18)

Forget it Mark Wahlberg, it’s the Big Apple.  Allen Hughes tries to make New York City’s version of CHINATOWN.  He has the look and feel down, but the intricate twists and turns in Brian Tucker’s screenplay lack much in the way of surprises.  

The more interesting elements tend to be in the margins.  The girlfriend of Wahlberg’s character is an aspiring actress, and they attend the premiere of her independent film. What we see of it are pretty terrible--intentionally so--and hysterically funny.  This section provides a more incisive and witty look below the surface of official public statements than the political scenes.  I also liked Alona Tal as Wahlberg’s administrative assistant.  Her give-and-take with the boss snaps.      

Grade: C/47

12. THE LAST STAND (Kim Jee-woon, 2013) (2K DCP) (Rave Polaris) (January 19)

I elected to keep these observations out of my review, but this seems like the right space for them.  Can THE LAST STAND be read as a conservative fantasy?  The hero is jaded about life in the big city and gives it up for peace and quiet in quintessential small town America.  The feds are either corrupt or unsuccessful at their job.  It falls upon the local officials to get the job done properly.  The good guys even require a citizen’s private arsenal to fight back.  The hero and villain chase and duel with American-made cars.  Or maybe it’s just the form and this is all reading more into it than is intended? (Review)

Grade: B-/60

13. BEVERLY HILLS COP (Martin Brest, 1984) (HD stream) (January 20)

A by-the-numbers crime story drags down this would-be comedy.  As the fast-talking and ingratiating prankster policeman, Eddie Murphy shows why he’s a star even though his films are, by and large, not very good.  He’s very appealing in BEVERLY HILLS COP as he orders room service for the officers staking him out and stuffs bananas in their tailpipes to shake them, but Murphy’s personality isn’t enough to carry a film more devoted to the boilerplate TV procedural plot.  There’s literally zero mystery in the investigation.  The tepid fish-out-of-water humor fails to mine the comedy in a streetwise Detroit detective visiting swanky California.  And hey, there’s Jonathan Banks as a bad guy!  There’s nothing remarkable about what he does here, but for anyone who’s seen him on BREAKING BAD, it goes to show the talent that often goes unnoticed in disposable parts like this one.

Grade: C/46

14. ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 21)

Just as riveted seeing it a second time. And what I said about Chastain in MAMA?  That goes double or triple for her here. (Review)

Grade: A/90


9s. REJECTED (Don Hertzfeldt, 2000) (YouTube) (January 16)

“My anus is bleeding!”  Proof that I don’t always need humor to be sophisticated.  I laughed myself silly when I saw this in THE ANIMATION SHOW and did so again when showing it to some students the day after taping a show in which we reviewed IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY.

Grade: A/90


1. GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn, 2012)

Through a conventional mystery Gillian Flynn dissects a troubled marriage and explores what we think we know about the people we see, be it in everyday life or in the media. She alternates chapters of the husband’s thoughts when his wife goes missing on their anniversary and her diary entries.  It’s an ingenious way of studying how individuals construct the selves they reveal to others and the assumptions society makes based on available information, especially in sensational news stories.  GONE GIRL can be very cynical about how men and women relate to one another and how people use others for their own purposes, but it’s a fascinating and often thrilling read.

While reading the novel, I felt like it could be best translated as a short order TV series, maybe two or three seasons.  After I finished GONE GIRL, it was announced that David Fincher may direct the film adaptation.  He’s a sensible choice.  Reportedly Reese Witherspoon may play the lead female role.  This should be a whale of a part.  The only thing of note she’s done in recent years is HOW DO YOU KNOW, so it would be nice to have her return with something worthy of her talent.  


10. Van Halen THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS (2004)

Other than excluding “Ice Cream Man”, this 2-CD greatest hits set includes pretty much all the album-oriented rock radio staples by one of the biggest rock bands of the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s.  A collection like this would be hard to mess up, yet the sequencing has to be among the worst of any band’s best-of compilation.  The listener can fix this in the MP3 era, but if you pop this into a car CD player, as I did this week, the order is maddening.  

The first disk begins with “Eruption”, inexplicably separated from their cover of “You Really Got Me”, and three mediocre-to-bad new songs.  From then the set lurches between eras, alternating between songs with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar as lead singer.  The only consecutive Roth-era songs are tracks 13 and 14 on the second CD, and they’re promptly followed by three live cuts with Hagar plowing through Diamond Dave classics.  Clearly the sequencing is a middle finger from the band to Roth, but they’re also insulting fans and making themselves look bad.  If anything, the stark contrast makes the Hagar-era songs pale in comparison to when Roth was the front man.

I used to prefer the so-called Van Hagar lineup, probably because those songs were more melody-inclined, but put me down now as recognizing that the group was far superior when Roth was in the band.  His goofball persona used to be what put me off, but listening now I can hear how he’s a better fit, especially at selling the double entendre-laden lyrics.  Hagar sounds too earnest in comparison.

Key tracks: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, “And the Cradle Will Rock...”, “Unchained”, “Panama”, I’ll Wait”, and “Runnin’ with the Devil”

11. The Walkmen HEAVEN (2012)

At this point when Spoon puts out yet another great album, it’s taken for granted.  Quietly The Walkmen are in the process of doing the same thing.  I’m slowly trying to put together a favorite albums of 2012 list, so I popped their latest in and was reminded (and kind of stunned) how great it is.  Maybe I should have gone down to campus this week to see them in concert again.  (I caught them in Cincinnati opening for The New Pornographers in 2011 and was suitably impressed.)

Key tracks: “We Can’t Be Beat”, “Love is Luck”, “The Witch”, and “The Love You Love”



Also file under Unfortunately Named Television Series.  I’m clearly not the target audience for a program about a Las Vegas showgirl reassessing her life while instructing ballerinas in small town California.  I’ve never watched anything on ABC Family or an episode of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s GILMORE GIRLS. Nevertheless, I don’t know if there’s another current show that leaves me feeling as good after an episode as this one.  Delightful repartee, appealing characters, and inventive dance numbers make it the complete drama-comedy package.

I don’t dance and possess little understanding of the art, but over the years I’ve noticed that I really enjoy dance films.  THE RED SHOES is an all-time favorite. I also like the Japanese original and American remake SHALL WE DANCE?, THE COMPANY, STEP UP 2: THE STREETS,.and CENTER STAGE, among others.  There’s just something about communicating feeling through motion that moves me immensely.  For example, Jeanine Mason gets a beautiful single shot solo in the third episode of the first season’s second half that is unspeakably light and charming, which says everything about the idealized character she plays.  Julia Goldani Telles caps that BUNHEADS episode with an emotional piece expressing her character’s fear.  For a series so reliant on fast-flung words, the dance scenes can be the most revealing and powerful.   

I can’t write about BUNHEADS and not mention Sutton Foster, who I first saw in ANYTHING GOES on Broadway in 2011.  She has the old-fashioned entertainer qualities that surely would have made her a film superstar in the screwball era.  Her comic timing is aces, and she looks effortless in her dancing. 

Live sports

1. Detroit Red Wings at Columbus Blue Jackets (Nationwide Arena - Columbus, Ohio) (January 21)

During the NHL lockout I was ambivalent about the season being saved.  The Columbus Blue Jackets were likely in for another bad season, and I was busy enough with other things that its absence in the fall didn’t stand out.  I was a little disappointed to miss out on attending the All-Star skills competition, but once the lockout reached deep enough into the original schedule, it was all for the better.  What fun would All-Star game activities be they were being performed as a duty in a compromised season?

Nevertheless, when the lockout ended and a revised 48-game schedule was released, I found myself ramped up for hockey’s return.  I even bought a ticket for opening night. Deals were plentiful because the CBJ had a week to sell tickets for the first game and needed to make overtures to fans angry about the lockout.  As a quarter season package owner, I was offered lower bowl seats for $25 through February.  Ticketmaster fees were even waived for the first week.  They got me.

Opening night in Columbus, the team’s second game, was a lot of fun.  The place was sold out, no doubt due to the ticket bargains and the opponent, the hated Red Wings. The mammoth new scoreboard is a beauty and was utilized better in terms of showing replays and keeping the “fan experience” stuff (kiss cam, movie clips to prod enthusiasm) to a minimum.  The crowd was as energetic as I’d experienced it in some time, perhaps since the first (and only) year the Blue Jackets made the playoffs.  The team played hard and almost pulled out a win.  Losing 4-3 in a shootout was not the preferred outcome, but it was an entertaining game that suggests maybe this team will be a fun one to watch.  Realistically, that’s what I’d like.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Warm Bodies

WARM BODIES (Jonathan Levine, 2013)

What’s a hunky, sensitive, undead guy like R (Nicholas Hoult) supposed to do after the apocalypse?  It’s been eight years since a plague left many, including him, as shuffling, brain-hungry vessels called corpses.  When he’s not chowing down on some gray matter, R trudges around the airport, shares knowing grunts with his best friend M (Rob Corddry), and kicks back on the plane he’s made home by getting misty listening to records.  (He’s a vinyl aficionado because it delivers better audio reproduction, natch.)

Like his fellow corpses in WARM BODIES, R is unable to recall his pre-zombie life.  He can make an educated guess about who he was based on his clothes and thinks he knows the first letter of his first name but that’s it.  While zombies have no memories of their own, eating brains isn’t just part of a healthy diet.  It also allows them to absorb their victims’ memories.

While hunting for food R and company encounter human survivors who’ve ventured beyond their walled city to scavenge for pharmaceuticals.  R feasts on the brain of Perry (Dave Franco) and the poor guy’s affectionate thoughts for his girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer).  This has a strange effect on R.  He develops feelings for the pretty blonde and chooses to whisk her out of the situation’s immediate danger and into safe hiding on his jet.

At first Julie is understandably anxious about the arrangement, but gradually R’s gentlemanly manner puts her at ease.  She can tell that under his cold, dead skin is a warm and generous heart, metaphorically speaking at least.  He is unwavering in protecting her from the corpses and the boneys, the name given to the faster, animalistic undead who have peeled off their skin.  Julie becomes fond of R, but how can she explain this star-crossed romance to her friends or her dad (John Malkovich), who’s leading the uninfected’s fight against their undead predators?
This zombified version of ROMEO AND JULIET ups the stakes in placing the couple between rungs on the food chain rather than feuding families, but it trivializes the love story because R’s devotion is not genuine.  He might as well have sipped a magic potion in secret, except in this case he’s gobbled some choice cerebrum.  R is having a vicarious experience performing the role of adoring boyfriend to an unknowing Julie, opening up WARM BODIES to the potential satire of idealization in relationships or projected familiarity in the communication age.  Instead writer-director Jonathan Levine reduces the allegorical components to their simplest terms and recycles the love-conquers-all motif in a scenario that doesn’t earn the payoff.

Although based on a novel, WARM BODIES feels like the product of a studio executive who thinks Shakespeare’s play is great except it could use a happy ending.  Oh, and zombies are popular at the moment, so might as well add them too.  The reappropriated plot works out an acceptable revised resolution, even if it’s betraying its primary influence.  The genre trappings are en vogue, perhaps cynically so, but using the undead as a prism for viewing tragic romance could have been a valid creative choice if the protagonists’ connection wasn’t forged how it is, especially because brain consumption in zombie lore doesn’t imply or require memory transference.

The lovers’ names, main struggle, and the balcony scene make the overlays with ROMEO AND JULIET unmistakable, but R and Julie get along like Tarzan and Jane as well.  He saves her from the threats in his untamed environment.  She humanizes the savage in place of serving as a civilizing influence on him.  Whether the Edgar Rice Burroughs parallels are intended or not, combining Shakespeare and zombies creates the expectation that the text will be treated with some irreverence, but to a baffling degree WARM BODIES is played mostly straight.  To Hoult and Palmer’s credit, they don’t look ridiculous articulating the earnest romance between the living and undead.  If only the film around them reflected the humor in it.  

Grade: C