Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Netflix Nuggets #1

I'm debuting another "special entry" series for this blog: Netflix Nuggets! Much like the Redbox Report, I'll collect a handful of reviews in a single blog post. The difference is, as you probably guessed, the titles in question will be available through Netflix Instant Watch. But rather than pick up the bigger and better known movies available through the most productive time-wasting service ever invented, I'll be cycling through movies that you may have never heard of, or hadn't heard much about. So the next time you're cruising through their library looking for something new to try out, check back with the blog and see if I can't shed a little light on a random title for ya. So without further ado, here is Netflix Nuggets #1


Normally, I don't go for quirky indie comedies; I feel like the whole genre is played out. I kinda felt that way when Juno came out, and it was basically the first big one. I don't hate them, I'm completely engulfed by a sense of 'meh' about most of them. So I was hesitant to give Submarine a go because everything about it - from the poster, to the trailer, to the opening moments - made me dread that I had just subjected myself to yet another exercise in breaking the fourth wall with snarky narration and gazing - catatonic - into the camera as a series of meaningless syllables sputter out. And "Submarine" is chock full of those things, as it happens. But the film somehow still manages to work in this undeniable sense of charm and humor that overcame my initial misgivings. The film follows protagonist Oliver Tate, who is precisely the kind of indie-film cliche that puts me off of this genre. But his cliche is played up to such a melodramatic height it's funny, rather than just tiresome. Early on in the film he mentions how he daydreams about what would happen after his death; how the world would react. The film cuts to a series of news snippets as school mates bemoan his passing, news reporters tear up as they report the catastrophic loss, mourners form candle-lit vigils in his honor; and the whole bloody affair is so over-the-top and ridiculous I couldn't help but laugh. Partly because I've daydreamed about that exact thing (I think most of us have) and can therefore relate, if somewhat sheepishly. And partly because Oliver is so unabashed in his melodramatic self-absorption it's almost impossible not to laugh. And a handful of the dialogue is just so absurd or hyperbolic, again the effect is truly laughable. Lines like "Now that we had kissed for non blackmail purposes, I thought it gentlemanly to escort Jordana home" are a great example of what I mean. The movie is a typical coming-of-age, indie-weird boy meets indie-weird girl, type of outing. But somehow it's charming and sincere enough to exceed its own cliches; and in many cases use them in a brilliantly self-deprecating way.


Here's a credit you'll want to sit through either to beef up your resume of obscure films you've seen, or just because it's got a great cast. The story follows the original Jutish tale upon which Shakespeare's Hamlet is based. Young prince Amled is visited by his father's recently departed ghost to discover that his uncle is his father's true murderer. Amled vows revenge, and the tale is largely one familiar to anyone vaguely acquainted with Shakespeare's famous play. What's not great about the movie are the costumes and sets; here minimalist to a fault. The movie largely looks like a play that has been filmed, with none of the sets really evoking much implied design work or artistry. The same can be said of the costumes, which are largely just cobbled together pieces of mute-color cloth. Being set in a pre-medieval Jutland (Denmark), that may have been intentional. But it feels more like a convenient coincidence. Where it shines is in its casting decisions, which bring together a sizeable chunk of names and faces you're bound to recognize. Christian Bale plays the tortured Amled, Gabriel Byrne his deceitful uncle, Tom Wilkinson his deceased father, Helen Mirren his deceived mother, Brian Cox an ally from across the sea, Mark Williams and Andy Serkis as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters of this tale, Kate Beckinsale as a less-insane iteration of Ophelia...the list goes on. It's just a treat to see all these actors together on screen, and largely atones for the pretty dreadful production value - which includes B-roll shot at a completely different frame rate than the rest of the film and a soundtrack that occasionally sounds as though it's from a completely different movie. But, as I said, this is one you'll likely not find on any shelf available for purchase - so if you're in need of a film credit to one-up another film buff with, this is your golden ticket.


Here be a British version of Polyanna or Anne of Green Gables, and like those titles also based on a novel of the same name. The plot is fairly simple: a young city girl with big dreams named Flora Poste moves in with her extended family out in the countryside and in so doing brings light and life to their miserable existence through her free-spirited ways. The girl in question is played by a younger and freckled-nosed Kate Beckinsale, but her precocious charm is undeniable. Like Royal Deceit, this film also boasts a marvelous collection of casting decisions. Rufus Sewell is the randy cousin Seth, who secretly harbors a love of the cinema that seems incompatible with his rural ways. Ian McKellen is Amos, the patriarch of the family. A fire-and-brimstone preacher and founder of the Quivering Brethren (a fictional and damnation-obsessed church domination), Amos is an extreme caricature of the Biblically-minded moralist and hams it up on screen appropriately. Freddie Jones portrays an aging farm-hand who works on Cold Comfort Farm and never refers to Flora by her name, but rather by her proxy relationship to the family as "Robert Poste's child." It's an unassuming little piece of cinematic fluff, which never asserts itself as more than the kind of feel-good outing you might catch during a Sunday afternoon on the couch. But it's got charm and sincerity to spare, and a handful of moments that are just a delight to watch. On one such occasion, Stephen Fry (who plays a local writer by the name of Mybug) openly propositions young Flora in a cafe, much to the chagrine of the patrons within earshot. At that very moment Amos enters the little tea room and in one of the worst cases of conversation timing hears Fry utter "I am referring to SEX!" Of course being the Bible-thumper he is, Amos summarily whisks Flora away by the hook of his umbrella. It's not the funniest moment of all time, but just to see that situation played out with such iconic actors as McKellen, Fry, and Beckinsale in their respective roles was a real treat. Cold Comfort Farm isn't the kind of film that will change your life, but it's a great little hour and forty-five minute into the charming and free-spirited world of a charming, free-spirited girl.


Epic historical films like Braveheart or Gladiator are one in a million. Plenty of loosely-based-on-fact historical epics have come and gone, but their grandeur and quality is usually harvested from a stock of lesser quality. That's not to say movies like King Arthur, Troy, or The 13th Warrior are without merit by any stretch; those are all enjoyable films in my estimation. They're just not as iconic and hallowed as the first two I mentioned, and as much can be said for a more recent epic period film: Ironclad. Following the story of the siege of Rochester Castle at the hands of King John in the early 1200s, the movie plays out like a kind of medieval Seven Samurai. James Purefoy plays Marshall, a principled Knight Templar who finds himself in charge of a small garrison committed to defending the castle from King John's (Paul Giamatti) onslaught. If you're a student of history, you will note several historical inaccuracies - but we've come to expect as much from period films these days. To its credit, the film has some great battle sequences that are both thrilling and visceral. Ironclad is definitely a good deal bloodier and gorier than Braveheart or Gladiator. Purefoy is confident and cool and carries the film well, as does his cast of supporting characters which includes Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, and Kate Mara - to name the more recognizable. Again, Ironclad is a movie that tries to be more than it is on its own. But for what it's worth, it's a great siege tale filled with swords and arrows and trebuchets and moments like Brian Cox roaring "NO SURRENDER!" to an equally enraged Paul Giamatti. It doesn't swell with pride like Braveheart or seethe with righteous indignation like Gladiator; but it battles it up for most of its 2-hours-and-change run time and acts as a nice holdover until the next great historical epic sweeps the Oscars.


Do you know who Hypatia of Alexandria was? I didn't until I saw this movie, and I'm surprised that there isn't more attention paid to her in history books. Almost none of her writings have survived history, but enough from other scholars survives about her to make a very compelling case for her genius. Agora follows Hypatia through the late 3rd century and early 4th century in Egypt during a time when Christianity was just beginning to take root amongst the people of the region. Against the backdrop of political upheaval, the film chronicles - with a decent amount of historical license - the lives and times of both Hypatia and some of her students, who included such historical figures as Orestes - Roman governor of Egypt in the early 4th century - and Synesius, who would eventually become a bishop of the fledgling Eastern Orthodox Church. The movie is something of a sword-and-sandal epic, but with a lot more sandal than sword. While there is some violence and action, the heart of the film is devoted to exploring the philosophical questions of the time - and how they relate to our modern era. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia with the grace and dignity she naturally evinces; Oscar Isaac and Rupert Everett (Orestes and Synesius, respectively)  grow on screen from school boys to important leaders convincingly. Max Minghella further rounds out the cast as Davus, a slave who struggles with his own beliefs as the Christian and pagan factions vie for political and social control in the area. The overall message of the film emphasizes objectivity and respect for both scientific knowledge and faith, and for the most part walks the line between the two well. The majority of the film's villains end up appearing in the camp of the emerging Christian faith, which I found a little disappointing considering how well a balance was struck early on in the film. Having said that, for the most part Agora presents the viewer with the historical facts such as they are and lets the the audience decide where virtue remains. And for a film about ancient Egypt, it spends a great deal of time in space - either zooming in or out of Earth or exploring the cosmos whilst voice-over and score accent the imagery. It's not entirely abstract, but it's more cerebral a piece than I'm accustomed to seeing in a "toga movie." But it's incredibly educational, despite its historical license, and a fine film in its own right, too.


What would it be like if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon took a tour of the restaurants in Northern England, portraying somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves? A six-part BBC2 sitcom called The Trip sought to answer that strangely specific question. From that series, a film was edited together similarly titled The Trip and is, as you can surmise, currently available through Netflix. The film features mostly improvised dialogue, and said dialogue is largely composed of Coogan and Brydon (who are both known for their impersonation capabilities) trading impressions of various celebrities like Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Hugh Grant. There's some rather reflective material courtesy of the contrast between the two character's lives. Coogan is estranged from his family and despite his success, is clearly nursing some emotional wounds. Whereas Brydon is not nearly as renown as Coogan, he has a great relationship with his wife and child and it's evident that Coogan envies him that somewhat. But the drama of the film doesn't work nearly as well as the comedy. It's not a laugh-a-minute type of affair, but watching Coogan and Brydon - two grown men - argue back and forth with each other about whose Michael Caine impression is more true-to-life had me in stitches. It's a fairly long movie considering that's really all it is, Coogan and Brydon making fun of each other and cracking snarky British quips. But I got enough of a laugh out of the whole thing to feel like my time was well spent. If you're not big on quirky British humor, you probably won't find much to like here. And even if you are, The Trip is certainly not cut from the same cloth as something like In the Loop. But if you like Coogan and/or Brydon's brand of comedy you'll probably enjoy this little restaurant-romp.


Occasionally I have such an intense bout of 'cynic-brain' (I'm still working with the surgeon general to get this medically recognized) that just about the only thing I can laugh at is absurdly dark humor. I was in such a funk when I stumbled across World's Greatest Dad; a film whose trailer completely misrepresents it. If you want a nice shocker of a black comedy and don't want to have its big shocking plot point spoiled, skip ahead to the next entry because I can't quite describe this film without giving it away. Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, an aspiring writer whose only published works appear in greeting cards; and whose unpublished materials comprise page upon page of rejected fiction. In addition to his failures as a writer, Lance's son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) hates him. Why? Mainly because Kyle is just an awful kid, and that would be putting it lightly. Things take a turn for the "Holy crap, did this just happen?" when Kyle accidentally perishes attempting autoerotic asphyxiation. In a last ditch attempt to make amends for his broken relationship, Lance pens a fake suicide note and frames his son's death accordingly. Things then take a turn for the downright unholy when people begin asking Lance for more of Kyle's writings, and Lance obliges. Overnight, he becomes a literary sensation and the movie proceeds to toss any notion of sacred out the window. As I mentioned before, I encountered this movie whilst in a rather pessimistic frame of mind, and consequently enjoyed it thoroughly. If black comedies like Fargo or Death to Smoochy aren't your thing, World's Greatest Dad certainly won't be either. But if you appreciate the kind of movie that doesn't take anything seriously and approaches the world from the standpoint of "Life sucks, and so does everyone in it" - you might find this to be just what the doctor ordered.


Documentaries can be a real hit or miss, especially when it comes to a topic that's just not particularly interesting. Topics like...one guy's big crush on Drew Barrymore. My Date With Drew follows Brian Herzlinger, a twenty-something year old living in Los Angeles on a 30-day quest to snag a date from his celebrity crush, the aforementioned Lady Drew, of House Barrymore. It sounds pretty smarmy, to say the least. And Brian isn't a suave screen personality either; he's your average Joe. So for the first 30 minutes or so of the movie, the whole affair feels rather contrived...as though you're watching some stranger's home videos. But as the movie goes on, it picks up an undeniable momentum and before I knew it I was cheering him on with all I had. It's a dream many of us can relate to: wanting to spend a few fleeting moments one on one with our favorite celebrity. Unfortunately it's also a dream many stalkers share, so going into this movie I wondered if Brian would come off as a stalker and make the whole thing feel more creepy than anything else. But fortunately I can say with confidence there's nothing creepy about Brian's manner or approach. And I won't tell you how the movie ends because it's a great watch; definitely leaves you with a warm fuzzy once all is said and done. So while it's technically a documentary, it feels more like you're part of this fun and crazy adventure in someone else's life and dammit if it's not actually inspiring.

That concludes this round of Netflix Nuggets, thanks for tuning in!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Amazing Spider Man

Let's go ahead and get the obvious out of the way: it's a little early for a Spider Man reboot. It's only been 10 years since Tobey Maguire first swung into action with a Nickelback-featuring-Josey-Scott theme song to help with marketing, and that movie was actually pretty good. The second film in director Sam Raimi's Spider Man trilogy was even better. And then the third movie happened, apparently. I'm legally obligated to acknowledge its existence but I really don't want to. So when I heard that The Amazing Spider Man was in the works I was admittedly unmoved; it felt like too much too soon. But a few friends recommended I see it, despite my misgivings.

The plot veers almost too close to our previous outings, as we open on a series of vignettes establishing Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as the school's nerdy loner kid. From there it's more predictable leaps from encounter with love interest Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), to introduction of pseudo-mentor figure who will become the villain (Rhys Ifans), to Parker getting bitten by the infamous spider that derails his rather ho-hum existence. And I won't lie to you, the rest of the film unfolds about as predictably as you might imagine. But despite its cliche and apparently lack of a need to exist, The Amazing Spider Man actually...well, amazes.


First off, the characterizations in this adaptation are much stronger than I anticipated - and much stronger than those of Sam Raimi's adaptation. For one, Garfield is much more convincing as the skinny nerd than Tobey Maguire. Tobey came off as kinda goofy and hopelessly lovelorn, where his successor naturally evinces a more reserved but still awkward vibe. There's also an almost imperceptible bitterness about Garfield's portrayal, which stems from Parker's parents leaving him at a very early age without any explanation. Rhys Ifans is the stereotypical aloof scientist, a part he plays with visible ease. His subtle transformation into the Lizard is quite convincing, and tactfully subtle for a film about spider bites that lead to acrobatics. Then there's good ol' Emma Stone, who is always a joy to watch. Long-time webcrawler fans will note that Gwen Stacy was technically Parker's 'first love' from a chronological standpoint.

Which brings me to my next point: The Amazing Spider Man is truer to the original source material than Sam Raimi's trilogy. There's the aforementioned Gwen Stacy aspect, as well as the fact that Spidey's original iconic webshooters weren't part of his mutation, but rather came from wrist-mounted devices he engineered specifically for the task. The costume design also calls to mind the original designs a little more accurately than Sam Raimi's as well.

The cinematography is also worth noting, specifically during the action sequences. Rather than a hundred quick cuts back and forth with a shaky-cam for effect, the camera moves almost like Spider Man himself; weaving in and out of the chaos fluidly and precisely. Thus a single shot might last a comparably long time for an action sequence, but the camera is so smoothly kinetic that the effect is much more enjoyable. Moreover, such an approach mirrors Spider Man's movements as well so the audience feels as if they are right in on the action. And the visual effects accompanying the action sequences are spectacular. I did a little reading up and confirmed my suspicions that there's a lot more live action stunt work than I initially expected. That definitely looks like what's going on, and I was further impressed at how well the CGI and live-action elements blended in the finished product.


I'm a nerd in the negative sense of the term about a few things. By that I mean I get all flustered and bent out of shape over things that the average person doesn't even notice, let alone care about. Movie soundtracks are such a topic for me, and the soundtrack to The Amazing Spider Man would have been great...if it hadn't been ripped straight from the repertoire of the composer himself. There were a few times during the film I thought "That sounds like such-n-such track from A Beautiful Mind. I sincerely hope James Horner isn't ripping himself off again..." But alas, James Horner (who scored The Amazing Spider Man and A Beautiful Mind...and Titanic, and Braveheart, and Land Before Time...and a bunch of other movies it's ok to be a guy and cry during) was indeed ripping himself off again. So when I saw his name in the credits, my heart plummeted. I'm a huge fan of the man's music, but I've noticed he tends to lift motifs and passages directly from his other scores quite often. If you think I'm overreacting or just want to see how red in the face I can get about this, feel free to message me and I'd be happy to show you song by song what I'm talking about. I gots the proof.

Now as I said, I love Emma Stone - but she makes the least compelling blonde I've ever seen. (NOTE: See comments section for correction) I know Gwen Stacy is the blonde, and Mary Jane is the redhead. I get it, I understand why Emma's hair color was altered for the film. But it just looks...wrong. Almost like a cheesy special effect that you can't suspend disbelief over. But somehow redheads keep getting cast as Gwen Stacy (looking at you, Bryce Dallas Howard) and the makeup department has to pick up the slack. Minor annoyance, but one I just couldn't get over.


The Amazing Spider Man had a lot to make up for on my end personally. I didn't think it needed to exist given that Spider Man was only ten years old. I don't particularly care for Andrew Garfield, and I knew from the trailers that the whole Emma Stone-as-a-blonde thing would bug me; pun totally intended. But despite all of that, The Amazing Spider Man managed to be quite an enjoyable outing. It's the kind of superhero movie that doesn't really dawdle in exposition; it assumes you're familiar enough with the material to not hold your hand. I liked that approach - too much exposition would have weighed down what already was rather burdened by over-familiarity.

Growing up, Lizard was always one of my favorite Spider Man villains too, and I was glad to see him get screen time worthy of his reputation in my memory. Plus, this one has my favorite Stan Lee cameos of the Marvel films thus far; right in front of him getting mistaken for Hugh Hefner then Larry King in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, respectively.

And now that I've seen it, I understand why Marvel has decided to reboot the franchise this early. With the Avengers movies that have been steadily hitting movie theaters for the past 4 years or so, Marvel Studios has really hit a stride with their own cinematic style. In a sense, they're rebuilding their brand with these films; but that shift came a few years after Sam Raimi's adaptations and consequently those films don't fit in as neatly with the others. The Amazing Spider Man definitely works as a better tie-in to other Marvel movies - specifically the unconfirmed rumors of Spider Man's potential rendezvous with the Avengers in the near future. So while it felt like a bit of an unnecessary exercise at first, when seeing the forest for the trees it not only makes sense, but it actually works. With that in mind, it's much easier to see Raimi's body of work as totally separate from the other Marvel pieces currently in circulation and gives The Amazing Spider Man sufficient justification to both exist, and be as awesome as it turns out to be.