Archive for October, 2014

birdman

It’s no secret that mainstream Hollywood is in a creative rut. The major studios are in a decades-long arms race to put as many (young, white, male) actors into a cape and tights as possible and the idea of something original making a reasonable splash grow smaller every year.

And against that backdrop we have Birdman, a surrealist meta-drama about fame and art that winkingly places a former Batman into the role of an aged former superhero movie star and also happens to be one of the most original, indescribable creations to hit cinemas screens in recent memory.

It’s a five-tool player, a union of impeccable acting, writing, direction and editing built from a bold concept that dares you to put it in a cage.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a film actor who 20 years ago walked away from the wildly successful Birdman franchise only to watch his star steadily fade. In a last ditch effort to relaunch his career as a “serious” actor, he invests the remains of his fortune into a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which the elder thespian is writer, director and star.

Thomson is a ball of nerves, lashing out at his friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Oblivion’s Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and himself via the taunting voice of his former persona, which mocks his professional decay. As opening night approaches and the pressure mounts, Thomson begins to lose his grasp on reality, seeing himself as a literal superhuman capable of feats that are impossible … or are they?

The entire cast is phenomenal, truly, yet it is Edward Norton who walks away with the show. His Mike, a veteran stage actor brought in at the 11th hour, is a manic, egotistical time bomb, effortlessly cool and dangerously unhinged. His interplay with Michael Keaton makes for the films best moments, which I mean as high praise considering that Birdman’s entire running time is a seemingly endless stream of unforgettable imagery.

But the real rabbit in director Alejandro Inarritu’s magic hat is the camerawork, stitched together to form what appears to be a single running take. The trick has evolved since Alfred Hitchcock deployed the same device in Rope but the same seams show if you’re looking close enough. Except you won’t be, because after a few minutes into Birdman you stop looking through the smoke and mirrors and simply let yourself get swept away in the illusion.

Grade: A

*Birdman opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 31.

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Constantine (NBC)

Between Supernatural, Grimm, Flash, Arrow and SHIELD you could (quite convincingly) make the case that both the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night and the comic book adaptation worlds are both adequately covered by broadcast television.

But despite or, or perhaps because of, those already existing shows, NBC offers us Constantine, it’s adaptation of the DC comic series that is both a superhero serial and a freak of the week procedural.

Last seen as the brooding Keanu Reeves in 2005, Matt Ryan’s Constantine is a more source-appropriate blonde and British take on the exorcist, demonologist and master of the dark arts fighting against the forces of evil in an attempt to win enough heavenly brownie points to save his damned soul.

The premiere saves the backstory for later, instead dropping us cold into a psychiatric facility where our hero is, wasting time? It’s hard to say, as the clunky plot device is quickly tossed out to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia where John is working to protect the daughter of an old friend from an unseen baddie.

Like it’s spiritual predecessor Dracula, Constantine is very cinematic and flush with impressive visuals. But the pacing and plot is jerky, hopping back and forth and doling out exposition awkwardly while failing to adequately explain most of everything that occurs.

It’s an interesting effort, that could grow into something interesting, but for now the show is a little too focused on mood that it forgot to give us a reason to keep watching. Also, I can’t shake the suspicion that most episodes will just end with Matt Ryan holding out his hand and muttering in Latin.

*Honorable mention for this line:

“Where did you come from John?”

“The sordid passions of my parents.”

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye on

Grimm - Season 4

Grimm (NBC)

No one does “To Be Continued” quite like Grimm, in which the writers take a particular glee in leaving fans wanting more (they started adding “Sorry” to the ends of a few two-part episodes last year).

Season 4 picks up right where last season ended, with Captain Renard bleeding out from several gunshot wounds to the torso, Nic having lost his Grimm-ness and a trail of broken hearts and literally severed heads (of an FBI agent) leading back to Nic and Juliette’s home.

The show has weaseled its way out of a number of jams through the years and while the clean up in the premiere doesn’t rely on the *most* implausible coincidences it’s still stretches the limits of credibility.

But as always, it doesn’t really matter because Grimm its just too darned fun to get mad at and with the latest crisis avoided we can get back to the matter of taking down the Royals, getting revenge on Adalind and figuring out where those keys lead to.

Grade: B

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*Portions of this review were originally posted during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Laggies

Director Lynn Shelton has become a Sundance regular with her films “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Touchy Feely,” and “Your Sister’s Sister” and she continued that success with this year’s “Laggies,” which sees Keira Knightley as a late-20s woman dealing with a quarter-life crises.

Megan (Knightley) lives with her high-school boyfriend and makes her living twirling a sign on the side of the road for her father’s tax assistance agency after her chosen career as a marriage and family counselor didn’t take. After stepping out of a friend’s wedding she runs into a group of high school students including Annika (Kick Ass’s Chloe Grace Moretz) who invite her to hang out for the night. Soon, Knightley finds herself seeking refuge from her life by hiding out in the guest room of Annika’s house, where she meets single-dad Sam Rockwell, doing his typical witty, awesome, Sam Rockwell-esque thing.

The plot follows a familiar path but is saved from redundancy by its sincerity. The inevitable conflicts are not played for melodrama but instead unfold naturally, realistically and with a relatable heart that is both endearing and refreshing. Rockwell follows up last year’s The Way Way Back with another stellar performance that grounds the movie and keeps the laughs flowing.

Much like Shelton’s previous work, Laggies excels in its simplicity, caring less about grand statements than the not-quite-everyday drama of reasonably life-like characters. While unlikely to make an enormous impact on the fall movie scene, it makes for a pleasant night at the movies and a good showcase for what Knightley can do outside the big Hollywood blockbuster machine.

Grade: B+

*Laggies opens nationwide on Friday, October 24.

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John Wick Film 2014

As far as action movies are concerned, quite often less is more. Not less punches or less kicks or less head shots — the audience obviously wants those in spades — but a slim plot, free of unnecessary emotional baggage, can often be just what the doctor ordered when the audience has a fever and the only cure is cracked skulls.

In ‘John Wick‘ Keanu Reeves puts his surly growl to good use as the titular ex-gun for hire, lured back into “business” after a random and unfortunate act of violence. John is mourning the passing of his wife and has found solace in a puppy that arrived on his doorstep as a gift from the grave, but all too soon a run-in with some members of the local crime family leaves the dog dead and John on a path to revenge.

Reeves, who anchored the Matrix trilogy, is no stranger to operatic action. And yet as John Wick, the punishments are wisely doled out in a surprisingly utilitarian fashion, with a minimum amount of fuss, that is often laugh out loud funny in its frank simplicity.

In the spry 90-minute running time Reeves racks up a body count that rivals Liam Neeson in the original taken, but in Wick the slaughter is matched by a beautifully spartan directing style that sees men reduced to mush in steady, drawn-out takes. While watching Reeves’ Wick slowly stab an invader in his home you can almost hear director David Leitch whispering in your ear saying “Did you see that? I don’t want you to miss anything.”

But the most impressive and enjoyable thing about John Wick is the world it creates, one in which contract killers have their own currency and laws existing right under our noses like a Hogwarts for criminals. It invites you to ask “Can this really exist?” and whether it is fantasy or reality you want it to be real.

There’s also a spectacular roster of notable actors filling the supporting cast, sometimes appearing for little more than a glimpse. Game of Throne’s Alfie Allen plays familiar Greyjoy ground as the spoiled son of a mob boss. But there’s also a few alumni of The Wire, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Bridget Moynahan as the dearly departed Mrs. Wick, who exists as little more than a memory.

It’s an enjoyable piece of pulpy noir and shows how with the right people involved you can get a lot of of a little.

Grade: B

*John Wick opens nationwide on Friday, Oct. 24.

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The Walking Dead (AMC)

Last season of The Walking Dead was interesting. On the one hand, the decision to bust up the core group at the season’s mid point for a series of focused character episodes was great. On the other hand, everything that led up to that catalyst was clean up from the disaster of a finale that ended the prior season. (It’s going to be WAR!…well not yet, but soon).

But season 5 of TWD doesn’t have that baggage. After ending on a dramatically intriguing note last spring, season 5 wastes absolutely no time in diving back into the action and delivering one of the most brain smashing episodes since Rick and his peeps first took the prison in season 3.

It’s a great set up that leaves lots to explore, plus a last minute reveal that re-introduces a favorite character from the past. Five years in and I’m still hungry for more.

Grade: A

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Marry Me - Season Pilot

Marry Me

Let’s get something out of the way. You likely didn’t watch David Caspe’s last show, the incredible “Happy Endings” on ABC. I know this because almost no one did, hence its too-early cancellation after three gloriously underrated seasons.

It’s not entirely your fault. ABC used and abused the show, airing it out of order in a series of disparate time slots and never quite figuring out how to market its razor sharp voice with the rest of the white bread content on the network lineup.

But you can now make amends, because Caspe has returned with Marry Me, a slightly more mainstream offering that preserves the million-jokes-a-minute speed of Happy Endings and reunites the showrunner with his comedy muse/wife Casey Wilson.

The show centers on Jake and Annie (the great Dan Marino and Wilson), who return from a dream vacation only to experience a series of the most cringe-worthy marriage proposals in the history of love. It’s great stuff, filled with a raft of supplementary characters and bizarre flashbacks that serve as a nice set up for the series, which will follow the couple moving forward post-engagement.

It’s the best comedy premiere I’ve seen this year. Watch it.

Grade: A-

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My skin is not, and never has been, built for a tan. At best I freckle. At worst I burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

That’s not to say I’ve never been tanning. When I was in high school (in Utah in the early 2000s) I had a friend who was a metrosexual before any of us knew what metrosexuals were. He would regularly go to Bahama Bronze on Harrison Boulevard after school and drag us with him. (Further proof that without productive and educational after-school activities, America’s children will fall into bad habits).

Tanning beds are the worst. Putting aside the fact that studies suggest they’re as cancerous as cigarettes, they’re sweaty, uncomfortable and more than a little bizarre. I’d hand over my money, cook in a glass oven for 20 minutes, and then have a weird pinkish hue and itchy dry skin for a few days before returning to my natural, Irish white.

But I confess that from time to time I long for the chiseled abs and flawless tanned skin of the men in the magazines. It’s hard out there for us guys. We’re so objectified by modern society.

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50 Shades/50 shades darker

So for October’s adventure, and just in time for my upcoming cruise to the Bahamas (Boo-Yah!), I decided to get a spray tan and invite along my friend Neil.

Neil and I met in a former life when we were both somewhat-begrudgingly working as missionaries in northeastern Brazil. We’re both highly-opinionated, vocally argumentative people, and most of our time together is spent arguing the merits of capitalism versus socialism and libertarianism vs progressivism.

FullSizeRender(2)He’s OK.

We checked in for our appointment at European Tan, where a nice young lady immediately went about describing how our lives would be changed by the VersaSpa Skin Care System, the “most technologically advanced spray bed” in the world.

She chatted with us about the three different levels of tan available to us, and assured us that it was impossible when using the VersaSpa Skin Care System to come out with an unnatural skin tone because the spray was made up of an aloe vera-based mixed with snake oil.

Once in the room, she gave us a demonstration of how we should stand, walking through the four positions that lead to optimum color.

IMG_3555The spray itself was surprisingly chilly, making a series of passes over your body similar to a car wash. After each set of sprays, a computerized voice would remind you to move to the next position and after all was sprayed and done a “dry cycle” started, passing a fan over your body.

Properly pampered. Neil and I headed next door to The Kathmandu to conduct our interview over some Lamb Vindaloo and Naan.

Wood Stock: Who are you and what do you do?

Neil Schiffman: My name is Niel Shiffman and I help set up retirement accounts, usually for teachers but for anybody.

WS: Have you ever had a spray tan before?

NS: Never.

WS: What did you think of the experience?

NS: I thought it was wonderful. If this could keep me from getting sun burned in the summer I’m so in. They have sold me forever. You stand there, you get sprayed down. There was no experience like Ross from Friends.

ross-tanWS: That’s exactly what was going through my mind.

NS: I had to look that up when you said we were doing this. I looked that up and thought “I do not want eight 2s.”

WS: Walk me through the experience, paint me a word picture.

FullSizeRenderNS: You come in, there’s a lovely young lady standing behind a salon desk in front of 8,000 bottles of different colored lotion that say things like “sexy,” and “irresistible” and “tremendous.” They ask you if you’ve ever tanned before, make sure you get the right tan for your skin tone. They ask you why you’re tanning, lucky Ben here is going on a cruise.

WS: That’s right.

NS: I will be staying in delightful Utah in October.

WS: And you’ll definitely need a tan for that.

NS: Yes, that will be tan-worthy. When it’s your turn they take you into a booth. They explain how you’re supposed to stand. Little Egyptian poses to make sure you get your underarms and the sides of your torso. You walk in and the booth says “stand in position 1” and you stand there, nervous as can be. Is this going to sting? Is this going to be cold? Is it going to be hot? What’s going to happen? Do I close my eyes? I had better close my eyes.

FullSizeRender(3)WS: Yeah I closed my eyes. I didn’t need tan eyes.

NS: You gotta stand with your hands away for the Egyptian pose so you don’t get the bottom of your hands. Oh that’s the one thing I forgot. There’s lotion if you don’t want a body part covered with spray tan to block the spray tan.

WS: Where did you put that?

IMG_3558NS: I chose my palms and bottoms of my fingers and the bottoms of my feet. And I went totally naked.

WS: Oh yeah. You have to.

NS: If they were going to spray me down (manually), I came prepared.

WS: Even if. Bring it on.

NS: I suppose that is always an option.

WS: Was there anything that surprised you?

NS: It was quicker than I expected. I think that I was not expecting the machine or whatever they call it to dry me off, which I thought was nice. It smells better than I expected.

WS: Yeah it kind of has a chocolate-y smell right?

NS: It’s a nice smell. Definitely chocolate. It’s sweet, not quite exotic but just, it’s pleasant.

WS: Obviously we won’t know exactly how it went until tomorrow. Are you worried at all about your tone?

NS: So far I feel darker. It could just be a little placebo effect going on but I feel darker.

IMG_3559WS: So you are a father, correct?

NS: I am a father of two.

WS: For how long now have you been a father?

NS: Two and a half years. I have a two and half year old and a 3-month old. Almost 3 months.

WS: Were you ready to be a dad? Were you prepared?

NS: I was prepared in more ways than I expected and less ways than I expected at the exact same time. It seems like a cop-out answer but like, changing a diaper? Rock and roll. I don’t care. Peed on, pooped on, puked on, that didn’t scare or bother me in the least.

WS: I have a really hard time with that.

NS: Crying babies, no big deal. I was dumb and thought I was smarter than the car seat so I waited until after the baby was born to install that sucker. I didn’t do it right for like 6 months so my baby was riding in the car for 6 months in a very precarious situation. You’d be driving down the road and the baby would just be tipped over because you went around a curve. That’s not going to work.

WS: What is something surprising about becoming a parent?

NS: The surprising thing for me is how much I enjoy it. I didn’t think it would be that cool and for the first couple of months I was proven right. It was not that cool. They just sit there. My wife breastfed, for the most part, so I didn’t get to participate in any feeding. They just hung out and were boring to me and I kept thinking when is this going to be cool? At about 6 months it was “Holy cow that baby smiles at me and laughs when I make a face.” That’s when it got really cool for me because before that I was totally not in.

WS: So it really is cool? That’s not just a communal lie to perpetuate the species?

NS: No, but it does take a while. For my wife she was all in when they put that newborn baby on her chest. I was just like “that is an ugly baby.”

WS: Brand newborns are a little crazy to look at.

NS: My kid’s face was good, he didn’t have a messed up face but he was the longest baby that they said they had ever delivered. He was 24 inches long.

WS: So, a nice prized trout?

NS: Oh yeah, he was rather large. So his head was kind of squished like the alien on Aliens. Big huge monster thing coming out the back. That was kind of gross but his face was good.

WS: Is it easier the second time around?

NS: Totally. Totally easier the second time around. You know what to expect at the hospital. You have everything ready to go. You got diaper changing down. One baby wipe takes care of the most massive poop with the expert hands of a second-time father. You are prepared to not sleep. You are prepared to anticipate what the kids wants and what they need.

WS: To what degree are you cognizant that these children will grow to be obnoxious teenagers?

NS: Totally, totally cognizant. He has started getting an opinion on what he wants and has started punching my arm to get my attention. That could be because I’m a bad dad. It’s not hard, he’s not doing it maliciously, just “hey dude, I want to play ball now. I want to watch a movie.” He’s definitely figuring out what he wants and he knows how to get it.

I was not expecting him to show preferences to movies already, which is nice because he mostly prefers Pixar. There’s not a bad Pixar out there.

WS: Yeah, there’s lukewarm Pixar but there’s not bad Pixar. But there are some bad cartoons out there.

NS: Yeah and maybe that’s part of the blessing of our modern life. We have access to Netflix and the movies so we don’t ever watch TV. He doesn’t know what’s out there except what I expose him to. So we only watch the movies, really, that I want to watch.

WS: What would be the one bit of advice you would give to an expectant father?

NS: There was a concern by a certain someone that perhaps God gets bored being God. Because you just do the same stinking thing every day for forever. Regardless of who that God is to you, that would get boring after a while.

The advice that I have for expectant fathers is that it doesn’t get old. I learned this on child 2 because child 1 it was like every day I’m watching him do something new. Now I’m watching kid 2 go through that same experience and my daughter is just starting to smile, it like makes me cry. It’s so dang cool to watch her learn how to smile, learn how to use her body. She’s starting to suck on her thumbs and stuff and holy cow, it’s so cool that I get to watch her doing that because I saw that two year’s ago with my first son.

Now, whether or not I want to do that again as a mortal man remains to be seen and that really will be my wife’s decision.

IMG_3557WS: Would you recommend a spray tan to someone?

NS: Yes. If it works.

WS: Right, with the asterisk that we’re not orange in the morning.

NS: If tomorrow, one of two things, I don’t look like a carrot and I’m a shade darker than I was today then this is the greatest invention ever made for skin beautification.

WS: Anything you need to promote?

NS: Fatherhood is cool.

WS: Are you on Twitter?

NS: I am. @chiqueman

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Oopsie! Looks like I forgot to review The Blacklist when it premiered. We’ll rectify that mistake first.

The Blacklist - Season 2

The Blacklist (NBC)

The best thing about The Blacklist has been and always will be James Spader, who slips into the role of criminal mastermind Raymond “Red” Reddington with such ease that he looks more like he’s on vacation than acting. His pleasure in cracking wise and chewing through one-liners is addictive, lifting the entire series from what could otherwise become a rote caricature of heady crime thrillers.

Last season ended with the 2-part introduction of Reddington’s nemesis Berlin, played with the typical Peter Stormare-iness of Peter Stormare. In Season 2, we catch back up with our bruised but not broken friends at the FBI and dive back into the action, chasing a blacklister known for locating individuals who’d rather not be located.

The case of the weak is slight compared to past baddies, but the chance to finally get a look at Berlin is nice, as is the addition of Mary-Louise Parker as Red’s former wife. The premiere doesn’t suggest any grand evolution to a new chapter, but it also doesn’t show any signs (yet) of straining.

Grade: B

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Mulaney (Fox)

John Mulaney is funny. His eponymous television show, however, is not.

But lots of shows aren’t funny. Lot’s of shows don’t even try to be. But Mulaney is trying, and not only is it unfunny but it’s also unpleasant.

From the pronouncement that the show is filmed before a live studio audience to the blatantly obvious multi-camera (the characters never face each other when speaking) Mulaney is, from minute one, a bizarre homage to 1990s broadcast television. But what was likely intended as a piece of retro nostalgia is instead aggressively out of date, capturing few of the positives and most of the negatives of a bygone era while reminding us all how much better we have it now in the age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad than we did during the early days of Must See TV Thursdays and TGIF.

Comparisons to Seinfield are obvious, and I’ve already heard some critics suggest that the stiff awkwardness with which Mulaney reads his lines is intended as some sort of meta-commentary on television. Some will also remind you how Seinfield, himself, got off to a rocky start.

Mulaney’s start was not rocky. It was bad. Terribly. Horribly. Unforgivably bad.

Grade: F

Class: Kill it with fire.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX)

We’re four seasons in to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s singularly bizarre anthology series, American Horror Story, and the creative duo are far from phoning it in.

The actors may remain (largely) the same, but each year has brought a new setting and more notably a new tone, which is no less true with Freak Show. Shirking of the monochromatic minimalism of last year’s Coven, Freak Show is a pastiche of bright colors and electric visuals, suggesting that we have entered the most visually appealing Horror Story to date.

The mood is also light, continuing last year’s trend after the excellent but uncomfortably dreary Asylum. “Light,” in this context, referring to a premiere episode that sees the violent death of at least five people, several of which at the hands of a genuinely creepy clown who, if I’m not mistaken, wears the scalp of another man as a hat.

The action this year is set at the titular freak show, where Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars has gathered a family of misfit toys including the Siamese twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), bearded lady Ethel (Kathy Bates) and her son Jimmy (Evan Peters) a man with fuzed fingers.

Struggling to make ends meet, Elsa turns to the sisters to save the show, but they bring with them a little bit of legal heat from the local police. Oh yeah, and there’s the murdering clown to deal with.

The computer effects on Paulson’s two-headed body are impressive for a television show, but not perfect. And Lange’s pseudo-German accent is certainly going to take some getting used to. But the period call backs (Lucky Strikes!) and a chance to actually see sunlight for a change suggest this year’s horror story may be the most fun of all.

Grade: A-

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Cristela

The Morning After used to do a bit about how the NBC *comedy* “Whitney” was actually a tragic drama when you removed the laugh track.

It was a funny bit and it came to mind while I was watching Cristela, in which *jokes* about spousal abuse, racism, body image, poverty and gender politics are drowned by a rogue wave of “HARDY-HAR-HAR-HAR” from some unseen collection of sad souls.

Cristela is centered around a Latina woman struggling to make it out from under a pile of student debt and general societal circumstance. She lives with her sister’s family (including a brother in law who jokes about poisoning Cristela if he was ever forced to marry her) and her mother, who can’t go 30 seconds without referencing her family’s third world roots and how lucky her ungrateful daughter are to have what they do.

It’s a show engineered to capture diverse audiences, much like NBC’s black-ish, except Cristela is too undercooked and narrowly-written for mass appeal and, at best, seems poised to capture the According to Jim role of being on television for years without anyone really noticing.

Grade: C+

Class: Kill and Bury

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