Monday, February 27, 2017

Observant "I don't feel at home" is rich with unpredictability

Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey, convincingly portraying a lonely woman who wishes people had more respect towards one another) lives a mundane life in the American Pacific Northwest, one in which people constantly cut in line in front of her at the grocery store, spoil the upcoming secrets of a book she's reading, or have their dogs shit on her lawn.  When her home is burglarized one day, and Ruth realizes that police won't do much to find her stolen belongings, she takes matters into her own hands, and with the help of her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood, as quirky and odd as ever), decides to find and confront the perpetrator (Devon Graye) herself.

Writer/director Macon Blair has made a very original movie in which observant comedy, civilian vigilante justice and dumb criminals (David Yow and Jane Levy, both who give new meaning to "white trash thugs") all come together to produce a cinematic equivalent of Tarantino-esque "lite" feature - which is no small feat, mind you.  The movie paces itself accordingly, until it explodes in a stylishly-bloody third act shoot-out that may leave you breathless (unfortunately, it follows that terrific scene with a superfluous chase-across-a-river-and-through-the-forest sequence, whose resolution just feels redundant and anti-climactic as a result).

Nevertheless, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Netflix) is terrific entertainment of a new hybrid-kind of modern filmmaking, where several genres successfully morph into one, satisfying our multiple movie needs all at once.

Friday, February 24, 2017

"The Crown" rules all the current series

Netflix's recent original series, The Crown, is the kind of wise, mature entertainment that David Lean would have made, if he had focused on episodic shows rather than feature films during his prime.  This great looking drama by writer/creator Peter Morgan evokes memories of Shakespeare's greatest plays had they been merged with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga - but without the nudity, bloodshed or vulgarity.  In other words, it is the PG version of the war for Westeros, the writing which is just as bold and audacious as anything in the mythical Seven Kingdoms.

Each episode of The Crown is a historical account of the early days of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who comes to power abruptly (and perhaps before her time) after the unexpected death of her father, King George VI (Jared Harris).  The storylines effectively shift from social, political and international themes, all the while keeping the point of view of the Monarchal heroine, played gracefully by Claire Foy.  Her husband,  Prince Phillip (Matt Smith), is the kind of easy going womanizer who hates it when his wife "commands" him, and who spends his free-wheeling days learning to fly airplanes.  But the series, for the most part, belongs to John Lithgow, who plays the legendary British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, spitting out the perfect amount of noble growling and barking whenever his universally acclaimed leadership is considered to be past his prime by his contemporaries.

Highlights of Season 1 take place in Episode 4, titled Act of God, in which a thick, heavy smog envelopes London, causing land-wide deaths and accidents due to the toxins in the air and the poor visibility.  Churchill is faced with a great dilemma, and the episode's climax, in which an important character's death finally shakes the Prime Minister's soul, is deeply powerful and emotional.  Similarly, Episode 9, Assassins, incorporates high art and thoroughbred horses, and how each impacts vital periods in the lives of both English rulers.  Churchill, observing his own portrait by a great English artist, is at long last faced with his own fading mortality; the Monarch, coincidentally, will call out her husband's extra-marital affairs to his face with just the right amount of honesty and mandating.  The episode is a masterpiece of style and substance, superb in every single definition.

The Crown may not have the sexy brutality of Game of Thrones, but its drama and superb characterizations give every single current series a run for their money.  I imagine HBO is envious that they didn't think of it first.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Creepy "The Belfry" a homage to gothic frights

Borrowing elements from Jeepers Creepers and Lost, Gabriel Hardman's new one-shot The Belfry explores the crash-landing of a plane on an isolated island that may as well be run by Lucifer himself.      The place is occupied by strange, demonic creatures with large, flappy wings, and their objective, it would seem, is to bite the remaining survivors and convert them to their type of vampirism.  If I should ever happen to find myself in such a conundrum, I imagine my first reaction would be absolute terror, followed by the thought, "Now that I've soiled my pants involuntarily, where the fuck can I get a fresh pair on this godforsaken place?!?"

Doubling as a writer and illustrator, Hardman creates a world that is dark, ghastly and just plain old gothic.  His artwork is dirty, and in some cases confusing and unclear; perhaps that is his intention, to murk the line between reality and nightmare.  The ghoulish nature and appearance of the monsters reminded me of Scott Snyder and JOCK's Wytches, but with an ability to fly, which makes them that much more devastating.  The narrative is of rather bleak nature, and by the time we get to the final page (the story ends rather abruptly), we realize that there is simply no other way a horror story of this ilk could've concluded.

The Belfry is an effective horror comic, and considering that it'll have no follow-ups or sequels, it's even more admirable that Hardman was able to incorporate so much dread and fright in so few pages.  I may not necessarily want to read it again, but I'll surely remember its vision of hell-on-Earth for a long time.

Series 2 of "Sherlock" expands the emotional depth of Doyle's sleuth

Steven Moffat's creative genius and Benedict Cumberbatch's dorky charm are a match in TV show heaven, a collaboration that would, I'm sure, impress even Arthur Conan Doyle himself.  Sherlock Series 2 delivers more of the exciting mysteries and murder cases for our favorite London detective to solve, but this time around, he's humanized more thoroughly.  Mr. Holmes (ahem, not the hero's older brother, Mycroft, but the younger, quick witted genius) will finally meet The Woman, and perhaps even have his heart challenged at a previously unfamiliar level.

The first episode of Series 2, A Scandal in Belgravia, introduces Sherlock to Irene Adler (Laura Pulver), a dominatrix-for-hire who has incriminating photos of a member of the British Royal family. Mycroft, as a member of the government intelligence, brings in his younger brother to look into the matter; meanwhile, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) will wonder if Sherlock has ever had a girlfriend before, or even been in love.  Irene will even go so far to tell the good doctor that although he doesn't yet realize it, he is Sherlock's "other half", a theory Watson rejects.  However, it's clear that Moffat is also expanding the relationship between the two roommates, who are slowly becoming very dependent on one another.

The Hounds of Baskerville injects the first dose of horror into this otherwise non-horrific TV series.  Henry (Russell Tovey) was traumatized as a young boy when he witnessed a vicious beast maul his father to death, and those nightmarish visions are still present in his psyche some 20 years later.  After he hires Holmes and Watson to help him get to the bottom of, the duo take a trip into the English countryside, where they discover a military laboratory experimenting on various animals.  Baskerville may not possess the charm of the previous episodes, nor does it present us with a worthy adversary for Holmes (I already miss Laura Pulver's Irene Adler, and was disappointed to find she does not make a cameo here).  Overall, the episode is mostly bark, with some very cleverly placed bite.

The best episode of the entire series so far is The Reichenbach Fall.  At long last, we witness a complete and thorough confrontation between Sherlock and his nemesis, the criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).  The scenes in which they try to outwit and one-up each other sizzle with tension, their intellect practically on the same level, with very little between them.  Moriarty reveals that his goal is not to murder Sherlock - that would simply be too easy - but to ruin him in the eyes of the public, and to force him to commit suicide, an act that would eventually strip away any credibility that young sleuth has built over the years.  Scott turns Reichenbach Fall into his own personal one-man show, and by the time we reach the nerve-wracking climax, we may (or may not) believe what we had just seen and heard.

Sherlock Series 2 is simply superb entertainment, a show that should appeal to both young and old, cool and lame, rich or poor.  It's as good as anything currently airing on television.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Salesman" another example of Farhadi's boldness

The Iranian cinema in the 21st century, as far as I'm concerned, can only be attributed to one man: Asghar Farhadi.  In only the past decade, he's brought us About Elly, A Separation and (the overlooked) The Past.  Farhadi's new movie, The Salesman (Forushande), incorporates elements of Arthur Miller and marital tension that arises between a couple after the wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is brutally assaulted in her apartment late one night.  Her husband, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a high school teacher appearing in a stage version of Death of a Salesman, is devastated by the events, and vows to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice.  The movie takes a similar, methodical approach to examining the physical, but mostly emotional, wounds that such an incident can have on a married couple, and those close to them.   The film's climax boldly examines an issue that's prevalent in Iranian society: is a violent, criminal act against a woman less of a stain on society than the guilty party losing face in front of his family and friends by being exposed as a violent rapist that he is?  The characters in The Salesman have difficult choices to make, and just like in real life, there are no easy solutions or just outcomes.  Only burdens of the soul.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Big Little Lies" evokes Housewives of old

Structured like Marc Cherry's Desperate Housewives from about 13 years ago (but without the insufferable voice over from "heaven"), creator David E. Kelley's Big Little Lies (HBO) graces us with several female protagonists in a small coastal community where a careless lie can quickly turn into a scandal of devastating proportions.  When Renata Klein's (Laura Dern) young daughter accuses the son of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) of physical abuse after the first day of school, the boy clearly denies any wrongdoings, and the tension and gossip already begin to rise.  Even the oversexed husband (Alexander Skarsgard) of Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) begins to show violent symptoms as a result of feeling threatened for his two sons' safety.  The center of the narrative is Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), a friendly mother of two girls who fears that her daughters may be outgrowing her unconditional and overbearing love.

There is also a murder that sparks the entire narrative into motion, but we're not privy as to "who" or "why".  Witnesses give their testimonies in similar fashion as in True Detective, and the storyline shifts back-and-forth to pre- and post-homicide, leaving us scratching our heads, but also wanting more.  Big Little Lies is a mystery wrapped in a suburban layer of drama and hearsay, but with an added touch of profound insight into human nature not often seen in genre of its kind.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"Savage" is a rousing trip into prehistoric carnage

Like a hybrid of Jurassic Park and ABC's Lost, Savage (4-part series from Valiant Comics) opens with a bloody bang and never lets our attention go.  The savage boy, KJ, who ends up on this mysterious island full of prehistoric reptiles after he survives a plane crash that leaves him stranded, jumps on a velociraptor and beats him to death, clawing the animal's insides with a long, curvy claw that he uses in lieu of a knife.  This isn't your ordinary teenager, nor is it an ordinary island.

Writers B. Clay Moore and illustrators Lewis LarosaClayton Henry create a fantastically exciting setting that immediately engage the reader.  The mysterious island KJ finds himself on is also populated by a strange group of vicious and violent people (who are responsible for murdering someone very near and dear to him years ago), and these men also control some sort of a time portal door (once again, Moore pays homage to Lost in more ways than one).  The bloodthirsty dinosaurs aren't the only danger, apparently.

The artwork by Larosa and Henry (colors by Brian Reber & Andrew Dalhouse: cover art by Jared Fletcher Felipe Massafera) is sharp, clear and filled with imaginative creatures and characters.  The battle scenes are properly staged with the right amount of carnage and ferocity.  Because this comic book is mostly a visual experience, the spoken word is limited to a minimum, as it should be with any predominantly visual medium.  Savage is a tour de force book whose elements, although familiar, feel like new all over again.