Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Technology & social media continue to haunt "Black Mirror" Season 3

Thanks to Netflix, the masterful and under-the-radar BBC TV series Black Mirror, from writer/creator Charlie Brooker, is back for season 3.  Just like its preceding two seasons, Mirror continues to push the envelope when it comes to exploring the dark aspects of social culture, technology and our infatuation with social media.  But unlike the first 6 episodes (and the additional Christmas special), season 3 presents us with some of the most daring and heartfelt moments of this series yet.  This season's episodes are different as can be, offering us war, virtual video game reality, a romance between two women, and even a dark foreshadowing of what a world without bees would be like.

In Nosedive, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) has to endure being a social outcast by the world entire when, living in a universe where people rate one another (up to five stars) during any social interaction or encounter, she becomes a social outcast, and sees her life fall apart completely.  Like the Facebook “like” button gone haywire, this dystopian option to rate humans based on their looks, smiles and personality leads to a decimation of a person’s self esteem and psyche entirely.

A virtual world envelops an American backpacker who, while traveling in London, decides to make some quick cash by testing a new horror themed game in Playtest.  The obsession with smartphones - including our willingness to let the phone ring without answering it - eventually catches up to the protagonist, where it has fatal consequences.  It is a terrifyingly real episode, with visuals that even the proudest of horror masters would envy.

Shut Up and Dance presents us with a teenager and an unfaithful husband, both of whom are being blackmailed by a hacker who has incriminating videos of them, and who threatens to release them to their families (and the world) if they don’t do as he/she says.  Naturally, these two men will have their psychological and physical limits tested by this troll, and deeper, darker secrets about them will be revealed.  

A love story between two women, both spending the best times of their youth in a virtual reality world in a decade very reminiscent of the 1980s, is at the center of San Junipero.  When one of them gets old and sick in the real world, she has a tough choice to make: to join her deceased husband and child in the afterlife - the nature of which is ambiguous - or join her female lover in a sunny and peaceful virtual universe where they can both be happy forever.  This episode is at once moving, romantic and captivating.  

The darkest of the episodes is Men Against Fire, where we witness one soldier’s transformation from a “roach-killing-machine” (roaches are people that are deemed a class or two above normal humans) to a conscious being who suddenly becomes wise to his army’s ploy to murder inferior beings for no good reason.  What he finds out is a secret so dangerous and horrific that his sanity is eventually brought into question.

The longest episode of the season, Hated in the Nation, is nearly of feature movie length, and in it, a detective played by Kelly McDonald investigates strange deaths caused by robotic bees.  This season finale explores our excessive internet trolling on social media, and our rush to judge certain people prematurely by sending death threats their way for the entire world to see.  Perhaps no episode presents a harsher punishment for the average cynic than this one.  

Black Mirror Season 3 continues to awe, amaze and horrify us in just the right quantities, and I wonder just how much of their dark prophetic ideas, if any, will ever haunt our society for real.  I just hope that if that day should ever arrive, that it be after the genius of Charlie Brooker’s runs out of ideas.  May that day be a long time from now.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Grumpy old man harasses his community in the charming "A Man Called Ove"

Like a hybrid of Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton and Dickens' everlasting miser Ebenezer Scrooge, the lead character in A Man Called Ove is obnoxious as he is rude.  Barking at pretty much every member of his tight-knit little Swedish community over cars being driven on forbidden roads, dogs peeing at inappropriate places, and even hating his long-time neighbor for choosing to buy a foreign car over domestically produced ones, the widower Ove finds out that this "hell" of a neighborhood won't even let him die peacefully.  He tries to kill himself several times, several different ways, but alas, he always ends up being interrupted by his inconsiderate fellow residents, and therefore lives to die another day.  As we watch Ove's youth in his self-narrated flashbacks, we see him meet his wife for the first time as a young man, his adolescence so odd and quirky that he gives the impression of a Scandinavian Forrest Gump.  The last act of A Man Called Ove feels a bit forced and sugar coated, but that predictability isn't necessarily a deal-breaker.  Lead actor Rolf Lassgard gives the protagonist of Fredrik Backman's famous novel a unique, understated charm that hides deep within his rough and mean old-man exterior.  It's a story that's been done before, but never quite with a combatant wanting to die this badly.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"The Goddamned: Before the Flood" is an ultra-violent trip to the prehistoric past

The world of The Goddamned series is dark, gloomy and awfully bloody.  There is no order whatsoever, only carnage and violence, and the landscape of the story seems to be a disgusting place where only corpses and rotten flesh fill the air as far as the nose can smell and the eyes can see.  The story takes place about 1600 years after the Biblical story of Eden, but what we see resembles hell a lot more than heaven.

Written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by R.M. Guera & Giulia Brusco, The Goddamned: Before the Flood is a brutal and unforgiving tale of one man inflicting violence against many murderous rapists and cannibals of his time and place.  Claiming himself to be the Man who Created Murder, Cain is almost invincible to violence of any kind, even able to regrow his right arm completely after a villainous version of Noah (yes, the one who built the Ark) cuts it off with his shiny steel axe.  When he decides to help a desperate woman look for her young son, he will, for the first time, show a sense of compassion he didn't think he was capable of.

The artwork by Guera and Brusco is rich in filth, rotten flesh and, most of all, blood.  The world they create is cruel looking and full of ruin and despair, and most (if not all) of the characters that Cain runs into (and eventually slices in half) are deformed or badly scarred.  The illustrations are so strong in carnage and bile that we can almost smell the very same disgusting aura that surrounds the endless amount of corpses.

Aaron creates a strong character in Cain, a (anti?)hero we can admire, in a way, because placed in his situation, we'd probably be doing the same.  The realization that the hero has late in the story about not helping another one-armed boy early on hits him hard, and the regret that soon overwhelms him is only confirmed during the last few pages, where Cain witnesses that violence will only breed more violence, as the young engage in murder early in life due to the absence of parenting and order and morals.

The Goddamned isn't for everyone, but those looking for a bold new take of a bitter, God-hating, and indestructible hero will be in for a treat.  It's a bloody good examination of post-apocaliptic pre-historia.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Arrival" is a bold - and heartfelt - study of inter-galactic communication

Most movies featuring aliens visiting Earth inevitably present us with an explosion or two (or a hundred) in which our planet is invaded by these unwelcome visitors, usually for no reasons that make sense to a healthy, open mind.  In director Dennis Villeneuve's smart and daring new film, Arrival, the aliens look like the monstrous, multi-legged arachnids from The Mist, but their intentions are of the friendlier kind.  They want to "give us weapon", or that, at least, is what Amy Adams' linguist, Louise Banks, is able to decipher from their circular-shaped alphabet at first.  Struggling with memories of her own daughter, who passed away due to complications with cancer, Banks is faced with visions of confusing nature, and as she slowly but surely learns the meaning of the aliens' visit, she becomes aware that her perceptions are actually her mind opening up to this invaluable education she's been privy to.  The final act may be confusing for some, but it ultimately utilizes science-fiction and genuine drama to produce a conclusion so riveting it may actually stick with you for days.  Or weeks.  Or forever.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Snowden" exposes US government's dark side

Oliver Stone's Snowden, in a way like his 1989 classic Born on the Fourth of July, focuses on a young American patriot and idealist who thinks that his country is looking out for him and that, as a result, he needs to dedicate his life to it.  Eric Snowden may not be Ron Kovic, but he's this millennium's hero of Stone's choice, a man who stood up against this country and government when he discovered the CIA and NSA's efforts to spy on its citizens' phones and e-mails, and decided to leak said information to the press.  As played by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Snowden is as mild mannered as they come, a dork whose brain is programmed to decipher computer data, and not to commit moral and unethical acts of voyeurism on a nearly global scale.  Eric Snowden was, naturally, painted as a traitor and condemned as a villain of the United States by the government officials, and for the most part, everyone believed him to be just that.  It's unfortunate that they've been made to look foolish on the part of an inquisitive and curious filmmaker.  I guess it's not the first time that our intelligence has been made to appear like a bunch of asses, and it probably won't be the last.

Doctor is one "Strange" and over-the-top spectacle

Benedict Cumberbatch is a unique actor.  His features, along with his eclectic voice, often combine to produce characters that we as audiences can not shake off easily.  As Doctor Stephen Strange, the titular character of Marvel's new superhero movie, he is a brilliantly arrogant surgeon whose dreams go up in smoke after a car accident leaves him with broken and disfigured fingers, and therefore unable to repair anyone's spine ever again.  Seeking some new form of physical revery therapy through meditation, he ventures all the way to Nepal in search of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who may be capable of teaching him how to access a separate world outside of our own.  Naturally, such experiments seldom lead to pure bliss, and therefore villains like Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) enter the scene, wearing cheesey looking "dark evil eyes" make-up, wanting to open various new portals to some underworld, or whatever all these psychos try to pull off in films of similar ambition.  The special effects here are often over-the-top, the visuals are even confusing (did the city really need to bend and unfold unto itself to that degree??), and the story is just, well... kinda shitty.  It's a shame that all of $165 million went into the film's extravagant production, with very little of it invested into rewriting the script, whose villains are cartoonish at best.  Doctor Strange is the kind of movie where your brain will take a hundred-and-thirty minute break, while your eyes likely will roll right out of your head.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Loving" is gentle and patient drama of racial injustice

A gentle and subtle drama about interracial marriage way back in the 1950s and how the condemnation of the couple prompted the Supreme Court to slightly alter the US Constitution.  Ruth Negga is affectionate and full of hope as Mildred Jeter, an African American woman in Virginia who marries a white man, Richard Loving, played by that Australian actor who has terrific range, Joel Edgerton.  Richard hardly speaks in the movie; with only a handful of the screenplay's lines to his name, he mostly communicates with mumbles and growls.  The movie never explores much of their relationship on a personal level, as we only see them holding one another for long periods of time.  Still, Loving is a considerate movie about a subject that typically gets a rougher treatment, but in Jeff Nichols' hands not even the racist police nor the bigot judge appear as villainous as they should.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Huppert displays grace, humility and wisdom in "L'avenir"

Isabelle Huppert, perhaps more so than any other living actress, seems to be getting younger with age.  In L'avenir ("Things to Come"), she plays a philosophy professor who thinks that her life is completely in her own control, until she loses the grip on her husband, her devotion to her long-time black cat Pandora, and even a contract with a publishing company that's previously sold her scholastic textbooks all around France.  The scenes and quiet conversations she has with one of her former students, who is currently a writer living with some friends deep in the French mountains, away from contemporary society as we know it, are deeply moving and surprisingly honest.  L'avenir is simply an observation of the late seasons in the life of a woman who has to learn to live again at the advanced age of 60, but without the benefits of youth on her side.  This is a much better and complete movie than Huppert's other recent release, Elle, which was entertaining, but did not resonate anything deeper.  L'avenir, however, is one of the very best movies of 2016.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Pete's Dragon" is charming and magical, but never boring

Summer of 2016 brought us a few movies in which a child befriended a giant, other-wordly being, and Pete's Dragon is definitely superior to the flawed The BFG.  After a young boy survives a car crash in which both of his parents die, he manages to live in a vast green forest for six years with a help of a giant, green and furry dragon, which he names Elliot.  The fire breathing animal is quite charming, and we can immediately sense that he means no harm to anyone, much less a child.  As the community eventually becomes wise of what's really living in the woods near by, the movie has that obligatory scene where the townsfolk come looking for "the monster", pitchforks in hands and all. Despite its rather predictable storyline (whether or not you've seen the 1977 original you should still know how the final act here plays out), Pete's Dragon manages to pull off just enough heartfelt and wondrous moments that should leave most audiences in awe.  It's a family movie that will captivate the child in even the most grumpy adults.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BFG's strong visuals can't save its mediocre screenplay

Steven Spielberg's movies clearly aren't what they used to be (Warhorse and Indiana Jones 4, anyone?), but that doesn't mean the man can't still surprise us once in a while.  In The BFG, he returns to the wondrous tales of his cinematic youth, with a story involving a child and an other worldly being who needs to be hidden from society, a la E.T.  The special and visual effects are marvelous, and from a cinematic perspective, the movie looks terrific; the CGI here is so good that the giants actually look more human than animated, which is no small feat.  Still, the movie's third act, featuring a scene at the Buckingham Palace with the Queen and her staff engaging in some un-funny and predictably unnecessary flatulence, is dumbed down for an audience of a much lower IQ than even most Americans can be accused of having (especially given the results of the latest Presidential Election).  The ending, which features the British Army relocating the child eating giants (with nets from their helicopters) to a remote island, made me think that whomever wrote this screenplay (Melissa Matheson) or the original work (Roald Dahl) simply ran out of ideas.  I wish the bolder, more daring (if he ever really was) Spielberg would wow us one of these days with a movie that doesn't compromise, one that isn't concerned with alienating some by injecting more engrossment and provocation into an otherwise childish story.

Two former lovers relieve their youth in the sentimental "Blue Jay"

Love stories are difficult to pull off on the big screen these days.  At worst, they're overly sentimental melodramas that don't earn majority of the audience's emotions in a genuine manner (The Notebook); at best, they're not-quite-perfect romances that just barely fail to reach the next stratosphere (The Fault in Our Stars).  Blue Jay is an exception to that rule, a movie so understatedly authentic it feels like we're eavesdropping on two people's private conversations between one another.  Mark Duplass, that quiet actor from Safety Not Guaranteed - who's also capable of intense displays of emotion - plays a depressed loner who accidentally runs into his old high school girlfriend, portrayed by the charming Sarah Paulson.  As they begin to catch up on each other's last two decades over coffee, wine and while listening to old recordings they made together as teenagers, old passions are reawakened, as well as some old wounds that jeopardized their relationship in the first place.  Like some of the best classic cinema that features (primarily) two people in its cast (My Dinner with Andre, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy), Blue Jay is that rare love story, filmed in a gorgeous Black&White, that will immediately evoke your own memories of "the one who got away" (does anyone out there not have such an ex?).  Tears may accompany your experience.  You've been warned.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Don't Think Twice" is a heartfelt portrait of an improv performer's trials & tribulations

Mike Birbiglia, that talented actor/writer/director of Sleepwalk With Me, with a kind face that's simultaneously full of self doubt and hope, returns with a moving and funny drama about a group of improv performers in New York City.  As the troupe known as "The Commune" faces everyday challenges both on stage and off, we are reminded how difficult is to climb up the tall and wobbly entertainment ladder without alienating the friends that helped one get there in the first place.  Keegan-Michael Key, from MADtv fame, plays Jack, Commune member who's been promoted to Weekend Live (fictional version of Saturday Night Live).  His overnight stardom is both a blessing and a curse, a luxury his girlfriend Sam wants no part of herself.  Don't Think Twice is hilarious and heartfelt, and the script, much like its storyline, feels like a product of improvisation by talented people whose ears for writing are as good - if not better - than their performing skills.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Eastwood assigns Hanks as the only quality of "Sully"

After numerous movies about crashes where the pilot and some (if not all) of the passengers survived, Sully arrives four years after the much superior Flight.  Whereas the afore mentioned Robert Zemeckis movie gave us a flawed, conflicted man who managed to (somewhat safely) land an otherwise sure-fire plane crash, this new fare about a real life pilot, Chesley Sullenberger (terrifically played by Tom Hanks), is simply too... safe.  The man is not an alcoholic, nor does he engage in drug consumption while flying a large commercial aircraft with hundreds of people on board.  The biggest conflict he faces is whether or not he'll keep his job as a result of crash-landing his plane (with both failed engines) on the Hudson River in New York City.  As the final act arrives, and as Sully faces a committee which stands to indict him on being reckless rather than following proper procedure in-flight, the movie dumbs down its climax to a happy, Hollywood style ending, where suddenly all those who opposed the recently famed pilot are quickly on his side again.  Clint Eastwood's film is more like a TV movie with A-list stars, with a protagonist so perfect in every way he may as well have a Halo over his head.

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Pets" plays like a weaker version of Pixar's "Finding" franchise

Arriving in summer on the heels of the much superior Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets has some of the same elements as the afore-mentioned Pixar gem: cute animals with personable voices, amazing visuals, and a search-centered plot that unites many in favor of finding the few.   What it doesn't have, however, is a narrative strong enough to sustain the interest of adults to the same emotional levels as Pixar's finest fare.  Incorporating elements of classic Disney animation (Oliver and Co.), Fox's Futurama (the sewer underworld definitely reminded me of a few episodes) and several Pixar features (both Finding Nemo/Dory flicks, and even Toy Story), Pets is a colorful adventure whose humor and charm aren't quite where we want them to be.  It's not a bad movie; it's just that it gives us the bare minimum by enchanting our eyes without ever really melting our hearts.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Best elements of 1970s combine to form the hypnotic "Mayday"

Sex, drugs and rock n'roll.  Fast cars on open oceanside roads.  And even hippies and Russian agents.  First issue of Mayday is an engaging trip to the not-so-recent-past, a time when some women would use public restrooms while completely naked, and when drugs and alcohol and seductively relaxing music were galore.

Written by Alex de Campi and illustrated by Tony Parker & Blond, Mayday #1 features an espionage story involving Russian KGB agents on US soil that is immediately captivating.  When a USSR defector is harboring a priceless microfilm by hiding in America, an agent (Codename: Felix) is responsible for retrieving it and returning it back to Russia.  Along the way, he will meet some free-spirited hippies, and will (accidentally?) trip heavily on a very potent liquid dosage of LSD.  The scene in question is illustrated by Parker & Blond with such hypnotic and trippy imagination that anyone who's ever been high on such a hallucinogenic will instantly be able to identify with it.  de Campi also does a good job of scripting those and other scenes during the Cold War era with just the right amount of homage and inspiration.

The Soviet themed cover design is likewise a cool ploy, and a cosmetic element of this comic that immediately captures readers' attention and curiosity.  Since Mayday is a limited series (there will be five issues in all), it is bound to conclude by springtime, according to my estimation.  Now, in addition to wanting to see the flowers bloom, there is another reason to look forward to the season of rebirth.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"War Dogs" is poor man's "Lord of War"

Like a Lord of War lite, Todd Phillips' War Dogs possesses that Michael Bay-ish style and look, a movie so concerned about how it appears to the eye that it completely avoids leaving an impression on the brain.  Jonah Hill, whose weight seems to fluctuate in the last decade, now looks like a large barrel of gunpowder once again, and his large chin crowds the bottom of every shot he's in.  Miles Teller is only slightly less annoying, but not for the lack of talent; the script leaves very little for his character to do than to channel an-average-honest-everyday-guy - a male masseuse with a conflicting conscience about the morality of his new arms-dealer lifestyle - all the while dealing with his girlfriend's cliched storyline, a la Phillips' Due Date. War Dogs isn't so much a drama or a comedy or an action flick with anything insightful to say about warfare or ethics or people: it's simply a two-hour commercial about human excess.

Monday, November 7, 2016

"Colder" is a nightmarish trip into the complex minds of the insane

Colder is like few horror comics I've read.  It contains scenes of such nightmarish, apocalyptic visions of an insane underworld (so to speak) that it occurred to me that the people behind it must've personally participated in such visions in order to be able to illustrate them so clearly.   Like a terrible experience that scares you to death, and whose longing effects stay with you way after it's over, Colder gets under your skin and attempts to - LITERALLY! - feel out your insides.  Just look at the cover of the first issue; you'll see what I'm talking about.

Writer Paul Tobin and artist Juan Ferreyra's ultimate creation is Nimble Jack, a bare footed demon/evil entity/spirit from another world, whose only purpose in ours is to feed on the insanity of those with mental disorders.  When Jack sets his sights on Reece, a woman in an alluring yellow dress, he is opposed by her friend Declan, a former mental institution patient with a body temperature of 32, and a miracle of modern science.  Declan should most definitely be dead, but he is "cold", and has had an encounter with Nimble Jack many decades ago; as a result, he knows how to handle Jack.  Their final encounter is a wonder of the graphic novel art form: beautifully illustrated, deliciously full of carnage, and poetically bloody in just the right amounts.

Colder belongs in the same category as other horrifying comics, such as Severed and Wytches.  It truly challenges the reader by pushing the envelope so far as to tests the limits of good taste, but it is a necessary risk.  Because for a true nightmare to be evoked on the pages of a comic book, limits had better be pushed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Erotica + Deception + Perversion = "The Handmaiden"

Park Chan-Wook, that Asian filmmaking prodigy behind the masterful Oldboy, here delves into a bit of a new territory: an erotic period piece-slash-thriller, in essence.  The Handmaiden puts two women - one a Korean commoner, the other a Japanese noblewoman - at odds with one another, both psychologically and sexually, and the result is a film of extreme physical beauty, but also of cruder undertones not often found in such ambitious movies.  The cinematography is lush, the production design haunting, and the content packed with noir elements.  Both actresses embody a certain seductive, dangerous, and unpredictable aroma: their sex scene is even more sensual as the one in Blue is the Warmest Color.  Difference is, when The Handmaiden is over, the immediate reaction you'll likely have is a yearning to experience it again right away.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Conservatism & old school ideals are resurrected in the brave "Indignation"

A movie that is about the 1950s decade as well as a young man's sexual awakening and first encounter with prejudice during the first year of college, Indignation possesses a few elements we associate with films of this time period: no "Gee golly!" exclamations, no shots of milk-men during their delivery hours, nor beautifully dressed women wearing soft white gloves in middle of scorching summers.  What the movie does possess, however, is an unmistakable sense of point of view, as its protagonist, Marcus (an atheist from a Jewish family) is unnecessarily scolded by his academic institution's dean merely for being a minority without faith who happens to be dating a girl who's rumored to be promiscuous.  The young man is undoubtedly a victim of his time and place, and by the time the tragic ending arrives, we're not sure if the heartbreaking event has actually taken place, or if it's just a figment of his imagination, as several scenes prior to it had clearly been.  Director James Schamus does an admirable job of not shoving the material down his audience's throat; his touch is subtle and very effective as a result.