Archive | September 2010

Parasomnia (2008)

Feeling thinky last night I sat down to watch the French drama Seven Days. Ten minutes in and the rape and murder of an 8 year old girl later, I was more depressed than thinky, so I switched to the Lovecraftian sounding horror movie Parasomnia. (I know I said a few days ago, I like horror movies that aren’t afraid to off a child, but dramas are a different story. Child murder can both be a cliche and too hard a story to do right. Plus, there will be zero levity in this seven days story.)

I had weaker reasons to watch a movie, but watching a movie just so you can learn a new word, the title, probably isn’t the strongest endorsement for a movie. Parasomnia is a disease, according to the movie (although WebMD doesn’t really bear this out), where you sleep all the time, like 90% of your life. Admittedly, this sounds like the best possible disease to contract if you had to contract a life-crushing disease.

The film starts with noted Hollywood nutcase Sean Young casually walking off a skyscraper to her grisly death. She’s barely mentioned in the rest of the movie and doesn’t appear again. I believe every movie should start this way, it keeps her employed and guarantees a crowd-pleaser right up top of every movie. The Godfather, Out of Africa, Up, every Batman movie—improved by Sean Young’s grisly unexplained death up top. Look into it Hollywood.

The story concerns Danny, an art student and 60’s record collector, and his growing infatuation with the impossibly adorable Laura, a parasomnia sufferer locked up in the world’s laxest mental hospital. Of course next to her room is a Hannibal Lector like mesmerist named Volpe, hooded and chained after a string of hypnotist-related murders. He’s evil incarnate and he’s next door. Like I said, world’s most lax security. The hypnotist/mesmerist is entering Laura’s dreamscape nightly and trying to control her. You know, standard movie stuff. You’ve seen the X-Files.

So, Danny’s visiting his recovering junkie friend when he sees Laura. (Yes, sleep disorders, rehab and serial killers all on the same floor.) Within two days, he’s kidnapped her (um, a felony) and moved her back into his apartment. The problem with an attractive young woman who’s been asleep 90 percent of her life is that she has the intelligence and personality of a beagle puppy. Seriously, she scoots around in the grass and rubs ice cream on her face. (Fortunately for the audience, this leads to topless sponge bath clean-ups.)
Oh, and she violently murders people under Volpe’s psychic projections in her sleep. That’s a problem.

This modestly budgeted film has a Lovecraft/steam punk vibe and generally looks good. There’s even a steam punk art show held by Lector, ur, Volpe at the end of the film. The movie does have some decent character actors in it besides the aforementioned Sean Young including Timothy Bottoms, Jeffery Combs, and a cameo by Allison Brie (Community, Mad Men) and director Joe Landis.

A note to any movie about Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, other awesome horror movies): If you use Jeffery Combs in your movie, make sure he goes batshit crazy at some point. That’s what he does best. No one chews the scenery better than Combs. Crazed scientist is his specialty. In Parasomnia, Combs plays a cop and plays it straight until almost the end. C’mon, twitchy, unhinged, arrogant and paranoid is what he does. Not low-key energy and stoic cop.

Low-key energy is how I’d describe the first two-thirds of the film. The film doesn’t really catch fire until the last part. This is due mainly to the guy playing Danny. He’s not bad and certainly be fine in a best friend role, but he’s just not interesting enough (even when he’s committing multiple felonies) to hold the main role. The girl who plays Laura (an ‘introducing’ credit) does better, but does better because she’s suppose to be dumb, innocent and a bit flat, but she sure is adorable. (One pet peeve movie: why does Laura always have lip gloss and make-up on? In dream sequences? Coming out of a long coma? Underwater?)

One thing I like about moderately budgeted horror movies is they generally have the freedom to pursue the kind or horror they want to do, more creative freedom. As a reviewer, they also generally have very identifiable strengths and weaknesses. A miscast actor really stands out, or poor lighting or an effect. Also, you can see because of budget, the director put all his eggs in a particular strength in a film, a quality actor, a sequence, the script. Rarely with a smaller budget does every area of the film get the same high effort. So, this is another note to small budget horror films (and this film didn’t have a tiny budget because it generally looked good and had some name character actors): STOP USING CGI! You’re not Avatar, be creative with set work and physical effects, even old school optical effects can get the job done better. Parasomnia uses CGI for all of Laura’s dreamscape scenes and it looks really fakey, as does 90 percent of CGI in movies with a budget under 20 million. Funny thing is, all of the movie’s physical effects—the throat slashing, gut spilling, head exploding kind—all look great. Then the CGI shows up and it’s like we’re in a video from the 80’s waiting for Night Ranger to show up. And everything they did in the dreamscape could have certainly done as a physical effect with some creativity.

Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of CGI as my first thought is almost always, “Hey, that’s CGI, not ‘that’s awesome.'” When ever some guy’ss head is blown off with a shotgun with the old exploding blood melon head you’ve seen a hundred times, I almost always buy it instantly even if upon further, later inspection, I spot flaws. That never happens with CGI.

Overall, a mixed recommendation for Parasomnia. There’s some interesting visual style in the film, the villain is well played, the physical effects are good and there’s a few surprises. On the down side, some poor performances, a few big plot holes and bad CGI. It ain’t the pathos of Lovecraft.

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The Event (2010)

When do you give up on a TV show? When I did my least essential guide to the new fall season a little while ago, I said I’d give The Event five episodes. Well, I’m ready to bail. This semi-review contains spoilers from the first two episodes. It’s okay, seems like the producers are intent on spoiling their own mysteries anyway.

The strange prisoners in episode one are aliens. Big whoop. It was the most obvious answer and the one I hoped wasn’t true. V is already sucking up the airwaves. It just seems lazy. I guess it’s nice we’re getting answers, but answers without new mysteries is not a very good story-telling technique. The characters aren’t compelling enough to warrant ‘why’ as the primary mystery. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are ‘why’ mysteries because we’re interested in the why of the characters actions mores than the actions themselves.

So, what is The Event? I guess it was a plane disappearing into thin air at the end of the first episode. The plane was going to crash INTO the president. Uh-huh. Wow, that’s, um, awesome, great flying. Where’d the plane go? Oh, it’s in Arizona (after disappearing in Miami). OK, mystery solved. And what about the passengers? Oh, they’re all dead except for Jason Ritter, our mechanical emotional ‘soul’ to the story. Really, it’s like every other character has zero emotional depth and is there as plot device. But Jason Ritter is trying to find his fiancĂ©e. So, every atrocity he commits is okey-dokey as he tries to find his girlfriend. But he was framed for murder. But, his crazy acts are okay because he’s looking for his fiancee and some bad guys have her because…? They’re real dumb? She’s in the credits and can’t die yet? Do not care.

But he loves her because of the multiple flashbacks show him meeting her and falling in love. You know, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that since she’s HIS FIANCEE, he loves her. No need to kill 10 minutes of show on the flashbacks.
Oh, how did the passengers die? The aliens killed them and they saved the plane to save the passengers. Uh-huh and killed them because….Hey, an actual mystery left over. Too late.
By showing how Jason Ritter met his girlfriend, the show is really just admitting that the audience can’t fill in ONE SINGLE BLANK. About anything. That’s a problem in a show that traffics in mystery.

Also, the show uses the real edgy jump around in time story-telling technique made popular 18 years ago in Pulp Fiction. And there’s no reason for it. None. A few flashbacks would work just fine.
I watched the second episode while goofing around on my iPad the whole episode (something that annoys me if I see Shells do it when we watch TV. Me=hypocrite). I missed nothing because they repeated the key points several times throughout the episode. An engrossing mystery should not be laundry-folding TV. It should be, um, engrossing. I put the iPad down once when President Hunk (Blair Underwood as a Black/Cuban US President, see Sci-Fi) was trying to get answers out of the head alien (Laura Innes, actress wasted in emotionless role). I want back to the boring farming game on my iPad after the second (of three) times she said she couldn’t say anything, but was good.

I might stick with The Event longer if Shells was watching with me. Then I could goof on the show like I used to do with 24. I got Shells to watch a few seasons of that show and goof on it’s ridiculousness. Nad TV shouldn’t be watched alone. I ended up watching the last season of 24 by myself and it wasn’t as good. I make this comparison because The Event more resembles 24 than Lost. It has many reality-denying action sequences and a focus on plot over characters. Shells said she wouldn’t watch The Event because of the way Lost burned us with it’s non-mystery solving ending and spiritual cop-out. I see that. I agree. The Lost producers said they had answers for every mystery they presented. They didn’t. The Event has the opposite problem, they have answers before the mystery is even fully allowed to blossom. I mean, it’s only been two episodes.

The Event should entertain on an acting level, but it doesn’t. The show has a bunch of decent character actors and TV show staples, but gives them no emotional depth or even hints at character shading. They’re card board cut-outs at this point, only to serve the plot.

See the man in the picture above. That’s character actor Zeljko Ivanek. He’s been in almost every TV show I’ve liked for the last ten years. And he’s died in each one of them. He even earned an Emmy for his best death in Damages. He was great in that as he is in everything he’s in. (oh, he did die in Big Love, right?) So, I thought I’d watch The Event until Zeljiko died. It should happen soon. He’s not an above the title listing in the cast. He’s in the ‘With…’ section which, if 24 (where he died) is any indication, this is where guest stars go to eventually be killed.

But not even the the thought of character actor Zeljko Ivanek’s awesome death can’t keep me watching. And that’s a low bar.

Also, I just learned Fox cancelled Lone Star, the one show of the new season I decided to champion. The second episode expanded their universe while keeping the plot tense and adding more depth to the characters. But now it’s cancelled. Booo, Fox. The Event is on NBC, but I’m taking out my anger on that because, well, I don’t know.
It’s a mystery greater than any on The Event.

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The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margret (2009)

For once, I feel a little bit like a real TV critic. I’m reviewing a show before it’s premier on American TV. The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margret aired on the BBC last year, but starts on IFC October 1st. The Onion’s AV Club has been promoting it. I was looking around on the free offerings on Amazon Video on Demand where you can now watch it for free.

TIPDoTM is David Cross’ baby, he wrote and created it for the BBC. It’s a great showcase for Cross, even if the sitcom itself is a pretty straightforward affair. It’s not the surreal comedy of Mr. Show or even Arrested Development.
Cross plays Todd Margret, an office temp suddenly thrown in way over his head. This six episode sitcom falls into what I call “The Really Bad Day” dark comedy genre. The film After Hours is a great example of this. In “The Really Bad Day” genre, no matter what the protagonist tries, his situation only gets worse. Many sitcoms, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, use this ploy for a single episode to great effect as every mistake Larry makes is magnified back at him ten-fold. It appears TIPDoTM will be an ongoing Bad Day, making the show more like a six-part serial story over fourteen bad days.
Todd Margret’s singular self-destroying flaw is not that he lies, but that he won’t back down from the lie. A simple ‘My bad’ could completely change his bad fortune. He’s like an improv ‘Yes-Anding’ his way to his own grave. He’s a weak man desperately trying to bluff his way into proving to the world he’s a strong man. Cross excels at these characters.
The story starts as Cross blowhard boss (played by Will Arnett, playing an even more swear-filled version of the arrogant blowhard buffoon he’s played since Job on Arrested Development) overhearing Cross practicing an aggressive personality tape and immediately hires him to sell an energy drink called Thunder Muscle in England. Cross never says no, lies to say yes and never backs down from a lie. That’s the premise. Helping him in Britain is an sweet coffee shop owner who enables his lies and Dave, his underling who encourages and baits him to lie. Margret has no impulse control and can’t stop himself.

As they say, hilarity ensues. I admit I expected a more ground breaking show from Cross than TIPDoTM, but that said, Cross does deliver from an acting standpoint. His character isn’t sympathetic and in other shows would be a one-off plot mover, but Cross does a good job of making us see the world from his side and root for his pathos. It’s a nice, tightly focused show and six episodes seem like it’ll be the right length.

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Invisible Shield for iPad (2010)

The Invisible Shield for iPad is the reason there was no review yesterday.

Generally, I pick what to review based on what’s occupying my noggin each day. Yesterday, this stupid piece of plastic sucked up, like twelve hours of my time yesterday. Over the weekend, I bought the wrong RAM for the desktop, tried to install it, returned it for the right RAM, installed it and put in a new software heavy back-up USB 1 terabyte hard drive that ended taking up over an hour. But none was more frustrating than putting a piece of plastic on my iPad. I know, it’s the very definition of a first world problem.

Shells an I have put screen protectors on iPods a bunch of times with no problems. The result is usually undetectable from the glass screen, so a bigger piece of plastic on an iPad shouldn’t have been a problem. My first clue should have came when I bought it. The Apple guy at Best Buy (not exactly the Genius job) said that Best Buy could ‘install’ it for fifteen bucks, this is on top if the thirty—thirty!?—dollars for the piece of plastic. No thanks, I said.

So, we carefully read the instructions, prepared a clean work area, and started. There is no way to get the sheet on the iPad without creating many air bubbles. We spent a hour just trying to get the initial placement of the piece of plastic as bubble-free as possible. Shells did a pretty good job, even though we went through the whole bottle of ‘lubricating liquid’ in aligning the plastic. I thought I could do better. Big mistake. Eventually, I got the sheet back to close to where Shells had it. The plastic too easily stretches out of place. The instructions said the micro-bubbles would work themselves out after use. Just how big is a micro-bubble? I consider anything I can see as macro.

After putting on the sheet of plastic, the instructions said to wait a day, shorter if you used a fan. The instructions also said not to have the iPad on for twelve hours before you put the sheet on. This is why there was no review yesterday. That’s almost a day without my girlfriend. I used a fan and honestly, the plastic seemed as dry ten minutes after we installed the shield as it did twelve hours later with no use. We never had to wait with the ipod shields.

So the result? The feel of the iPad is a bit gummy in texture now. The micro-bubbles have not worked themselves out after a day. Overall, it’s like skimming your fingers across one of those 60’s-style thick plastic drinking glasses that you get with a happy meal as a kid. It’s not glassy smooth, so swiping your finger across the surface (which is something you do a lot with an iPad) doesn’t feel natural and more important, isn’t as accurate as before. I am pushing a tiny bit harder than I was before. It’s easier to make mistakes because of the changed tactile nature of the surface. Also, the micro-bubbles show up as spots on the screen, so my iPad always feels dirty.

In short, I’m giving it two more days, then I’m probably ripping the plastic off. I hate wasting thirty bucks, but this is much worse. So far, after three months of heavy use, my iPad hasn’t gotten any scratches. That’s different than my iPod which had scratches it seems minutes after unpacking it from the box. I do clean the ipad’s surface about once a day and refer to it as my giant piece of glass because that’s the ipad’s overriding quality. Smooth is sexy.

Look, I love my electronic girlfriend. Yes, that makes me a sad nerd. But after much thought, I’m only going to make love to her without the Invisible Shield condom. Dangerous, yes, but more as God intended.

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Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009)

Let’s deconstruct the title first. Who wouldn’t want to see Zombies of Mass Destruction? Though, the movie came out in 2009, so the whole “…of Mass Destruction” joke is about 6 years too late. It’s the “Got Milk?” of the 2000. In the film’s defense, it’s set in 2003 and is a satire of sorts. The cheesy title (although IMBD says another Zombies of Mass Destruction is coming out in 2011 and unrelated to this one) made me want to see it, not see it, than see it again. With low-budget horror, the title is 90 percent of the marketing.

Late at night, I often want to zone out to a zombie movie. Netflix streaming has a ton of them, all with a decent poster and no budget. I’ll start watching and usually give up after 15 minutes. Here’s why: the lighting sucks, the audio’s all badly looped and the actor’s are obviously just the director’s friends. And everyone plays a stupid redneck. Look, I’m not looking for Avatar and except new film maker mistakes like poor editing and some sloppy story-telling. But, it should have a tiny bit of technical competence.

So, image my surprise, ZoMD is fairly competently made. It’s a small budget flick, but it’s all on the screen. The acting’s okay. And it’s a satire. That’s why we make zombie movies—gore, humans screwing up, and satire.

The movie’s sort of a red state/blue state thing, firmly siding on the liberal side. Our heros are an Iranian girl and a gay couple. Besides the tiny sub-genre of gay horror, never are the heros gay and never, never Iranian-Americans. I like that. These are the side kicks who are killed off early in other movies.
Yes, the caricatures all a bit broad, but not offensive. There’s the Republican, preacher, flaky liberal teacher, love struck teen, stoner, conservative Iranian dad, and true-blue American torturer dad and a fox-like news network. Their conflicts are played out, broadly, because some think the zombies are caused by terrorists and others see it as God’s Armageddon. There’s even a political debate during a zombie attack with one side turning into a zombie.

The story takes place on a small Washington island over, as in most zombie flicks, the course of a night. The first third of the film, the zombie’s are lurking singularly in the back ground. No one notices them. That’s funny. It isn’t until night there’s enough of them to cause trouble.

The gay couple is returning to the closeted one’s home to tell his mom he’s gay. The good side, if you’re mom turns into a zombie at dinner, she doesn’t care if your gay. Fighting zombies can strengthen any relationship. (Also, if I were gay, I’d totally be the kind to get an ‘I’m with him’ T-Shirt like the closeted one’s partner.)

Everyone thinks the Iranian girl is Iraqi and a terrorist, of course, she’s all-American, but her hard-working dad is a more conservative Muslim. She spends the evening trying to convince people she’s not a terrorist.

And fighting zombies. After all, isn’t a zombie movie all about the zombie fighting. After a slow start, there’s plenty of fun zombie killing. The effects are pretty decent and don’t fall into the zombie beginners effect of just doing the same effect over and over. There’s some unique kills, but nothing super elaborate or a set-piece. You can tell everyone involved at least worked on other projects beside this one.

Oh, the movie did have one plot that almost always like a horror movie. A cute young kid is introduced as someone the hero has to protect. Usually, the kid is okay at the end of the movie. However, if a movie kills the moppet, it’s an automatic thumbs up from me. Yea, it’s stupid. In ZoMD, they introduce a little girl and she dies 30 seconds later, horribly. But later she gets to be a zombie, carrying her own arm. Awesome.

Is ZoMD a great zombie movie? No. Is it good? Not particularly. But if you like zombie movies or broad satire, ZoMD is certainly worth seeing. It’s well-executed and has a decent script. Better than most.

Hey, they’re making a sequel. Can’t be all bad.

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The Kingdom Series 2 (1997)

Kinda lazy today. I recently finished the Swedish TV miniseries The Kingdom which I talked about the beginning here.
In that review, I compared the emerging plot lines to a really strange paper Role Playing Game. After seeing all that Lars Von Triers had filmed on The Kingdom, the strangeness is ratcheted up ten fold.

There was to be a series 3, but a few key actors had died. Triers sent the season 3 scripts to Stephen King for the American version of The Kingdom, but ABC canceled season one in 2004 after just a few episodes. Too weird for the states even with King’s name attached. I did see it was on DVD, so I may seek it out.

I don’t have much more to say about the series after what I wrote before, but I did watch all 11 hours of sepia-toned Swedes and their (here it comes) shenanigans.

So, just some highlight to clue you in on how odd the whole thing was.

—A doctor wants the world’s largest diseased liver to research. The family wouldn’t sign the death consent form, so he has the organ donated to himself (as the organ donor card was signed), so he could own the liver. The surgery goes bad, he’s stuck with the liver. (in The Twilight Zone)

—A woman has sex with a man she didn’t know was a ghost, possibly The Devil. She gives birth to a baby who has a grown man’s head (Udo Kier) and can talk. The baby grows at a rate so astounding, his arms and legs are 10 feet long after just a few days, very brittle. The baby begs to die. The mom, after much agonizing, releases the baby from the large rigging holding him up and kills him when all the bones snap. Pretty cool.

Um, wow, that was probably the weirdest plot line. But every one of the twenty or so characters had strange stuff going on and to the shows credit, it all kind of worked because the production was pretty low-key and all the smaller moments were kept real.

If those two story lines interested you, check out The Kingdom on Netflix streaming. I can’t possibly see how the giant man-baby plot line would work in America (although, strangely enough, I saw Lake Bell give birth to Nick Kroll on Children’s Hospital the same week.)

It’s vacation time.

Going into low power for the next week and a half. Hopefully some game reviews to come.

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Lone Star (2010)

As the week plows on, I’ve trying out as many of the new shows of the fall TV season as I can get through. Everything I’ve made fun of in the Twitter feed (on the side), I’ve watched. Most of the new crop of shows haven’t really caught my attention enough to pull my eyeballs away from the more established shows I’ve been watching.
Except one, Lone Star. Of course, the one show I like got really crappy ratings. It’s already on death watch, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

And if you go to the Fox site or iTunes, you can catch the first episode for free.

Lone Star works because the lead is at once both charismatic and empathic, even though he’s nothing but a Texas version of Bernie Madoff. Newcomer James Wolk plays Bob, the son of a con man who’s surpassed the tricks of his dad (The very well cast David Keith) and in the midst of two separate long term cons which has netted himself two different lives with two different women. So, it’s a con man show. However, the twist is that Bob wants to go straight, but is so deep in both cons that to go straight he’ll have to con more.
The look of the film is that of an indie film like Up in the Air, it’s all show and little tell. Every other pilot this week, even that big, dumb mystery show The Event, the characters explained too much, not giving the audience too much credit in figuring stuff out. All the set-up is there in Lone Star, but it’s not showy and works more with the characters. And each of the characters, except maybe Bob’s newer girlfriend are shady enough and smart enough that Bob’s going straight won’t be easy. Also, it’s kind of hard to tell where this show will go. Like Lost in it’s prime, there’s enough different kinds of shows embedded in the pilot that each week could have a different tone. One week it could easily be a highly plotted soap, the next a mystery, the next a romance, the next a drama and of course, the big con.

This con man’s life is as it is, so we deal with the present and move forward. Some of the tropes of the con man genre are there, the different identities, the slippery escapes from simple questions and my least favorite, the dad who drags his kid into his criminal life. (Thanks, Paper Moon) That said, I like the dad/son relationship because it’s the most honest in the show and, unlike most movies of this genre, his dad does seem to love him.

I’m a fan of shows that talk about the nature of the American identity (Mad Men is the current reigning champ), we live in a country where re-inventing yourself is encouraged, where how we present ourselves to the world is more important that who we are inside. Our hero Bob has a problem in that he’s tired of presenting himself as the easygoing smooth charmer and actually wants to live the life he’s only been pretending. I think the trick of the show will be showing that in order to be what we want to be, we have pretend to be other roles for short-term gain. The role of boy friend, co-worker, friend and on and on.

Of course, I could be wrong about any deeper aspirations in the show. If so, that’s okay, there’s still a decent soap in Lone Star. Kinda like the vibe of Big Love, if Bill was a grifter, a soap about the costs of keeping a secret.

Anyway, check it out.

(Also, the third episode of Terriers was a winner and clinched the show into my full rotation. I love shows about anti-heroes.)

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