August 29, 2013

CONTAGION Has Me Preparing For A Global Biological Crisis

"Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu.  The birds are doing that."
Sunday was our last day in New York and sadly we didn't really get the chance to do much.  After another late morning we packed up our stuff and trekked back downtown in search of Gray's Papaya, only to be betrayed by Google Maps, which still listed a location near the bus stop that had long since closed.  Instead we grabbed a few slices of pizza across the street from Madison Square Garden and had some beers at a nearby patio bar before climbing back onto the bus and heading home once again.

Contagion marks the latest step in my impromptu mission to catch up on the rest of Steven Soderbergh's filmography.  (I've still got Che, Bubble, The Limey, Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience to go, among others.)  The movie was absolutely fucking terrifying in the worst way possible - unlike a psycho slasher movie, the events of Contagion feel not just disturbingly plausible, but bordering on outright prescient.  And for the record, watching Contagion on a bus from New York to Boston only augmented that terror - it's like watching United 93 or Flight while on an airplane.  As a result, I spent the next two days spitballing out my own epidemic contingency plans in the case of just such an outbreak.  I'm not about to become one of those doomsday preppers who starts stockpiling canned goods, but it never hurts to have a basic strategy in place.

First and foremost is location, location, location.  Major cities are pretty much a death sentence, giant peitri dishes that virtually guarantee infection given enough time.  Thankfully the disease from the film was propagated by touch or fluid exchange as opposed to being airborne.  If a disease like this goes airborne, we're screwed; makeshift plastic suits like the one Jude Law wears in the picture above will become the required fashion of the day.  But for a disease spread by contact, the first priority should be getting the fuck out of dodge to the most secluded spot you can find.  Living in Boston, there are two logical evacuation destinations: Vermont or Cape Cod.  (I 'm ruling out New Hampshire only because I have friends in Vermont and none in the 'Shire.)  Vermont is certainly remote - living on a mountain with the nearest neighbors located miles away is pretty much exactly what you want in a situation like this.  I suppose I'd have to learn to hunt, as grocery stores are few and far between in those parts, and I'd want to limit human contact anyway.  Besides, depending on how bad things get, there may come a point where I no longer trust the internal plumbing.  At the very least I'll have to get in the habit of boiling my drinking water.

Then again, Vermont might actually be too remote.  I feel like I'm exactly the kind of asshole who would fall down and break my leg and have no way to reach assistance.  Those issues would only become exacerbated over the long winters, when blizzards make the roads totally unusable.  On top of that, if I wait too long to make my move, the government will likely shut down the state borders, which is what happens to Matt Damon's character.  So the Cape makes a good alternative, especially since I've got family there.  Then again, if the initial outbreak goes down in the summer than I'll have to write off the Cape entirely, as the place is choked with tourists from May to September.  Maybe I could venture down to retrieve my family, but they're not even that far down the Cape which is both a blessing and a curse: it's less distance to travel but also far more crowded than I'd like, so it's not the kind of place I want to set up shop so long as tourism is still a thing.

Food and supplies become tricky.  I'll want to hit up stores early and often, but eventually that well is going to dry up.  At some point I'm going to have to ride the wave of looting, whether that means cleaning out my local Shaws and Home Depot or just busting into abandoned homes to gather up whatever I can find of use.  I'm not encouraging general lawlessness - we're not talking about carrying flatscreens out of a Best Buy, we're talking about food, duct tape, gasoline...survival tools.  And speaking of survival tools, at some point firearms are probably going to come into play.  I used to go to the shooting range near by apartment in Los Angeles, so I've fired a weapon before, but I'd hardly consider myself comfortable around guns.  Still, eventually I'm gonna have to protect myself against the infected, or even just some asshole who's trying to take my gear.  Here's hoping I'll have the resolve to do what's needed.  Either that or I need to find a friend who's got a better stomach for these things.  And let's just hope that I never find myself on the other end of that equation, attacking innocent people for their supplies.  Unlike some others, my first instinct would hardly be turning into a raiding bandit, but when push comes to shove there's no extreme too far in the face of starvation.

Paranoia also has the potential to become a serious non-biological threat.  Jude Law's character is a blogger who sees the writing on the wall after the first few documented deaths and, untrusting of the federal government and the CDC, is intent on spreading the word and advocating preparedness as well as the virtues of a natural supplement called Forsythia.  Law claims it's an effective treatment against the disease and that the CDC is refusing to sign off on its use because they're secretly working with pharmaceutical companies in order to profit off the disease.  As much as I hate to admit it, such a scenario does not seem all that far-fetched.  Certainly there comes a tipping point where the survival of the human race and of our global society becomes of paramount concern.  After all, dollars are useless in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  But society never reaches that point in Contagion.  Tens of millions are killed worldwide, but law and order remains largely intact so that they never experience the kind of societal breakdown seen in something like The Walking Dead.  As long as that's true, it seems almost obvious that governments and drug companies would be working hand in hand not for the betterment of mankind, but to protect their own power structures.

In a way, Contagion is almost a best case scenario.  There's global devastation to be sure, but it's still considered somewhat manageable.  Once a vaccine is discovered, bracelets are issued to prove that you're not a threat.  The system remains in place, even if it is a bit worse for wear.  A disease like this could just as easily be far more lethal to the human race, moving through the air or water in such a way that any form of protection becomes less and less viable.  The final scene shows the actual genesis of the disease and it is alarmingly simple, the kind of naturally occurring freak accident that seems not so much a likelihood as an inevitability.  We may act like the masters of our domain, but eventually the Earth is going wipe away every trace of humanity, whether it comes in the form of a giant asteroid or a microscopic bacteria.

I say all the more reason to invest in space travel.

Title: Contagion
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Demitri Martin, Elliott Gould
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD (Laptop on a bus)

A Great New York Night With A MOVIE 43 Chaser

"Cats don't even process images in that way."
The morning after the wedding we slept in till almost noon, thus sadly missing out on brunch and the chance to say goodbye to some folks.  But eventually I made my way back to Manhattan so that I could sign the paperwork and make the marriage official.  (Hilariously, Kristina accidentally signed on the line marked for a witness instead of the bride, which I maintain was a brilliant attempt to get out of the wedding without anybody noticing.)  Jamie and I met up with some local friends who weren't at the wedding for a drink at the Blind Tiger on Bleecker St before returning to the Bronx to get cleaned up for the evening performance of Once, based on the film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  We're both fans of the original movie as well as the incredible soundtrack, but the big draw for us was that the main character was played by Arthur Darville, a.k.a. Rory The Roman from Doctor Who.  Darville was fantastic and the show was loads of fun; they even have a working bar on stage that you can get drinks from during the pre-show and intermission.  Personally I prefer the film to the stage version, as I think they've made the guy too passive and the woman has become a total Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which she very much is not in the original.  But the staging is pretty clever and the music is still great.  Also, the guy's father was played by fucking Luthor from The Warriors!  (Thanks to Billman for pointing this out to me after the fact.)

During intermission I got a text from Rob.  It seemed that Cochran, one of the groomsmen, had his birthday plans foiled when his fiancee Michelle came down with a wicked case of food poisoning.  Being the good guy that he is, Cochran wouldn't leave her alone in the apartment they were staying in, despite her insistence that he go out and enjoy his birthday.  So instead we took the party to him, gathering up beers, bourbon and snacks and showing up at his door around 11:30 PM.  We had goddamn blast, drinking and playing "The Hat Game" (like "Celebrity" mixed with charades) into the wee hours of the night.  As is typical with our group, there was a lot of laughter that night.  It's a rare occasion when we're all together in the same room and at one point I just sat there and looked at this collection of some of my oldest friends, giving each other shit and cracking ancient inside was one of those moments you just want to live inside of forever.

But eventually we had to trek back to the Bronx and I still had a movie to watch.  By the time we got back to the apartment it was about 3:30 AM, so I needed something short and funny.  I selected Movie 43, a movie which I was drawn to for three reasons: first of all, every trailer made it look like a modern day Kentucky Fried Movie, a movie that blew the damn doors off my brain the first time I saw it.  Secondly, the list of on-camera talent is amazing, featuring a unique mix of both comedians and Oscar winners including (but not limited to) Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Jason Sudeikis, Justin Long, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Banks, Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Chris Pratt, Ana Faris, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Merchant, Halle Berry, Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott and Gerard Butler as a foul-mouthed leprechaun.   And finally, while each segment has a different director, the whole thing was shepherded by Peter Farrelly*, who is quite simply one of the funniest guys I've ever met.

The film is pretty uneven, with some segments being insanely great while others left me scratching my head in confusion.  Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant playing Truth Or Dare simply does not work, and neither does "Machine Kids", "iBabe" or the weird connecting tissue with Dennis Quaid as an unstable director who's pitching all these shorts to Greg Kinnear's studio exec.  But there are some solid bright spots too; considering I was watching the movie alone at approximately four in the morning, the fact that it not only kept me awake but actually elicited honest laughter is more than a bit impressive.  There's a pretty good "superhero speed dating" segment by James Duffy that serves as a pretty good followup to his original online short starring Justin Long as Robin and Sam Rockwell as Batman.  Schreiber and Watts are great in "Homeschooled" as parents who home school their teenage son with extra emphasis on all the psychological torment of high school, while Elizabeth Banks directs a funny segment about two teenage guys who go into a blind panic at the sight of a girl having her first period.

The two standout segments, however, are the ones that bookend the movie.  At the opening we get Kate Winslet on a blind date with Hugh Jackman as a wealthy bachelor with neck balls.  That's right, Hugh Jackman plays a man with testicles hanging below his chin.  I feel like the scene is a triumph simply for existing, and I love that both Jackman and Winslet each read that script and said, "Neck scrotum?  SIGN ME UP!"  But by far the best segment is the very last one, directed by James Gunn and entitled "Beezel."  It's about a perverse and sadistic animated cat who's jealous of his master's new girlfriend.  Credit to Josh Duhamel for really throwing himself into an extremely silly role, while Elizabeth Banks kills it as the girlfriend who's pulled into a knock down drag out with this "Garfield reject."  The actual animation for Beezel is super low budget, but it totally feels like a twisted dry run for Rocket Raccoon in Gunn's upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is easily the most exciting of all the impending Marvel movies.

Oh, and if you want to really cry laughing, then read this email exchange between Gunn and the studio about the song he wrote for Beezel called "That Gay Fucking Cat."  In truth, Gunn's list of potential song titles makes me laugh harder than anything in Movie 43.

*Full disclosure: the Farrelly brothers are friends of the family and I worked as a PA on Fever Pitch in college, so I'm usually predisposed to like their shit.

Title: Movie 43
Directors: Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, James Duffy, Griffin Dunne, Peter Farrelly, Patrick Forsberg, Will Graham, Brett Ratner, Jonathan van Tulleken, James Gunn
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Jason Sudeikis, Justin Long, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Banks, Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Chris Pratt, Ana Faris, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Merchant, Halle Berry, Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott, Gerard Butler
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD

Officiating A Wedding That's Devoid Of MELANCHOLIA

"Life is only on Earth.  And not for long."
Friday was wedding day and we had promised to help do a little setup earlier in the day, including some modest flower arranging.  I also helped organize the props for the makeshift photobooth, most of which I had purchased myself at my local Dollar Store.  I was particularly proud of this dinosaur hat:

And yes, the wedding had a hashtag.

The ceremony and reception were in Manhattan but since Jamie and I were staying in the Bronx we ended up spending lot of time riding the 2 train back and forth throughout the weekend.  Anticipating the hectic nature of the day, I decided it would probably be best to get my movie out of the way first thing.  I chose Melancholia for no other reason than the fact that it partially takes place at a wedding.

I'll admit that Lars von Trier is a filmmaker whose work should be much more familiar to me.  I saw Dogville years ago and I've had both Melancholia and Anti-Christ sitting in my Netflix queue for ages now, so I was happy to finally get around to the former.  (From what I understand, the latter will require a certain state of mind and viewing environment in order to properly digest the subject matter.)  I wish I had been able to see Melancholia in theaters, if only for the film's gorgeous opening sequence which might be one of the most beautiful collection of images I've ever seen in a film.  I know lots of people who strongly dislike this movie and I can see why, but I had totally the opposite reaction.  I was completely engrossed in both the twisted drama of Justine's trainwreck of a wedding reception as well as Claire's slow-motion freak out over the impending arrival of rogue planet Melancholia.

This wasn't my first introduction to Charlotte Gainsbourg, but it's been so long since I've seen her in anything that I was, for all intents and purposes, seeing her with fresh eyes.  She's absolutely superb and it's easy to see why she's starred in von Trier's last three films.  But even Gainsbourg pales in comparison to Kirsten Dunst, who simply must be seen to be believed.  Dunst gives an incredible performance that only solidifies my belief that she's clearly much happier working with auteur directors on more independent and artistic pictures.  People love to give her shit for mainstream stuff like Spider-Man and I'm generally not inclined to argue with them.  I'm certainly in the minority when I say that I absolutely love her in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, but it's her work in stuff like Eternal Sunshine, Marie Antionette and Melancholia that I think gives us the clearest picture of the kinds of movies she'd prefer to be making.  She is so present and immersed as Justine that it's actually startling to watch; Justine's depression is wonderfully nuanced so that even when Dunst is smiling through her wedding reception you can see her heart crumbling behind her eyes.  It's devastating to see her reduced to an immobile husk of a woman in the second half, which makes her steely resolve in the film's closing moments all the more affecting.  Even if the rest of Melancholia isn't exactly your cup of tea, this is a career performance from Dunst.  Her talent here is simply undeniable.

Rob and Kristina's wedding went off without a hitch.  We had worked out my officiant script the week before, opting for something short and sweet rather than ornate and flowery.  The ceremony was held at the Manhattan Penthouse on 5th Avenue, with a beautiful view of the city as well as the new World Trade Center Tower visible through the large picture windows directly behind the bride and groom.  THe ceremony clocked in around twelve minutes long and as soon as it ended I ran off with the bridal party to take pictures in a cobblestone alley down the street before returning to catch the end of cocktail hour.  Kristina is a vegan so there was not a morsel of meat to be found on the premises.  I do like meat an awful lot, but I'll admit to going back for a second vegetarian burrito.  There was plenty of drinking and dancing throughout the night, eventually giving way to karaoke at a bar around the corner before Jamie and I eventually caught a 3 AM train back to the Bronx.

I'll say this for New York, I do appreciate subways that run all night.  Boston, take note.

Title: Melancholia
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Udo Kier
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

Here's Hoping That A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD Marks The End Of John McClane

"I kinda thought we would just wing it, you know?  Running in, guns blazing.  Make it up as we go."
A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of traveling to New York City in order to not only attend, but actually officiate the wedding of my two dear friends Rob and Kristina.  Rob and I met sixteen years ago on the first day of freshman year of high school.  At the end of the previous year, the admissions department had assigned every eighth grader an incoming freshman that they were supposed to call during the summer to answer any questions the new student might have, and so that the new kid would know at least one person when they got to school.  I didn't know any of this at the time, but when I happened to start talking to some guys at orientation and eventually introduced myself, Rob turned to me and said, "Oh hey, I was supposed to call you this summer and answer questions or something."

"Don't worry," I answered.  "I wasn't really home all summer so you probably wouldn't have gotten a hold of me anyway."

"Good." Rob said.  "If anyone asks, I totally called you."

That's how we got to be friends.

Kristina was a girl who went to Emerson with me and actually ended up living with another friend of ours from high school.  I suppose I can claim some credit for helping to bring Rob and Kristina together, but then again if Rob hadn't attended USC then I never would have met Jamie.  I guess that makes us even.

The wedding was on a Friday night, which meant I had to be there on Thursday for the rehearsal.  Fortunately the trip from Boston to New York is fairly painless, so Jamie and I took a Thursday morning Bolt Bus out of South Station.  If you're unfamiliar, the Bolt is a fairly inexpensive bus service that provides free wifi on board as well as an electrical plug for each passenger.  The wifi usually isn't very fast and the chances that your power outlet will be fully functional are probably about 70/30, but at least it's not as likely to break down and/or flip over like the Fung Wah.

Rob is a big fan of action movies, so when I cleaned out my local Redbox in anticipation of the trip, A Good Day To Die Hard somehow seemed appropriate.  The Die Hard franchise is an odd duck.  The first movie is a classic, the second is an uninspired retread, the third is exceptionally entertaining (mostly because of Sam Jackson) and the fourth is an overblown mess of action that's really a Die Hard movie in name only.  The fifth entry seemed like a bad idea from the start, so it's fair to say my expectations were pretty low.

Not low enough, apparently.

At this point I'm baffled that the entire franchise doesn't have a stake through its heart.  Hopefully this Russian non-adventure will finally be the last straw.  Willis looks downright bored at this point, and his John McClane is barely even a character anymore.  He's just a guy who shows up in the wrong place at the wrong time and is forced to shoot stuff before tiredly muttering "Yipee-kayee" at the end.  McClane is interesting in the first and third films because he's got a flawed backstory, separated from his wife and a borderline alcoholic who's ill prepared for the shitstorm he's thrust into as well as being physically incapacitated in some way.  (In Die Hard he has no shoes and in With A Vengeance he's perpetually hungover.)  It's not that I have a problem with McClane as a family man, and substituting his now grown kids for his wife Holly does alleviate a certain degree of repetition, but all of the wisecracking asshole has been sanded blasted out of McClane and it's becoming increasingly clear that the only reason that Willis keeps making these movies is because someone at Fox is dumb enough to keep paying him just for showing up.

After the initial success of the first Die Hard, there was a glut of pretenders to the thrown, with every other producer in Hollywood pitching "Die Hard on a boat" (a.k.a. Under Siege), "Die Hard on a plane" (a.k.a. Passenger 57), or Die Hard on a bus (a.k.a. Speed).  This past year, we got not one but two movies that are essentially "Die Hard in the White House" in the form of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, or as I like to call them White Olympus Has Fallen Down.  Tragically I missed both in the theater, (I'm planning on a double feature once they both hit DVD) but by all accounts they were each better Die Hard movies than A Good Day To Die Hard, a film whose only redeeming quality is that it makes Live Free Or Die Hard look brilliant by comparison.  At this point, I've decided that I'd much rather watch a dozen movies starring Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling that riff on the basic structure and premise of Die Hard than watch Bruce Willis shuffle around with a shotgun one more time.

It's no fun anymore.  Now it's just sad.

We arrived in New York and hopped a train to my friend SJ's apartment in the Bronx.  We had time for a quick drink with her and her boyfriend Travis before it was time to head out again.  The cab ride over to the rehearsal was filled with the sounds of an ultra-Christian call in show, which is ironic considering that I'm a devout atheist and was on my way to practice officiating a wedding with a ministry certificate I got over the internet.  Dinner was a lot of fun, held at a cute little Italian restaurant near the wedding venue in Manhattan.  Late in the evening I was goaded by Rob's dad into saying a little something, which I drunkenly tried to conclude by toasting with my water glass.  I immediately abandoned the gesture as bad juju, and instead took up my wine glass, which was predictably empty.  I ended up toasting with an entire carafe of wine instead.

Classy, I know.

Title: A Good Day To Die Hard
Director: John Moore
Starring:  Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Rasha Bukvic, Sergei Kolesnikov, Yuliya Snigir, Cole Hauser, May Elizabeth Winstead
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD (Laptop on a bus)

August 28, 2013

Rapid Fire Response! Brief Thoughts On A Dozen Movies...

Well, they can't all be winners.

Look, I'm gonna be straight with you guys.  I'm fast approaching the half way mark of my year of movie watching and while I'm proud to say that I have yet to miss a day of viewing, I've sadly fallen WAY behind on the writing.  It's reached the point where I'm gonna have to take some fairly drastic measures in order to close the gap, and so I decided to do one post that I'm calling Rapid Fire Response.  The picture above is that of Robocop's technological rival ED-209 and OCP executive Dick Jones.  For some reason, when I think of the phrase rapid fire, that's the first place my mind went.

Of the 180 movies I've watched to date, there have been plenty of really great ones and plenty of gloriously awful ones.  But there's also many that left me feeling somewhat indifferent.  In every case there was something that initially drew me to the film, whether it be the actors involved, a certain writer or director, or maybe even just a premise that sounded intriguing.  But for all of the following movies, something in the execution just fell flat in a way that isn't even interesting as a failure.  It's a movie that simply sort of...exists.

There's a line from an episode of The West Wing where Sam Seaborn is describing a Major League Baseball season.  He says, "Every team's going to win 54 games and every team's going to lose 54.  It's what you do with the other 54 games that counts."  I guess you could say this column is about the other 54 games.


Hit And Run

I have an irrational fondness for Dax Shepard.  There, I said it.  Yeah his career started as one of Ashton Kutcher's lackeys on Punk'd and yes he's appeared in a number of really terrible movies, but somehow he's always managed to rise above.  I challenge you to watch Zathura or Idiocracy and not be at least a little won over by the guy.  Your mom probably loves him on NBC's Parenthood.

Hit And Run was a labor of love for Shepard, a film he wrote, directed and starred in with a supporting cast consisting mostly of his fiancee Kristen Bell (whom I also love unreservedly) and his friends like Bradley Cooper and Michael Rosenbaum.  It's a road trip/chase movie about a named Charlie Bronson in witness protection who hits the road with his girlfriend (Bell) but runs into trouble when her ex rats them out to the gangster (Cooper with bleached dreadlocks) that Charlie testified against in the first place.  It's amusing enough for the most part and Shepard and Bell have great chemistry together on screen (unsurprising as they have a kid together) but there's a weird juvenile element to the humor at times.  Charlie throws around the word "fag" in a way that reminds me of some of the asshole townie kids I grew up around.  But the thing is that he's supposed to be a decent guy, so his insensitive language doesn't really feel like it informs Shepard's character in an important way.  It just feels anachronistic, like a relic of a bygone era before political correctness when nobody had a problem using "gay" or "retarded" as a casual insult.  There's also a strange preoccupation with the fact that Bradley Cooper's character was butt fucked in prison.  Clearly someone thinks this stuff is hilarious, but it certainly wasn't me.

The Babymakers (Netflix)

What the fuck happened to Broken Lizard?

Remember when Super Troopers came out and it was the funniest fucking thing you'd ever seen?  I certainly do.  I remember thinking that this was the emergence of a great new comedic voice and I couldn't wait to see what those guys did next.  I'll admit that Club Dread was a little underwhelming, but I appreciate the weird mix of parody and outright horror they were shooting for, even if it doesn't entirely work.  But I'll still defend Beerfest as an underrated comedy.  The world of underground competitive drinking that they created was richly entertaining and I still dream of a world where they got to follow it up with Potfest.   They took over that Dukes Of Hazard movie with Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott and Jessica Simpson, a movie we'd all just as soon forget ever happened, and then they could barely get The Slammin Salmon released in a theater.  At one point they were writing a comedy about ancient Greece, complete with Gods and mythological beasts, but that film very quickly turned to vapor due to budgetary constraints.  Eventually the boys of Broken Lizard kind of disappeared.  Kevin Heffernan (a.k.a. Farva) occasionally pops up in something like Sky High or How I Met Your Mother and Jay Chandrasekhar has forged a nice little career for himself directing television, but the rest of the gang has been largely MIA for years now.

The Babymakers isn't technically a Broken Lizard movie, but it's probably the closest thing we're ever going to get in the near future, as it features Heffernan, Chandrasekhar (who also directs) and a handful of their familiar supporting players like Charlie Finn, M.C. Gainey and Nat Faxon.  It's an idiotic premise, (Paul Schneider tries to steal back the last sample of sperm he donated in college after he becomes impotent) it's poorly executed and worst of all it's just not very funny.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Savages (HBO)

Speaking of once great filmmakers, Savages is the latest from Oliver Stone, another director whose recent filmography is depressing to look at.  Alexander, World Trade Center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps...the guy is 0 for the century.  (W isn't very good either, but that fact is disguised by Josh Brolin's eerily accurate portrayal of the most inept President of my lifetime.)  The last movie Stone made that's actually worth watching was Any Given Sunday and that was 14 years ago.  I'm loathe to give up entirely on any director as storied as Stone, especially since the guy gave us Val Kilmer's great performance as Jim Morrison, but at this point I think it might be time for the man to pack it in.  Also, someone please put Taylor Kitsch in a successful movie that makes some money.  I'm starting to feel genuinely bad for Tim Riggins.

People Like Us (Showtime)

Two words: Elizabeth Banks.  She's gorgeous, she's soulful, she's funny and she tastes like a burger.  What more could anyone want?  I have a sort of vague family connection to Banks - her aunt was a friend of my grandmother and she passed away from cancer a few years back while my brother was also going through treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.  I'll watch pretty much anything Banks shows up in, and when she's starring opposite Captain Kirk 2.0, I'm even more game.  People Like Us is cute, with Chris Pine as a shady salesman whose estranged record producer father dies and secretly leaves Pine in charge of delivering a shaving bag full of cash to the sister he never new he had.  Chris Pine plays a pretty convincing asshole for most of the film, and he's got great chemistry with Banks, which is both a blessing and a curse for the movie.  You see, he spends time with her and her son without actually telling them that he's related because he kind of needs the money for himself and doesn't really want to give it away to these strangers.  But the more time they spend together and the stronger their bond grows, the clearer it becomes that Banks is eventually gonna try to bone her brother.  It's a plot device they push to the breaking point and it gets just as uncomfortable to watch as you'd imagine.  Michelle Pfeiffer plays Pine's angry mother and at least she gets a little more to do than his girlfriend played by Olivia Wilde, an actress who's made a habit of getting stranded in other people's movies.  It's a nice character piece for both Pine and Banks with some decently clever dialogue in parts, ("You can't shoplift from a record store, it's like kicking a dead man.") but it ultimately fails to really find the emotional depths it's aiming for.

Liberal Arts (HBO)

How I Met Your Mother was in the first crop of new shows that premiered after I moved to L.A.  Considering how limiting the premise feels, those first three seasons or so were impressive; the show felt like a great romantic comedy that had been serialized week to week except funnier than you expect.  It's long since sputtered out creatively but I continue to tune in every week, like a a guy who's long since realized he should break up with his girlfriend, but he clings to the fonder memories of yesteryear in order to convince himself that maybe it can someday be that good again.

The show's protagonist is Josh Radnor and I'm a little fascinated by his career arc.  All of his co-stars have found highly marketable success in other arenas: Hannigan was already established after Buffy, Jason Segal made a Muppet movie, Cobie Smulders is a member of S.H.I.E.L.D and NPH seemingly now has a permanent slot as host of the Tonys.  But Radnor has largely avoided commercial projects of that ilk.  In fact, other than the indie Afternoon Delight that hits theaters this weekend, the only films he's appeared in have been the two films that he's also written and directed, Happythankyoumoreplease and his follow up Liberal Arts.  The latter is definitely the better executed of the two, focusing on a guy who yearns for the heady days of unbridled intellectualism at his liberal arts alma mater.  When he's invited back to campus for the retirement of his favorite professor (the always excellent Richard Jenkins) he also falls for a student played by Elizabeth Olson and makes friends with hippie played by Zac Efron in silly hat.  Oh, and Allison Janney appears as a prickly Classics professor who Radnor still idolizes.  They totally do it.

I appreciated the subject matter and the way it treated the idea of letting go of your past instead of trying to relive it.  It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when I was still dating a girl at my high school, which was only a subway train ride away.  I spent a lot of time on my old campus, partially to see her and partially because I was getting paid to coach the speech team, of which my girlfriend was the captain.  So yes, in a way I was getting paid to spend more time with my girlfriend.  Looking back, that was actually a pretty sweet setup, but in the process I rightly received a lot of shit from my friends about not being able to let go of my high school life.  In a way they really weren't wrong, but that was a little harder to see from close up.

Radnor's films feel like the kind of movies I always saw myself making in high school and college, and coincidentally enough, I had always sort of envisioned a similar career path for myself as an actor.  I would have killed to be a series regular on a moderately successful sitcom and spent my hiatuses writing and directing small scale independent films.  Hell, I'd still kill for that.  And even though neither of his films have particularly bowled me over, they're decently shot, emotionally honest and only a touch pretentious.  But then again so am I.  Maybe that's why an old L.A. friend used to call me Mosby.

Detropia (Neflix Instant)

Detroit!  The Motor City!  Motown!

It's fucking broke.

In fact, if ED-209 really did show up there tomorrow, I wouldn't be totally surprised.  Detropia is a documentary detailing the slow decline of this once great city, where whole neighborhoods now lie vacant, crime is rampant and the city officials have no idea what to do about any of it.  This film came out last year and and I almost saw it play at the Woods Hole Film Festival, where I had a short playing.  In the intervening time, things have only gotten worse in Detroit Rock City.  Not even the imminent statue of Robocop seems to be turning the tide.  On the bright side, Detroit seems to be a great new spot for struggling artists, who can rent moderately less shitty apartments on the cheap.

I feel like there's some past iteration of Detroit that I would have totally loved, and I feel like it might be lost and gone forever like the old Yankee Stadium, another place I'm sad I never got to visit.

Hopefully Detroit finds a way out of this mess.  It's what Elmore Leonard would have wanted.

Born On The Fourth Of July (Netflix Instant)

Oh hey, Oliver Stone gets TWO slots on this list.  Granted this is Classic Stone, not New Age Stone, but still.  My feelings about Tom Cruise are well documented, and he's clearly giving it his all here, but it's just not enough to keep this sprawling, disheveled mess of PTSD and post-Vietnam politics from surrendering to its own demons.  I had intended to watch this on July 4th, but I didn't get around to a movie that day until very late in the evening, so I opted for something shorter and more light hearted.  Thank god for that.

Don't watch Born On The Fourth Of July on the fourth of July unless you want to finish the holiday by swallowing a lit firecracker.  Fucking depressing.

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors (Netflix Instant)

Also, what the fuck happened to Parker Posey?

I guess that's the danger of being an indie film darling.  Eventually you find yourself making nonsense like And Now A Word From Our Sponsors.  Bruce Greenwood plays an marketing genius who has some kind of mental breakdown and now only speaks in advertising slogans; taken purely as a writing exercise it's actually an admirable effort.  Unfortunately the gimmick never really amounts to anything - they barely acknowledge the Greenwood's character is behaving strangely for the first third of the film, and then in the end they just sort of give up on the character's only point of drama like it was never all that important in the first place.  We don't see Greenwood before or even during the initial breakdown that leaves him hospitalized and there's no real effort by anyone to get him say something he didn't read off the side of a bus, so I have no idea what I'm supposed to take away from the film.  Miraculously, Greenwood actually acquits himself fairly well, able to convey a wide range of emotional depth and turmoil using only the most asinine and patronizing of language.  Meanwhile, Posey is left with little more to do than stand around smiling uncomfortably to the point that I lost any sense of motivation for her character's existence.

Oh yeah, and deduct points for making your lead character an ad man and naming him Adan, pronounced add-in.  That shit isn't clever, it's moronic.

Revenge Of The Electric Car (Netflix Instant)

A sort of unofficial sequel to Who Killed The Electric Car? (also from director Chris Paine), this doc follows the resurrection of the electric car in the last five or so years, as struggling auto manufacturers turn to the vehicle they so infamously ran off the road back in 2000 in an effort to regain profitability.  The film is primarily focused on three areas: traditional auto makers like Chevy and Nissan trying to out maneuver each other with models like the Volt and the Leaf, Elon Musk and his infamous Tesla Motors startup, and independent car shops like the one owned by Gadget Abbott who specialize in custom conversions of existing cars from gas to electric motors.

It's hard to feel any sympathy for the big car companies, who were too lazy/concerned with the bottom line to give the electric car its proper due decades ago when they should have, and while Tesla Motors has had its fair share of speed bumps along the way, director Paine is probably somewhat biased when it comes to Elon Musk - Paine himself was an early purchaser of the Tesla Roadster and we even see Paine on a factory floor inspecting his own future car before it's eventually shipped to him.  But Gadget's story is absolutely heartbreaking.  At first he's got a sweet little shop in my former home of Culver City, California but the building is later burned to ground along with all of his equipment by vandals in the middle of the night.  He opens a new shop, but before he can really get going the place is revealed to be a massive health hazard and he's quickly forced to abandon the space.  Your heart just goes out to Gadget, who's clearly a nice guy with a real passion for the promise of electric cars.  He's working hard to do the right thing, and you genuinely want to see him succeed.  I actually wish Paine had spent a little more time with him.

If nothing else, Revenge Of The Electric Car will give you one more reason to hate the asshole bankers who caused the financial meltdown of 2008: according to Paine, a number American auto manufacturers were preparing to make a big push into electric cars when they suddenly all found themselves bankrupt.  Figures.

Girl Walks Into A Bar (Netflix Instant)

A collection boring characters in a series of short stories, each one more pointless than the one before it.   Guilty of the crime of wasting both Robert Forster and Danny DeVito, both of whom may have accidentally wandered in from a much more interesting movie.  Contains one of the weirdest strip club scenes ever.  Only the most diehard of Carla Gugino completists need apply.

Russian Dolls (Netflix Instant)

The sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, a film which I quite enjoyed.  Most of the previous movie's ensemble is absent for the majority of the film, with the story instead focusing on Xavier (Romain Duris) torn between his loyalty to ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) who now has a small child, and Wendy the ginger English girl (Kelly Reilly) with whom he's now co-writing a screenplay and slowly falling in love.  Look, I'm all for more Kelly Reilly but unfortunately they turned Xavier into a complete womanizing toolbag, so much so that by the time the credits rolled the film had somehow managed to burn up all good will that L'Auberge Espagnole had accrued in my head.  And without the group dynamic provided by all the wacky members of their Spanish apartment, the whole film rests on Xavier's shoulders.  Too bad they made him suck so hard.  Kelly Reilly deserves better.

That Guy...Who Was In That Thing (Netflix Instant)

It's a phrase we've all uttered at one point or another, desperately trying to identify an actor whose face is all too familiar from supporting roles in countless movies and television shows, but whose name is simply unknown.  Guys like Xander Berkeley, Zach Grenier, Paul Guilfoyle, Gregory Itzin, Matt Malloy, J.C. Mackenzie or Robert Joy.  Most of those names probably mean nothing to you, but their faces are instantly recognizable to anyone who has consumed video entertainment in the past ten to twenty years.  These guys have got great Hollywood war stories, tales of both triumph and frustration after years of achieving what many would probably refer to as only moderate success in film and television.  But anyone who would say that doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about.  Any actor who's worth their salt will tell you that the measure of career success isn't about achieving worldwide fame and fortune, but simply the ability to keep working and making a living at the thing you love.  In a way this movie feels like it should be required viewing in drama classes everywhere.  A lot of their stories lay bare the hard truths of being a working class actor and the film sometimes feels almost designed to discourage anyone who isn't truly serious about their craft.  (Ironically, it actually made me miss acting more than ever.)  A lot of young actors want to be the next Brad Pitt.  Fuck those guys.  I would have been happy as the next Zeljko Ivanek.

The Man With The Iron Fists (Redbox DVD)

A love letter to classic kung fu movies written, directed and starring RZA?  That sounds like exactly my cup of tea.  Unfortunately the final film doesn't really live up to the promise of that ridiculous description.  There is an appropriate level of silliness on display, with every character sporting a cartoonishly on-the-nose name like Silver Lion, Bronze Lion, Poison Dagger and Jack Knife.  One character wears a suit made out of blades while another has a Colossus-esque ability to turn his body into solid brass, and that's all well before RZA's blacksmith eventually gains powerful iron forearms.  Unfortunately the story is overly complicated and the fight choreography is middling at best.  Against all odds, the movie actually managed to bore me after a while.  You know what's not boring though?  Russell Crowe as a fat Englishman with a spinning blade bowie knife/pistol who spends most of the movie sitting in Lucy Liu's brothel and fucking prostitutes in every manner imaginable while waiting for someone to show up and challenge him to a fight.  For most of the film's running time Crowe exists completely separately from the rest of the story (or stories as the case may be) but his is by far the best shit in the movie.  The fact that his character was supposedly inspired by Old Dirty Bastard, thus explaining the use of the mouth harp every time he appears on screen, only enhances Crowe's awesomeness.  I had pretty high hopes for The Man With The Iron Fists, but it ultimately struggles to rise above the level of mediocrity.  Oh well.


That concludes this round of Rapid Fire Responses. I guess some of them ended up being a little more rapid fire than others.  Who knew I had that much to say about Liberal Arts?  I certainly didn't.  Hopefully I'll be able to keep making up some ground and I won't have to rely on these short form write ups very frequently.  But I'm not making any promises.

After all, we've still got half a year to go...

August 26, 2013

Wife's Choice: Overindulging In CHOCOLAT

"Very good...but not my favorite."
You guys, I am getting FAT.

I'm not just being vain here.  I've never been in terrific shape and I've long since made peace with the fact that I'm never going to have a six pack or bulging biceps or really muscle definition of any sort.  I'm okay with all that.  What I'm not okay with is the fact that I'm currently unable to wear half the clothes in my closet.  That is NOT cool.

It wasn't always like this.  In the lead up to my wedding last year, I started eating better and, for the first time in my life, started going to the gym two or three times a week.  The results weren't exactly dramatic, but I was definitely a bit slimmer and, more importantly, I was proud of myself for making progress in an area of my life that I'd been long neglecting.

But here's the thing: ever since I started this project, the time that I would have spent at the gym is now spent watching movies.  Also, my wife really likes to cook delicious things.  This is a bad combination.

I guess, like anything else, it's just a matter of dedication.  Jamie has decided to go pescatarian for a while, but I love red (and white and really all) meat too much to quit it cold turkey.  But I can still take steps to eat better.  Sadly this probably means less nachos.  I  should also carve out time to exercise and actually make use of the gym membership I'm paying for each month.  Yes, that's going to carve into my sitting-around-drinking time, but that's probably not a bad thing.  It doesn't seem totally unreasonable to come home and hit the gym before I settle in for a movie a few times a week.  It'll push my nightly schedule back a bit and it'll certainly mean watching less TV once the fall schedule kicks in, but at this point it's a choice between Andy Samburg's cop show and fitting into my pants.  I think I've gotta go with pants.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I recently watched Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp.  At the urging of Paul Rudd, Jamie and I split a bottle of wine and a summer salad.  (The grilled salmon was my idea.)

It was delightful.

Just like Jason Segel said it would be.

Title: Chocolat
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, Peter Stormare
Year Of Release: 2000
Viewing Method:  DVD

August 25, 2013

THE WOLVERINE Reignites My X-Men Excitement

"A lot of people have tried to kill me and I'm still here."
Sometimes "pretty good" is good enough.

After X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it seemed a pretty safe bet that the modern day X-franchise was dead in the water.  That movie is terrible to the point of absurdity, turning into a cartoon when Logan boxes with a blubbery Kevin Durand and eventually culminating in the battle to end all battles, Wolverine vs a fire escape:


But even after that monstrosity, there was very little ill will leveled against star Hugh Jackman.  If anything, we all kind of felt sorry for him.  The guy clearly had big love for the character and was giving it 110% on screen, but after the disorganized mess of X-Men: The Last Stand and the unwatchable disaster of Origins, the movie-going public sort of accepted the fact that it was time to move on.  Matthew Vaughn made it easy with X-Men: First Class, rebooting some of our favorite characters in a fun, vintage time period and OH HEY LOOK Wolverine showed up for probably the best single scene of the movie!  Remember that guy?  That guy we all used to love?  Yeah, it's a shame they ran him into the ground like that.

But Jackman refused to go softly into that good night, determined to get one more shot at doing proper justice to the character that made his career.  So he set his sights on the single greatest storyline in the character's history (Logan as a ronin in Japan) and recruited a strong director that he was comfortable working with in James Mangold, whose 3:10 To Yuma is one of the strongest post-Unforgiven westerns to date.  The plan was to keep things intimate and focused - rather than try to tell the story of Logan's entire life, filled with familiar comic characters portrayed by folks like Ryan Reynolds and Will.I.Am, this would truly be The Wolverine Show, centered on a haunted warrior whose psyche is so damaged after being forced to kill Jean Grey that he's completely retreated from the rest of the world.

For the most part, Jackman and Mangold have succeeded, giving us what is easily the best iteration of the character to date.  When the film stays small, it works wonders - I could watch Logan on the run while fighting off dozens of yakuza all day, and every scene he has with Rila Fukushima as his spunky sidekick who can see people's future deaths is entertaining beyond reason.  At this point I don't have to tell you that Jackman owns the role of Logan completely and there's a reason we all keep showing up to see him play this character.  He's simply too good to ignore.  And Mangold stages most of the action with a strong, clean style hat actually lets us see people doing awesome stuff with bladed weapons.  There's even a ridiculous fight on top of a speeding bullet train that I sort of loved despite myself.  The script also contains a lot of simple but effective symmetry.  One character describes how a clan of black-clad ninjas once invaded his village, only to have such ninjas eventually lay siege to his home.  Similarly, Logan encounters a bear in the Canadian wilderness that's been taken down by a poison arrow, a fate that he'll share later on in the film.

But there's plenty of other stuff that doesn't work in The Wolverine.  Logan spends much of the movie partially incapacitated, having been robbed of his healing abilities to a certain degree.  I hate when superhero movies do those stories because we all know that he'll get his powers eventually, so we therefore spend most of the movie waiting for the loop to close.  It would be one thing if Logan had relinquished his powers willingly, which I actually thought was going to happen.  At least then you're exploring the mental state of the character; watching him regain his powers is fine, but rediscovering why he wants and/or needs powers is far more interesting.  Instead his abilities are stolen from him in the middle of the night, and even then it's only a partial loss.  That means that he no longer heals wounds instantly, but he can still take multiple bullets to the chest and walk away merely a bit winded.  Dumb.

Mariko, Logan's love interest, is kind of a non-presence in the film, existing only to get chased and captured by yakuza thugs.  And Viper, the blonde scientist who actually steals Logan's powers, seemingly has a wide variety of vague and unspecific abilities - she spits acid, she can shed her skin, and she's immune to all poisons.  It feels like they couldn't settle on any one mutation, so they gave her whatever ability was convenient for the scene they were writing.  It also doesn't help that Svetlana Khodchenkova is simply terrible on screen.  Will Yun Lee is in a tough spot as an assassin who loves Mariko and who seems to switch allegiance every twenty minutes, but he manages to mostly make it work.  But the person I felt most sorry for was Famke Janssen, who's given the completely thankless role of haunting Logan's dreams to make him feel guilty for killing her and to occasionally give him psychic visions.  (I think?  This part was very unclear.)  It's not Janssen's fault, but each time she appeared on screen I mentally checked out.  Jean Grey probably would have been more effective if she only showed up once or twice, instead of every time Logan falls asleep or gets knocked unconscious, which happens a lot.

The film's finale is a touch disappointing, abandoning all the smart, personal stuff in favor of a big fight with a giant CG Silver Samurai in the villain's secret mountain top hideout.  I actually got excited at first because it looked like Wolverine would have to fight his way through a clan of ninjas to get there and that's really the thing you most want to see most in a movie about Logan in Japan.  Wolverine vs. ninjas.  No brainer.  Sadly it doesn't really happen, as they just sort of capture him and drag him up to the villain's lair.  Credit where credit is due though, as there's actually a fairly shocking consequence of that final battle that inherently changes the character of Wolverine going forward.  I'm always impressed when a film manages to alter the status quo in a way that defies expectations, but then again this particular change will probably be ret-conned away in the upcoming Days Of Future Past.

Speaking of which, make sure you stick around through the credits, as there's a fantastic scene that sets the stage wonderfully for Bryan Singer's return to the franchise.  If nothing else, The Wolverine sent me out of the theater practically vibrating with excitement to see where Fox takes the X-Men next.  In a way, that's probably all that Fox is really hoping for.

Mission accomplished.

Title: The Wolverine
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiroyuki Sanada, Will Yun Lee, Hal Yamanouchi, Famke Janssen
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

August 24, 2013

Cornetto Week: I'll Traverse The Golden Mile With THE WORLD'S END Any Day

"There comes a time where you have to go forward, not backwards."
Well, we've arrived at our destination.

I still remember the first time I saw Shaun Of The Dead at the Kendall Square theater in Cambridge at the beginning of my senior year of college.  Zombies had become fashionable after successes like 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn Of The Dead, so the time was perfect for someone to jump in give us a clever new riff on the genre.  I think I expected Shaun to be more of an outright parody, but what I got instead was so much better, using the familiar zombie touchstones as a backdrop to tell a smart and clever story about taking responsibility and embracing adulthood.  It helps that Shaun is also one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.  I will never forget the moment when Shaun accidentally pushes the shopgirl onto the umbrella stand and she slowly pulls herself up to reveal a hole in her stomach...and Ed slowly winds his camera.  I laughed so hard I literally fell off my chair.

I have an equally special place in my heart for Hot Fuzz.  My younger brother was visiting me in L.A. and he got really sick that day, but he stuck it out like a trooper and went to the movie with us anyway.  I grew up loving the sort of buddy cop action movies that Wright is playing on with Fuzz, so it's hard for me not to love Nick Frost's Danny Butterman and his obsession with the likes of Point Break and "firing two guns whilst jumping through the air."  Plus Danny and Nicholas Angel have some of the greatest homoerotic chemistry I've ever seen on film.  In a way, Edgar Wright's first two movies have always gone hand in hand for me; Shaun starts out as a play on zombie movies and slowly morphs into an actually great zombie movie, whereas Hot Fuzz actually plays things pretty straight for a while before its insanely great finale where Angel finally embraces all the action movie tropes he'd previously dismissed and, consequently, makes all of Danny's dreams come true.

Having now seen The World's End twice, both times as a full Cornetto Trilogy triple feature, I'm mostly struck by just how different it is from its predecessors.  The film addresses many of the same issues as Shaun and Hot Fuzz, particularly life in a small town and letting go of childhood, but World's End moves along a much darker trajectory.  Pegg's Gary King is an absolute dick, unlikable on almost every level and yet somehow still charming in a greasy sort of way.  He's a man who is totally unable to let go of the past, desperately trying to relive the best night of his life when he and his high school friends tried and failed to complete an epic, twelve stop pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven.  While his friends have all grown and matured, Gary is still stuck in that moment, wearing the same clothes and driving the same car with the same mix tape in the cassette player.  For him, that night was the pinnacle; he was leaving high school, he had his best mates and a load of booze and drugs and the whole rest of his life ahead of him, full of potential glory.  But that glory never materialized and Gary simply has no idea how to cope. That's a feeling with which I can keenly identify.  I think back to my high school and college days and it felt as if the world was mine to conquer, with unlimited opportunities to make my mark on humanity and achieve greatness. But as time marches on those possibilities are slowly whittled away until I'm left with only the consequences of the choices I've made, some regrettable but most having worked out for the best.  Still, as I commute back and forth each day to an uninspiring job with little potential for personal or professional growth, it's hard not to lust after the promise of youth and the strange mix of opportunity and invincibility that only comes when you're 18 years old.  In that way, I feel a sort of kinship with Gary King, even if he is a complete twat.

World's End features a very different structure from Wright's previous films, but it's sort of a requirement of the story he wants to tell.  Shaun and Fuzz both actively play with the audience's expectations, which is part of what makes them so sharply effective.  While Shaun and Ed remain in the dark about the growing zombie infestation until the last possible moment, the viewers are picking up all sorts of hints and nods in the background of the action or in the irony of the dialogue because we're aware that we're watching a zombie movie and we therefore know what's coming.  Fuzz does the same with the tenets of buddy cop movies, so that we're laughing even though the characters are being deathly serious.  That element is distinctly absent from World's End simply because the characters have to actually get to the small town of Newton Haven and then spend a bit of time there before the film can make that sharp left turn into robot/body snatcher territory.  In fact, it takes about 20 minutes before the gang makes it to The First Post and another 20 minutes before the "blanks" (their name for robots) actually assert themselves into the story.  There's nothing wrong with this structural shift and in fact I was quite enjoying just watching the five friends bickering and giving each other shit in a way that's very reminiscent of my own high school buddies.  But for the serious Shaun/Fuzz fans out there, it is a little bit jarring, as is the decreased use of one of Wright's signature visual flourishes, the quick-cutting series of closeups that Darren Aronofsky referred to as "hip-hop montages" in his own work.

Okay, now let me stop and make one thing very clear:


This is by far one of the funniest releases of the year, neck and neck with, appropriately enough, Seth Rogen's This Is The End.  But The World's End is funny in a completely different sense of the word.  I saw the movie a month ago at the Brattle and I saw it again this week at the Boston Common and I laughed just as hard (if not harder) the second time as the first.  Part of that comes from the astounding number of layers and running gags present throughout the script, which are so dense and which come at you so quickly that there are many bits I didn't fully appreciate the first time through.  My favorite is probably the "selective memory" joke, although there's also a great joke about theoretical band names as well as a long running debate about what to call the robots, in which Nick Frost gets a single line that I don't even recall hearing the first time through but which absolutely DESTROYED me on the second viewing.  Not only is the dialogue clever as shit, but there's also an astounding layer of physical comedy throughout the numerous fight scenes.  It's easy to see why Simon Pegg suggested I watch Legend Of Drunken Master, since all of the combat was so masterfully choreographed by Brad Allen of the Jackie Chan stunt team.  The first fight, a five on five brawl in the men's room, as well as a later fight in which Gary is desperately trying to drink a pint while beating up a swarm of blanks both display a keen mix of both laugh out loud hilarity and bone-crunching blue carnage.  The actual design of the blanks creates some fantastic opportunities for not only amusing visuals when they get damaged, but also some great fight moments - characters are frequently beating up the blanks with a severed mechanical arm that will suddenly turn on them and start fighting back, and there's one blank who swaps some limbs around in a way that both looks silly and makes for a memorable battle.

Here's the other thing: twelve pints in the course of a few hours is a LOT of booze, especially for a group of middle age guys whose days of serious drinking are long behind them.  That means that the further into the film we go, not only does the sci-fi insanity increase, but so does our heroes' blood alcohol level, until they're not only stumbling and mumbling about the town, but they're also forced to form and execute some form of coherent plan for dealing with a terrifying menace while getting completely hammered.  The idea that the guys would continue the pub crawl after learning the truth about Newton Haven makes no sense to the sober audience, but for our blitzed heroes it seems like the only logical course of action.   There's plenty of comedy to be had along these lines and Wright smartly mines all of it, until eventually Gary finds himself trying to logic to robots to death like some kind of shitfaced Captain Kirk.  It's marvelous.

There are a few movies that I've made a point to watch more than once before writing about them, (notably Star Trek Into Darkness and Man Of Steel) but none have made me appreciate that decision so much as The World's End.  Wright and Pegg are masters of creating films that reward second and third viewings, building jokes that can only be appreciated once you know how things will play out.  In Shaun, characters are constantly saying things that describe the ultimate fate of whoever they're talking to.  ("Next time I see you, you're dead."  Or my personal favorite, "If you want to live like an animal why don't you go live in the shed?")  In The World's End, the opening flashback that depicts that fateful night 23 years prior also perfectly mirrors everything that will happen when the boys return to Newton Haven.  And the last ten minutes of the film, which are COMPLETELY bonkers, is so packed with visual gags I still feel like there's more for me to discover.

As a final note, let me just describe my full viewing experience for you.  The wonderful Brattle theater hosted the Three Flavours Cornetto Triple Feature at the end of July.  I found out about the event a few weeks in advance, so I made sure that when tickets went on sale at 3:00 PM, I had my tickets by 3:01.  Good thing too, as they apparently sold the place out in under five minutes.  It was only later, after I had returned from Mexico, that I learned that Wright, Pegg and Frost would actually be in attendance for a Q&A, so suffice it to say I was pretty giddy.  The movies themselves were great, but the Brattle really went above and beyond to make the night into something memorable.  I made sure to purchase a "Virtual Pub Crawl" ticket which entitled me to a specially selected beer for each film.

Shaun Of The Dead featured Zombie Killer Cherry Cyser, which I found to be far too sweet.

Hot Fuzz was paired with The Bollocks, mostly due to the constable on the label.

And The World's End came with a bottle of the appropriately titled La Fin Du Monde, which was my favorite of the three brews.

And while the Brattle tried in earnest to provide us all with Cornettos, it turns out that Cornetto is owned by Good Humor, who does not allow the sale and distribution of that particular brand here in the Colonies.  So instead we got the Cornetto's American cousin the King Cone, or as the Brattle called them, "Faux-Nettos."

Wright, Pegg and Frost were in terrifically good spirits, especially considering that they had just flown in that morning from Austin, Texas where the Alamo Drafthouse had thrown a similar event.  They gave us some great insights into the film, including how they chose to deal with ideas like the individual vs. the collective ("It's our basic human right to be fuck ups!") and living in perpetual adolescence ("It's actually easier to deal with aliens than the fact that you're old or the town is shit.").  They also hilariously dispelled one fan's notion that Shaun was secretly full of Deer Hunter references, an idea that seemed to stem primarily from the fact that Shaun eventually wears a red headband.  Pegg even told the story of how he and Frost first became friends: they were out to dinner with a group of people and Frost was at the opposite end of the table, playing with the salt shaker and imitating the beeping noises of the little black wheeled droid on the Death Star that Chewie sends skittering down the hallway.  Nobody else knew what he was doing except for Pegg, who described the feeling by singing, "Take My Breath Away."

So my hat is off to the Brattle for putting in the extra hard work to make it a stellar night, and thankfully The World's End is more than deserving of their efforts.  This is easily one of my favorite movies of the summer and something that I simply cannot wait to own and watch again and again and again.

Fingers crossed for a badass Cornetto Triogy box set on Blu-ray.

Title: The World's End
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Rafe Spall
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theater

Cornetto Week: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) Headlines The "Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy"

"Well why not a space flower?  Why do we always expect metal ships?"
Alright, so this one is a bit of a cheat in that I watched it over a month ago, but it was part of the Brattle's Cornetto festivities so I'm counting it anyway.  You see, not only did the Brattle program the Cornetto Trilogy triple feature, but they also took it upon themselves to select an "Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy" on the preceding day - three films that acted as spiritual companions to Edgar Wright's three part comedic genre opus.  So yes, I spent back-to-back days at the Brattle watching a double triple feature.

Two of the films I was already very familiar with, but I'd yet to see either of them in a theater.  First up was the one I was most excited about, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive.  If you're unfamiliar with this absurdly quotable New Zealand zombie gore-fest, man are you missing out.  Dead Alive was a favorite of my high school A/V Crew, a movie that we had in our library of VHS tapes and played frequently after school or between classes.  It's the tale of Lionel, a wimpy guy whose wealthy and overbearing mother gets bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey (rendered in grotesque stop-motion animation) and quickly morphs into a sort of zombified demon corpse.  However, feeling guilty because she was attacked while he was on a date with the local shopkeeper, Lionel decides to hide her and an increasing number of victims in his basement while attempting to care for them so word doesn't get out around town.  The film is equal parts disgusting and hysterical, utilizing buckets of blood and viscera splattered every which way until every inch of the frame is dripping red.  The practical effects work is cartoonishly charming and by the time there's a demonic infant on the loose that is clearly a little person running around in baby pajamas and a rubber mask, I defy you not to have fallen in love with Dead Alive while simultaneously marveling that this is the same Oscar winning Peter Jackson who gave us the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

In lieu of Hot Fuzz, we were treated to one of Danny Butterman's favorites, Michael Bay's Bad Boys II.  It's hardly what I would call a "good movie" and I probably would have preferred Danny's other action classic Point Break (directed by fellow Oscar winner Katherine Bigelow) but I understand the choice.  While the tale of an FBI agent undercover with a gang of surfing bank robbers in U.S. President masks is easily the better flick, it lacks that buddy cop dynamic that's such a crucial component of Hot Fuzz.  Still, if you're a fan of utterly mindless shoot outs and vehicular destruction on a massive scale, it's hard to top Bad Boys II.

Finally, our World's End surrogate was the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland and Donald Sutherland's giant hair as a health inspector who discovers that people are becoming replaced with vacant, dead-eyed alien replicas.  I remember reading Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters as a kid and hearing numerous comparisons between the two - there was even a film version of that book that also featured a much older Sutherland.  In Puppet Masters the aliens are actually parasitic creatures that use humans as hosts, so I was somehow under the impression that Body Snatchers was the same, but the truth is far creepier.  The film's fantastic opening depicts the alien organisms traveling through space "on solar winds," entering our atmosphere and blanketing the earth through condensation.  The world's plant life is covered in alien tendrils that soon sprout flowers capable of duplicating sleeping humans through giant pods.  The whole thing is actually played fairly subtle for a while, with omnipresent webs of wispy tendrils often visible in the background even before we start discovering the pod people.  And the actual pods themselves are really fun to watch; at one point Sutherland falls asleep in a rooftop garden and we see a Sutherland-faced flower fetus taking shape next to him.

Jeff Goldblum is there doing Jeff Goldblum things, as is familiar "that lady" Veronica Cartwright, probably best known as "Not Sigourney Weaver" from Alien.  But the one who really threw me for a loop was Leonard Fucking Nimoy as a famous psychiatrist.  I have big love for Nimoy (a fellow Boston native) due to my many years as a Trekkie, but I'll admit that I'm largely unfamiliar with his work outside the context of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I know that after Star Trek went off the air in 1969 he had some trouble shaking off the image of Mr. Spock in the public consciousness, despite experiencing some moderate success with two seasons of Mission: Impossible.  He even wrote a book called "I Am Not Spock", a title which helped foster the misconception that he actually hated Star Trek despite the fame it gave him.  I understand that impulse as an actor, as success in Hollywood can often be a double edged sword.  Once you gain notoriety for a role as iconic as Spock it becomes hard for audiences to accept you as anything else - they're just sitting there watching you in another movie thinking, "Hey look, that's Spock!"  Within that in mind, Body Snatchers was kind of a brilliant move for Nimoy at the time.  The heavy sci-fi subject matter and the fact that he's playing a largely cerebral psychoanalyst actually makes those Spock associations work in his favor, and when his character makes a dark turn late in the film it gets even better - now he's Evil Spock!  Body Snatchers is the last film Nimoy made before returning to Starfleet in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and in a way that's kind of a shame.  I'm curious where his career might have gone and what kind of movies Nimoy would have made without Star Trek to fall back on.  He eventually got into directing (Three Men And A Baby!) but that stemmed largely from his success helming Star Trek III and IV, the latter of which was the most successful Star Trek movie of all time until J.J. Abrams showed up.

Body Snatchers obviously had a huge influence on The World's End.  The idea of aliens who show up and replace/imitate humans is hardly special to Philip Kaufman's 1978 film, which is itself a remake of a 1956 film starring the great Kevin McCarthy, who also appears in this version.  But the specific imagery of Kaufman's iteration is unmistakable in the third Cornetto film.  The last shot of Body Snatchers is probably the single most memorable image of the whole film (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it, because it really is pretty great) and it's something that Wright utilizes throughout the film as the robots' signature attack move.

The Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy was a perfect warm up act to the main attraction, and part of what inspired me to ask Wright, Pegg and Frost for more viewing suggestions at their Q&A the following day.  Looking back, I'm really glad that I did, as a week of movies that so clearly helped shape the minds of those three talented Brits really gave me a whole new appreciation for The World's End on my second viewing.  None of these movies are requirements in order to enjoy the final flavor of Cornetto, but if you have the time and the opportunity to give some of them a look, I promise it will only enhance your experience.

Title: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Kevin McCarthy
Year Of Release: 1978
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theater