Friday, September 25, 2009

DVD Review: Flight of the Conchords - Season Two

If you're a fan of New Zealand's fourth most-famous folk rock comedy duo and you don't subscribe to HBO then the release of their second season on DVD maybe your first chance to see what the boys have been up to.

The short version: they've been doing great work.

Season one ended with band manager Murray (Rhys Darby) finding success with his second band and their monster hit "The Doggy Bounce." Season two picks up where we left off, with Murray in a magnificent high-rise office still trying to manage the fledging Conchords (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) while enjoying the success of the Crazy Dogggz. Things are quickly set right, however, and we soon find ourselves with the routine of band meetings crouched over Murray's desk at the New Zealand consulate.

While the second half of the first season saw Clement and McKenzie trying to write a larger world for themselves by taking the 'Chords on tour, etc. it did lose part of its Seinfeld-esque appeal - an familiar episodic world where Jemaine and Bret get themselves into inconvenient circumstances, but hardly ever trouble.
It would seem that they learned their lesson in season two - there are many episodes which should be regarded as their best work yet - allowing their natural characters to unfold and interact with the cast of characters they've created. It would seem that everyone has gotten comfortable in the show's identity and is enjoying exploring their world.

There are some interesting extras including a short making-of documentary with interviews with Jemaine and Bret as well as faux commercials for Dave's pawn shop.

Favorite episodes: The New Cup, The Tough Brets, Unnatural Love, Wingmen

Movie Rating: A

May We Take a Moment to Remember... exceedingly awesomely horrible the film Commando is.

This should come as no surprise to the 52% of the population not sporting external genetalia, but it is sometimes useful for the rest of us to put such films as this in perspective, for good and bad.

Unlike A-hnold's two greatest films, Predator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, where Arnold almost seems to accidentally stumble into films where there's a great story happening, Commando is the exact opposite of that process. Sure, it's one of the early macho action movies, but when something can be done really well (Die Hard, Aliens) then it makes it all the harder to swallow the popcorn for the less fortunate of the breed. (Hear that Speed? I'm coming for you.)

Commando is the tale of retired special-ops warrior John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) extraordinaire, happy to spend the rest of his life caring for his daughter and chopping wood in a tight shirt when his daughter is kidnapped and his unwittingly flung back into a world of violence and intrigue he thought he'd left behind.
Sounds intriguing, right? Not really.

Dialogue is painful, especially involving an Arnold that was yet to clean up a lot of his dialect. In fact a good many portions of the film feel like they were overdubbed entirely. Rae Dawn Chong, who plays interest(?) in this film is half-drug through the film, fighting any natural instinct to act any other way than helpless. But it's okay, because she's got Arnold, remember?

Daniel Hedaya plays a restrained mastermind villain who eventually gets pumped full of lead (who doesn't) but the real Bad Guy that Arnold gets to knife fight with is a former comrade-in-arms who speaks with some form of British accent and wears a chainmail shirt. (Apparently all of America's special ops crew are from European nations.)

Played by Vernon Welles, Bennet is everything Matrix is not. Fat, annoying, ugly and probably some of the worst Bad Guy instincts ever seen on screen. How he manages to hold off an attack from A-hnold for more than 1.5 seconds is a cinematic secret. Perhaps it was the giant serrated hunting knife he carries around that improves his warrior skillz.
And the chainmail. It conveniently protects whilst it covers the extra 30 pounds he brought to the set with him.

Apparently Commando was shot on the leading edge of special effects relating to pyrotechnics - or, more specifically, how to get dudes to fly through the air when a grenade goes off. At one point of the film grenades outnumber air molecules as they fly through the air, and every time a detonation occurs at least two fake-mustachioed Bad Guys do mid-air somersaults into some bushes, conveniently planted years earlier in case they were needed to break someone's fall.
I've watched enough "making of" TV specials to know about the pneumatic catapults used to create the illusion of tossing hapless victims around, but I guess they never considered doing it fifteen times in the span of 2 minutes might give audiences enough time to ponder if there was something...amiss. Apparently you will always be flung into a head-long somersault regardless of where the explosion occurs.

Among other awesome annoyances: apparently phone booths can be lifted out of the ground, kidnapping women in parking garages will make them your co-conspirator and yellow Porsches will still work after you've stood them on their side.

Commando is a rare film that fits an unusual category: simultaneously one of the worst, most annoying action films made but also a film that is kind of like sushi: when you crave it, ain't nothin' else gonna fill that hole.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Review: Extract
Directed by Mike Judge
Starring Jason Bateman
, Kristen Wiig, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons

Mike Judge's first film in three years moves back towards the flavor of Office Space, arguably Judge's most successful film. 2006's Idiocracy suffered mismanagement at the hands of Fox Studios and made Judge resresolute in assuring that the next film he made would be made his way.

Enter Extract. A tale of a medium-sized flavor extract factory owner, Joel (played by Bateman) who seems to have a lot in common with Bateman's alma mater Michael Bluth. His marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) is in a rut and in a moment of weakness, admits his desire to have an affair with a new employee Cindy (Kunis) to his bartending, barbiturate popping stoner buddy (Affleck.) Still, he loves his wife and feels compelled to honor his vows. Unless, of course, she could be compelled to break the vows first, thereby freeing Joel from any guilt by cheating with Cindy. Not surprisingly, the plan goes awry, and Joel, who didn't think he would care that his wife would have an affair is wracked with guilt and remorse at hiring quite possibly the dumbest gigolo in the tri-state area. To make matters worse, he learns Cindy isn't quite who he thought she was all the while dealing with a potential lawsuit at his company involving a shattered testicle.

To read a synopsis is to think that there would be plenty of good material ripe for Mike Judge's particular talents. The plot for Office Space sounds about as interesting as the back of a milk carton, and yet it is full of now-legendary comic moments. Sadly, Extract doesn't benefit from the same comic prowess. The jokes feel like they should be much funnier than they are, and a lot of the movie is spent waiting for the big punch line to arrive. The performances are all adequate, although none could be regarded as stellar or even a marker in any of the actors' careers.

Considering how popular Mike Judge's projects have become in Hollywood he certainly had his pick of talent for this film. For one reason or another, however, the ingredients don't make for a good recipe this time.

Movie Grade: C+

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reason no. 352 to be excited

November 27, 2009 will see the release of a new project featuring the Akron blues duo The Black Keys teaming up with eleven different hip hop acts under the project name of Blakroc.

Guests include Mos Def, RZA, Q-Tip, Ludacris and others. All musical tracks provided by The Black Keys.

SShould be a rockin' good time. Visit their website to view webisodes and a trailer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarintino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent

What's wrong with this picture: Quentin Tarantino, director of such films as Kill Bill vols. 1 & 2, Death Proof, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs decides to make a period film involving Jewish GI commandos sneaking into the heart of Nazi-occupied France and beating any German soldier they find to a bloody pulp with baseball bats. Even 60 years later it still sounds gratifying, right?

The answer is there is absolutely nothing is wrong with that picture. On paper.

Tarantino, known for his lovingly crafted over-the-top homages to his favorite film styles (i.e. all of them) tackles a new beast: the period war drama. Sadly, while his previous films all possess a certain flair and panache that can only be described as 'Tarantino' Inglorious Basterds feels shockingly unsure of itself and uncommitted.
Gone are most of the trademark soundtrack cues that Tarantino has become legendary for - but even more disappointing are the few examples of recycled music held over from previous films.
The camera work is only notable for its lack of any sort of fast-paced tricks or stylization.

Perhaps most disappointing in this film are the uneven performances given by the starring cast.
Brad Pitt has never felt more cumbersome and outwitted, chewing his way through a supposed Tennessean accent with about as much flair as a bird walking backwards. He's at his funniest when trying to fake an Italian accent. Eli Roth, friend of Tarantino and director of campy horror hit Hostel plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, or the Bear Jew, as his terrorized Nazi counterparts name him who enjoys the ritualistic bludgeoning of his enemies skulls with a stained Louisville Slugger. Roth is a distant reminder why not just anyone should be put in front of the camera to act, in much the same way as Tarantino used to try his hand at prominent roles in his own films (From Dusk 'til Dawn.)

Still, Pitt and Roth's haphazard careening through this film is counterbalanced by a mountain of unknown talent, the most important of which is Christoph Waltz who plays the Gestapo Col. Hans Landa with such evil delight that one can only hope that he will be deservedly remembered when the Oscar season returns. Melanie Laurent plays a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight who, for the purposes of Tarantino's universe, is permitted to exact the form of revenge on the Nazi high command that Eisenhower would've gladly given his left eyeball for. Her performance is brilliant.

To say that Tarantino takes liberties with the history of World War II is to put it mildly. While it is certainly par for the course in Tarantino's universe, it makes the less engrossing scenes in this film stick out like bandaged thumbs, and why I have to consider Inglorious Basterds Tarantino's worst film to date. Inconsistent performances and a lack of identity will make Basterds slide into the shadows of Tarantino's many superior works.

Movie Grade: C

Movie Review: 9
Directed by Shane Acker
Starring Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly

The idea behind "9" has actually been simmering on the stove since 2005 when the 11-minute short of the same name was nominated for an Academy Award, so while the story is new to the majority of moviegoers, director Acker has had his burlap hero fighting mechanized creatures for several years now.
9 being only the fourth CGI animated film to garner a PG-13 rating means important things for a film industry that is trying to grow up with its audience while simultaneously capitalizing on the profitable territory that adult-themed graphic novels have staked out. If studios are able to make films like 9 succeed it would mean an entirely new world of storytelling; one where cartoons may not seem like such kidstuff any more.

While 9 is beautifully animated, and intricate in detail, the basic storytelling is flawed. Acker seems to have rushed through some of the scriptwriting processes, trading real depth and feeling for sensory stimulation. The end result is a movie that feels wooden and distant. While we know to root for the good guys we have little more invested in their plight except that they aren't the ones with red eyes or leathery wings. No more explanation than is necessary is offered as to the origins of the creatures' world, which makes sense up front, but leads to a detachment from the character's plight as the filmmakers struggle to make their audience care about the imminent danger they find themselves in.

9 feels more like a treatise on what could be accomplished but less a film in its own right. The technical wizardry is quite astounding, especially when you consider how far CGI animation has come in the last ten years. Perhaps we'll have to wait until James Cameron's Avatar to discover what a masterful melding of CGI and storytelling will look like.

Movie Grade: C+

Thursday, September 17, 2009

After a mere 17 month hiatus I [loftily] plan a raging comeback for T&C.

I know, I know. It's as if all the air has been sucked from your lungs.
But please, show restraint.

My disaffection for many of the popular 'social networking' sites has been growing. So much so that I am on the cusp of forever leaving the legion of drones and seeking out a more unique online identity - one that might more accurately reflect my personality and stupidity than any paint-by-number format ever could. (This is about the time when you notice Blogger's pre-fab template.)

Anyway, this is just a quick 'hello' and a shout-out to see who all is out there.

Too bad. I already know the answer to that one.