Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Scratching At the Casket Lid: The Staggering Return to the Third Row (...Again)

Well readers, after another extended period of being closed down, for reasons debated anywhere from violation of the health code to illegal deals in the bathrooms, the Third Row is continuing to try out-do the late Bob Hope for bids at cheating death. (...too soon?)

I realize we've had a lot of starts and stops here. Honestly, I've been trying to remedy this. Both in terms of getting a regular pattern going, and just working out a lot of the bugs in my writing (I'll be one of the first to acknowledge I can go longer than I should like 'old man recalling their time in the war' tends to explain why the Hell I get held up a lot of the time.) Going to try and get back on a regular schedule, and to this end, gonna be doing a lot of trial and error. Figuring out what works to get things back to a good pace instead of leaving this held up for months at a time. To this end, expect to see a project lined up for October that should hopefully get my lazy backside back to work on a weekly basis again.

In the meantime, before we get back to evaluating and/or castigating the wild kingdom of cinematic oddities, it seemed best to try and bring things back with another overview piece. This time, rather than a full year in review (which will happen anyway...although can't say what's gonna be on it just yet this time. I only have one of those picked out so far) we're gonna look over the summer season: that veritable smorgasbord of adaptations, remakes, and some fresh ideas peppered throughout.
It's like reaching into a bag that's 60% candy*, 40% broken glass.

*For reasons of health, we are contractually obligated to warn some of the candy may or may not have been unwrapped or left on the floor...such is the gamble here.

So sit back readers, grab a drink and join us in the third row as we look back at the last three months in film that I could be bothered to see.

Mr. Projectionist, if you please:

The 'Draw Me' matchbook horse
Inspiration and bane of even prehistoric man

-Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

[Yeah, I know this was actually made in 2010. I didn't get the opportunity to see this in theaters till early this summer.]
I never thought I'd hear myself say these words, so I'll just get them out of the way now: I wish I'd seen this in 3D. I'm normally not a big proponent for that, but this is honestly one of the few films I've seen where I felt like it honestly could put its 3D to good use.
This also made me realize I need to see more of Werner Herzog as a documentarian (my prior experiences with the man have been on his work in features, where he's largely considered insane. Talented as Hell, but insane.) Between an interesting concept and some wonderful camera work, Herzog gives viewers the opportunity to see a piece of history we ordinarily would never get the chance to see. The resulting documentary is equal parts informative, fascinating, and strangely enough, tranquil. With minimal reliance on voice-over narrative, Herzog lets many of the images found speak for themselves. As the movie goes on, it feels immersive just exploring these caverns in silence. At points, the movie almost seems to lull one into a trance (which, despite how this may sound, is not a bad thing. It's just amazing how calming the film can be.)
Of course, classic insane Herzog still makes an appearance during a rather curious epilogue, but you know what you're getting into with the man in question. Point is - even if you're not big on ancient history, this is still fascinating to see - even if not for the information, at least how well it's presented.

OK...ONE joke
Of these three women, one will die trying to ford a river 5 feet deep

Another will die of dysentery
and the last will survive to the end of the game...
try and guess which is which!

-Meek's Cutoff

OK. Before I start, I'll say this much. I challenged myself, in writing this, to do so without any references to the game Oregon Trail. Which, I have to say, cuts down a LOT of my write-up for it. But here goes...
This was a bit of an odd film to watch at first. I wasn't even sure the best way to word it until one of the friends I saw it put it best (and this is a phrase that usually I don't like the use of since so often it feels, dare I say it, pretentious, but...) this is one of those rare cases where I will honestly say a film qualifies for the phrase 'It's not so much a movie as an experience.'
To try and sum up this movie in a plot would come up with astonishingly little. The movie itself really feels more like a general look at the lives of settlers moving west. What sort of plot there is isn't even a linear 'conflict-climax-resolution' so much as it's the general problems faced by the people living in those times. The movie enters their lives almost as seamlessly as it leaves them, making it feel less like we're watching a laid out story and more just, in another phrase I'm usually very hestitant to use, a sort of slice of life film...that just happens to be focused on pioneer life.
Even the cast, which includes some fairly recognizable names (including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano) all effectively blend into their roles moreso than you'd see in other films.
...I know, this all sounds a bit nebulous, but really, this is one of those films that text doesn't properly do justice to. If it has gotten you curious, by all means check it out. This is honestly one where it just has to be seen first-hand. No soundbite can really encapsulate it.
[...and if you see it and decide you didn't like it...look at it this way. There's certainly much worse ways you can spend an hour and 45 minutes. I'll likely be pointing you to them in future entries.]

The Heavenly Glow -
just another of the many talents Conan honed during his time off the air.

-Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

This was one where I first went because of just general interest in the subject matter (which, as the title would suggest, is Conan O'Brien, and more specifically following his 'Banned from Television' tour across the US.) Going in, I expected laughs, which were delivered quite a bit. At the same time, however, the movie actually surprised me in just how far past the laughs they were willing to show us. This went beyond what could be written off as a mere vanity project and actually showed us a fully fleshed out Conan off-stage. As a result, alongside being a generally funny man, we see a loving father, a devoted showman, a prankster with an occasionally cruel sense of humor (while many of the moments are still amusing, it's hard to deny that Conan DOES sometimes act like a jerk) and even just as an average person.
Probably one of the most effecting moments of the movie is a scene in which, after having entertained several guests backstage, Conan vents some pent up exhaustion and general frustration with the waves of people he doesn't really know coming backstage to talk with him. It's a bit uncomfortable to see him like this, but at the same time, we can see where he's coming from in his general irritation.
Don't get the wrong idea though, the movie is still largely about the showman and the laughs, but at the same time, it's refreshing that their behind scenes footage reminds us that, for all his fame and talent, he's still human just like the rest of us. It doesn't try to build him up or rip him down. It just shows him to us in as straight a light as it can and lets us decide. I kind of wish more documentaries took this approach. But that's a matter for another time.

Ah, the time-honored custom of who can pick the most inappropriate song to sing at the wedding.... mean that's not an actual custom?
...I have some apologies to make.


This actually surprised me on a few levels. I first saw this on the recommendation of a friend (thanks for that, by the way) who assured me that, despite what initial advertisement might imply, the film is still pretty damn enjoyable gender regardless. This is actually more true than I expected. The film surprised me on a couple of levels. For starters, yeah it does succeed quite well as a comedy. The humor kind of runs the gamut on styles, but largely all still works. The other thing that caught me off guard, and again, the ads kind of downplayed this a lot, was the fact the film has a surprisingly dark streak running in it. The kicker is, said dark streak probably ties into one of the biggest reasons I'd say the film really works for a lot more people than initially advertised - it plays to something a LOT of people have been going through: that sense of "have I screwed up in my life? Am I ever going to get anywhere, or is it all downhill from here? Etc etc" That kind of fear of failure hangs over Kristen Wiig's protagonist pretty strongly during the film and, while it does lead to a few laughs, there's also several moments where you genuinely feel bad for this person whom Murphy's Law apparently called in a hit on (to this end, the 'could this get worse' element is kept all pretty plausible. It doesn't feel like it's been blown up to comedic proportions.) Despite that, the film isn't a downer. A bit more cynical than one would expect from initial promotions, but still an enjoyable movie.

Mr. Sudeikis, Mr. Day, step aside and you won't be hurt. Mr. Bateman, if we find you wandering off the Arrested Development movie set again, we WILL restrain you!

-Horrible Bosses

This summer got pretty good at balancing the laughs with the misery in its comedy. Admittedly, Horrible Bosses doesn't play to that fear of failure nearly as much as Bridesmaids did, but at the same time, there are some dark elements in play (well...beyond the fact the plot of this film is three friends seeking to murder their monstrous employers.) One thing I have to give both comedies here is their openly acknowledging something that still seems largely off the radar in mainstream film at this point, despite it having been a problem for years now - the fact the job market has seen better days. Much better days. In here, it's made a particular grim punchline of a scene where the afforementioned three friends all contemplate quitting their jobs and finding new work. This optimism is crushed by the arrival of another friend of theirs who had previously worked for Lehman Bros...and has been unemployed since. It's still a funny moment, but there's a solid sense of "...oh." that comes with it, as the usual escape a film would provide is no longer there. ...of course, that aside, the film in general is still just a well-done black comedy.
If I had to give it one other acknowledgment here, it has to go to the fact that, while leads Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis are all playing relatively true to form (and doing quite well with it,) much of the supporting cast are all playing outside of their traditional 'types' (well, OK, Kevin Spacey has played monstrous individuals in film before, and does a good job of it here, but by comparison, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrel, and Jamie Fox are all definitely riffing on their traditional types, and actually handling it better than one might expect. Hell, I actually prefer Aniston playing crazy to her normal roles.) A pretty pleasant, if morbidly entertaining, surprise.

and now we come to the block that made up a good chunk of this summer's film offerings...the comic book movies.

"...and when you get back to the set of Mad Men, be sure to remind the rest of the cast that they've now all been bumped down to the 'easy mode' list for my Six Degrees game."

-X-Men: First Class

The more I look back at this film, the more on the fence I feel about it. On the one hand, I definitely had fun watching it, and there were parts I enjoyed. On the other, even I can't deny the film was hampered by several problems with budget and casting. Then again, I can understand on the former. After the problematic runs of X-3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the franchise has been hurting lately. The idea of doing another film was probably seen as extremely risky, and the film kind of shows this. Between its low budget and seeming distance from standard Marvel hallmarks (this may be the first Marvel adaptation in years without the obligatory Stan Lee cameo) you could tell this was a film the powers that be didn't have much faith in during production. With those setbacks in mind, it does prove a step in the right direction for a franchise that's been ailing for years. Plus, for all the earlier mentioned problems, it does have its pros as well (the script has some decent parts to it alongside its shortcomings, and for each of the problem bits of casting, there are also a few well-chosen cast members, in particular Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, who you can tell he enjoyed playing as a vintage Bond villain.) Not sure I'd say it's one to go out of the way for, but it's one of the more entertaining offerings to come out of the X label in a while.


Yeah...Branagh does that for people.

-Avengers Trailer #1... ...I mean Thor.

OK, I just want to make this clear...while I make fun of the fact these films are mostly being teasers for Marvel's big Avengers bonanza, I do it out of love. Like the above mentioned First Class, this wound up being a film I kind of came around on the more I looked back at it after the fact. At first, I felt it was enjoyable, if a bit uneven. While I still feel it's somewhat uneven, the film still holds together better than I had initially thought. Though the idea of Branagh directing a comic book movie felt a bit odd at first, he certainly proved up to the task, making the film both entertaining in general as well as holding up as a comic book movie.
The only real drawback to the film is largely the kind of unavoidable consequence of a story unfolding in two settings. The intrigues of Asgard wind up overshadowing the parts of the film taking place on Earth. At the same time, the Earth segments are necessary as a means of developing the titular Norseman from being just a brash, somewhat petty blowhard into someone who genuinely learns to care about other people for a change. Plus, they are still entertaining and well handled in their own right. In the end, this shortcoming is about the worst you can hold against the film, and even that's not hurting it that much. While I had initially voted otherwise, I think I might have to give this the vote for best of the comic movies of the season.
...that said, I would also like to take a moment to thank and curse Conan O'Brien, whose redubbed Thor trailers made parts of the movie hard to watch and keep a straight face during.

Once again proving the old adage:
If you're doing it to beat up Nazis, anything's acceptable...even steroids!

-Avengers Trailer #2 (Subtitle: Captain America: The First Avenger)

With Avengers bearing down on us like a freight train, Marvel is now scrambling to get the last of the characters established. As of this movie, the last player is in place. Was it worth it? Overall, yeah, but at the same time, I would have been curious to see how this could be addressed as an independent property. I mean, in and of itself, it's not a terrible film. The WWII setting is a fresh touch for a comic movie (and it's nice to see director Joe Johnson trying to reclaim his old Rocketeer magic again...even if he only gets some of it back.) The cast are generally well chosen, with particular shout outs to Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving.
The effects...kind of a mixed bag (some impressive, if a touch unsettling, while others...I've just kind of come to terms with the fact Red Skull just isn't a design that really converts well to live action. I commend the attempts made so far for trying, but...) This one definitely has a few more shortcomings going against it compared to Thor, but overall, still makes for a fairly fun summer movie. I think probably the one thing that hampers it the most, as someone else pointed out, is the fact the film basically exists purely to set up Cap for the Avengers movie. I would have been interested to see what they could do with the story if they didn't have to use it as a means to an end, and purely something to stand on its own merits.
Now we just need to wait till next summer to find out of this has all been worth it.

"OK, how's this? You can have this CGI ring AND my career for the summer,
and all you have to do is give me an actual, non-CG suit for this movie.

-Green Lantern

You know that feeling of disillusionment many people got after they first left the theater seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time? That half disappointed, half slightly angered feeling from realizing something they'd been waiting for, even ignoring any number of warning signs, just wasn't worth it after all. For years, I never quite got this feeling (largely because I got through the prequels under a shield of denial that kept telling me "...well, maybe it'll be worth it with II and III." This, combined with the general slow realization of the shortcomings over the 6 year span meant what should have been a painful revelation after Episode III turned out to be little more than "...yeah, overall that was crap.")
...what does Star Wars have to do with this? Thanks to GL, I finally understand that feeling described above.
People had misgivings about the movie from its first teasers (understandably so...even while optimistic I wasn't gonna kid myself and say the CG on that suit looked good) but still I kept the faith. As a fan of the comics, I held out some hope, since I honestly think the premise has potential. Plus it would have been nice to see DC score a win for something beyond Batman.
What they delivered was a movie that...simply put...was the embodiment of disappointment for me. Both as an adaptation and a straight-up movie, this was an unfortunate mess of interesting ideas that failed to gel and really shouldn't have all been in one spot. Actually, to properly go into my problems with this movie would require a separate write-up in and of itself (which will likely be following this. Seriously, it's not often I come across a film even I have a hard time finding a silver lining to, but damned if they didn't find it here. The full review for this was almost therapy.)
I still remain stunned that DC apparently wants to do a sequel despite this film's weak performance...but the fact they reportedly want a new director and plan to somewhat reboot things leaves to hope maybe they learned from the experience.
...or, this is that Star Wars denial shield back up to full.

Alien invaders, sure.
Daniel Craig with a high tech wrist blaster, yeah no biggie.
Learning your opening weekend tied with the Smurfs...
THAT was what it took to get the shocked face from Ford.

-Cowboys and Aliens

Sometimes, there's something to be said for a film that delivers exactly what it promises in the title. Sure, it occasionally leads to disappointments like Snakes on a Plane, but to be fair, that was less because it delivered what it promised, and more cause the internet hyped it to Hell and back. This wasn't a deep or moving film, but as a popcorn title, it was pretty damned enjoyable...even if the most fun of it for me wasn't entirely intentional (Harrison Ford as a crusty, cantankerous old man was worth the price of admission alone.) Like First Class, I wouldn't call this one a must-watch, but as far as a 'just for fun' offering goes, it's certainly an enjoyable piece of cheese...just one you enjoy more with a beer than wine is all.

That about wraps up the summer here.

Come back next week when, hopefully, we'll be back to delivering the regular works (likely starting with the above mentioned autopsy of the Green Lantern movie.)

Until then, I leave you with a 'till next time' and the sight of Harrison Ford murdering a smurf.

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