Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Monuments Men - Soldiers of Considerably Less Sorrow

The Monuments Men is one of those movies I had to take a bit of time to sort out my thoughts on. If nothing else, the one definite thing I will give this movie is that it's a great example of how release context can impact how a movie is received. I say this remembering how trailers had initially lined this movie up for a release initially during the holiday season - AKA, the prime awards time. This, in turn, had lead to some mixed impressions of the movie as being something of an Oscar bait movie- which admittedly, I could see the case for: a director with some good stand in the Academy, a strong cast, and World War II, which, horrible as it is to say, is kind of catnip for the Academy. Still, the concept was interesting enough that I was game to give it a chance regardless. Then, as things grew closer, the movie saw a shift in its release, being moved from a prime spot in the holiday season to the post-Awards hangover of January/February: a time of year somewhat notorious for being where studios dump their shelfwarmers they were ashamed to bring out before. This lead people to wonder, and grow a bit concerned.

This was partially explained when the movie opened to decidedly mixed reviews - not awful, but nothing particularly glowing.

To bring this point around, I honestly feel like the decision to withhold this movie till January/February was a smart move from a distribution standpoint. On having seen the movie, I was struck by the fact that, had I seen it amid the peak of what's meant to be the studio's best and brightest, I'd feel inclined to come down a LOT harder on it. Seen amid the frozen wastes of the year's starting line, I find myself considerably more lenient towards it.

Of course, that still doesn't completely tip the scales one way or the other, so let's get going, shall we?

The story is based in part on an actual operation during World War II- seeking to preserve much of the art and architecture of the countries in which the war was being waged. To guard from Hitler's cultural cleanse and the general destructive nature of combat, the US army assembled a special team of architects, artists and historians to go over and act as consultants in what buildings to avoid blowing up and to try and track down the art the Nazis confiscated. In the true style of old Hollywood, director George Clooney (who also appears as team member Frank Stokes) assembles an all-star cast to undertake this mission, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban.

"...OK, John. You caught me. I lied about this being a Coen Brothers reunion.
But you've gotta admit, that WOULD be pretty cool."

You can kind of see where the concerns of awards-bait might have come from at first.

This is the part where I feel a bit bad for the "but..." factor on this movie. I mean, the movie has a pretty fascinating premise, Clooney's certainly a solid director, and he's put together a great cast here. The problem is, the overall movie isn't the sum of its parts. Despite its interesting jumping off point, the movie suffers from a problem with staying focused. For as much as the title suggests the protection of old buildings, paired with the fact Bill Murray's character is chosen because he's an architect, the actual protection of buildings is almost an afterthought in this movie. Instead, the film concerns itself more with the art side of the mission, with two particular items as the objects sought out: Michaelangelo's Madonna and an altarpiece that maintains the closest thing to a continuous thread in the movie. Of course, that focus is, as the last part suggests, still somewhat tenuous. Despite the all-star cast put together for this team, they actually spend the bulk of the movie split up into teams investigating several leads across Europe. This then splits the movie into several mini-stories of varying quality (much as I enjoyed seeing Murray and Balaban play off of each other, their story is largely inconsequential but for one somewhat amusing moment where they get a lead entirely by chance.) Even what's supposed to be one of the main plotlines, involving Damon's character and a French collaborator played by an interesting but ultimately wasted Cate Blanchett, doesn't really add a whole lot to things. I was actually REALLY surprised this one didn't pan out to much, since it has a lot of potential - and to their credit, Damon and Blanchett have some interesting chemistry at first when he's still trying to convince her that America isn't planning to just steal the art back for their own collections. Like so many of the other stories in this, it's a lot of time spent for a minor clue that feels like it probably could have been tightened up or done away with - in this particular case, there's a pseudo-romance scene between the two that feels like it was never really earned, or that the film isn't even particularly invested in it. It's frustrating that there's some threads of a solid movie in here, but so much of it gets buried in a lot of fluff. The fluff isn't necessarily bad, but it's also somewhat disappointing.

It almost looks like something from a 50's sitcom.
...until you remember that they're looking at Nazi confiscation documents.

In the director's chair, Clooney's always been one for harkening back to the older style of Hollywood, and it has served him well before. In this case, however, that old time sensibility feels a bit out of place for the subject matter. Trying to do an old-style of World War II movie in a post-Saving Private Ryan age is a REALLY tricky act to pull without making your view of war seem idealistic or sanitized. George tries here, and I will give him that, but it really doesn't work too well for him on this outing. Even the moments that are supposed to strike an emotional chord with us - such as when the team loses a comrade, or when we see the Nazis torching artwork to keep it from falling into enemy hands often feel somewhat arbitrary in spite of themselves. A similar problem occurs with regards to maintaining an air of suspense in this movie: alongside the Nazis, one of the big looming threats this movie's trying to push is the invading Soviet army - where the Nazis seek to burn the art, the Soviets want to plunder it. It's not a bad idea narrative-wise, but the fact is, as far as the movie's concerned, it becomes more a matter of tell than show, and the most the Soviets do is drive up, look intimidating, and move on, lather, rinse, repeat. Even the Nazis themselves are, with two exceptions, almost a non-threat to this movie.

On top of all this, and most damning, is the fact that the movie's message is also infected by this lack of agency. The entire reason for the Monuments Men as a team is a good one - and the idea that art is an extension of a culture's voice and history is a great idea to explore, but this film never really touches on it that much, save for a speech by Clooney that pays the idea a bit of lip service. Otherwise, the movie's big concern is just 'get it before the Nazis do' and any greater statement is left for a later that never comes.

Probably the biggest surprise of this movie for me is the realization that Bob Balaban is actually surprisingly tiny.
...that's not just riffing on this picture. I mean in general, I had never really noticed just how short he is.
Bringing things back to the earlier point of the merits in holding this movie off, I do admit - had I seen this during the peak season, I'd probably be judging this one much harsher than I am now. Right now, its release during a lackluster time of year release-wise makes its failings less damning and more disappointing.

Of course, even outside of this time of year, disappointment is probably the best word for this movie. It was made with some very good components - a very promising story, a director with a solid track record, and a great cast. Unfortunately, at the center of it is a script that overextends itself without having enough cohesion to justify all those threads being thrown out. Rather than feeling like a full movie, it feels like it's flipping between vignettes from multiple other movies that sort of all blend together in the last act. Clooney makes the most of the script, but even his direction isn't at its best on this one either. It's the kind of movie I almost feel bad coming down on, since it had a lot of potential to be good, but it's weak enough in a critical area to really stop me from being able to say it works.

About the best I can do for it - to crib from another, better, WWII-related movie - is to drop the figurative hat on George's head and remind him: "you lost today, kid. That doesn't mean you have to like it."

(...yeah, I know. He's older than me. Humor me, the quote feels odd if I adjust it for proper ages.)

Anyway, going to be trying to weigh in on the Oscars for this year, though I admit, I'm still doing some extra research for that, so mileage will vary.

Till then, you've been warned!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow - We Noticed You're Still Alive

We'll have to fix that.

...oh, dammit! I was kidding!

Well, it's been a few days. After some considerable drinking, I've recovered from...that.

Sorry in the highly unlikely event anyone who's reading this liked that movie, but that has just gone on the list of the worst of all time. Not sure if it's #1, but damned if it isn't making a game effort for it.

Anyway, I have two others lined up for the next few days. Initially, this was going to be the later of the two reviews posted, but I needed something I knew I'd be happy with to wash that film out of my mouth. While the other film isn't awful, it wasn't going to be strong enough for this one.

With that, we now start entry #2 in the 35th Gundam anniversary writeups for this year. Within four months of the release of the first movie (there's a release turnaround you almost never see these days) Sunrise released the middle piece of their compilation trilogy for the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Like any good trilogy, this learns from some of the mistakes of its earlier film, and does try to build on them more. It still has a ways to go, but we're getting there.

That said, let's dive in.

Events-wise, this movie kicks off right where the first left off. We're given a brief montage complete with narration to bring everyone up to speed on the events before we start setting the scene for this movie This includes getting a more formal introduction to some of the antagonists, most notably Ramba Ral (Masashi Hirose) - the enemy ace who served Amuro a tasty curb sandwich at the end of the first movie, and M'Quve (originally voiced by the late Kaneto Shiozawa, and for the re-record played by Masahiko Tanaka.) From there, we jump back to the White Base where we last left them: knee-deep in enemy territory and trying to make their way to their own headquarters. It's a journey that makes up the bulk of this movie, and it's not an easy one for them: loyalties will be tested, friends will be made and lost, and the high cost of war will take its toll all around. know, your classic Part 2 narrative escalation.

Yeah, it's a highly illegal move, but you've gotta admit, this would make fencing a LOT more interesting.

Like I said above, this film seems to have learned from some of the problems of the first movie in terms of pacing and time. There are still some stops and starts - for example, despite receiving a formal introduction, M'Quve really doesn't amount to much in this film. Given the movies skirt around a major battle that was included in the TV series( here only addressed in passing) where M'Quve was supposed to be the big antagonist, his role in this movie really only amounts to some passing 'this is what's going on in the rest of the world' narrative, and to serve to screw over Ramba Ral. This last part becomes the one real bit of character development he gets in these movies. His role is still a valid one in the overall story - highlighting the internal conflicts and self-serving officers in higher positions are eroding Zeon from within even as their enemies get stronger - but for his part, the movie renders him less a character and more a plot device. By comparison, Ramba Ral gets the bulk of the first chunk of the movie to highlighting him as a threat. Which makes sense - not only is he a fan favorite character, he's also the first time the crew really gets to see the face of the enemy in this version (the show has several one-off episodes that highlight this point, but they were all cut down in the interests of time.) In this regard, the film actually does a good job keeping a lot of his character intact. Further, this continuous plot arc holds together better than some of the more clear-cut transitions in the first movie. It's still not a perfect job, as there are still a few scenes where you can see the narrative stitch where an episode cut out. The section where a disillusioned Amuro deserts the ship and takes the Gundam with him is one of the biggest examples of this. They try to play it off better, but you can still imagine the 'cut to credits' moment, as the bridge  between the scenes doesn't quite take.

Well...screwing Ramba Ral over and a legacy of flamboyance in the eyes of the fanbase.

To be honest, I have a bit of a harder time holding the awkward bridges against this movie compared to the first film, thanks in large part due to the fact that  the span of story this movie is trying to cover is almost literally all over the place. While the first movie covers a large chunk of narrative ground, it's still a pretty contained chunk of story (making up roughly the first 12 episodes of the series, and even then cutting roughly 4 or 5 episodes worth of that out in the process.) It feels fairly contained location wise, too- first they escape from the colony, make a quick sidestop at Luna II, then it's off to Earth where the rest of the film plays out in the NA area. It feels a bit more cohesive as a three-act structure, even with the episodic start and stop. By comparison, this movie spans a good chunk of the globe more notably, going across Europe before its finale in South America. The changes in locale feel much more pronounced in this film, which further adds to the feeling of breaks in the plot.

It also helps that, even with the awkward breaks, the stories in this part are upping the ante to make up for it. As is often the case with second parts of a trilogy, this is the movie which aims to go darker, and it manages to do so in several places, sometimes better than the events within the series. In particular, there are two arcs that translate well for this - the first is involving secondary pilot Kai (Toshio Furukawa) who goes from being just a sarcastic support character in the first movie to actually getting his own arc here, which also serves to hit home just how this war is affecting civilians as well. While part of the climax of the arc can feel a little over the top by today's standards, the emotional payoff still hits surprisingly well, in no small part thanks to Furukawa's handling of the role. The other turn here is one of those elements where I actually feel the movies did one better over the TV series: without giving too much away, as mentioned above, the crew do experience some losses of their own. One of these is an arc that, within the TV series, makes for a REALLY awkward scene. While it makes sense to show just how much the crew member meant to everyone, the show's depiction of their reactions is almost comically over the top: EVERYONE breaks down bawling at the character's death, and I mean full on fall-to-your-hands-and-knees-crying-your-eyes-out grade bawling. It's well-intentioned, but laid on WAY too thick to really take seriously, and I think Tomino realized it, since the scene in the movies is a lot more reserved. Everyone is still clearly saddened and shaken up by it, but there's also still more of a sense of shock with it that resonates better. In general, the film has more emotional beats to work with, and mostly hits them accurately.

Even with some of the 70s narrative styles, that Kai subplot is still pretty damn depressing.

This movie also further highlights one other area the movies have an edge over the series by comparison in that there are certain elements of the story that get better addressed within this version of the story than they do in the series. In particular, the concept of Newtypes - a sort of psychic phenomenon that becomes particularly prominent near the end of the series, are introduced earlier here and more gradually developed than in the series, likely thanks to the fact they had the story already all laid out and could structure it in more easily. It's actually first introduced within the first movie in a conversation, but this is the movie where that concept really starts getting set up more, in particular in the suggestions that Amuro may be developing those abilities as he makes his way through the war. It's still relatively minor in this particular film, but given it's a major element of the third movie, it helps to have them setting the foundation for it up now.

Additionally, this marks the most prominent moments where the movies break away from the series - this is thanks to the fact that, rather than story being edited by virtue of omission, this movie marks where newly animated sequences were worked in in order to bring the story more in line with what Tomino originally had in mind. One of the most overt examples of this being rolled in mid-movie, when the original unit for Sayla (You Inoue) is changed from the more openly gimmicky and toyetic G-Armor of the TV series for the more plausible, and functional looking Core Booster (see below for comparison on both.) It's primarily an appearances case here, but it does also serve as the biggest tell that the movie is reworking parts of the series.



As I said at the start, as a sequel, this movie shows it has learned from the shortcomings of its predecessor. It still has some problems, in this case partially a consequence of the sheer range of narrative they're covering, and the episodic format still betrays the movie, but, as with last time, they're at least trying to cover up the seams as much as they can. In this case, while some are still apparent, they've patched many others over fairly well, and this is in part thanks to the fact that the series was gaining more of an over-arching story by this point. By the time the crew reaches headquarters in Jaburo, the movie hits a pretty continuous stride that it maintains all the way to its finale - a somewhat more optimistic, but still memorable scene of the White Base returning to space set to Daisuke Inoue's 'Ai Senshi' (an incredibly catchy song whose translated lyrics are surprisingly dark considering the upbeat tune they're played to.) It doesn't have quite the same impact as the first movie's finale does, but after the rough ride the crew go through in this film, it's a refreshing note to close things on - the end may be in sight, and even though it's not going to be at all easy, they're at least on their way. know, given how wrong this looks out of context, and how much the fandom has already joked about it, riffing this almost feels redundant.

So yeah, there are still a few fumbles, but it's still an overall better movie in terms of composition.

Next month it all pays off with the end of the original trilogy, Encounters in Space.

Of course, I've got a lot of other material lined up for you guys before that point in general reviews. So, once again, keep an eye out.

Till next time!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tyler Perry and Jack Chick Present 'Temptation'

Boy, did I miss an opportunity here. When I was choosing the punishment movie of 2013, I had this movie on the docket- It was even one of the finalists. Instead, I opted for Movie 43 - a film that, to my surprise, Just bored me rather than angering me.

So I decided to tag Temptation for this year's unofficial wildly inappropriate Valentine's movie (after Fireproof (2012) and I Spit On Your Grave (2013), it's becoming a theme, alright?)

Had I known then what I know now, I would have given this one the punishment slot.

Now then...where to begin, where to begin...?

One of the biggest problems I'm having in this writeup is: what can I say about this movie that hasn't already been said? This has a LOT wrong with it - both technically and in terms of a message. In fact, I'd be willing to bet money some of you are reading this because you already know how downright horrible this movie is, but you still want to see me take a baseball bat to it.

In the event my suspicion is correct, I shall do my best not to disappoint.

Now then, in getting started on this, I will ask you indulge me on a bit of a digression. On his album My Weakness is Strong, standup comedian Patton Oswalt talks about his anxieties as an upcoming father - most notably his decision to scale back his use of certain substances. One of these he brings up is LSD - his concern is not that he'll physically harm the child, but rather that in an LSD-induced state, he'll cause the kid's first memories of him to be him rambling like a complete idiot. To underscore this point, he acts out an entire mock-rambling in which he explains to his hypothetical child about the secret conspiracy behind Lucky Charms cereal. The message the cereal is sending, he argues, in its symbols hidden in the wheat pieces and the marshmellows, is that the path to Christianity "which is no fucking fun," but is full of grain and will keep you healthy and regular and the path of paganism, which is bright and colorful, will rot your teeth and make you fat.

Why do I bring this up? Because the entire time I was watching this movie, I imagined this rambling. Except unlike Patton, who is using it as an example of him making an ass of himself in front of his child, this movie totally believes the message, without any drug assistance behind it.

Actually, I take it back - that would actually be MORE pleasant than the bill of goods this movie's trying to sell.

Temptation - Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, is the latest effort (as mentioned in the title) by writer-director-producer-sometimes actor Tyler Perry. Now, I'll admit, this is actually my first time taking on one of his films. He's a presence I've been aware of for a while - most notably for the fact that there is a considerable school of criticism about the fact his films tend to send some incredibly mixed messages regarding race and morality. In fact, it was hearing how badly this handled the latter that had me going "now THIS I've gotta see."

"Look on the bright side - sure, you're gonna make a load of crappy decisions over the course of this movie that will leave you alone and miserable, but when the credits roll, I'M gonna be the one the audience wants to see die screaming."

The movie is mostly told in flashback, recounting for us the story of Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) - an ambitious woman working for a high-profile matchmaking service. She's also happily married to her childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Goss,) who works as the owner of a local pharmacy (his childhood dream, as the movie's intro tells us - so you know this guy's gotta be a nice guy.) One day, Judith's boss (Vanessa Williams, as one of the few people who seems to be trying to act in this - albeit with a bit of an odd accent) brings in a new client, a wealthy, charismatic (in theory), and somewhat short-fused client named Harley (Robbie Jones) who is apparently one of the top richest tech gurus out there. Judith gets assigned to work with him on the possibility of his investing in the company. He immediately takes a shine to her - and by shine, I mean he's rather overtly flirting pretty early on before it starts sliding into sexual harassment territory. Judith is at first shocked, but also intrigued - to this point, all her carnal knowledge has been limited to her husband (and watching HBO, as she assures us - buckle your seatbelt, the writing doesn't get any better form here.) Eventually, she caves and begins an affair with this smooth-talking playboy, who her mother (Ella Joyce) immediately pins down as the Devil himself. In true morality play fashion, Judith's life hits the skids so hard and so fast as to make the cast of Reefer Madness wonder what the Hell just blew past them.

Before I get into the problems with the story - which we could be at a while - there are two points in particular I'm gonna need to address about this movie, because I'm not gonna be able to look the other way on them otherwise.

First off, we have the acting in this. I feel kind of bad for hitting on this point. As many issues as he has, Perry IS one of the few directors out there who's getting black acting talent out there on the big screens to the extent that he is. On the other hand, I'm sure Perry could respect the idea that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions - and for however much good that casting does, the fact is, most of the cast in this movie are genuinely hard to commend in their roles. About the only people I can really say are doing much in the way of actual performing are Vanessa Williams, even if her character is mostly just an exposition device, Ella Joyce, who, to her credit, is trying to actually make the most of a character that the movie can't seem to really decide how it wants us to view her, and to an extent, Brandy Norwood as a new hire at Brice's pharmacy who provides the final clues to set up the film's climax. In Norwood's case, it's a bit of a split - she manages to handle some scenes fairly well, while underselling the urgency in others. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, are just underselling all around.

I suppose, if one REALLY wanted to, they could pitch this as the incredibly dark sequel to Moesha...but why would you want to give this thing a further reason to exist?

Well, OK, that's not fair to all of the cast - there are a few who are actually doing even worse. In particular, I'd just like to say I'm really pulling for Kim Kardashian to take this year's Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for her work on this movie. She's pulled off something I didn't think was possible - I genuinely loathed her character within the first minute she was on-screen. About the only other person that really stands out worth much of anything in this ensemble is Renee Taylor as the movie's token white at Brice's pharmacy - a role that mostly amounts to some misfired comic relief that leads me to wonder if Perry had initially written this role for his Madea character, then decided it would be for the better to leave her out of a work he was clearly trying to sell as a serious drama. ...Not that this stops him from still leaving in an iteration of the comic relief old woman anyway.

Of course, I do have to cut the cast some slack here. Most of them, anyway - Kardashian's still just awful all around on this one - it doesn't help that her character is basically just a shallow enabler who goads on most of Judith's bad decisions, but the fact is, one could still at least get a passable performance with that if they actually tried. The fact is, they're all trying to make do with a cast of characters that, at best are boring or confused, at worst, outright horrible. Before we even get into the nature of the characters, I should probably start by saying this has some of the worst dialogue I've seen in a movie since - appropriately enough - Smiley. Alongside the above-referenced nugget about HBO, this movie is riddled with some incredibly painful dialogue that feels like it was written by someone who doesn't understand how people interact. Besides the fact that there are many scenes where dialogue is essentially bound to the purpose of being an information dump - either dumping out characters' backstories, or putting their emotions front and center cause emoting is hard- some of these conversations are just mind-boggling in their implication that people genuinely converse about these things. Even if Kardashian's role were being played by someone else, her scenes would likely still be pretty insufferable simply by virtue of the fact that, again, her character's sole purpose in life is to be an incredibly shallow version of a Magic 8-Ball that gives you crappy life advice. If I actually tried to put together a reel of some of the more standout bad dialogue this movie has to offer, I'd probably get in legal trouble, since it would likely amount to just uploading the bulk of the movie as is.

Maybe that's a bit harsh - but seriously, I kind of want to give these actors a medal for being able to get some of these lines out with a straight face.

Now's probably the best time to finally take the plunge into the biggest stumbling block of this movie - it's incredibly muddled and altogether problematic message.

One of the biggest problems this movie has is that what it's saying with its moral, and what the movie itself is saying in its depiction come across as two ultimately different things. For starters, let's take a look at the characters the movie wants us to view as good: Brice means well enough as a character, and to his credit, Goss does try to make what moments he has as a good guy work - but the fact is, the movie also tries to make him fit the boring side in order to justify Judith's being lured by forbidden fruit. As a result, Brice comes across less as a well-intentioned guy who came up short, and more like the black Ned Flanders. He's depicted as such an upright citizen it's almost maddening - no matter what he's going through, be it heartbreak, rage, or disbelief, he just trucks along with a weird sort of stoicism that would make Job look and go "Come on, dude. REALLY?" Even when he DOES finally give in to his anger in the film's climax, it's such an uninspired moment that it's hard NOT to get mad at him for only being as peeved as he is. Meanwhile, as the closest thing this movie has to a moral compass, Joyce's Miss Sarah is depicted as dancing the borderline between a voice of reason and a religious zealot. She's technically right in that she's the only one who seems to realize Harley is an absolute jackass - but it's delivered through a filter that reads as a dialed down version of Mrs. White from Carrie. Therefore we have a harder time being able to take her warnings as actually credible- which, in some ways, highlights one of the bigger problems with this movie.

I actually might find him a bit more tolerable if he DID also end all of his sentences in '-iddely'. Not much more, but it WOULD help.

Meanwhile, as the protagonist of this movie, Judith is in a particularly uncomfortable spot as far as the overall movie is concerned. I've tried to give Perry the benefit of the doubt and looked at this first part from a few angles, and every time, I keep coming back to the same uncomfortable conclusion that this movie seems to want to hit home: the biggest crime that Judith is guilty of is being a woman who isn't satisifed. That's really all she's done wrong here. The sad part is, based on how Brice is written and portrayed, I can kind of see why she is. The fact is, he's a very stagnant character in a lot of ways - he got his dream, and as far he's concerned, that's enough for the both of them. That Judith should have any sort of interest in pursuing her own goals is seen as unusual, and the big reason why Harley is able to get his proverbial claws into her. Even Brice's attempts to make things better don't exactly help matters - yeah, he's a nice guy, but the film never really seems to make him actually attempt to understand her. Again, his logic seems to be "I got mine, what's your problem?" Further adding to this incredibly problematic depiction is how Perry chooses to actually have Judith and Harley's relationship start. There's really no way to sugar coat this point - he effectively rapes her.
That's right.
It's out in the open now.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't fight the urge to punch my laptop screen when THAT came about. Making it even better/worse is the fact that nothing's ever said of it after. Sure, we make much of the fact Harley's a drug user and quite abusive all-around, but the fact that he rapes Judith is really just like the, to make a reference to the movie Heavy Metal, moving violation at the end of his criminal charges. Further adding to the frustration is the fact that Judith never really seems to feel any conflict about matters. Even when Harley calls her for what's really a straight-up booty call while she's at home with her husband and mother, she gets talked into leaving with almost no effort. She commits herself alarmingly fully to a man who, despite her repeated attempts to rebuke, winds up raping her. There is no way you can NOT make this a problematic message. If anything, I'm actually surprised this film didn't get met with MORE controversy on its release. Particularly for one other point I'll be getting to in a spoiler cut at the end - one which I'm willing to bet most of you can already guess.

The notion of 'personal space' is apparently a myth in this movie. Or at least a convenience, since they really don't seem to pay this scene too much mind after it's over.

Really, this is just a very special breed of bad movie. Yes, it has many general classic hallmarks of bad cinema in general - the dialogue is awkward and almost laughable at points, the acting is confused and listless or outright annoying, depending on the actor, and the direction, while not bad, is pretty unambitious. Instead, the movie's faults lie in its very skewed moral views, which seem to class 'goodness' as factors of gender and social standing (while perhaps not as overt, there IS a bit of a 'rich people are evil' subtext to this that feels rather clunky in how cliche it is, though that's still a distant second to the movie's pretty unsettling message about women.) Probably the biggest problem here is, the movie is asking its protagonist to choose between two options that, as the movie presents them, are both pretty horrible: Brice is well-meaning enough, but he's made so morally spotless as to be bland. Even Judith's attempts to revitalize their marriage are pretty readily shot down by him. It's hard NOT to blame her for feeling bored. At the same time, the only other option the movie gives her is a short-tempered sociopath, and she gets hints of this pretty early on. The entire time, the movie never seems to entertain the notion that neither of these two may actually be good for her, and instead treats her eventually winding up alone as losing it all. I realize Perry is very informed by a Christian background in his films, but in this case, the message he's sending is rather alarming - and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it a bit of a relief that people didn't buy into it.

Huh...this wasn't quite as venomous as I expected the write-up would be. Cause I'll be honest, this movie really is just...exasperating in how utterly repulsive the message it sends is.

Now then, before we get to the last REALLY problematic point in the spoiler guard, I'll say unto those who wish to avoid the spoilers: keep an eye out. Got two more reviews lined up for this week.

Till then!

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Spoils of Babylon - Because Sometimes I Watch Things Outside of Film

As the title suggests in part, this is born out of one of those times where I decide to take on something from the world of television (not a first for me as last year's Christmas special writeup showed. Plus that made for TV movie version of Les Miserables back during Summer Reading if you want to count it.)

In this particular case, I had promised to give this one a writeup after it completed its short run.

That said, as I sit down to compose my thoughts on this show, I'm struck by a discussion that occurred within the last year or so. Comedian/critic Doug Walker had done a video, and subsequently some convention panels/discussions on the notion of parody as a viable means of entertainment. One of the big talking points was whether or not the rather crassly commercial wave of '* Movie' films, designed to stripmine pop culture on the cheap to drum up just enough interest to cash in on their opening weekend, were a sign that parody was becoming a dying form of humor. There was a lot of discussion from all camps, with people bringing up everything from the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy to the numerous 'Abridged' joke series going on the web. The consensus seemed to be mixed overall, but largely deciding that, while the age of the head-on style genre roast a la Airplane! or Blazing Saddles may be in a lull, parody in general is still quite alive and kicking in other forms.

Which brings us to Eric Jonrosh's The Spoils of Babylon: a six-episode series made as a co-op between Funny or Die and IFC. When this was first advertised, I really wasn't sure what to make of it. It seemed like a comedy, but it was still delivering itself with enough of a straight face to make one question it at first. It wasn't until the show got closer to release and more information came out that I became interested in giving it a look. In no small part because the premise reminded me of the earlier British series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (which, in its own right, is a wonderfully bizarre riff on 80s British television, horror shows, and the laughably egomaniacal author at the center of it all.)
In this case, rather than riffing on low-budget British horror television, IFC aimed its guns both higher and (relatively) more obscure: firing a warning shot across the bow of the old big-budget all-star miniseries that reigned supreme in the 70s and 80s (Think The Thorn Birds or North and South). Like Darkplace, Spoils of Babylon starts and ends each episode with an appearance by fictional author Eric Jonrosh: Will Ferrell does a scenery gnawing impression of the later years of the life of Orson Welles, a persona that's entertaining enough in his own right. The story Jonrosh puts together is a mishmash of melodrama archetypes. What results could almost be summed up as "What would happen if we sat Douglas Sirk down with a crack pipe and a copy of The Thorn Birds?" Family legacies, forbidden love, changing eras, drug abuse, and children born out of wedlock fly fast and loose over the show's six episode span (trimmed down from what Jonrosh claims to be his original 22 hour cut.)

Somehow, this image just on its own perfectly sums up the fake feeling they're trying to evoke.

As is often the case in parodies, while the script in itself can be funny, this is another example where the bulk of the humor lies in its execution. First and foremost is in the cast on this . They, within the show's wonderfully skewed directorial style - which we'll be getting to next - all play their roles in such a way that they can enjoy playing up the overacting, but also still keep within the framework of the project. Despite how over the top the production gets, and he has his share of moments, Tobey Maguire actually tends to become the comic straight man in many scenes. To his credit, he can deliver the laughs when needed, and to be able to keep to the straight man role in a show like this is an accomplishment in and of itself. Next to him, much of the rest of the cast get to have a bit more freedom to make with the insanity - none more than Kristen Wiig as his adopted sister/lover/rival ( gets complicated.) Wiig starts the show at a bit of a restrained pace, but come the end of the first episode, she cuts the brake cables and handles the rest of the series playing up the over-the-top craziness with a manic energy that no one else quite manages to match, despite some VERY game attempts. Next to Wiig, the two biggest standouts here are, appropriately, also the other two major members of the story's main family. As the patriarch in the first few episodes, Tim Robbins, like Maguire, tends to be in the straight man role more than the comedic role. But he still sneaks some great laughs in with the more understated reactions to the craziness around him. Also, I have to give him some extra points for keeping to one joke introduced on the sly in the first episode and staying with it for the entirety of his run (when introducing the cast, as different actors, Jonrosh assures us that despite Robbins's character being played by a British actor, he does a very convincing American accent - which then leads to Robbins slipping into British during random scenes.) The other standout, rounding out the clan, is Haley Joel Osment as Maguire and Wiig's bastard offspring (like I said, complicated.) Osment's Winston definitely takes after his mother, playing up the gleeful crazy. In particular, his fight with Wiig in episode 5 is one of the best continuous laughs of the show's run. After having been out of the limelight for a while, it's safe to say that, while Osment's days as the lead may have passed, he's actually shaping up to have a fairly promising career in comedy if he plays his cards right.

...okay, so there's also Maguire's British wife played by a voiced-over mannequin.
...and yes, they DO have a love scene together. It's very likely as crazy on screen as it may be in your heads right now.

Alongside the cast, the other area where this show really sticks to its story is in the direction. As we're first lead into this opus, Jonrosh assures us that it's a high profile project that he pulled out all the stops on. In turn, Matt Piedmont's actual direction runs on the idea that Jonrosh was full of crap. The show is laced with all sorts of examples of carefully orchestrated directorial ineptitude that lead to some great laughs. A strong example of this is in the second episode, where a frustrated Robbins starts repeatedly slapping a hysterical Wiig. Piedmont turns the scene into a continuity nightmare, with the two cast members changing shots and positions with each slap, before concluding it on a hilariously understated tap. Further, the sheer number of different directorial tricks the show plays with, often deliberately failing at them (a fake use of classic 3-D in the third episode is another prize winner here) lends more to the sense that Piedmont knows exactly what he's doing and has done it VERY well.

I just want to state for the record, I didn't alter this image in any way beyond resizing it for the blog. Time has NOT been kind to Mr. Osment.
Still, like I said above, he's got a sense of humor at least.

It's actually a bit odd for me to be praising some of this, since as a general rule, I've usually been of the mind that you can't force bad. I've seen many other productions try to do so bad it's good and just fall on their faces. I think the difference here is, this isn't so much a pure 'so bad it's good' but rather the crappy elements further adding to the joke at the center of all of this that is Eric Jonrosh. All the time, Ferrell plays him as a man who believes himself to be a misunderstood genius and-even after we find out his miniseries is (by design, and yet not) overacted, shoddily directed, and riddled with (most damning for him) some of the most laughably bad prose this side of Battlefield: Earth- he still continues to buy into his own perceived greatness. It's like an insane and slightly drunk variant of a Matroska doll. Rather than just being a straight-up 'look at this deliberately bad production we made' project, The Spoils of Babylon makes it slightly more ambitious, making the ineptitude part of a larger mechanism - rather than being the entire joke, the failure is also a reflection on the wine-soaked ego of its fictional author.

and now, as Jonrosh would himself say it best "when the wine is gone, it's time to leave."

I'll likely be attempting a bit more work along this line in the future. For now, don't worry, next will be a straight-up film writeup again.

Till then.