Thursday, April 16, 2015
At the end of the second episode, Daredevil — although he isn't yet called that — fights his way through a gang of Russian mobsters in order to rescue a kidnapped boy. The entire fight plays out in one long take, no cuts and no trickery. With its bare-knuckle brutality and seemingly effortless cinematography, it immediately draws comparisons to the extraordinary hallway fight in Chan-wook Park's 2003 film "Oldboy." One rarely sees such compelling fight scenes in movies nowadays, and never on television. If anything, "Daredevil's" fight surpasses "Oldboy's."
If there's one thing "Daredevil" does well, it's fight scenes, but the show does a lot of other things well, too.
All 13 episodes of "Daredevil's" first season debuted on Netflix last Friday to near unanimous raves. Count this review among them. The first of Marvel's five planned Netflix series, "Daredevil" brings the far-flung Marvel Cinematic Universe, which took off into deepest space with "Guardians of the Galaxy," back down to street level, specifically New York City's Hell's Kitchen.
This is a New York still rebuilding following the events of "The Avengers," and one man wants to see the city rebuilt according to his own grand design, and heaven help anyone who stands in his way.
Wilson Fisk (a perfectly cast Vincent D'Onofrio) may lack the Red Skull's Cosmic Cube or Loki's godlike powers, but he more than makes up that deficit with sheer physical menace. He's Marvel's most fully realized villain to date, in large part thanks to D'Onofrio's mercurial performance.
A man-mountain barely concealing both volcanic rage and childlike insecurities, Fisk has never truly grown up. But he has grown powerful, and from Hell's Kitchen's shadows he runs the most fearsome criminal organization in the city. He owns the cops, the courts and even members of the media. And he's looking to expand.
That places Fisk on a collision course with Hell's Kitchen's self-appointed defender, a masked vigilante dressed in black who is chipping away at Fisk's empire.
When he was 9 years old, young Matthew Murdock (Skylar Gaertner) was blinded while saving a man from being run over by a truck carrying chemicals. The chemicals took Matt's sight, but they heightened his other senses to superhuman levels. He can hear cries for help across town, tell when you're lying by your heartbeat, and smell a hit man’s aftershave two floors down.
He's also an expert in martial arts, thanks to being recruited and trained by a blind martial arts master and all-around jerk named Stick, made likable by Scott Glenn's endearing portrayal.
Yes, that sounds a lot like the old TV show "Kung Fu," a fact the show acknowledges with a sly grin, proving you can do gritty street-level superheroics without losing your sense of humor.
Now an adult, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) fights for the innocent by day as a lawyer and by night as the "man in the mask." Like I said, he's not Daredevil yet, but he is on the path.
As not-quite-Daredevil, Matt has one ally, Rosario Dawson as the nurse who patches him back together. As Matt Murdock he has a few more: his law partner Foggy (Elden Henson), their client-turned-secretary Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall).
Cox's Matt Murdock makes us forget Ben Affleck was ever miscast in the same role. Cox brings humor and drive to the character, and endows him with charisma to spare.
Show runner Steven S. DeKnight, taking over for Drew Goddard, who dropped out early into production, ably treads the fine line between genres. By the time Matt finally puts on his red costume with the horns, it feels natural. The Marvel Cinematic Universe happily accommodates the spectacle of the movies, the family-friendly adventure of ABC's "Agents of SHIELD" and the adult crime drama of "Daredevil." But those of us who grew up reading the comics already knew that.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
"It Follows" is a nearly flawless horror movie. But more, it's the best movie of 2015 thus far. With his second feature, writer/director David Robert Mitchell ("The Myth of the American Sleepover") has made what likely will be a career-defining film. "It Follows" is relentlessly suspenseful, even for jaded horror fans. You're relieved when the end credits roll, but you're soon ready to see it again. "It Follows" is that good. It hooks us with its opening scene — a single long take of a girl who appears to be running from nothing — and never lets go.
There's a bit of John Carpenter's "Halloween" in its DNA. The Carpenter vibe comes through especially in Mike Gioulakis' fluid cinematography and the unnerving electronic score by Rich Vreeland (credited as Disasterpeace).
Yet "It Follows" is not another winking, nostalgia-fueled love letter to horror flicks of decades past. Drew Goddard's "Cabin in the Woods" has taken that approach as far as it can go — for now, anyway. Instead, "It Follows" plays it straight, and the result is refreshingly modern.
What most sets "It Follows" apart is the extent to which Mitchell leaves events and motivations open to interpretation. We piece together the mystery just as his characters do. Mitchell's confidence in his audience makes the experience more rewarding and, strangely, more unsettling.
Mitchell starts with a clichéd premise and makes it seem new. A group of young friends find themselves stalked by a supernatural force passed around through sex. One could describe most "Friday the 13th" movies the same way. But from there, Mitchell plays off the greatest fears of youth, which are anything but supernatural: isolation and rejection.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is a pretty college student whose date with the new guy in the neighborhood (Jake Weary) goes wrong when he tells her he's given her a curse: a creature only she can see. The creature can appear to her either as a stranger or as someone she knows. Regardless, it will pursue her as far and as long as it takes to kill her — unless she passes it on by having sex with someone else. No matter how much distance she puts between herself and the monster, it will always follow her.
Jay turns to her sister and friends for help, and while they are naturally skeptical, they become her Scooby gang, helping her stay one step ahead of the creature while trying to find a permanent solution, if there is one to be found.
Mitchell has an ear for how teens speak. Jay and her friends sound like real young people, not hip thirty-somethings steeped in pop trivia and skilled in snarky comebacks. It helps, too, that they're played by a talented cast of relative unknowns, the most familiar of whom is Keir Gilchrist ("United States of Tara") as Paul, the awkward guy nursing an unrequited crush on Jay. (In this case, the "friend zone" is the safest place to be.) Mitchell's naturalistic approach makes the characters' predicament seem more real, too, which ratchets up the tension even more.
Monroe delivers a star-making performance. She hits all the high notes that come with being a "scream queen" then gives Jay a depth that pulls us close and makes us feel for her. By the time she considers passing the curse to an unsuspecting stranger, we're invested. We sympathize even if we don't approve because we suspect we'd act similarly.
Mitchell shot "It Follows" in the hollowed-out ruins of post-industrial Detroit. Parents, the police and other authority figures are mostly absent. Jay and her friends can stay on their folks' health insurance until they're 26, but otherwise they're on their own. No one is looking out for them.
It happens to everyone. Eventually, you have to grow up and face the world — a world that includes bad sex, bad decisions and the realization death is slowly creeping up on you. One day you're young and invincible, the next you're an adult and everything aches. The real horror is knowing it's coming.
Thursday, April 02, 2015
|Rose McIver as Liv Moore in "iZombie." (Photo courtesy The CW.)|
Ah, that is the question — or at least it is for Liv Moore, who is not feeling quite herself these days.
Liv (Rose McIver, late of "Once Upon a Time" and "Masters of Sex") puts the lower-case "i" in The CW's latest comic-to-screen adaptation, "iZombie." The show is loosely based on writer Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred's 28-issue series published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.
On paper, Liv seems to have it all. She has a loving and not-too-embarrassing family, a handsome and caring fiancé, and a promising career as a doctor in her future. Until, that is, against all her usual instincts, Liv accepts an invitation to a party, held at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe it's the right place at the right time, if a zombie outbreak is your idea of a happening scene.
So, Liv Moore — the name is a pun; get it? — wakes up the next morning dead, or rather undead, and with an occasional craving for brains with hot sauce, but otherwise just a little worse for wear.
Liv's new undead look — unruly white hair and a deathly pallor — even works for her. Put her in a hoodie, and she totally rocks shoegazer chic, which I read is making a comeback. It's a style that'll probably be all the rage among cosplayers on this year's sci-fi convention circuit.
Mind you, being a zombie entails some serious lifestyle changes. Liv abandons her hospital internship and gets a job as a medical examiner's assistant. Not counting state legislatures, morgues have the best stash of fresh brains just going to waste. Also, Liv dumps her boyfriend (Robert Buckley's equally punny Major Lilywhite) so as to avoid accidentally zombifying him.
With a regular diet of microwaved brains keeping her from going "full-on zombie" and frequent applications of bronzer, Liv passes for alive — emo, but alive. The only living person in on Liv's secret so far is Ravi the M.E. (Rahul Kohli), who thinks he might be able to cure her, but in the meantime, her condition makes for fascinating study.
Speaking of her condition, when Liv eats a person's brain, she also absorbs fragments of the person's memories and personality traits. Say Liv eats the brain of a kleptomaniac, she might find herself unconsciously stealing things. Say also the kelpto was murdered. Liv might have some insights into who done it.
In the comic book, Liv (named Gwen instead) works as a gravedigger so as to satisfy her hunger for gray matter. The TV's show's change of setting allows "iZombie" to double as a police procedural.
Enter newbie police detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), who could use a little assist making his way past the department's old boys club. A zombie assistant M.E. could help with that, only better not let on she's a zombie. Just tell Clive she's psychic instead. Cops really go for that "psychic detective" stuff, just like USA's "Psych."
There you have it. The perfect setup for a story about a woman who comes to find out only after she's dead that she rushed through life so fast she never stopped to smell the roses. So she uses her second chance to have a life worth living. If it seems a bit trite, it is, but Liv and her supporting cast are endearing enough to make it work. McIver's Liv is a pleasant change from the tedious slow-walkers over on AMC's "The Walking Dead" (and I'm not talking about that show's zombies). She's adorably morbid, and her banter with Ravi makes the show.
The recurring baddie, David Anders' dealer-turned-zombie Blaine, is also a blast, with his fatalistic plan to make the most of his situation by turning more people into zombies and then acting as their hook-up for prime-cut brains. The first lobe is free, but then you've got to pay.
It's Blaine who, briefly speaking as the voice of the show's producers, wonders aloud if zombies are past their sell-by date. I wonder the same, but if shows like "iZombie" can think up new twists, there may be some life in this genre yet.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
|"Oh, hai neighbors!"|
Everyone who has met Tommy Wiseau has a theory about him — where he's from, where he got his money, what's up with that unplaceable accent of his, and so on. My theory, not from having met Wiseau but from having conducted a cursory study, is he's an extraterrestrial, an alien wearing an off-the-rack human suit and trying — mostly failing — to pass as a native of the planet Sol 3, aka Earth.
My theory makes as much sense as any. How best can one describe the man — if indeed he is a man and not a Reptilian from Zeta Reticuli — responsible for what is widely considered the worst movie ever committed to film, "The Room"?
Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, financed and starred in "The Room," apparently imagining it as a serious drama about love, friendship and betrayal. You know, the usual things, only filtered through Wiseau's alien-from-another-planet understanding of them.
Unintentionally, Wiseau created a hilarious comedy of errors. "The Room" is less a film and more a stream of non sequiturs. Characters come and go. Plot threads disappear. And no one reacts to anything the way a normal human would.
One of Wiseau's co-stars, Greg Sestero, recounted the bizarre behind-the-scenes story of "The Room" in his funny, often jaw-dropping book "The Disaster Artist," itself now set to become a movie.
So, when you've made one of the worst movies ever and spawned a cult following around both it and yourself, what do you do for an encore? If you're Wiseau, you do what all of Hollywood's big-name talent is doing these days: You take your game to the small screen.
Thus Wiseau now gifts us with 12 episodes of a half-hour comedy series he calls "The Neighbors." Not that any TV channel — not even E! — would touch this. So, "The Neighbors" is debuting on the streaming site Hulu, which made the first four episodes available last week.
"Seinfeld" was billed as a show about nothing, but "The Neighbors" really is a show about nothing. It contains no real plots and no real characters, just people wandering aimlessly. Wiseau seems to grasp that audiences love "The Room" because of its badness, so he has set out to make a deliberately bad sitcom, peppered with callbacks to fan-favorite lines and scenes in "The Room."
Characters in "The Room" idly toss a football for no reason, so characters in "The Neighbors" idly toss a basketball for no reason. It's Wiseau's idea of a crowd-pleaser.
Wiseau, once again acting as writer, director and star, plays two characters, because one just isn't enough to showcase his talents. The main character is Charlie, the apartment manager. The other, Ricky Rick, is (I think) one of the tenants. We can tell them apart because one is obviously Wiseau in an ill-fitting black wig, while the other is clearly Wiseau in an ill-fitting blond wig.
Other tenants include Ricky Rick's psychic girlfriend, a guy who always has a basketball and loves ice cream, a woman named Philadelphia who never wears more than a bikini, several ethnic stereotypes (one of whom owns a pet chicken) and Troy, a high-strung pothead and part-time arms dealer.
I don't think Wiseau has ever met a real pothead. I mean, I know of some who are arms dealers, but none who are high strung.
There's also a visiting British royal named Princess Penelope, who shows up in episode 2 because that's something British royals do, I guess. Did I mention there are 12 episodes of this?
By trying to make a show that's deliberately bad, Wiseau has succeeded only in making a show that's painfully unwatchable. When the actors blow their lines, miss their marks and fumble their props, it isn't funny, merely tedious. The only laughs come from the cast, and even those are forced.
Yet I've no doubt this is exactly the show Wiseau wanted to make. So, maybe this is Wiseau's way of getting revenge on the audience that laughed at his supposed drama "The Room." If so, maybe he's human after all. And if that's the case, well played, Tommy. Well played.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
|Nicolas Cage in "Vampire's Kiss."|
Stripped from its context, Cage's performance is unreal. In context, it's almost equally so.
With any other actor in the lead role, Bierman and Minion's film likely would be, at best, forgettable or, at worst, a confused misfire. With Cage at his most bug-eyed and manic, "Vampire's Kiss" is impossible to turn off. Like the vampires of myth, it's almost hypnotic.
Shout Factory now brings "Vampire's Kiss" to Blu-ray as part of a comic horror double feature, paired with Neil Jordan's 1988 supernatural rom-com "High Spirits," starring the equally '80s pairing of Steve Guttenberg and Daryl Hannah.
In "Vampire's Kiss," Cage plays Peter Loew, a womanizing publishing executive who spends his nights cruising clubs and his afternoons confessing his feelings of ennui to his therapist (Elizabeth Ashley). In between he spends most of his time at the office making life miserable for his put-upon secretary, Alva ("The Running Man's" Maria Conchita Alonso).
During one night of carousing, Peter picks up a gorgeous woman named Rachel (Jennifer Beals of "Flashdance") who, in the middle of their passionate encounter, bites him on the neck.
From there, Peter, who already was an eccentric, becomes more and more unhinged as he comes to the conclusion that he is turning into a vampire.
At first we think Rachel might really be a vampire and Peter might really be her victim, slowly transforming into a creature of the night. But it's soon clear all this is Peter's delusion and he is descending into madness. And madness is where Cage excels.
In Victorian vampire literature, such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla," vampirism represents a release from one's inhibitions. The proper Victorian heroines of Stoker's novel become depraved temptresses after they're bitten by Dracula. In "Carmilla," virginal women succumb to lesbianism. Vampirism in 19th century literature is, more than anything else, an assault on propriety.
When we meet Peter, he's already a jerk and more than a little odd. Even before the "transformation," Cage gives Peter a strange, unplaceable accent. But after Rachel bites him, Peter ascends to a whole new level of weird. Cage breaks free of his inhibitions and any sense of propriety, and the audience comes out the winner.
Cage's Peter rants, he moans, he twitches — all the while, his mood swings between existential despair and a kind of malevolent glee. When the "vampirized" Peter really gets his freak on, he resembles a comic version of Max Schreck's ratlike Count Orlok in the 1922 version of "Nosferatu." We laugh at Peter, but we wouldn't want to run into him alone in a dark alley.
Vampires in folk tales display obsessive behavior, and so does Peter. He becomes obsessed with a client's contract, which has disappeared from the office files. The notion that something could simply be misfiled makes no sense to him: You put the contract in the file where it belongs. Simple, right?
The missing contract leads to two of Cage's most delirious rants, one to Peter's therapist and the other to Alva, who by this time has become the primary target of Peter's now overt hostility.
Alonso is Cage's perfect foil. Her Alva is every bit as grounded as his Peter is extravagant. Seen from her point of view, "Vampire's Kiss" isn't a dark comedy at all, but a straight-up horror movie about a woman terrorized by a boss whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic until he finally becomes a danger to her. Alva's perspective keeps us grounded, too, lest we buy into Peter's fantasy.
Cage's filmography is filled with off-the-wall roles, from Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" to the 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man." But none of them is quite as outrageous as Cage is in "Vampire's Kiss." This is where we reach peak Nicolas Cage.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
It is a transformative moment for Parker. Afterward, he practices. He hones his skills. A few years later, the legend of Charlie "Bird" Parker, one of the greatest sax players ever, is born.
It's a good, strong story, and one we hear repeated throughout writer/director Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash." Yet even within jazz, Bird's story is an outlier, a kind of origin myth.
Bird's story isn't Thelonious Monk's story nor John Coltrane's story nor Miles Davis' story.
Before long, we realize Bird's is the only story Chazelle knows, and "Whiplash," for all its virtuosity, is simply variations on a theme. Chazelle turns it into a campfire tale to frighten children.
One supposes Chazelle thinks he's making a movie about music, drive and the correct ratio of inspiration to perspiration needed to create an artistic genius. What he has made is something more primal — a monster movie for performing arts school students.
Watching "Whiplash" is an intense, even harrowing experience, insofar as watching any movie can be said to be "harrowing." It's an experience I'm happy to have had but not one I'm eager to repeat, and it all comes down to the monster that Chazelle and J.K. Simmons create, for which Simmons claimed a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
And there is no doubt Simmons' jazz instructor Terence Fletcher is a monster. He stalks his prey like a vampire, seduces with manufactured charm and sweet lies, then destroys. To say Simmons delivers a literally mesmerizing performance is only a minor abuse of the world "literally." There is a bit of Svengali here in both the Fletcher character and Simmons' portrayal.
Seen another way, Fletcher is an abusive spouse, although he never claims he will change or do better. He is too subtle for that. With a smile, a laugh and that Charlie Parker story, he lures his victims into giving him just one more chance without ever asking for it. It's seduction at its most insidious.
Fletcher's perfect mark arrives in the form of first-year student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), a green recruit with more ambition than sense, aspiring to be the next Buddy Rich and to avoid the fate of his father (Paul Reiser), a failed writer who has settled into a life of domesticated mediocrity.
Neimann's instrument of choice is the drums, and his quest to master jazz drumming reduces to more speed and greater technique. You can't get soul out of the drums the way a talented musician conjures the soul of a trumpet or sax or piano. The drums seem like a lark, or, at most, Neimann's all-too-blunt method of taking out his frustrations. That makes it all the more difficult to believe Neimann's motives are pure. Does he want to be a great drummer, or does he want just not to be his father? Fletcher probably senses what we do when he quizzes Neimann early on and learns no one else in Neimann's family has any musical inclinations. But for Fletcher's purposes, any motivation will do as long as it becomes an obsession. Taunting Neimann about his dad is just one of Fletcher's strategies. Fletcher doles out psychological and physical abuse so extreme it's impossible to believe it could fly under the radar today at any real fine arts school.
But we must remember: "Whiplash" is a fantasy, and the school is the monster's hunting ground.
One can't overstate what an imposing presence Simmons is. The 60-year-old actor makes Fletcher all muscle and sinew, powered by rage. Neimann never stands a chance. Each time he seems to take initiative or notch a victory, Fletcher is there to end it. Even when we finally reach the Screenwriting 101 happy ending, we can't take it at face value.
Thanks to Simmons, Chazelle has made a great if hard-to-watch movie, just probably not the one he thought he was making. If there were still video stores, "Whiplash" would belong in the horror aisle.
Thursday, March 05, 2015
Seeing Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock walking down an Enterprise corridor, DS9's Dax (Terry Farrell) says, "I had no idea. ... He's so much more handsome in person. Those eyes!"
Avery Brooks' Capt. Sisko says, "Kirk had quite the reputation as a ladies' man."
To which Dax replies, "Not him. Spock!"
Three decades after the fact, "Star Trek" acknowledged what fans had long known: Kirk may have been the "ladies' man," but Leonard Nimoy's Spock was "Star Trek's" real sex symbol.
Nimoy died last week of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at age 83. The emotional outpouring that followed from fans worldwide was swift and overwhelming. No doubt Mr. Spock would have found the reaction fascinating but also logical.
Like most of his "Star Trek" co-stars, Nimoy was a working actor, paying the bills by taking guest roles in some of the 1960s' most popular TV shows before "Star Trek" came along. Mr. Spock was both a regular paycheck — every working actor's dream — and just another character role.
By the decade's end, Spock was on his way to becoming a cultural icon.
For a certain audience, Mr. Spock made being a geek cool decades before being a geek actually became cool. William Shatner's Kirk was for many of us a fantasy, the guy we'd like to be but knew we never could. He wasn't just a ladies' man. Kirk could go toe-to-claw with a Gorn and still trick a computer into self-destruction. The rest of the Enterprise crew were a multicultural collection of aspirational role models. Yet it was Spock — half-Vulcan, half-human — who most spoke to viewers.
Spock was aspirational, too. He was the smartest member of the Enterprise crew, famously logical, meticulous and curious. Yet he was also an outsider. He was the lone Vulcan on a ship crewed by Earthlings, but as half-human, he was also an outsider even on his home planet. His relationship with his father was strained, his love life was complicated and while he claimed to be in control of his emotions, it's more accurate to say Spock was emotionally repressed by choice.
Spock went beyond being a role model for aspiring science nerds. Here was an adult who embodied all of the fears and insecurities of adolescence, no matter how well he hid them.
It was a role Nimoy embraced. Google "Nimoy fan letter" and you'll find his response to a fan letter he received in 1968 from a biracial girl who couldn't fit in among either whites or blacks. Nimoy speaks for his fictional character, but he could easily be drawing on some of his own experiences, growing up the Jewish kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.
He titled his 1975 memoir "I Am Not Spock" in part to show the distance between himself and the character he and many talented writers, especially D.C. Fontana and Theodore Sturgeon, had worked over three seasons to create. But Nimoy and Spock proved inseparable.
Nimoy returned to play Spock in eight movies (counting the two J.J. Abrams-directed reboot films) and in a couple of episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Even killing off Spock in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" didn't last. Nimoy also directed two Trek movies as well as the comedy "Three Men and a Baby." He took up writing and photography, and he took on other roles, from Paris in "Mission: Impossible" to, most recently, the enigmatic William Bell in "Fringe." He eventually wrote a second volume of memoirs, this time titled, "I Am Spock."
On Twitter, he invited us to think of him as our grandfather and dispensed grandfatherly advice, always concluding with Spock's Vulcan salutation, "LLAP" — "live long and prosper."
In the end, there is perhaps no better epitaph for Nimoy than the one Kirk provided Nimoy's alter ego in "Star Trek II": "Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most — human."