Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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Recent movie review round-up (2019)

January 21st, 2020

Despite intending to on plenty of occasions, I’ve never used this blog to review movies. In an attempt to change that I’ve written up short reviews of movies from the past year or so. Films are reviewed from newest to oldest.

 

 

VHYes

In the mid 80’s a boy gets a camcorder and starts filming random stuff with his friend… over his parent’s wedding video. The first half or so of the film is a comedy based mostly around the deeply weird stuff the boys record on late night television including an Antiques Roadshow knockoff with an unflappably chipper host, a home shopping show hosted by a clueless bickering divorced couple, and a Bob Ross style painting show hosted by a woman who’s clearly nuts.

Oh, and there’s an “edited for television” porn flick about global warming.

For the first half of the film’s short 72 running time it’s packed with genuinely funny, though not always original sketches; making fun of low quality TV has been a staple of sketch comedy all the way from Monty Python to, say, Key & Peele.

Unfortunately the film falls apart as it tries to tug all the different threads into a coherent plot, relying on Lynchian nightmare logic to arrive at a conclusion. The ending makes very little sense and drags on far too long for a movie this short.

Best moment: Mark Proksch’s character smiling as he happily describes how a stained antique bowl was used in unsuccessful heart transplants.

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Uncut Gems

Howard has a lot of problems: he’s deeply in debt with dangerous mobsters, hopelessly addicted to gambling, and his marriage is failing. His fortunes are finally about to turn around though as he’s acquired an uncut gem (under mysterious circumstances) reportedly worth millions.

When NBA star Kevin Garnett shows up and sees the uncut gem, he insists on borrowing it as he thinks it’s a good luck charm. This triggers a series of events that send Howard further into his chaotic downward spiral.

What sets this movie apart is how it manages to ratchet up the tension for over two hours without much physical action. It’s more of a fast-paced drama than a traditional thriller. The synth-heavy soundtrack somehow pairs perfectly with the tone.

Best moment: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but everything about Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard is perfect. I suspect his reputation for lazy frat boy comedies may have unfairly turned audiences away from this one.

Rating: 10/10

 

 

Knives Out

Bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey died under strange circumstances after a family party at his creepy mansion. As it turns out Harlan has cut off the family financially, so almost everyone at the party has a reason to be angry with him — but would any of them resort to murder?

Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a goofy southern accent) is hired to solve the murder, but by who? He doesn’t know, which presents a second path to investigate. Like any good “whodunnit” story there’s a lot of twists and turns — and the discovery of a secret passage — before the detective can unravel the mystery.

My only criticism is the movie takes its time in the beginning with a slow setup, though to be fair there’s a good balance between setup and payoff throughout this movie once it gets going.

Best moment: Detective Blanc using the novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” metaphorically, only to immediately reveal he’s never read it and suspects nobody else has either.

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Us

When a family travels to Santa Cruz for a vacation, the mother (Lupita Nyong’o) has flashbacks to her unsettling experience visiting the Beach Boardwalk as a child. Her concerns are brushed off… until a family of scissors-wielding doppelgangers appear outside their vacation home one night.

Us blends horror with social commentary and a few dashes of humor, which won’t be a surprise for those familiar with Jordon Peele’s previous film Get Out. This time around the same ingredients are much better prepared and presented.

Everything gets a little doughy in the middle of the movie when the characters start killing each other. After a certain point it feels like you could take a bathroom break and still know who killed who.

Best moment: Without spoiling it, the twist ending left me thinking about this movie for days. If you like this movie you’re going to want to see it a second time.

Rating: 8/10

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Review: Dracula (2020 miniseries)

January 10th, 2020

 

The new Dracula three part miniseries from Moffat and Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who) adapt Bram Stoker’s classic novel with the sort of twists and trappings we’ve come to expect from this duo, for better or worse.

It’s available on both BBC and Netflix if you’d like to see it. Here’s my review.

 

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Much like the 1950’s Japanese monster movies Dracula is fundamentally an invasion story: a vampire leaves his castle in Transylvania, sailing to England in search of new blood. The obvious modern choice would be to make this a story about immigration with some kind of Brexit allegory, but that’s nowhere to be found in this adaptation.

The first episode starts in the late 19th century with Dracula’s first major victim in the story, Jonathan Harker. We initially meet Harker in a semi-alive state in the care of a convent of nuns. A mysterious nun named Agatha is keen to understand his story and learn more about Dracula, despite her already vast knowledge of vampire legends. We see Harker meet Dracula through flashbacks.

Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses won’t be a big surprise. He feeds on human blood, only comes out at night, can’t stand sunlight or crosses, sleeps in a coffin, drinks blood, etc. Every vampire story is a little different but I suspect most of us have at least a passing familiarity with Dracula.

The first plot twist is kind of a let down either way. For those familiar with the story it’s clear from the start that Sister Agatha is a vampire hunter, and for those that aren’t the reveal of her last name won’t mean anything.

The second big twist involves another one of Dracula’s vampiric traits: he has to be invited in. It’s clever enough that I won’t spoil it here.

 

The second episode focuses on Dracula’s voyage to England. It’s a typical murderer in an enclosed space horror story where the audience knows what’s happening, yet the characters struggle to figure it out before they’re all dead.

We confirm something about this version of Dracula from the last episode; he doesn’t just drink blood to live, he absorbs certain aspects of his victims via their blood. This keeps him a step ahead of everyone else.

The ship contains a big secret: no, not Dracula — we know that from the start. As it turns out Sister Agatha is on board. She’s still trying to understand Dracula right up until she has stop the ship from reaching England.

The episode ends with Dracula reaching the shore of England anyway. But wait! Time has skipped forward by just over a century. Dracula is greeted by armed guards and… Sister Agatha? Huh?

 

The third and final episode is the most original of the series… and the biggest let down. Dracula rapidly adapts his old ways to modern life as though he were a supervillain with a time machine.

Meanwhile the descendant of Sister Agatha who looks exactly like her — and sort of is her, through blood in another obvious twist — continues the journey to discover the true nature of Dracula and the mysterious rules he lives by. Why is he afraid of sunlight and the cross? What do the undead see when they look in the mirror?

All of this comes crashing down in an unsatisfying ending that only partially answers the questions it raises about Dracula.

 

Looking critically at this series I think it needs to be split in half. In the first two episodes we see the setup of the story, with some key twists on a familiar tale. It’s a solid adaptation: just different enough we don’t know exactly what to expect.

The third episode is a unique beast: it takes the stakes (sorry) and drives them forward, but stumbles repeatedly along the way.

The primary climax is perfect: Agatha and her descendant unearth Dracula for who he really is, and how his weaknesses are all related to a central personality defect. The downfall of Dracula isn’t some hero pounding a stake through his chest — it’s Dracula’s own primal fears laid bare.

I want to pause here because it’s a legitimately good twist: “Agatha” forces Dracula to pause and examine himself. After reflecting on his decisions Dracula decides to finally die on his own terms.

The dissection of Dracula’s traits isn’t without its flaws however, as many of them are never explained. Dracula can turn into dogs and bats, and in exactly one scene we see him fly. Are these rules also part of Dracula’s personality? Do they apply to other vampires or undead characters? What exactly are mirrors reflecting? Unfortunately these questions are not addressed. It’s unclear if other vampires like Dracula even exist.

Several parts of the story fall flat in the third episode. Dracula’s last victim is Lucy, portrayed as a vain narcissist who’s so unsympathetic I was rooting for her to die immediately. Dracula’s lawyer (played by Gatiss himself) serves as a comic relief in a story that already has enough comic beats to make his scenes redundant.

Overall I think Dracula is a decent enough adaptation, though the third episode suffers from focus and pacing issues — there’s a solid, unique 60 minute story stretched out to 90 minutes with completely unnecessary “clever” ideas. It would have been a more compelling story if we had the time to see Dracula come to terms with himself.

Just as with the later seasons of Moffat-era Doctor Who and the third season or so onward of Sherlock, Dracula slurps up some promising new ideas before ultimately sputtering out. 

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Killer BOB wanted poster spotted in SOMA

February 9th, 2018

“BOB” wanted poster
 

While waiting to cross the street outside the LinkedIn building, I noticed a wanted poster taped to a light post and did a double take — it’s a recreation of the Killer BOB wanted poster from the original Twin Peaks. The poster implores you to call Sheriff Truman if you’ve seen BOB.

If you’re unfamiliar with the surreal crime drama, BOB is an evil spirit of sorts who possess people. In his physical manifestation he was played by Frank Silva. Silva does have a connection to San Francisco as he had a degree from SF State. Unfortunately he died back in 1995.

(Spotted at Second and Howard)

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Ghostwatch reviewed by an American in 2016

October 29th, 2016


 

For Halloween this year I thought I’d so something a little different — I got my hands on a copy of an infamous British TV horror special and decided to write a review.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Ghostwatch is a 1992 Halloween TV horror special from BBC. It never aired in the US, nor has it ever been made available to US viewers through legal means (unless you have a region-unlocked DVD player.)

The TV special scared many viewers at the time because it masqueraded as a live, non-fiction TV show featuring hosts familiar to BBC viewers. You can read more about the effects the show had on its audience over on Wikipedia.

I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll just give you a brief rundown. The 90 minute show alternates between a talk show host with a paranormal investigator, and two on-scene reporters investigating an allegedly haunted house where two girls live with their single mother. The talk show segments include everything from “live phone calls” to interviews with a skeptic from New York.

 

 

The type of horror leans toward the subtle variety one would expect from BBC. Think Doctor Who and you’re not far off. There’s no terrifying violence or jump scares here. As an American viewer, I’d say the closest analog would be if The Blair Witch Project had been a TV special hosted by Geraldo Rivera.

One minor spoiler: the ending won’t be a surprise to you if you’ve seen The Onion’s Halloween episode of In The Know. For all I know The Onion could have been making an homage to Ghostwatch.

Overall I can say it’s entertaining, but twenty four years later it feels very dated. TV shows don’t do call-in segments anymore, for example; instead they read responses on social media. But the biggest problem isn’t the format, it’s the storytelling. The haunting theory presented toward the end casts the ghostly villain as two lazy stereotypes; mentally ill and transgender.

I don’t mean to say that a mentally ill transgendered person returning as a ghost couldn’t be compelling, but Ghostwatch doesn’t make a case for this. Instead these attributes only serve to advance the story while neglecting any potential motivations behind the ghost’s actions.

The horror aspect also deserves some critique, as the host segments tend to deflate the sense of dread building up in the on-scene segments. For the most part the tension built up inside the haunted house dissipates once the show returns to the comfort and safety of a TV set.

 

 

There are two paths Ghostwatch could have gone that would have made it a more timeless classic. One, it could have played its cards closer and have never tried to explain away the details of the haunted house. Two, it could have gone the opposite route and explored the alleged ghost in more depth.

That said, I could easily imagine the show doing well in the US market in the early 90’s when similar “truth seeker” reality shows were popping up on Fox, cable TV, etc. But stripped of its cultural context, the show seems more enjoyable for its curious novelty factor than its ability to scare.

 
Verdict: B-/C+

Good for: People curious about unusual television history, those looking for a mildly scary 90 minutes of television.

Not good for: Those bored by typical horror tropes, anyone seeking modern horror.

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Reverse Empire (spoilers!)

April 2nd, 2015


 

Let’s face it: if you’re reading this, you’re the kind of person who’s familiar with the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. You’ve memorized the scene where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.”

In a recent episode of The Flash, an evil villain played by Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself! — makes the same revelation to his young trainee.

I’m dubbing this move the “Reverse Empire.”

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The John Barrowman Theory

February 6th, 2015

2013_JBAR_ERH_024
Image credit: Phoenix Comicon
 

What if the television shows Doctor Who, Desperate Housewives, and Arrow are all part of the same universe? Crazy, you say? Well sure. But let me explain The John Barrowman Theory to you anyway.

After the events in Doctor Who and Torchwood, the enigmatic man who calls himself Captain Jack travels forward in time and discovers Earth is destroyed by an environmental disaster. Rather than work with Torchwood he decides to take matters into his own hands. He travels back in time and assumes the name Patrick Logan to conceal his identity from Torchwood.

As Patrick, he becomes an eco-terrorist to stop the impending doom. To escape his crimes, Patrick fakes his own death in an explosion (an easy feat because he’s immortal) then changes his name to Malcolm Merlyn. In the face of tragedy Malcolm decides to become even more of a badass and trains with Ra’s al Ghul’s assassins. When things take an ugly turn, what does Malcolm do? He fakes his own death again, that’s what.

 
See? There’s a pattern here — morally ambiguous, vengeful, mortality-challenged. Jack, Patrick, and Malcolm could easily be the same character in the same universe. And that’s the John Barrowman Theory.

Mind = blown.

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The iPhone with the untraceable manufacturer

January 20th, 2013

“The tech inside is military grade, I can’t even trace the manufacturer.”
— Arrow season 1 episode 10

Come on, your average Best Buy employee could “trace the manufacturer” of an iPhone 4. I’m starting to think this town only needs Archer McRockabs because of their incompetent police force.

Arrow hooks you with action and drama, but you’ll stay for the facepalm-worthy moments.

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White iPhone spotted in 1987 film RoboCop

September 22nd, 2012

In a previous post, I pointed out what appears to be a white iPhone 4 or 4S model in a 1993 Star Trek episode.

Turns out the white iPhone design dates back even earlier.

Here’s a frame of the 1987 film RoboCop, approximately 30 minutes in to the film.

It’s described as a handheld mapping device. While it may not look much like an iPhone at first glance, notice the dimensions and how it’s held with a portrait orientation.

But there’s more to it than that. Much more:

In the above frame, approximately 1:08 into the film, we see Dick Jones (played by Ronny Cox) holding a different version of the RoboCop tracking device.

Immediately after, we see a POV shot of this second model:

Notice anything iPhone-like about this?

No, not the crappy iOS 6 maps. I meant the rectangular portrait shape and rounded corners.

Thankfully, Apple’s patent on physical shapes was invalidated, ensuring the future of Omni Consumer Product’s line of cyborg police officers won’t involve patent infringement.

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New iPhone 5 “Lightning” connector predicted in 1999

September 15th, 2012

If you follow tech news at all, you know that Apple is replacing their large iPod connector with a new smaller connector for the iPhone 5 called “Lightning.”

Most folks who follow Apple would assume that the name Lightning is a reference to Apple’s new Mac connector port called “Thunderbolt.” But is it?

The above screenshot is from the 1999 film Fight Club, which depicts the Apple logo in a store window next to the word “Lightning.” Coincidence? Sure, it probably is. But still, it’s odd to see the connection in a thirteen year old film.

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White iPhone spotted in 1993

September 5th, 2012

Oh and speaking of Star Trek: TNG, here’s something you might not have noticed from Season 6 episode “The Chase” when it first aired in 1993. I want to stress that the following image is not photoshopped or altered in any way:

Through a modern lens it’s hard not to look back and see anything but a white iPhone 4/4S model in Data’s hand. The rounded corners, the size, the color, the metal edges, and the way he’s using the device all seem indicative of an iPhone.

I hope he has a good Data plan!

…sorry, couldn’t help myself.

Of course it wasn’t really an iPhone, and we only see a few shots of the device, always partially obscured by the hands of actor Brent Spiner. But if we’re willing to look at the episode with the benefit of hindsight it leads to some intriguing questions:

  • Could this count as “prior art” in the Apple vs. Samsung case?
  • Did Apple’s designers get inspiration from this episode, consciously or subconsciously?
  • Is cell phone service better in the mid 2300’s?

We could also ponder which alien races use which mobile operating systems (the Vulcans clearly run Android and the Klingons must run some frustrating shit like Symbian) but let’s not go there. I don’t want to start an intergalactic flame war.

UPDATE: It also appears they have iPads. Here’s Picard with one, with a speech bubble for illustrative purposes.

UPDATE 2: Looks like RoboCop had iPhones before Star Trek.