Friday, May 26, 2006

DVDs in Brief-ish

Enough about me! Well, it's my blog, it will always be about me... but I haven't reviewed anything in ages. I was going to start with TV, but now that the season's drawing to a close (and nearly every show I really like is ending for good) I figure I'll just wait and do a single wrap-up.

While I'm not the fastest at tearing through my Netflix, my rental history is pretty huge at this point, so here are some capsule reviews. I'll start with the most recent, so I can just stop when I reach the point where I don't remember enough to write anything. (In light of today's earlier post, please forgive any brain-tumor-induced typos!)

Battlestar Galactica (Original Pilot / New Miniseries / New Series Season 1). I'm not obsessed yet, but I'm rapidly on my way. Boy has recently gotten into this SciFi Channel show, casually at first, but with growing fanboy avidness (he bought the first season DVDs and has been listening to the podcasts), and I fear I'm following him down that path. He and I are often immune to each other's fixations (no Alias for him, no Dr. Who for me), but BSG is highly infectious. All the amazing press it's been getting certainly doesn't hurt.

I started, just out of curiosity, with the original pilot for the 1978 show. It's quite bad, of course, what with the poor extras in Cylon suits who can barely walk, the bizarre Ren Faire feel to Caprica, the intensely odd Egyptian imagery (and pretentious opening voiceover about Earthlings being descendent from aliens who built the pyramids...or something), the streaks of 70s mascara, and of course the ludicrous "robot" dog thing. But it's also surprisingly dark for television of its time. We essentially watch the destruction of a civilization, and watch that Renaissance Faire go up in flames. There are suicide bombers (okay, they're robots, but it's still ahead of its time), and that robot dog is a replacement for the real one that we get to see die (and isn't the great joke of action movies that dogs never die?).

I was also glad I watched it before watching the new miniseries, because it was fun to see what they kept and what the dumped, what they changed and what they reference subtly (and not so subtly). The new backstory is far more compelling than the original, with a great man vs. technology angle. The writing and acting are every bit as good as you've read elsewhere. This show is complicated. And dark. And I love the production design and all the little details therein. I don't want to say too much and spoil the fun for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. But if you're not watching it, you should be. It's not a typical science fiction show at all. It's a war drama, a political thriller, a bit of a soap. There just happen to be robots.

Popular Season 1. On another note entirely.... This is one of those TV shows people tend to be surprised I never watched. I don't remember if I wasn't interested at the time or if it was on opposite something else I liked in the pre-DVR days, but I kept hearing good things about it long after it's gone off the air so I finally checked it out. Eh. Totally charming and lovely cast, fun, quippy, reference-laden dialogue. I like the way they capture how everything seems like high drama when you're in high school, and write about realistic high school events with a heightened sensibility, rather than getting into teen crime sprees and hostage crises like, say, The O.C. (or Heathers, to which it seems to owe a deep stylistic debt, right down to the bizarrely 80s-esque score). But after two discs (six or seven episodes) I got bored. Every episode seemed exactly the same: Brooke and Sam reach some sort of détente, but then something happens (usually Sam's fault, if by accident) to make them hate each other again by the end of the episode. This is part of the problem, I'm learning, with watching TV on DVD. When you have a week in between episodes such things can be easier to overlook. But watching 4 eps in a row, anything formulaic like that really stands out. I'll probably come back to the series eventually, but I'm pausing for now. One of my new favorite things though is Bryce Johnson's IMDB photo, in which he seems to be thinking, "Please help me...I'm confused by my own hair and no longer understand all these buttons."

Saw. Loved it. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I guess I wasn't actually ready for it to be so deeply fucked up. It really creeped me out. I love how inventive the killer (or, credit where it's due, the writer) was. And it was exactly the right length. I have no interest in the sequel, or any of the knock-offs. It was a gimmick that worked perfectly once. Also, I love to see Michael Emerson making money.

Good Night, And Good Luck. I just joined the cult of Clooney this year, and I haven't even seen Syriana. He's one of those actors I've always liked but never really paid any attention to. Then he gave that fantastic Barbara Walters interview where he said outright that he didn't ever need to make any more money, and that's why he did Batman and I was sold. I also worship him for making a Big Issue Movie that's only 93 minutes long. Unfortunately, it's still boring as hell. I mean, I appreciate the film. I get what they were doing, it's beautifully shot, I agree with the politics and get the way it resonates with our present situation. But I wasn't actually entertained. I was far more interested in the subplot about the married couple, which served no apparent purpose.

Liza With A Z. Don't take away my homo card, but I've never been a Liza fan. I am, however, a huge Bob Fosse fan, and when I first saw the movie of Cabaret a few years ago I was amazed to see Liza in her prime. Growing up in her full-on crazy years, I had no idea she had ever been thin, or that the girl could really dance! So I picked up the CD of Liza With A Z and really enjoyed it. I don't feel the need to own anything else she's ever done, but the combination of Minnelli, Fosse, and Kander & Ebb is obviously a good one.

Or so I thought before I actually saw the thing. My god, it was horrific! What were they all thinking?? This was the year that Cabaret came out, and Fosse did Pippin - everyone was at the top of their game. So what the hell happened? Young Liza, when being herself and not playing a part (though I suspect there's a very fine line there) is every bit as creepy and weird and frighteningly needy as she is now. And since I've now seen many of the numbers performed by other people (they were in the Broadway revue Fosse) I realize she's not actually much of a dancer either. I mean, she's better than me, but I've seen them done better. And the costumes! I know it's the 70s, but those are exceptionally weird and aren't doing anyone any favors. What's up with the crazy pimp suits? Apart from being ugly, they really obscure the dancing, given how famously minimalistic Fosse's choreography can be. Having seen "Blackbird" up close with basically nothing but black leotards, seeing it with purple velour ruffles just didn't do it for me. I'm curious to hear the commentary track (which Liza recorded this year), but I can't yet bring myself to watch the thing again. It was just so disappointing.

THX:1138. I was curious to see George Lucas' first sci-fi epic, from back when he still wanted to make "art films" (his words, not mine). I'm not sure what he was making here. The design of it all is interesting, but the whole thing made very little sense to me, and the 88-minute running time felt like three hours. After Episode I I would have thought the dearth of dialogue would be a good thing, but that just added to the confusion. Something to do with people... not connecting... in the future... and having very weird sex...? Some Ewoks might have helped.

Rent: Bonus Disc. I love that you can just rent the bonus materials from Netflix. There were some scenes cut from the play that I really missed when I watched the movie, so I wanted to check them out and hear Chris Columbus explain himself. He did a surprisingly good job of that, but I still disagree with the choice, especially since those numbers actually translated better from stage to screen than much of the film. I also got sucked in to watching the documentary. It was interesting, but perhaps shouldn't have been longer than the feature.

Mirrormask. Boy do I miss Jim Henson. A year or so ago there was a page about this movie in Entertainment Weekly, in some preview issue or their "first look" feature or whatever, and I got really excited that this odd little movie from Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and Henson Associates might be a 21st Century Dark Crystal. Why, by the way, doesn't The Dark Crystal get more love? Labyrinth has become a sort of camp classic (and deservedly so), but does no one remember that The Dark Crystal was actually fucking brilliant? At a time when Kermit the Frog is selling cars and pizza, and Statler and Waldorf are discussing each other's virginity on a podcast (for true; more on that later), let's remember please that The Dark Crystal was not only one of the smartest, darkest "children's" films I can think of (though not inappropriately scary), it was also the first (perhaps still the only?) live-action movie without a single flesh-and-blood actor on screen (unless you count Jen's stunt double climbing that rock), creating a fully-realized fantasy world long before Peter Jackson got his hands on the Hobbits. And even Labyrinth, for all it's bad wigs and codpieces, was pretty technically amazing, and captured the imagination of a generation.

So how disappointing that Mirrormask was like the worst-publicized movie ever. After that EW preview, the only other thing I saw for it was this brilliant joint interview with Gaiman and Joss Whedon. Maybe there was only room for one nerd movie that week and Serenity was it? Maybe the reportedly tiny budget just didn't allow for marketing?

Or maybe it's just that the film wasn't all that good. I'm not a comic book guy or really a fantasy guy, so I'm not inherently excited by Gaiman and McKean, but I know they're talented and I was hoping for more from that combination. It's a gorgeous movie - computers now instead of puppets, but like The Dark Crystal it's a fully-realized made-up world. Some good acting and interesting mask work. But that's all very technical, and there just wasn't much in the way of a story. It wasn't any fun. It felt like work. I sort of wish I'd watched it stoned.

Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series. Another one of those shows people are surprised I didn't watch. I enjoyed it so much on DVD, it's kind of what kicked me off checking out more TV shows on Netflix (the late great Wonderfalls helped too). It took me a few episodes to get into it, which may be why I never became a regular viewer when it was on the air, but I was glad I stuck with it this time. Part of the issue for me is that, unlike the show's more rabid fans, F&G doesn't represent my high school experience at all. I don't know if that's because I'm a private school kid, or a city kid, or what, but, while I was certainly a geek, it just wasn't like that. And we only had a couple of "freaks." And I liked dodge ball. But that aside, F&G was a really good show. I ended up being more interested in the parents than the kids. Becky Ann Baker broke my heart pretty much every episode. But I love that the kids were, for the most part, actual kids. It was so refreshing to watch a show about high school students who actually look like high school students. Even the "hot" ones were kind of awkward and funny-looking, and they all looked so young. I can see why the show never caught on. It got kind of repetitive (again, one of the problems with watching TV on DVD) and, like actual high school, didn't really go anywhere. Disc one was good but didn't really grab me, discs two and three had me hooked, but by disc four my attention was flagging (and I watched over a few weeks, not like in one long marathon session). Long-term investment was certainly rewarded by the last couple episodes, and I would have loved to see where it would have gone in a second season, but I totally get why people didn't make it "appointment television." And with all the location shots, period clothes and props, and music licensing, it can't have been cheap to produce. It's worth a look on DVD though, and I totally get why it has such a cult following.

The Aristocrats. Another much-talked about movie that didn't do it for me. I just didn't think it was all that funny. And as a documentary subject, a single joke doesn't really make for a feature.

Corpse Bride. Loved pretty much everything about it. Gorgeous and funny and sick in the way I expect from Tim Burton. When is Danny Elfman going to write stage musical? He writes character-specific music (whether they're actually singing it or not) sooo well. Corpse Bride was everything I wanted Mirrormask to be and I wish it had gotten more acclaim.

Maybe that's why I found Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit so disappointing. I'm a big W&G fan from way back, but feature-length they didn't do it for me. The shorts have so much charm and wit and this felt sort of forced, like the story could have been told in 30 minutes. Also, have they always been so ugly? I guess the shorts didn't have many human characters in them. Wallace has sort of a distinct look, and Gromit has no mouth...the mouths on the people, which looked like they were just slapped onto the heads, creeped me out. Is that weird? And the bunnies were ugly! How do you make bunnies ugly?? I don't know what to say. I was really surprised by how much this movie bored me.

Heights. Great fucking movie!! I know this was a tiny film that hardly anyone saw (I only rented it because a friend of mine had a very small role), but why no love at Oscar time? So well written, designed, and acted. It's one of those six-degrees-of-separation-look-how-all-these-people-in-the-giant-city-are-connected-but-don't-know-it movies that can be very hard to pull off without becoming totally cliché, but it's so well done it works. Several of the twists and turns were actually surprising, and I found myself caring deeply for the characters. It's a New York movie that really gets New York right, and some of the location shots (like the one where Glenn Close and Elizabeth Banks are having a cell phone conversation, one walking south and one walking west, and they meet up on a corner - that must have been amazingly hard to coordinate!) really capture the city. It also manages to get scenes about the theater (auditions and rehearsals) sorta kinda authentic-looking. It's all very "young director, young writer, all-star indie movie," but it completely won me over.

Okay, you know what? I'm up to page 9 of this in Word. There's more, but I like the idea of ending on a positive note (and jesus, it's too long), so this post just became a cliffhanger. Y'know, minus any actual tension or suspense.

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