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Take a Trip to Wayward Pines

Entertainment 150There is a town in Idaho you can only get to by car accident. After you wake up in the hospital, you’re patched up from your injuries and given the location of a hotel you can stay at while you recuperate. A few days later, a realtor comes by and gives you a house. Then you get a letter that congratulates on the new job opportunity that’s just opened up. Your neighbors, perfectly polite people whose smiles don’t reach their eyes, provide a warm and inviting community for you to fall into. All that’s asked in return for this idyllic life is that you follow a few simple rules. Don’t try to leave. Don’t talk about your life before. And always answer the phone. Welcome to Wayward Pines.

I’m a fiend for a good small-town mystery, especially if it’s tinged with the supernatural. A seemingly perfect town surrounded by ominous, atmospheric woods, populated with a cast of characters who each harbor a secret? Sign me up! After Twin Peaks crashed into our collective consciousness some 25 years ago, there’ve been a number of series that have cribbed that template. Some have been successful (American Gothic!) and others…not so much (Persons Unknown!).

Lately, though, it feels like the supernatural mystery show has been more miss than hit. There were at least a dozen shows that failed in the wake of LOST, and this latest offering from Fox (which seems to be trying to translate the success of the event miniseries to network TV) just looked like another high-concept series doomed to failure. M. Night Shyamalan featured heavily in the promotional material, and any marketer that doesn’t know not to use that guy as your big gun clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing.

But the pilot of Wayward Pines hooked me. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke woke up in the middle of the woods with no idea how he got there, and wandered into the sleepy town of Wayward Pines. Not only was he trying to piece together the puzzle of why he was where he was, he was also trying to find two of his own that have gone missing. The townsfolk are strangely vague about his direct questions, to the point that a sinister edge begins to leak from just beneath the surface. As Ethan becomes more frustrated, he begins to act out — and the power structure of the town escalates as well.

What follows is a series that is one of the best examples of pacing episodic television that I’ve ever seen. Wayward Pines is using the compressed nature of its run as a feature; knowing that there’s only so much space to work with allows them to move the story along briskly, while still being careful enough that the world feels grounded and the atmosphere is allowed to settle around its audience. Through the first five episodes, the tightrope walk has been managed just about perfectly.

Another thing that Pines has working in its favor is the fact that the story had been completed; the show is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, who is helping adapt them for television. There’s no holding pattern waiting for the ending, and there’s no waffling about the true motives of the characters; the writers know exactly how everything plays out, and they can use that knowledge to inform how the story is told.

So what you get is a show where Ethan is believable in his dogged pursuit of the truth; where he comes across as competent and resourceful even as he becomes increasingly desperate; and where his actions uncover hidden answers that actually look like progress. The antagonists within the town are certainly shadowy and menacing, but not omnipotent; they’re consistently surprised by what Ethan is willing to do to achieve his goals.

Each episode focuses on a more-or-less immediate goal that Ethan hatches, and moves through the planning, execution and success or failure of that plan. The stakes are clear, the consequences (both intentional and unintended) are revealed naturally, and the new avenues that are opened up feel well-connected to what’s come before. The series actually feels coherent, and the twists shock without feeling like they break the premise once you stop to think about them.

The most impressive trick of the show is its timing. It knows when to slow down enough to make the atmosphere oppressive, and when to ratchet up the action. There isn’t a scene that feels indulgent or wasted; they’re all imbued with a momentum that makes you want to know what happens next. And the revelations come at just the right time for maximum impact. It’s firing on all cylinders.

Wayward Pines is only halfway through its run, but barring a structural collapse in the story on the back half I feel confident in saying that a worthy successor to Twin Peaks has come along at last. If you’re like me and have been burned too many times by mystery thrillers that collapse under the weight of their own stories, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find in Wayward Pines. Shyamalan, Crouch and showrunner Chad Hodge are confident in the story and their ability to tell it, and it shows on the screen. I’m glad I gave the show a chance; hopefully, you will too.

Wayward Pines airs Thursday nights on FOX; the show is on hiatus this week, making it a perfect time for you to shotgun the first five episodes before it returns June 25th. Full episodes can be found on FOX.com.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Reviews, Television

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: King Kong (#43)

Entertainment 150King Kong (1933)
Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace (story)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

I think most people from my generation know all about King Kong but haven’t actually seen it. We know about the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, or the huge eye looking through the window followed by a giant hand grabbing at a shrieking woman. We know about Kong fighting giant dinosaurs, and Fay Wray tied up on the pillar and screaming her head off. And really, that’s all you need to know, right?

Well, somewhat. Most people from my generation got their first exposure to the full King Kong experience through Peter Jackson’s loving 2005 remake. And I have to say, most of the time I watched the original I was comparing it to that film. I’m not sure that really helped my appreciation of the 1933 classic, really, but I couldn’t quite help it.

Here’s the story: filmmaker extraordinaire Carl Denham (Armstrong) has an incredible idea for his next project, but needs to find a leading lady for it. He eventually finds down-on-her-luck actress (Ann Darrow), and just like that he’s sailing through the South Pacific to his top-secret location. Both Ann and the ship’s crew get more than they bargained for when she’s offered up to the mysterious island god Kong, a giant ape who falls for her exquisite beauty. The ship’s crew go after her and encounters the jungle’s oversized prehistoric wildlife, falling to horrible deaths. The ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham manages to bring Kong down after the ape smashes through the village of the local tribe. Kong is brought to New York, where…things work out about as well as you expect them to.

The special effects get most of the attention here, and a surprising number of retrospectives claim that King Kong was the first true effects-driven blockbuster. I could totally see that, come to think of it. Moviemaking was still in its relative infancy, and these guys were trying things that had never been done before. The models and effects were extensively detailed, and the soundtrack was the most advanced in all of movies at the time. The writing wasn’t very subtle, but I don’t think that’s the fault of its age; there are tons of movies from that period capable of playing soft notes or letting moments land. But I think that the dialogue was crafted to be as big and overwrought as the monsters in it. There’s a lot of hammering home the motif they’re working with, and the foreshadowing comes across a little ham-fisted. I’m sure it only seems that way because we know the beats that follow so well.

Still, what impresses me is how brutal the movie is. It takes a little while to get going (Kong doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in), but when it does the film more than makes up for lost time. The dinosaurs are as impressive as Kong, and the sheer immensity and power of them come across very well. The crew’s search for Ann is a litany of horrors as they encounter monster after monster, losing men every step of the way. They can’t even stop to wonder at what they’re seeing because they’re far too busy trying to stay alive.

Kong is at its most graphic when innocents are involved. The scenes where the big ape trashes the jungle village and rampages through New York in search of Ann are surprising in just how careless and cruel he can be, stomping, biting and throwing people without even slowing down. I think this is the biggest change between the 1933 original and the 2005 remake. Jackson takes great care to make Kong a lot more sympathetic, and the affection between him and Darrow is actually there. But in the original, their relationship is a lot simpler — Kong desires Ann, but not in a way that anthropomorphizes him. She’s a prize, a toy, and there’s nothing in his actions to indicate something deeper than that. Ann, for her part, is horrified and traumatized by the ordeal. It comes across much more as Kong being a force of nature, and his brief reign of terror is a reminder of what happens when mankind tries to harness forces it cannot control or understand.

It may be just a little dated, and it comes across as a bit melodramatic (even considering its age), but King Kong is still an enormously impressive movie on its own. When you consider just how much it influenced movies of its time and going forward, it’s definitely earned its place in the annals of film history. I think these days it’s more to be enjoyed as a cinematic cultural touchstone than anything, a pivot point in the history of moving pictures.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Philadelphia Story (#51)

Entertainment 150The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay) and Phillip Barry (original play)

In the very first scene of The Philadelphia Story, we see wealthy socialite CK Dexter Haven (Grant) packing his bags into his trunk angrily. His wife Tracy Lord (Hepburn) follows him out, carrying his golf clubs. She rips out his driver and breaks it over her knee. In retaliation, he puts his hand on her face and shoves her right back through the doorway. It’s shocking, but the chemistry and comic timing of Grant and Hepburn are so good that it comes off funny instead of violent. And it wonderfully sets the tone for the relationship of the divorced couple as well as the movie based around them.

Two years later, Lord is preparing to marry an ambitious businessman (John Howard) even though not everyone’s sure it’s such a good match. Haven has his doubts about it, so he hires two journalists to cover the event — and hopefully ruin the wedding. Just to make things even more awkward, he arrives as a third unannounced guest. What follows is a carefully structured unraveling of the nuptials and everyone’s relationships, so that by the end of the movie even though some things are completely destroyed you have the feeling that everything’s been set right.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. So many things could have gone wrong here. Lord is a severe woman who could have easily come off as cold and mean if not for the wonderfully manic energy, warmth and vulnerability Hepburn brings to the role. Grant plays ‘old money’ down to a T, and even though he spends most of the movie sniping with Hepburn he comes across as affable and smooth. Stewart is the biggest risk here, as one of the hired journalists. I’ve only seen him in noble, nice-guy roles and here he plays someone who can only be described as a jaded asshole. Totally different dressing, but he wears it well.

All of the characters have deep flaws that aren’t only exposed for all to see, but dissected in detail. Hepburn’s socialite Lord gets the worst of it, and it’s no small feat that she comes away as well-regarded as she does. Despite the sniping and constant jockeying for social position, there’s a clear love that shines through between the characters, and I’d like to think this is because of the easy camaraderie between the principal actors. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart apparently never needed another take of their scenes, despite ad-libbing quite a bit. That’s even more impressive to think about when you watch the middle of the film, the alcohol-soaked party and after-party in which the flinty shells everyone’s wearing starts to dissolve. The revelation of character and the easy, organic comedy that’s given equal measure is truly a sight to behold.

The energy ramps down towards the end, once Lord has learned her lesson and the villain (as much as there is one) is dispatched. People start pairing off happily, and I have to say this is the weakest part of the movie. Lord’s character arc is strongest here, and it wraps up well enough, but there’s not much left for the other characters to suggest they’ve made the movements they need to take towards the film’s resolution. So a lot of the emotional notes ring false right when they’re supposed to be truest, which is a bit of a let-down considering how great things were chugging along before.

Even still, Lord’s arc is a really good one. In order to love someone properly, you must be aware of and accepting of their flaws. She wasn’t even aware of how harsh she could be until it was brought to her attention (granted, in a really terrible way by her absentee father) and she learned how to face the consequences of a terrible mistake she never actually made. Having someone leading her by the hand to show her a bit of grace was the very thing she needed to learn how to be graceful herself.

I tend to have a hot-and-cold relationship with the screwball comedies of old; sometimes the frenzied energy just leaves me behind and I simply can’t connect with anything on the screen. The Philadelphia Story is certainly quick, but it slows down to breathe when it needs to and some of the best scenes are when two people take a break to really get to know each other’s point of view. Everyone involved really knows what they’re about, and for the most part it gives the movie a breezy, effortless energy that carries it through quite well. Any fan of Hepburn, Grant or Stewart should definitely give this a look.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: From Here to Eternity (#52)

From Here to Eternity (1953)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed
Directed by Fred Zimmerman
Written by Daniel Taradash

From Here to Eternity almost comes across as a melodrama, and without a doubt all of the ingredients are there. Shocking revelations from damaged people with haunted pasts, villains who are infuriatingly incompetent and unlikeable in a way that gives you pleasure in hating them, and an interesting, unique location, for example. This movie, about an Army barracks on the island state of Hawaii before the start of World War II, could have easily become a potboiler romance that stood out as a prime example of its kind.

What makes it different is the sure-handed, subtle direction of Fred Zimmerman, which is a real asset here. He strives for a sort of realism that feels counter-intuitive given the subject matter, but it turns out to elevate the material quite well. Scenes are tightly constructed, with small Easter eggs hidden in the background and peripheries that enrich the personalities of the characters you’re watching on-screen. Conflicts and interactions come across organically, and even though the lives of these people amount to a huge hot mess, you see how they ended up where they did logically and emotionally. It’s quite impressive.

Montgomery Clift is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (yes, really), a rebel (hah!) who’s just joining the G Company after a falling-out with his previous commander. The Captain of the company wants Prewitt to box but he steadfastly refuses, which draws him the ire of the commanding officer and other folks in the outfit. This, of course, leads to extra chores and abuse. The second-in-command, relatively straight-laced Sgt. Milton Warden, doesn’t approve of this but goes along with it despite the respect he has for Prewitt. He also has his eye on the Captain’s unhappy wife, Karen.

During one of his rare base leaves, Prewitt meets Alma, one of the girls at a club downtown. They hit it off pretty well, but their relationship is complicated by their desires — for all his trouble with the company, Prewitt wants to make a career out of the Army, while Alma wants someone rich and respectable. The tension between their dreams and the good life right in front of them grows more and more taut until a chain of events caused by the company’s dysfunction forces them to make a decision, one way or the other.

The movie explores the way our sense of duty to the wrong things really runs us through the wringer. Almost every major character has a misplaced sense of loyalty that makes them unhappy and in some cases, ultimately does them in. Instead of working towards things that deepen the relationships with the people they’ve come to care about, everyone struggles to uphold a misplaced ideal that they don’t even care about. What’s interesting is how this makes them all feel victimized and wronged, so that they feel those closest to them owe them breaks. Prewitt feels a loyalty to the Army that has consistently run him ragged. Warden hates Army officers (presumably) for their feeling of entitlement, and it keeps him in a miserable position where he has all of the responsibility of running the ship but very little power to do so. Alma’s insistence on status keeps her from giving in to the love she shares with Prewitt, while the Captain’s wife feels a strange bond with her philandering husband even though he’s wrecked their marriage beyond repair.

The tragedy here is that people stay the course in their lives hoping that things will magically become better instead of acknowledging that they’re on the road to ruin. It’s puzzling behavior from the outset, because each of us can clearly see that things will never change for them unless they do — something has to give. But haven’t each of us done the same thing, staying in an unhealthy situation for far too long with the hope that something will put things together?

Clift, Lancaster, Kerr and Reed all portray their characters as smart people with large blind spots, and you genuinely empathize with them even they’re being exasperating. That’s a fine tightrope to walk, and everyone does it expertly. By the time the finale rolls in and the consequences of everyone’s actions are forced to the surface, you get the sense that really, it couldn’t have ended any other way. The fragile ambition of even the most competent people is no match for the pulverizing tide of society and history.

So what do we learn from this? I walked away from the movie with the idea of adaptability in my head. It’s incredibly important to be adaptable to your situation, recognizing when your ideals need to be softened in the face of an untenable situation. I don’t necessarily mean throwing out the values that mean the most to you in the face of the slightest resistance, but more recognizing when a certain value needs to be sacrificed for something greater. We live in a world that can be much more stubborn than we could ever hope to be, and learning how to bend when it’s necessary is one of the greatest assets we could have as adults.

From Here to Eternity is a great study in characters who are too stubborn and headstrong for their own good. It’s something that we still struggle with as a society, pretending that “strength” means unwavering from a decision even when it’s revealed to be wrong. It’s interesting to me that this individual drama can be drawn over a larger tapestry today, and how if we’re not careful we could find ourselves facing the same unhappy fates of Prewitt and his company.

Rating: 7/10.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: MASH (#56)

MASH (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. (screenplay) and Richard Hooker (novel)

MASH is not a friendly movie. Even though you know you’re watching a comedy, the opening title credits throw you off — the theme song is the legendary “Suicide is Painless,” and over the melancholy tune you see shots of wounded soldiers being lifted out of combat by chopper. It creates a diasrmingly somber mood right out of the gate, and when you first meet the film’s nominal protagonist, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), his flagrant disregard of authority reads as cynical near-nihilism as opposed to free-wheeling comic anarchy.

Most of the early scenes drop you right into the chaos of the MASH unit, so there’s a constant stream of conversation at all times. It’s tough to figure out which bit of dialogue you’re meant to follow, or if you’re meant to follow a particular thread at all. If you’re not military minded (I’m certainly not), it’s a little difficult to follow the chain of command in any given scene. It all adds up to twenty or thirty minutes of orchestrated chaos that’s confusing, vaguely upsetting, and impossibly slippery. You can’t really get a bead on it.

Then something happens; at some point in the movie, everything clicks. The humor becomes clear, the rhythms of dialogue tap a beat you can follow, and you finally get to know the characters. After a thick and off-putting opening, MASH becomes something different and fascinating in its own right.

Pierce and his best friend, Trapper John MacIntyre (Gould), are the ringleaders of this circus. They’re excellent surgeons but terrible people, and their bad influence spreads through the entire unit until almost all of them are simply reflections of a trickster spirit that just so happens to be able to heal you. After Pierce and MacIntyre persuade or badger everyone into their way of thinking (or in the case of religious zealot Major Frank Burns, eliminate them entirely), the group forms a vastly dysfunctional unit that’s shockingly inappropriate but a bunch of guys you can root for anyway.

The movie is essentially a series of episodes detailing the evolution of the group. One by one, Pierce and MacIntyre deal with the members of the community, getting to know them and then correcting their perspective. Some folks take a little more work than others, but the effect is almost always the same. You come to an understanding with Pierce, and then he floats away to work on his next project. What you end up with is a true cult of personality that gets broken up by war’s end.

I’m not sure if this is the crux of the novel the movie is based on, but director Robert Altman and his merry band of chaotic actors use the setting to present a different view of war. The soldiers were dirty in both mind and body, and no one knew why in the world they were there. These weren’t noble people driven by a sense of patriotism or purpose. They were just a bunch of guys thrown together to do a job. And they made the most of it, stiff-arming any resistance they were faced with. The senselessness of the war (said to be Korean in the movie though everyone knows it was really about Vietnam) was underscored in hedonistic atmosphere that Hawkeye Pierce cultivates so well. They were an Army medical unit just outside the front lines of a nasty, brutal war — any or all of them could go at any time. Might as well make the most of the life you’ve got before then, right?

What makes the movie fascinating is how you’re never quite sure how to feel about what you’re seeing. Hawkeye and company are incredibly misogynist, self-serving and callous. At the same time, they’re the soldiers who were fighting for our freedom back home. You can’t really approve of what they’re doing (even though it’s frequently hilarious), but you can’t pass moral judgement on them either. These characters are in a war that we’re simply seeing from our own couches. Most of us will never have this experience. Who’s to say what that would do to us?

MASH is a messy, funny, uncomfortable movie. It’s absurd and troubling and because of that, fascinating. It’s certainly not the easiest movie to sit through (at least for me), but I think it had a brave authenticity that resonates today. This, for better or for worse, is the face of America abroad.

Rating: 6/10.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The AFI Top 100 Movies: The Third Man (#57)

The Third Man (1949)
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene

Part-film noir, part-European murder mystery, The Third Man isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. The protagonist, a writer visiting a friend in war-torn Vienna, isn’t as hard-boiled as your standard detective. The femme fatale isn’t quite as devious or troublesome as you see in this type of movie, either. But the fight against a monolithic, byzantine system is just as confusing and demoralizing as ever, and the touches that serve to visualize the struggle really brings that home. In fact, the setting is so well-constructed it’s no surprise that the characters are so outmatched by it.

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Cotten) is invited to Vienna to stay with his childhood friend, Harry Lime. He arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, though — it turns out he was run down by a car. Martins quickly figures there’s some foul play at work, and tries to sort through his friend’s messy life in an even messier city to get the truth. This earns him a few enemies along the way, and every time he gets an answer there are three more questions that spring up. Anna Schmidt (Valli), one of Lime’s ex-girlfriends, bonds with him through the course of the investigation. At least, until they get an answer neither of them were expecting.

The movie really doesn’t play like a film noir, even though it has all the pieces in place. No one complains about the heat, Martins and Schmidt actually like and trust each other until circumstances tear them apart, and Martins isn’t done in by his own heroism. What actually does happen would be interesting if the characters behaved a bit more logically. When all of the cards are on the table and the main characters do have to make their decisions, they prove to be ultimately disappointing. But more on that later.

The real reason to watch this movie is the wonderful strangeness of post-war Vienna. The city is divided into Russian, French, German and English territories. Each of the foreign nationals seem to mix freely in any of them, though, so chances are most people you meet won’t speak your language. Director Carol Reed has characters hold conversations in their native tongue whether his main character can keep up or not, and it only adds to his confusion — and ours — to great effect. He must be missing something, but what? Broken English can only get you so far when you’re dealing with a complex subject like covering up a homicide.

The other fascinating thing about this movie is Orson Welles himself. His character’s reveal is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in a long time, and Martin’s meeting with him is as riveting as it should be. The entire movie pivots on his one important scene, and afterwards we have a very different idea of where it’s going. Both Martins and Schmidt are forced to deal with what they learn, and here’s where the movie unfortunately falls apart.

I’m all right with my characters having a strong gray streak. After all, this is a film noir. However, I do have an issue with characters who don’t seem to have reasons for choosing one virtue over another. Both Martin and Schmidt consider loyalty to be more important than anything else in the movie, and that doesn’t ring true for me. Knowing what they know to be true, it deeply diminishes my regard for them to see them behave the way they do in the third act. Not only because it’s morally bankrupt, but also because it’s senseless behavior.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the mystery, so I’ll leave it at that. The Third Man is a nice, strange movie that doesn’t give you a chance to orient yourself. If you’re into that sort of thing — and you have a high tolerance for unlikeable characters — this is probably your movie.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2012 in AFI Top 100

 

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