Sunday, October 4, 2015

Video review: "South Park: The Complete 18th Season"

Ever since “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker became a Broadway bonanza, their “day job” producing the crude, smart animated show for Comedy Central has seemed to have taken a back burner. Seasons have been pared down to just 10 episodes as of late, including the 18th, which lasted from just late September till early December of 2014.

Though clearly no longer at the top of their game, the pint-sized provocateurs of a fictional Colorado town – Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman, Stan Marsh and Kenny McCormick – still manage to land plenty of satirical punches.

Things got off to a strong start with the first episode, “Go Fund Yourself,” which managed to lampoon the NFL controversies over Ray Rice’s domestic violence and the Washington Redskins name, as well as online companies that leech off of do-gooder donation drives.

“South Park” episodes have generally stood as standalone entities, but this season we saw several themes carry over, especially gender identity. Cartman claimed to be transgender just so he could have access to a nicer, private bathroom at school, while it was revealed that Stan’s dad Randy was secretly the alter-ego of teen pop star Lorde.

Other episodes were up and down from there. A low point was “Handicar,” in which monosyllabic handicapped kid Timmy starts his own Uber-like transportation service using motorized wheelchairs. It mostly seemed like a lame reason to feature the return of Nathan, Timmy’s Machiavellian rival from special ed, and his dimwitted sidekick Mimsy. Their vaudevillian antics quickly grew old.

Later episodes improved, such as one in which Cartman tricks naïve lickspittle Butters into believing he’s living in a different reality by slipping a virtual reality device over his head while he’s sleeping.

Despite the repetition and tired humor that has crept into the show, “South Park” still is gleefully sharp satire.

Bonus features are limited but decent. The DVD comes with deleted scenes and “mini commentaries” by Parker and Stone on each episode. The blu-ray edition adds more commentary culled from social media about every episode.



Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: "The Martian"

We're familiar by now with the standard attributes of the space disaster genre. "The Martian" checks them off one by one: astronaut marooned in the reaches of outer space, desperate struggles to survive, ingenuity overcoming dire circumstance, people back on Earth trying frenetically to puzzle out a solution, more unexpected setbacks, more spontaneous improvisation, death licking at the protagonist's heels, salvation.

What's different is the tone and the approach to storytelling. "The Martian" is exhilarating, joyous -- and surprisingly funny. If it's possible to make a feel-good movie about cheating death, then this is it.

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the film is part "Gravity" and part "Cast Away." It leaves Matt Damon stranded on Mars, where he must survive for months and potentially years with limited resources. He wanders deep inside his own head, talking to himself constantly -- ostensibly for the station's video logs but mostly as a way to keep himself sane. Then the second half is about the effort, undertaken seemingly by the entire world, to rescue him.

What's interesting is that director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard don't make any attempt to get to know the characters before disaster strikes, jumping right into the mayhem. Much like "Mad Max: Fury Road," the story allows the characters to reveal themselves gradually over the course of a harrowing journey.

There's a mission on Mars -- third in a series of five, we're told -- and botanist Mark Watney (Damon) and the others are waylaid by a massive storm that requires they blast off early and return home. Watney is whacked unconscious by some debris, the others believe him dead, and have to leave before they themselves are killed.

From here the story turns to Watney's efforts to survive long enough to greet the next Mars landing, four years hence. But how to make his energy, oxygen, food, etc. last until then? He comes up with some pretty brilliant strategies, which I'll not reveal.

Damon is charismatic and grounded, in one of his finest performances.

Meanwhile, the NASA folks, having declared Watney dead to the world, must get things together on their end. How to establish communications with Mars? Should they devote their limited resources to saving one man? Should they tell the astronauts on their way home their comrade is still alive? They devise their own extravagant plans, a combination of altruism and covering their own asses.

On the ground, the key players include Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission leader, passionate and aggressive; Benedict Wong as the beleaguered head of the engineers, called repeatedly upon to do things in the half the normal time; Kristen Wiig as the savvy PR gal; Sean Bean as flight commander, always advocating for the astronauts; Donald Glover as the young whiz kid with bright ideas; and Jeff Daniels as the stern NASA chief, balancing noble goals with miserly realities.

Eventually, of course, Watney's crewmates learn of his fate and must decide if they should risk their own necks to turn around and go back for him. Jessica Chastain is the decisive-yet-doubting commander; Kate Mara is the comms expert, keeper of others' secrets; Michael Peña is the pilot and resident smartass; Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie are the generic utility guys.

The two pieces of the movie, survivor's soliloquy and mass rescue endeavor, fit surprisingly well together. We spend the first hour getting to know Watney, growing to admire his grit and streak of humor. (Forced to commandeer some equipment while noodling around with the shadings of international maritime law, he declares himself "Mark Watney, space pirate.")

Having established in the audience's minds that Watney is worth saving, we're entirely caught up in the logistics of trying to bring him home. I think you can guess what the outcome is, but it's still a white-knuckled thrill ride getting there.

Review: "Sicario"

Good movies misdirect us; less accomplished ones misdirect themselves. Such is the case with "Sicario," a well-intentioned political/crime thriller set amidst the violence spilling across the Mexican/U.S. border, especially the volatile El Paso/Juarez crossing point.

This film features a couple of effective performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. But it spends so much effort keeping its main character in the dark about what she's gotten herself into, the audience is kept ignorant, too. And when people don't know what's at stake, they have a hard time getting emotionally invested in the proceedings.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who made the wonderfully harrowing "Prisoners" a couple of years ago, "Sicario" sets us off into a labyrinth and then is content to let us wander lost and perplexed. The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, a TV actor with his first produced screenplay, is strong on mood and character but seems to think that's enough in itself to sustain a two-hour story acrc.

Blunt plays Kate Macer, a young but well-regarded FBI foot soldier in the war against narcotics. "She's a thumper," praises her boss (Victor Garber), meaning she's strong on tactics -- with the shaded implication that she's less accomplished at the subtler aspects of the job. The story opens with her leading a raid on a house of horrors in the Phoenix area, which starts bad and ends worse.

Thinking she's about to get the hook, Kate is instead offered a plum assignment with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an "advisor" who is putting together an ambitious task force to take the fight to the Mexican and Columbian cartels.

"We're here to shake the trees and create chaos," Graver says, which would be more reassuring if not for his flippant manner and barefaced disregard for following the rules. She insists on bringing her partner along (Daniel Kaluuya), though Graver turns him into a glorified chauffer.

At first Kate is impressed by the apparent resources and mojo behind this task force -- they fly on private airplanes, commandeer equipment, recruit soldiers fresh from Afghanistan to be their door-knockers.

Most intriguing is the presence of a man named only as Alejandro (del Toro), whom Graver introduces as his "bird dog." He follows along on their adventures, seemingly not doing very much, but quietly nudging events this way and that. He and Kate form something less than a bond, but more than professional regard.

Scraps of information about him leak out: he used to be a prosecutor, incurred some sort of tragedy that deep-sixed his career, now he's on loan to whatever governmental agency, south of the border or north, that currently needs him. The film's title, which in Mexico essentially means hit man, refers to Alejandro.

Things go on from there. We witness how the drug trade is plied in Juarez: naked, headless bodies strung up everywhere like totems; policemen who essentially operate as another arm of the drug lords; the implication that the American government tolerated the illicit trade when they had more control over it, etc.

Everything builds up to the central question: what is the group's real mission, and what is Kate's role in it? The way Graver keeps her on the wings, it seems clear she's in some way being used. The only real mystery is finding out in exactly what way she's the patsy.

Big reveals in movies are more impactful when it's a "what," not a "how."

You may have read that a sequel to "Sicario" has already been greenlit even before this film made it into theaters, and will follow del Toro's character. That's fine; perhaps that movie can more satisfyingly unwrap the portentous pretensions of this one.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: "Sleeping with Other People"

"Sleeping with Other People" is the most ambitious romantic comedy I've seen since "(500) Days of Summer." It probably doesn't even belong in that category, since it contains many notes of drama and pathos in addition to plenty of laughs and witty wooing. It's also fairly raunchy, without ever showing any real skin.

It stars Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis as a messed-up pair of lovers who run into each other about 10 or 15 years after losing their virginity to each other in college. Each was a late bloomer who finally decided sex was something to just have and get over with so it doesn't become a big thing. Neverthless, it became a big thing despite their one night stand, with neither able to commit despite a string of flings.

They resolve to have a platonic friendship, despite the attraction between them, basically as a test to see if they're capable of a loving relationship sans sex. This goes on for more than a year, with predictable results.

I say the end point of this story is unsurprising, but what's unconventional is how writer/director Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette") arrives at the destination.

We quickly know that Lainey (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis) are meant for each other; usually these sorts of movies are an exercise in the audience waiting for the characters to catch up with them. But here the couple also senses this, talks about it between them, but decide to continue the experiment because they value the relationship that's grown more than they care about physical intimacy.

Take Jake, for instance. He's a variation of the wiseacre lothario, a guy we've seen in countless movies before. But here Sudeikis and the script endow the character with self-awareness and doubt. He presents to the world the image of a fearless ladies' man, but inside he knows he's mostly a coward who's afraid of women.

"If you want someone to fall for you, you gotta be you," Lainey advises.

"Yeah, I don't think I like me enough to introduce him to other people," Jake says, but we understand the loathing underneath the quip.

Lainey, for her part, has been pining for the same guy since college, secretly believing he would choose her despite the way he's always kept her on a shelf. Matthew, now a successful OB/GYN, is played by Adam Scott, who's cold and manipulative in a way we haven't seen from the self-effacing funnyman.

He's just one of a terrific supporting cast that fills in the gap around the main players. Amanda Peet plays Jake's new boss, whom he immediately puts into his crosshairs despite the professional barrier between them. (He threatens to quit, walking away from a contract that will make him a millionaire, in return for one date.)

Jason Mantzoukas shines as Jake's long-suffering best friend, who resents but secretly desires his hedonistic, attachment-free lifestyle. (An Ecstasy-fueled scene at his son's birthday party is one of the film's giddy high points.) Natasha Lyonne plays the counterpoint role of Lainey's wingwoman, offering sage advice and a prod when needed.

I don't like to make predictions about how a movie will do, but "Sleeping with Other People" feels like it will break out a number of careers. Headland crafts some of the cleverest lines and vivid characters I've seen in a while. Brie is charming and vulnerable, a woman who can both admire and, at times, pity.

Sudeikis, though, just steals the show. Headland sets him up with a juicy part and he cracks it out of the ballpark. It's a familiar archetype that he endows with all sorts of shadings and subtleties. Sudeikis is entertaining yet believable. Plus, he's funny as all get out, spewing one-liners at a near-constant pace.

This must-see take on modern love is tragic, wise and hilarious.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Women in Love" (1969)

"Women in Love" must have seemed very daring and original in 1969. Five decades on it's horribly dated and self-important -- corny, even.

It's a bunch of stilted characters waxing philosophic about Art and Life and Love, without managing to gain a lasting insight into any. Based on the 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, it's very much a product of the 1960s, more concerned with breaking boundaries than finding anything meaningful on the other side.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it's called "Women in Love" and it's based on a famous novel about two daring sisters, but the film concentrates more on their male romantic interests than the women. The sisters become virtual supporting characters by the end, as it turns into an exploration of romantic love versus abiding affection between the same gender.

Nonetheless, Glenda Jackson won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film. Though it was admittedly a rather weak year for female leading roles, with Jackson besting Jane Alexander from "The Great White Hope," Ali MacGraw in "Love Story," Sarah Miles from "Ryan's Daughter" and Carrie Snodgrass from "Diary of a Mad Housewife."

(Though a 1969 British release, it came to the States in '70 and thus competed in the Oscars given out in '71.)

"Women in Love" also got Oscar nods for director (Ken Russell), adapted screenplay (Larry Kramer) and cinematography (Billy Williams). The film essentially launched Russell's career, and he became known as sort of the British counterpart to Fellini, helming very artsy films that tended to have a lot of sex and nudity in them ("The Devils," "The Lair of the White Worm").

Speaking of which, "Women in Love" is undoubtedly most famous for its nude wrestling scene between stars Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The two play old chums, sufficiently lubricated with liquor, who decide to have a spontaneous bout in front of a roaring fireplace, and muse that they don't want to ruin their finery.

The scene is pretty comical now -- the choreography, apparently worked out by the actors themselves, is entirely unconvincing as an example of Far East-style martial arts -- but the brazen view of flopping male genitalia raised interest and eyebrows at the time.

A female acquaintance of mine who saw the film in its heyday has told me she and her contemporaries considered it quite erotic, particularly when the men's competition wanders over the line between grappling and groping. This isn't exactly some costume period version of "Brokeback Mountain," but it's certainly implied by Russell and Kramer that the best friends share some sort of buried attraction for each other.

The story ends with Rupert Birkin (Bates) lamenting his long-lost friend Gerald Crich (Reed,) a wealthy coal mine owner who was overcome with jealousy when his lady love, Gudrun Grangwen (Jackson), declared that she has never truly loved him. While on a skiing trip abroad she gloms onto a gay German artist (Vladek Sheybal) who offers her a life of more than bourgeois confinement.

Afterward Rupert tells his now-wife, Ursula Brangwen, that while she satisfies him entirely as a romantic counterpart, he doesn't understand why he couldn't also share a loving relationship with another male, too. Ursula (Jennie Linden) insists that he simply can't have "two kinds of love," due to societal dictates. Rupert says he accepts this, but states it's still his prerogative to want something he can't have.

Ursula is a virtual non-entity, following in the wake of stronger personalities like Gudrun and Rupert. Reed is the most interesting of the bunch, a man of means who isn't entirely comfortable with his place in ordered society but doesn't have the imagination to create something else for himself.

Elanor Bron plays Hermione Roddice -- I wonder if this is where the little witch's name came from? -- a super-wealthy socialite who enjoys controlling others and has essentially claimed Rupert as her personal property. When he chafes at this role and finally breaks free, she's enormously put out. (And immediately disappears from the movie.)

From there, it's a whole lot of coupling and sniping, protestations of love and declarations of hate. It's one of those classic examples of characters telling you how they feel rather than showing it. Toward the end Gerald delivers this pretentious humdinger:

"Do you know what it is to suffer when you're with a woman? It tears you like a silk. And each bit and stroke burns hot. Of course I wouldn't have not had it. It was a complete experience. She's a wonderful woman, but I hate her somewhere. It's curious."

I respected but did not enjoy "Women in Love." It's one of those relics of another age that had its place in cinematic evolution, and now resides as something of a fossil, curious for inspection but no longer a living, breathing thing.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Video review: "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

As sequels go, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” delivered everything it had to.

It brought the gang of Marvel superheroes back together for another round of computer-generated mayhem and quips. It added some new wrinkles to the characters’ background stories and continuing evolution. A few new key super-powered folk were added to the mix. And a really crafty and charismatic villain emerged to steal the show.

The heavy here is Ultron, an artificial intelligence program created by Tony Stark aka Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to protect the world, since they’re each anxious to get out of the caped crusader game. (Yes, I know neither one actually wears a cape; work with me, people!)

Ultron, menacingly voiced and motion-captured by James Spader, quickly decides that the Avengers themselves are the biggest thread to Earth. Thus their battle is joined, with Ultron jumping from robot body to body, like a virus that’s impossible to care.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor, (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are here, too. The new kids are mutant siblings Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have mind powers and super-speed, respectively.

The supes race about the world trying to contain Ultron’s misdeeds, with a few character-driven subplots to keep the human angle fresh. We learn Hawkeye isn’t just a deadeye loner, and that Banner and Widow have feelings for each other.

It’s a rip-roaring time, not quite as good as the original, but what is?

Extras include deleted scenes, several making-of featurettes, feature-length audio commentary track and a gag reel.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review: "Hotel Transylvania 2"

The first "Hotel Transylvania" was an uninspired amalgam of other movies, stitching together the current cinematic fascination with vampires, zombies and the like with angsty teen imperatives. The sequel is a distinct improvement, though curiously almost none of it takes place in the titular hotel.

The last go-round was about Dracula (Adam Sandler, sounding like a Borscht Belt Bela Lugosi) learning to find tolerance for humans when his teen daughter -- well, hundred-and-teens, anyway -- Mavis (Selena Gomez) fell in love with goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg).

Flash forward a few years. Mavis and Jonathan are now happily wed and have an adorable tyke, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). Drac is thoroughly delighted with his grandson ... though he's a little worried that he has yet to indicate any vampire-ish abilities. He seems to be a carbon copy of Jonathan: big poof of red hair, pasty skin, normal, non-sharp incisors, etc.

"He's just a late fanger," Dracula dismisses, though he's secretly worried the kid is really all human. And how disappointing would that be!

Mavis is considering moving their family to Santa Cruz to raise him alongside Jonathan's parents (chirpy Molly Shannon and droll Nick Offerman) and other regular humans. Drac can't stand the idea of being apart from them, so while they're away scouting out the potential new hometown, he and his crew whip up a plan for a road trip to encourage Dennis' monsterish side to come out.

Hijinks ensue, of the lightly scary/slightly vulgar variety.

The gang of supporting characters are back, including Steve Buscemi as a werewolf hectored by his wolf-wife and small army of pups; Frankenstein (Kevin James), big and blandly nice; a fabulous mummy (Keegan-Michael Key); and an invisible man (David Spade), who keeps trying to convince his buddies he has an invisible girlfriend.

The new guy on the block is Dracula's daddy, Vlad, wonderfully voiced by Mel Brooks. He's an old-school type who keeps the fires of hate toward humans well-stoked, and he's got a crew of giant vampire bat henchman to do his bidding. Drac takes steps to ensure Vlad doesn't find out his great-grandkid isn't a bloodsucker.

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky with a screenplay by Sandler and buddy Robert Smigel, "Hotel Transylvania 2" won't win any contests for originality. It's television-quality storytelling with better animation and voice cast.

But it's breezy, fun and dopey, and sure to keep your little monsters entertained for an hour and a half.