Friday, November 06, 2015

Seen in October 

The Martian, image via The Movie DB

I spent most of this summer binge watching shows on Netflix, mostly because I was really only watching about 45 minutes of television a night. Now that Autumn is here to stay I expect I'll be spending more time basking in the warm glow of my living room television.

The Muppets (2011)
The new Muppet Show appearing on TV this fall made me curious about one of their previous and recent (though not as recent as I thought) cinematic outings. That film starring and co-written by Jason Segel was uniquely popular amongst audiences and critics. It’s easy to see why. The Muppets have found success in being goofy, funny critters that kids enjoy, while simultaneously making fun of their own absurdity as puppets. This isn’t just a knowing wink to adults but kids too get just how weird and silly it is that a bit of cloth somehow comes to life in our world. If you need a bit of a pick-me-up, you could do worse than to watch this version of the Muppets that is genuinely funny, and nostalgic, yet a wry send-up of the musical genre (“Sorry I’m late, I got caught up singing this song…”).

Suits, Seasons 1-4
Kind of like an update of L.A. Law set in New York City. This series is odd in that the first season (or two) all the acting is sexy side-glances and throw-away lines as each week another case is resolved by one ridiculous piece of juicy gossip delivered on a single piece of paper in a file folder. I mean, it just seemed so superficial with everyone being model-pretty and impeccably well dressed (in particular Meghan Markle). But at some point the narrative takes a season long tilt and the stakes get ratcheted up bit by bit. I’m not saying this is the Wire or Breaking Bad, but it is better than I recall L.A. Law being (maybe, who knows, it was a long time ago). Additionally I get great pleasure recognizing or trying to figure out where in Toronto they are filming (in one episode, a scene actually takes place in Toronto - also, in the same episode, two actors from Game of Thrones face each other in a contemporary setting - which seemed like an inside joke).

Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, the office support staff to an exciting Bond-like super spy played by Jude Law. When the agency’s staple of field operatives have been exposed, Susan volunteers to step up for a mission of daring-do. There's your plot device: drop a smiling, polite, rotund and all round pleasant lady into dangerous, sexy and thrilling situations of intrigue and espionage normally reserved for the likes of Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie. The movie is not just a send-up of the all the tropes of an action-spy thriller but a reason to let congenial comedian McCarthy exercise her talent to the fullest. McCarthy excels when flipping between the sweet unconfident loner and the determined take no prisoners bad ass who does not suffer fools. Of course there’s physical comedy of an overweight woman throwing herself around but more than that, McCarthy knows how to deliver a punchline better than her character delivers a punch (see what I did there? Yeah, you did.) It’s that timing and delivery (and whatever other unknown alchemy that makes “funny” funny) that makes this movie work and what makes McCarthy one of best comedic actors in movies right now. It’s almost hard to remember her as a secondary character on Glimore Girls (I mean why would I remember a show about ladies doing lady stuff anyway? In fact I don’t remember it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.)

The Martian
After a freak accident during a Mars mission, an astronaut is thought dead and left stranded on the planet’s surface. But Mark Watney is no ordinary astronaut. Both a botanist and a mechanical engineer (does such a combination of skills exist in one person on any planet?) he knows his only way to survive on the red planet is, in his words, to “science the sh*t out of it”. Watney, played by Matt Damon, has an uncommon ingenuity and humour that sets this apart from either “Castaway” or “Apollo 13” or even “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” for that matter. There’s actually surprisingly little fiction in this sci-fi film and its optimistic and uplifting nature, tempered by the gallows humour of the protagonist makes for a really good movie. The film is so packed to the rafters with well established big name actors and promising up-and-comers that the casting is as unbelievable as any sci-fi you’ll see this year.

Inside Out
Pixar is nothing more than a cadre of manipulative jerks who entice you with pretty colours to make you watch their movies and “feel” a bunch of emotions. I watched this on a plane, in public which I do not recommend. Save this for a darkened theatre or in the privacy of your own home. Like the lead character, a little girl depressed and confused by her family’s move to a new city, you will feel happy, then sad, then happy again. I feel so used.

Frank, image via The Movie DB

I could sum this up as "Michael Fassbender in a papier-mache head" but that wouldn’t be fair or accurate. A young man Jon, pining to be a great songwriter joins an odd ball band led by an enigmatic and talented Frank (Fassbender). Side note, Frank is only ever seen wearing a massive papier-mache head that vaguely resembles the Christian stop-motion character Davey (of Davey and Goliath). In fact, Jon never knows what Frank looks like or his real name even after spending months in isolation with the band (whose name he also can’t pronounce) recording some kind of break-through art-rock album. In those months Jon has recorded and uploaded numerous videos and blog posts about their progress all of which leads to a modicum of online interest and an invitation to the important indie music festival SXWS (South by Southwest) in Austin, Texas. This attempt at impressing the music press and finding an audience is not only the band’s undoing but the unravelling of Frank’s fragile constructed persona. This is a much loved and well reviewed film that I couldn’t really get into mostly because it seemed like it was trying so hard to be eccentric that it felt like an affectation rather than genuine. Here’s the thing though – it’s based on a real person who was far more oddball and eccentric than Michael Fassbender’s Frank. The “real” Frank was an middling English musician Chris Sievey who gained cult status as the character Frank Sidebottom. When Sievey decided to try and make more popular music as Frank (rather than the purposefully satirically bad music he created as Frank), the whole concept failed and all the gigs and fanbase evaporated. Sievey later worked as an animator on the popular Pingu series but never achieved any onstage success and died penniless, of throat cancer in 2010. The movie treats one band member’s suicide a little glibly and Frank’s mental illness as a kind of endearing character quirk. I guess that explains what I didn’t care for, but I suppose by the end, the lesson is those around Frank accept him and realize that he would function better by creating music than living without it.

Top Five, image via The Movie DB

Top Five
Chris Rock has finally made a narrative film that matches his comedic talent (apart from his documentaries or performances I mean). Then again that is exactly the point. Rock plays Andre Allen, a wildly successful comedian who has made millions playing a smart talking cop, who is a bear named Hammy. Hammy the bear is a burden around his neck and every attempt to do dramatic work or break away from his past has met with failure. Partially to bolster his upcoming film and partially from obligation, Andre has agreed that his marriage to a reality star be televised. He’s also agreed to a profile interview with a beautiful and thoughtful reporter, played by Rosario Dawson, who, unknown to Andre, has been his harshest critic. The two spend the day together which results in an obvious attraction and a provocation. Allen is confronted with the idea he should return to his stand-up comedian days to find redemption rather than try to be an aspirational version of himself that in the end would always fail because it is, at its root, dishonest. “Rigorous Honesty”, apparently a principle of AA, turns out to be a fairly good philosophy for the artist as well as the recovering alcoholic.

The Mind of a Chef, Season 1
This PBS show narrated by food and travel writer, Anthony Bourdain, profiles a different innovative chef each season. In season one, David Chang, the American chef whose reinvention of Japanese staples such as ramen led to the success of his New York City restaurant Momofuko, takes us on a tour of ingredients as diverse as MSG and guar gum to 200-year-old mollusks, from places as diverse as Japan, Copenhagen, San Sebastien, New York and even Montreal. You had me at “ramen”.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, image via The Movie DB

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
When we first meet General Clive Candy he appears exactly like a kind of British self-parody of an Empire soldier jingoistically marching to "Rule Britannia. Then over the course of the film we see his story from V.C. awarded Boer War soldier to a commanding officer in the Great War and finally as a commander of the Home Guard during the London Blitz of World War II. On this journey we find that Clive Candy had befriended a German soldier before the Great War and it is was the humanizing story of this friendship that apparently angered Prime Minister Churchill. There’s a lot going on in this 1943 film that was probably over my head, particularly the asides, nods and winks to particular tropes well known to British audiences. The character of Col. Blimp from the 30s was a popular cartoon send up of an ancient overweight, pompous military man who made ridiculous pronouncements from the confines of the Turkish bath of his gentlemen's club. As they say, every war film is an anti-war film and the filmmakers turned the stereotype of Col. Blimp on its head by making him real as Clive Candy. Certainly, he had the pomposity, the out-sized faith in the British Empire, the giant moustache, the bald pate and pot belly but he also had experienced the ferocity of war, lost love, and found respect and friendship with the enemy that was somehow mixed in with his archaic view of the Rules of the Game (which Jean Renoir brilliantly satirized in his film of the same name a decade before).

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