TV Review: James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons (2011)

Original Run: January 19th, 2011 – February 23rd, 2011
Directed by: various
Cast: James Ellroy (host/narrator), Phil LaMarr (voice)

Digital Ranch Productions, 6 Episodes, 43 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

This is a weird show. No, not because of the subject matter but because of the way this thing was produced and presented.

I guess this is James Ellroy’s baby but he doesn’t make a good host or narrator, as his delivery is off putting and distracting. Where most of these episodes had interesting topics, it was hard to get lost in the tales because Ellroy delivered his lines like a monotone crazy person that likes to go, “BAM!” between every segue in his story.

Also, there are these weird bits in each episode where he talks to a CGI cop dog that looks like Spuds McKenzie. These scenes are bafflingly bad with worse computer graphics than a homebrew 1994 PC game from the Ukraine.

I really wanted to delve into these stories, as each one was like a real life film-noir from a bygone era.

Ultimately, this was poorly crafted, poorly presented and even though I got through all six episodes, I felt like I wasted my time trying to dig through the dirt to find the treasure.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: other crime documentary shows.

Film Review: Batman: Year One (2011)

Release Date: September 27th, 2011 (Spain)
Directed by: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
Written by: Tab Murphy
Based on: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
Music by: Christopher Drake
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Jon Polito, Alex Rocco, Katee Sackhoff, Grey DeLisle, Stephen Root

Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, 64 Minutes

Review:

“Twelve years. And the ache is still fresh. Like a raw angry nerve. But this isn’t about healing. I’m not looking for closure.” – Batman

This was a pretty short film, even for a DC Comics animated feature. Not counting the credits, this was exactly one hour and it played more like a pilot for an hour long Batman animated series for adult fans than it did a movie.

That’s certainly not a knock, as this was pretty solid, overall. It was a really good adaptation of the original Frank Miller story, even though these DC animated films take a lot of creative liberties.

It captures the gist of the story and the tone of the comic. Although, this does feel less gritty but I think that is due to it being very clean looking animation mixed with obvious CGI in parts. I wasn’t a fan of the CGI bits, as they stick out like a sore thumb and don’t blend well with the overall visual composition.

The plot and the script are very good though. But they are truly brought to life by a heck of a cast that boasts Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie (who went on to be the star of Gotham), Eliza Dushku, Katee Sackhoff, Alex Rocco, Jon Polito, Stephen Root and solid voice actress, Grey DeLisle. The voice acting was superb and it made this a better film than it would have been with a lesser cast.

I guess I actually would’ve liked this to be a bit longer. It rushes through the story, which isn’t too dissimilar from the comic it is based on, but I felt like some added context and more plot and character development could’ve put this at the level of the two-part The Dark Knight Returns animated picture.

Still, this is a good outing by Warner Bros. animation studio and it’s definitely in the upper echelon of animated Batman flicks.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other DC animated films, primarily those featuring Batman.

Film Review: Drive (2011)

Release Date: May 20th, 2011 (Cannes)
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini
Based on: Drive by James Sallis
Music by: Cliff Martinez
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Issac, Albert Brooks

FilmDistrict, Bold Films, MWM Studios, OddLot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Motel Movies, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[on phone] There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?” – Driver

Nicolas Winding Refn is a director I appreciate but have also had some issues with, as some of his films feel like style over substance and entirely miss their mark for me. That being said, this was really my introduction to Refn and upon initially seeing this, I thought it was spectacular.

It’s been awhile since I revisited it, however, and I wondered if my assessment would still be the same after having bad experiences with his films that followed it. I wondered if I might have just been captivated by the visuals and music of the picture that I gave a free pass to a film that really didn’t cut the mustard.

Well, I’m glad to say that I still think this is pretty exceptional. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Refn didn’t write this, unlike Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. My other favorite film by Refn, Bronson, was co-written with another writer. So maybe Refn does his best work behind the camera, filming the stories and scripts of another writer (or co-writer that can massage out the overly pretentious crap).

Driver has one of the best opening sequences I have ever seen in the way that it builds suspense and introduces you to the main character, who remains nameless throughout the film. He’s quiet but intense and lives by a sort of code that ultimately, causes a lot of problems for himself and the few people who come into his orbit.

The film’s greatness is magnified by the performance of Ryan Gosling, who didn’t fully win me over until this role. He moves through every scene like a spectre, saying little and sort of just reacting to what happens around him. It’s a truly understated performance but it works so well for the picture’s tone and style.

There is mystery around the character, mystery around the swerves within the plot and nothing is really clear until the end and even then, you still don’t feel like you know this guy who you just spent 100 minutes with. But it’s hard not to respect him, even if he did terrible things because there’s a selflessness in his actions despite living a morally vacant and criminal life.

It’s apparent that his time with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son has left an impact on him that has brought him a newfound sense of morality. But ultimately, he can only respond with the tools and experiences that are most familiar to him and to the underworld he inhabits.

Despite the violence and the heinous things that happen within the film, there is a bizarre sweetness to it. There are few films that can make you feel so much for its characters when the actors’ performances are so low key.

But there are also a few actors in this who seem larger than life. Mostly, the two mob bosses played by Ron Perlman, at his slimy best, and Albert Brooks, who steals the show and whose performance here makes me wonder why he hasn’t been in a lot more movies. The dude was cold, callous but exuded a genuineness that lesser actors couldn’t have pulled off in quite the same way.

This film is greatly enhanced by the tremendous musical score from Cliff Martinez, as well as the use of synthwave music throughout the film. The music just feels perfectly married to the visual style of the film, which has a vibrant neo-noir look to it. This mixture of visual style and music can’t simply carry a picture though, as tapping this well again in Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon didn’t deliver the same results.

Drive is comprised off a lot of different elements that just came together and worked. I don’t think that it is something that can replicated easily, as Refn’s two following films showed. Here, it was just magic. And frankly, I think that Refn is better off adapting other people’s scripts or finding himself a great co-writer that can come in and make something that’s more coherent and emotional.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: stylistically, other Nicolas Winding Refn films, other than that it is pretty unique.

Documentary Review: Comic-Con – Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (2011)

Release Date: September 10th, 2011 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
Written by: Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Joss Whedon
Music by: Jeff Peters
Cast: Joss Whedon, Guillermo del Toro, Kevin Smith, Stan Lee, Kenneth Branagh, Eli Roth, Seth Rogen, Thomas Jane, Seth Green, Edgar Wright, Corey Feldman, Paul Scheer, Todd McFarlane, Matt Groening, Frank Miller, Gerard Way, Grant Morrison, Paul Dini, Joe Quesada, various

Mutant Enemy, Thomas Tull Productions, Warrior Poets, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I think the fans are the most important thing in the comic book business. And I might add, in any form of entertainment. I feel… you gotta be nice to the fans because without them… you’re nothing.” – Stan Lee

Here we go, these nerdy fan documentaries are a dime a dozen but I guess this one got some recognition for being well produced and for featuring a slew of famous nerd-centric personalities.

I didn’t know that this was a Morgan Spurlock film until I was already watching it. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. Reason being, I think the guy’s a f’n hack and disingenuous. His most popular film Super Size Me was unwatchable to anyone that can see through a ruse, which it was. It wasn’t science, it wasn’t a real test to see how fast food effects you, it was one man’s entertaining mockumentary, sold as a legit documentary and damnation of the fast food industry. His documentary series on FX was also mostly a big bullshit endeavor where he went into everything with a bias then cherry picked info and edited everything down to the narrative he wanted. He’s the reason behind the modern alteration to an old phrase, “No shit, Spurlock!”

Anyway, this is exactly what you’d think it is. A bunch of famous nerdy types talk about their nerdy shit and their love for the San Diego Comic Con, which is barely about comic books at this point and isn’t anywhere near as cool as it once was. You missed the boat by a decade or so, Spurlock.

The only thing I really liked about this was seeing the behind the scenes stuff on cosplay. I don’t normally give a shit about cosplay but it was interesting to see, nonetheless.

As far as the interviewees, the only one that stuck with me was Stan Lee. Everything else was edited so choppy that the vast majority of comments could have been things out of context and then just thrown together for Spurlock to manufacture whatever narrative he was going for. Stan Lee’s bit was heartwarming though but that’s because he’s Stan Lee and he always has eloquent shit to say.

You’d probably be alright if you never watched this. It doesn’t do anything to inspire you to go to San Diego Comic Con. If anything, it told me to stay away because I like comics and don’t give a crap about massive celebrity panels or Joss Whedon publicly ranting about lefty hysteria.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: any of the dozens of other documentaries about nerd conventions or nerdy hobbies, there are so many.

Documentary Review: The Four Year Plan (2011)

Release Date: November 16th, 2011 (IDFA Festival – Netherlands)
Directed by: Mat Hodgson
Music by: Rob Lord

Ad Hoc Films, 99 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2014.

The Four Year Plan is another soccer documentary in a long series of soccer documentaries that I’ve been watching the last week or so. It follows the Queens Park Rangers (or QPR) as they are faced with relegation, new ownership and their fight to get promoted back into the Premier League.

This film was done almost guerrilla style, as the cameras were left rolling seemingly at all times. We get looks into the locker room, the boardroom and every other realm that involves running and managing a soccer team. The footage was top quality and was edited together nicely, providing the viewer with an engaging story of failure turned to perseverance.

Giving good perspective into the business side of things is what I found most interesting in this film because there isn’t a lot that I have seen in my lifetime that shows the behind the scenes meetings of British soccer with so much transparency. I’m obviously aware that they didn’t show their most secret meetings and sessions but you still got to go deeper into this world than you would expect.

In the end, it was a good sports documentary that gave serious insight into the world of British soccer, which most Americans don’t have access to. The action parts of the film were also well presented and gave it a good balance between the sport and the business.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: One Night In Turin, Hillsborough, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and ESPN’s 30 For 30: Soccer Stories series.

TV Review: Portlandia (2011-2018)

Original Run: January 21st, 2011 – March 22nd, 2018
Directed by: Jonathan Krisel, various
Written by: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, various
Music by: Washed Out (opening theme)
Cast: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein

Broadway Video, IFC, 77 Episodes, 23 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*Written in 2016.

I have come to learn that Portlandia is one of those shows you either love or hate. Weirdly, I don’t love it but I certainly don’t hate it. I quite enjoy it most of the time and it is lighthearted and amusing and usually puts a smile on my face. So I figured I would watch through it again, after really enjoying Fred Armisen’s other IFC show Documentary Now!

Portlandia is damn funny when it is on point. However, some skits can run too long and some are just so bizarre that they get lost in the shuffle of better gags going on around them. Regardless, it is cool seeing the duo of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein commit to sketch comedy their way and to see each segment through – giving it 100 percent.

The duo of Armisen and Brownstein is one of the best comedy duos to come around in years. Their execution and the way they play off of each other is pretty flawless. It is their relationship and camaraderie that makes the show special. Where some skits may not work or run over, it is their unrelenting devotion to their roles that makes this more than a typical sketch comedy show.

Also, the fact that Portland, Oregon is the backdrop of the show, makes things pretty unique. It is a beautiful, artistic and interesting city. While the characters that Armisen and Brownstein play aren’t reflective of all of Portland, it does represent some of the oddballs you could run into in a city like Portland. I think we’ve all encountered people similar to most of their characters, at one point or another.

Also, using Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” as the theme song to Portlandia kicks the show off with such a laid back and chill vibe, you can’t take it too seriously but it sets you up to accept what is coming. Who doesn’t get in a chill mood and feel pretty pleasant after that song?

I wouldn’t call Portlandia one of my favorite shows of all-time but I like it, a lot. Mostly because it is harmless but it is fun and it does challenge some social and political issues. Plus, it is hard to be in a funk while watching it.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Armisen’s other IFC show Documentary Now!

Film Review: Young Adult (2011)

Release Date: December 9th, 2011 (limited)
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Diablo Cody
Music by: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser

Mandate Pictures, Mr. Mudd, Right of Way Films, Denver & Delilah Films, Paramount Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Sometimes in order to heal… a few people have to get hurt.” – Mavis Gary

It may be easy to watch Young Adult and to just see Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary as a self-absorbed asshole. It may also be easy to just dismiss her as an unlikable character and someone that isn’t relatable. But this isn’t a movie about a terrible person, it is a movie about a person with mental illness.

The film follows Mavis, shortly after her divorce, as she decides to go back to her small hometown to reconnect with the man she feels she is destined to be with, even if he is already married and just had a baby. In the process, she runs into a bullied kid from high school, Patton Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf. The two start to develop a bond and Matt becomes Mavis’ voice of reason.

As the film plays out, you start to see through Mavis’ surface and start to understand that she is not well and probably never has been. Matt is the only person that ever had patience with her and understood what was happening that didn’t just tolerate her because she was the prom queen in high school. It’s the dynamic and the solid chemistry between Theron and Oswalt that makes this movie work so well.

Mavis’ day job is being the ghost writer for a young adult book series. The movie starts with her suffering from writer’s block but then she starts to write the story, reflecting on her own life as a form of literary therapy. Theron’s narrations of her character’s written work serve to give some sort of metaphorical insight to her thought process and her eventual closure. While this is a trope that has been used to death in film, I really like how it was used here.

The biggest strength of this film is the acting. Theron was exceptional and while she is already seen as an exceptional actress, this just felt very personal and she’s never been more convincing. I’m not saying that she is mentally broken like Mavis but it just felt as if there was a real part of herself in this character. Additionally, Patton Oswalt has never been better and I’m a long time Oswalt fan.

This film was also a collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Both of them worked together on the critically acclaimed Juno. This re-teaming produced a better product, however. Yes, I really enjoy Juno but this picture eclipses it and it’s kind of disheartening that this didn’t get the recognition and fanfare that Juno did. But the Academy and the top critics are just weird in what they accept and what they don’t.

Young Adult is a better film than its lack of award show buzz would have you believe. Many critics did seem to like it but it came out in a year where people thought Moneyball deserved a Motion Picture of the Year nomination. That’s not a knock against Moneyball but c’mon, Motion Picture of the Year caliber? Really? And I’m not saying that Young Adult is the best film of 2011 but it’s a better movie than half the films that got the big nomination. And to put it bluntly, Theron put in a better performance than Meryl Streep that year, who already had more Oscars than wieners in a pack of hot dogs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Margot at the Wedding, as the two share some themes and narrative similarities.