Jade's Trick

Reviews, Spotlights, and Randomosity of all things under the sun.

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Location: Hartford, Connecticut, United States

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

“At least let me start the bike for you.” -- Ong Back: Thai Warrior

I saw this movie on little more than a last-moment whim. Too bad it’s in limited release. A few disclaimers: I missed the first 10-15 minutes of this movie (as I said, last-moment whim) and am not particularly well-versed with martial arts films.

Ong Bak: Thai Warrior (a few other links: here and here) is a delivery vehicle for some truly spectacular Muay Thai martial arts action, courtesy of up-‘n-coming star Tony Jaa. At least, I hope he becomes a star; anything that gives us more movies as awesome as this (which stardom would do) is a good thing. He's being billed as the next Bruce Lee / Jackie Chan, and although that may or may not tend to overhype the flick, it could very well be true.

Let's state the obvious: this movie is strictly concerned with one thing and one thing only, and that thing is the action. The plot is one big cliché and the characters can become almost invisible if you look at them from the side. But it doesn't matter. Because the action is really that good.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Plot summary: some asshole steals the main character Ting's village's god's statue's head or something (as I said, I missed the first part of the movie) and Ting has to get it back, so he ventures into the big city, kicks a lot of ass, and eventually gets that statue's head back. But you see, he really does kick a metric ton of ass, usually while spinning in the opposite direction in slow motion over a flaming river of lava while trying to save his cousin from certain death by a pit full of rabid sharks swimming around if electrified battery acid. And look damn cool doing it.

The action is phenomenal, in more ways than one. Yes, there are a lot of straight-up martial arts fights, many of which occur in an illegal fight club placed there by God to give Tony Jaa a pulpit from which to proclaim that getting hit by someone who really knows Muay Thai REALLY FREAKING HURTS. The blows look so very powerful, so very real, and so very graceful that we almost feel sorry for the guys receiving what much be massive internal injuries. Ting slams opponents with flying hits to the head with his funny bone, knee, and foot so frequently that it's a wonder he's not glowing red hot from all the impacts. However, in addition to the fascinating, cringe-worthy, fencing-foil/jackhammer blows, he works in long, protracted acrobatic sequences which are truly beauties to behold. Both types of action work very well. And did I mention that none of this is done with CG, wires, or pretty much anything other than people and planning? That just sweetens the deal that much more.

The camera angles all tended to be interesting and just a little bit unique. Much use was made of slow motion (thankfully, as the rapid kicks and punches would be far too difficult for the uninitiated to follow) as well instant replays (for some shots, we are shown the action twice, or even three times, through a different camera angle), but neither of these were used gratuitously. The locations are all gritty and realistic.

As a side note, I found a lot of comedy here as well. George, the aforementioned cousin, makes for a great comic relief element, injecting humor in between (and occasionally during) the awe-inspiring action.

Action: 5/5 broken chairs (The action completely makes the movie, and it is stunning. If you're in the mood for some no-holds-barred realistic fighting, this is your movie).
Acting: 2/5 statue heads (It sufficed, but was objectively mediocre).
Humor: 3.5/5 globs of wasabi (Some was giggle-inducing, and much merely put a wide grin on my face. Lovely overall).
Story: 2/5 voice boxes (A stock Kung-Fu plot in every sense of the word, but it could have been much worse).
Sound: 4/5 lengths of rope (The music in this movie is fast-paced and invigorating. It strikes exactly the right cord, and I wouldn't mind listening to it on its own).
Visuals: 4/5 bundles of barbed wire (Great camera angles, great/realistic background).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4/5 syringes (This movie is a great way to spend a pair of hours. A very fun film indeed).

Sunday, February 20, 2005

"I'm concerned you don't know what you're asking for." -- Dead Like Me Season 1

Please pardon the references and comparisons to Wonderfalls that may pop up throughout this review. Both shows were created/co-created by the same guy, so it's hard not to.

Dead Like Me - The Complete First Season is a very, very good show that falls just behind Wonderfalls in greatness (see? First sentence of the review and I'm already dragging it in). Although certainly not as unknown as Wonderfalls, it's still not exactly, say, O.C.

This is the story of Georgia "George" Lass, an 18-year-old college drop-out killed during her first 35-minute Lunch "hour" at her first temp job by a zero-G toilet seat from the Mir space station during its death plunge into the atmosphere. She switches from Dead to Undead after her funeral and is drafted as a grim reaper by Rube (another grim reaper). We spend the rest of the season watching her and the family she left behind adjust to this new arrangement.

This show is, in short, brilliant. It's billed as a black comedy with a heavy dose of drama, but this is vastly incorrect. Dead Like Me is primarily a drama about loss with just enough humor to, like a shot of vodka, take the edge off. It's ultimately positive, but the questions it deals with can be really quite bleak. After all, the characters are in a constant state of loss: George losses her life, her family, her chances at a real future, and a postmortem friend early in the season, her family lost her, her parents are losing their marriage, etc. And since she's a reaper, we are privy to multiple violent deaths every episode. It's a subtle recipe, but nevertheless works, and we get extremely poignant and well-done drama about the most depressing of subjects without feeling like ending it all. Very nice.

The cinematography here is great; I recognize a lot of camera effects and angles from Wonderfalls. Acting, also excellent; we buy everyone. All the actors really nailed their characters, from their subtle nuances of speech to their facial expressions and gesticulations to their lines. The music was also good, but it seemed like they reused a lot of it. The special effects and stunts all seem believable and plot-centric; they add rather than detract.

Interestingly enough, I like the episodes made after Bryan Fuller left to do Wonderfalls much more than the episodes he worked on, at least at first. I've since gone back and re-watched the first couple episodes and they were more interesting the second time around than they were the first, but my favorites continue to be the later ones.

I have two main problems with the series: A) There are some answered questions about reapers in my mind (For example, it seems like they are supernaturally less noticeable than normal people sometimes, but it's never really spelled out, which is frustrating to me), and B) As far as I can tell, there is a ten-or-so-month gap between the second to last and the last episodes. It shoots from two months after her death to the one-year anniversary. Wow. I want to know what we missed? Other than those nit-picks, nothing. And I highly suggest you show around; it retails for $60, but Amazon sells it for $45 and I picked it up at Fry's for $35.

Acting: 4.5/5 parking meters (Awesomely awesome).
Humor: 3.75/5 miniature waffles (The comedy is the perfect cord for the show, but objectively speaking, it's not really that funny; there are few laugh-out-loud moments).
Story: 4.5/5 Polaroid cameras (The story is all-around excellent. Bizarre enough that it doesn't seem too close to home, but real enough to make us fidget a little).
Drama: 5/5 Post Its (If you're alive, or at least know someone who is, this show will speak to you. The drama is heavy-hitting and light in turns and has a superb way of making you think, contemplate).
Sound: 3.5/5 disgruntled bears (Very nice music, but not particularly great, and repetitive at times).
Visuals: 4.5/5 bed springs (Enrapturing).
Special Features (DVD): 3/5 toilet seats (I am disappointed in the special features. Some of the deleted scenes are good, but the featurettes are way too short and there is almost nothing at all in the way of episode commentary).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 Franken-Fruities (One of the best shows ever, and certainly one of the best shows on TV today. Either Showtime is insane for not brining it back for a third season or they decided to retire it gracefully; after George gets into the swing of things, I can't imagine the show will be any good).

Sunday, February 13, 2005

"I'm not hungry yet." -- The Godfather

Finally, after many long weeks of dawdling, I bring to you a review that is technically negative. ;-)

The Godfather is an exercise in patience. Patience is required to get through it's ridiculously convoluted and long plot, patience to get through the screwy acting, and patience to get through the sheer longevity of the film (if it is fitting to even call this a film).

So, we start out hearing some guy whine about his daughter or something. I wasn't listening very hard. The room was so frickin' dark that it seemed almost as if it swallowed the sounds. Anyway, we find out that we're at the wedding of the Godfather's (reeeeaaal original name. They totally stole that from the title) daughter. The wedding itself is very trite, just like every other movie wedding EVER. We're "introduced" to about a hundred or so major characters. I say "introduced" because this movie's idea of introducing a character is to give us about five seconds with them. After the wedding, stuff happens, like the Godfather getting shot up a bunch of times (but *gasp* survives! How the hell did *that* happen?!?!), Michael showing no emotion, other people getting shot, Michael still mimicking an oak board, Michael doing bad things, and then finally, after much broo-ha-ha, just ending without any sort of denouement (I guess the ending could be considered a denouement, but no more so than most other points in the movie).

The acting. Oh, what can I say about the "acting"? Marlon Brando's Godfather performance was so screwy. He talks like he's not got a throat, can't move his facial muscles, and somehow survives everything but his grandson (and what the heck was up with that!?!?). Michael, as I already said, needs to take a class in acting or two before we see him in any other films, or many get an Emotion Implant from a Hollywood plastic surgeon. The women in the movie were typically either screaming or acting all pissy. Why, I don't know. The director's probably some kind of misogynist or something. The acting skillz (or lack thereof) of everyone else are irrelevant, since they all pretty much just die.

Special effects: these people's idea of fake blood is runny ketchup. There were a few lackluster explosions and a lot of obviously fake gunshots in there, but nothing really made up for the corny fake blood.

Cinematography: Mr. Coppola appears to think that if he makes all his shots really really dark, we won't notice the crappy acting, poor special effects, shoddy story, and interns accidentally falling into almost every scene. He sets up his camera angles such that the audience is denied key information, like the face of the waiter pouring wine just before Michael kills that other drug guy who dies, or like when we couldn't tell that the Baker was a Baker and not a hitman. This is vital information that we need to know!

Acting: 2/5 piles of crapola (The only redeeming feature was the believability of the various waiters. Man, THOSE guys knew how to wait!).
Sound: 1/5 fishes (Wow. Do we really have to hear that same little ditty over and over and over again?).
Visuals: 2/5 slot machines (Way too dark, and the camera angles sucked. The shots of Sicily were nice, though, or at least they would have been if Michael would get out of the shot).
Humor: 5/5 toll booths (But only if this was meant to parody bad films).
Story: 1/5 guns (I've seen better storytelling in MST3k episodes).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 1/5 fluffy kitty cats (AVOID AT ALL COSTS!!).

Sunday, February 06, 2005

"Defy the chicken." -- Wonderfalls

Ironically enough, this review is gonna be more gushing than Niagara Falls. If that bothers you, then just watch the show's DVDs instead of reading my review. Edit: I'm told that this review is too long. If you agree with that sentiment, go ahead and skip to the end where I rate everything numerically. That gives a decent summation of why I think you should buy this.

Wonderfalls is by far the finest television I have ever seen. It has everything: a unique twist, compelling characters, enthralling storylines, great special effects, terrific acting, and quirky humor. And those bastards at Fox canceled it, so in an act of catharsis, I will now rant and rave about how much I loath Fox for the next paragraph.

Fox sucks. Fox has done everything in its power to smother Wonderfalls. They:
A) had their meathooks in it at every step of the way (as the episode commentaries make clear), changing what they wished
B) debuted it in the middle of the season in a terrible time slot
C) then moved it suddenly and unexpectedly to an even worse time slot
D) gave it very little publicity
E) gave up after 4 episodes
F) and needed a huge fan movement to release it on DVD (their one saving grace).
This was one of the very few unique things on television, and they ditched it to make room for reruns of crap. Grrrrr.......

Ok, I'm done. I'll try not to mention Fox (may they rot in hell) for the rest of the review, but I don't make any promises.

Let's start with a quick synopsis of premise: Jaye Tyler is a 24-year-old native of Niagara Falls, New York who gleaned a Philosophy degree from Brown and came back to her home town to live in a trailer, work at the Niagara Falls gift show (called Wonderfalls), and drink various forms of alcohol at the local tavern / eatery / gathering place, The Barrel. Her father Darren is a doctor with a very frank manner of communication and strong connections to the Republican party (he is friends with many politicians and, as we learn in the documentary and episode commentaries, a musical talent: he writes and performs inspirational Republican folk songs, although these sadly never made it into the show). Her mother Karren is a socialite who writes travel guides (and is a closet Democrat). Her sister Sharon is a successful immigration lawyer (and a closet lesbian). Her brother Aaron (yes, Darren Karren Sharon Aaron Jaye) is currently working on a doctorate in Comparative Religions (and, ironically, a "closet" atheist, although I'm not too sure about how secret it is). Jaye's best friend since forever is Mahandra McGinty (I hope to God I spelled that correctly), someone almost as selfish as Jaye herself. She works at the aforementioned barrel. And finally, the Requisite Love Interest: Eric Gotts. He married his college sweetheart Heidi, honeymooned at Niagara Falls, caught her fellating the bellman, went to the Barrel to get drunk, got a job there as bartender, and started getting over Heidi, all in the six days before he met Jaye. Following that? Good.

This cast of characters, while a bit quirky, would make for a fairly pedestrian show if not for that spice of life that makes the show stand out: the Muses, as the writers term them. If it's a man-made animal, such as the smoosh-faced wax lion or the creepy barrel bear, there's a good chance it's told Jaye to do something completely bizarre. That's right: inanimate objects tell a disaffected Gen Y narcissus to run around performing nonsensical acts which ultimately benefit everyone involved. Generally, these commands are cryptic (and can mean any of a number of things as the episode progresses) and have a very roundabout way of working out. Of course, Jaye's rather resistant to their commands (she resents being "Fate's bitch"), so they occasionally have to torture her into doing their bidding by incessantly singing a number of particularly annoying songs off key until she can't take it anymore and has no choice. Sometimes, it is her very resistance that causes the commands to come to pass.

I know that that sounds kinda tacky, but it's really not.

Jaye is a great lead character. Although very much an antihero who literally resents being thought of as selfless (although she doesn't mind it when Eric thinks of her that way), the holder of highly questionable morals, and a complete slacker, she is thoroughly likeable. We understand her well enough that what she does is, to some degree, expected, but she always seems to have a few more facets we haven't seen yet. She, like everyone, is a good person at her core, but her cynicism, selfishness, and wit all come together to form a certain charm that makes it very hard to wish her ill.

Character alignments in this show tend towards the complex, due in part to the actions of the muses. We like all the main characters for various reasons, but they are often in opposition to each other because of both completely mundane reasons and because they react naturally to Jaye when she does weird muse-induced things (which is usually to resist). That information level about why Jaye does what she does is constantly played on for humor and plot advancement and it only gets more complex as more people learn about her predicament. The series has no truly clear villains, although Eric's (semi-ex)wife Heidi comes close (there are twists in her character that make it hard to completely dislike her. No spoilers here).

Moving on. The acting in this series is top notch. Every single actor can just nail their lines perfectly, and the unspoken parts are just as good and believable. A reaction here, a gesticulation there, and a few smirks thrown in for good measure make these characters feel very real and vibrant. They can effortlessly switch between drama and comedy and back again without the slightest hitch. And the chemistry between every single character is both highly dynamic and completely believable. The casting directors are seers of the highest caliber.

The comedic aspects of this show are clearly integral to the show, but they aren't the end-all, be-all. As absolutely great as they are, they are merely a natural consequence of the drama as it unfolds, rather than some other shows that shall remain unmentioned that care for nothing but the asinine joke. Wonderfalls has sophisticated, intelligent, and very quirky comedy going for it, and it all works exceedingly well (although it admittedly requires a certain taste, there are bits and pieces of all types of humor in here). This show has me in stitches every time I watch it. There's just always something to laugh at, even amidst the highly emotional trials and tribulations of the Jaye-Eric relationship.

I want to take this opportunity to graciously thank the writers for knowing that Fox is headed by idiots (who wouldn't know gold if it was given to them as jewelry by rappers) and therefore ending all the major story lines in the season (series) finale. The story is itself extremely interesting and could probably stand alone without the comedy (it would be a lesser show, of course, but still superior to a *lot* of what's on TV now). In the interests of not spoiling anything, I'll shut up about it.

The cinemetography in this show is exquisite. The directors make great use of camera speed-ups and slow-downs: one moment, the camera is rapidly zooming from one point to another and the next, it slows down for a quick pan shot of something before zipping along to the main action. You really have to see it to know what I mean, but everything just comes together really really nicely. I also like how the episode commentaries walk us through what part of which shot was shot where (scenes around the Maid of the Mist fountain, for example, had to shot half on one side of the Falls and half on the other).

Sounds: fun and light, but perfect. Andy Partridge wrote the theme song "I wonder why the Wonderfalls" and it is just as quirky and off-beat as the show. Cute lyrics, catchy main tune, and lots of little side instruments make it very distinctive and fun to listen to. The other music is less distinctive, but this is a good thing: is supplements, not supplants, the jokes, character development, and action.

The special effects in this series kick ass. It's mostly the muses, but every minor effect is done very well and very realistically. Great care is taken to make each muse an actual character, giving them their own unique idiosyncrasies and mannerisms along with very funny "suggestions." If you read a short dialogue between Jaye and a nameless muse, someone who has seen the series could probably identify the muse being spoken to. It's hard to pick favorites, but the lovesick ass' reaction when Jaye lashed out at him is to die for, and I cracked up when the brass monkey commanded Jaye to "Lick the lightswitch."

Acting: 5/5 killer ambulances (Extremely well-done. Every single actor deserves some sort of medal).
Humor: 6/5 blurb words (The comedy in this series really goes above and beyond the call of duty. Unlike most TV and movie comedy, it is the flowing result of the plot and tends to advance said plot as well).
Story: 5/5 wedding chapels (The plot lines are really fun to follow, partially because we really care what happens to these characters and partially because the plots are so absurd that watching them tick along is very interesting).
Drama: 5/5 Mold-a-Rama machines (The actors have this superhuman ability to channel true heart and soul to create very poignant scenes of drama amidst all sorts of zanniness).
Sound: 5/5 Berreta 9-mm's (The theme song is worth tracking down, downloading, and listening again and again, and the rest of the music perfectly complements the action, but stays firmly in the background).
Visuals: 5/5 murder kits (Perfect muses, excellent cinemetography, and great misc. effects all populate the world of Wonderfalls).
Special Features (DVD): 4/5 fig pancakes (Perhaps the one fault of the DVD, if a 4 can be called a fault. I really like the episode commentaries and the music video is very cute, but the documentary could have been longer and I would have paid at least another $5 for another disk full of deleted scenes, actor bios, and other such stuff).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 5/5 Russian Mail-Order Brides (You know how I award a lot of 4s and 5s to the individual categories but deny all those other things I've reviewed 5s? This series is why: they are inferior to it. It was a human rights violation for Fox to cancel this monumental show. I wish all the best to everyone involved in making this thing work, because it is absolutely deserving of admiration and exaltation. I give this series the highest possible recommendation).