DVD Review: Taken 2

Thanks to Key & Peele, I kept thinking of this as "Tooken 2" while I was reviewing it.

'Taken 2' Dutifully Follows the Most Standard of Sequel Formulas

All of this setup is really piece-moving to allow Mills to, in his words, “Do what I do best”—meaning charging after the bad guys without any backup, and taking them down. Sometimes there’s hand-to-hand combat; sometimes he gets a gun and just starts firing. There are neat little sequences, but no surprises: Everything that follows is as you would expect. It’s not that the action is poorly handled, but it’s just good enough to get Mills from the hordes of anonymous bad guys to the slightly more important bad guys to the really bad guys. At no point does Taken 2 deviate from this goal, or work any harder or get any smarter than it needs to be.

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DVD Review: Girls - The Complete First Season

Forget the Baggage. Just Watch 'Girls: The Complete First Season.'

“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.”
– Hannah Horvath


Of all the shows that premiered in 2012, Lena Dunham’s Girls—a series about four 20-something friends trying to make their ways in New York City—debuted with the most baggage. Detractors had all sorts of complaints: The cast is too white. (Fair or not, it’s a criticism that didn’t hit the show’s similarly composed and obvious predecessor, Sex and the City, quite so doggedly.) The actors are too privileged. (Sure, but one could argue that Laurie Simmons is more famous for being Dunham’s mother and not the other way around, since Simmons isn’t exactly a household name.) Dunham herself doesn’t have quite the right body for the amount of nudity typically found on HBO shows. (Or is that to Girls’ credit?)

The thing is, these debates could—and did—rage on without having to watch a single episode. You can get all of the fuel for these attacks from the posters used in the show’s ad campaign.

If you could quiet the arguments around Girls for long enough to actually watch it, you could see the show’s content is not nearly as polarizing as the cultural discussion surrounding it. The series touches on themes of young adulthood that, if not universal, are pretty darn relatable: figuring out your place in the world, discovering the boundaries of your friendships, feeling simultaneously mature and childish. Of course, this all unfolds in a very specific, liberal-arts-educated, Brooklyn sort of way, which is why audiences may have felt excluded.

Still, Girls provides an honest snapshot of this ambiguous time of life, and it should be able to reach beyond its core demographic. Nothing illustrates this better than the show’s two central relationships, between wannabe writer Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and her type-A best friend Marnie (Allison Williams—yes, the daughter of Brian Williams), and between Hannah and her sort-of-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). Most girls have had a friendship like Hannah and Marnie’s, a bond so close it can’t help but alternate between giddy alone-in-the-apartment dance parties one moment and screaming, kick-you-out-of-the-apartment fights the next. And most girls have advised a friend to get rid of a boyfriend like Adam, the kind of person who could disappear for weeks at a time but return and focus on you so intently that you feel like you’re the only person in the world that matters to him.

It’s entertaining enough that Girls captures these kinds of post-adolescent relationships so perfectly and presents them in a way that makes you alternately squirm and feel moved. But Girls is also really, really funny. When the naïve Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet—yes daughter of David Mamet) accidentally takes drugs at a party (the “crackcident”), you might feel for her and relive some of your own wilder days, but when those drugs kick off a mile-a-minute monologue about how they inspired her to do better in her kickboxing class, you can’t help but laugh. And, when she busts out those kickboxing moves later in the episode, you might just die laughing. (Anyone who asserts that Mamet only got the part based on her familial connections probably hasn’t seen the seventh episode—she’s damn near perfect in it.) 

The way Girls expertly mixes humor and nostalgia and squeamish embarrassment has a lot in common with the previous work of another of the show’s executive producers: Judd Apatow. Just like you didn’t need to grow up in Chippewa, Michigan in the early ‘80s to understand the genius of Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, you don’t have to go to a party in Bushwick to feel for the characters in Girls. The theme of putting yourself out there for either greater success or total rejection runs through both shows. 

Apatow shows up here and there on the extras included with the Girls Blu-Ray, in a conversation with Lena Dunham and also an extended commentary on one of the episodes. But he doesn’t need to stump for the show—Dunham is a pretty good advocate for herself. You can hear her fast just-shy-of-a-ramble opinion in the wealth of special features, which includes a roundtable discussion with the cast, Dunham’s interview on Fresh Air, and quick “inside the episode” segments where Dunham gives a brief explanation behind the inspiration for each one. (There’s even a booklet of her tweets. Example: “Right after HBO announcement I got stuck in the bar bathroom & had to phone for help.”)

Unfortunately, by the time some of these extras were made, all of the heated opinions surrounding the show had already hit the internet, and the extra interviews spends time directly and indirectly addressing the flurry of criticism. It’s better to do what some of the early critics of Girls did not: Just watch the show.


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DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries


'Chernobyl Diaries' Is Like the Real Chernobyl, in That There's Nothing There

The characters, thin and stock to begin with, keep finding ways to be disappointing. Over and over, they find themselves in situations where they know they should run and find help from outside of Pripyat, but they keep getting distracted from this life-saving mission to rescue friends that have gone missing, to scream and cry about friends they find worse for the wear, or to investigate strange and scary noises coming from somewhere in the distance. Repeatedly, they muster up heroic courage to go charging—unarmed and unprepared—after a strange sound or vision, only to run away again when they discover that, yes, something unsavory was the cause.

Sure, they’re under fire from multiple threats. Before they realize that Pripyat might not be entirely abandoned, they find themselves on guard against hungry wild animals (mostly ravenous dogs but once, hilariously, a wayward bear) and the contamination that still exists in pockets in the site. (The characters carry a Geiger counter to warn them against high levels of radiation.) However, these forces pop in and out of the story at will, and they’re never used to build a feeling of mounting suspense or dread.

By the time the real boogeymen of the movie are introduced, even the location has lost its luster. The characters are lured into underground tunnels, abandoned hallways, and darkened rooms—they really could be anywhere. This is one of the few horror movies where the atmosphere is spookier and more interesting during the daytime, before any of the haunts have come into play.

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DVD Review: The Hunger Games

'The Hunger Games' Looks More Like the Past than the Future -- and Too Much Like the Present

"The book covers a lot of ground, from wealth inequality to the media’s desensitization to violence. It’s a good thing, then, that the adaptation landed in the hands of a director as confident as Gary Ross. He understands that the movie should stand for itself, as opposed to functioning as a staged reading of the novel.

The most important shift, and ultimately the most successful one, is the decision to liberate the movie from Katniss’s point of view. The movie is thankfully voiceover-free—which would’ve been a cheap, easy way to sneak in both Katniss’s reactions and Suzanne Collins’s words—and actors’ facial expressions are allowed to stand-in for pages of inner monologue. The universe of the movie unfolds without being over-explained. Ross trusts his actors’ performances to get across the information we need to know without necessarily saying it, and he trusts the audience to absorb all of the movie’s nuances without underlining every revelation and reaction."

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DVD Review: Dark Tide

Dark Night, Dark Sea, Dark Wetsuits, 'Dark Tide'

The rest of Dark Tide picks up a year later, and clarity does not come with the passage of time. Mathieson, still saddled with guilt, has traded free-diving with sharks for a life as a safe-and-boring (and financially strapped) seal-watching tour guide. Her estranged husband and former documentarian Jeff (Olivier Martinez) returns with a proposition to make her some money and get her back in the water, taking a wealthy adrenaline junkie, Brady (Ralph Brown), and his son out to go swimming with sharks. Though Mathieson is angry with Jeff, haunted by Themba, opposed to shark tours, certain that the dive would be too dangerous for the inexperienced visitors, wary that mating season would make the sharks quick to bite, and hostile to the idea that she should give into the whims of a craven thrillseeker just for his money, she agrees to take him, anyway.

No, it doesn’t make sense. And it just gets murkier from there until the visuals of movie become as confused as the narrative, eventually devolving into an indistinguishable group of people in black wetsuits swimming on a black ocean against a black sky in a tumultuous rainstorm. Yes, that’s the climax of the movie—and it is near-impossible to follow.


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DVD Review: W.E.

There's a Lot of Moviemaking Going on in W.E.

"...The jumps in time are not the only trick in Madonna’s directorial grab-bag. There’s a lot of moviemaking going on in W./E.. Madonna cuts a lot. She incorporates both 16 mm and Super 8 film. She pulls in tight on her subjects, honing in on faces, eyes, feet, and knicknacks with a not-so-steady steadicam. As the emotions get more and more heightened in the movie, the close-ups get closer, and the images shakier.

On top of all of those flourishes, she pans the camera constantly (usually as music swells in the background). In the one behind-the-scenes look included on the Blu-Ray—the sole extra feature, which lacks even a commentary—Madonna explains that her background in dance influenced her camera swirls and swoops, as she is inspired by “movement”. The intention definitely comes across, as she circles the camera around her subjects until it becomes almost dizzying.

Yet while the shooting style of the movie is very fluid, the look of the film also comes across as extremely stiff. Sure, half of the appeal of the movie is seeing Arianne Phillips’ costumes, especially with respect to Simpson, known for being a fashion plate in her day. (Phillips was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts.) But both Simpson and Winthrop are styled to within an inch of their lives. You never see errant locks of hair; their outfits are perfect. The extra feature included in the Blu-Ray notes that each woman has 30 to 40 costume changes throughout the film.

Their living quarters are similarly impeccably art-directed, thereby giving off the impression that no one actually lives in them. Madonna can move the camera as much as she wants—in the end, it still comes across like she’s filming carefully assembled magazine photo shoots."

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DVD Review: Footloose

Shakin' It in a Pair of Red Cowboy Boots: 'Footloose'

The world didn’t need a remake of Footloose, the 1984 movie where outsider-rebel Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) takes on a town-wide ban against public dancing.  Even remake director Craig Brewer thought so at first, revealing in his meaty solo commentary that his first reaction upon hearing the project was, “You can’t remake Footloose! It’s Footloose!”

But this Footloose remake is pretty well done, with clever nods to the original alongside subtle improvements. Brewer is a natural fit for the material, being a self-admitted Footloose fan, a teenager of the ‘80s, a music-lover, a connoisseur of the South, and a parent, and all of which he draws upon to make the movie smarter than it needs to be.

For fans of the original, the wit becomes first becomes apparent through its references. The VW bug Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormak drives in the 1984 version turns up in Brewer’s film, only the new Ren (Kenny Wormald) receives the car as a broken-down beater he has to fix up—a literal remake. In another scene, Brewer replaces Bonnie Tyler’s thoroughly ‘80s-sounding “Holding Out for a Hero” with a twangy, countrified version by Ella Mae Bowen, which works better in context.

But the new Footloose, thankfully, isn’t just a faithful retelling of scenes and backward-looking nods. Brewer grounds the movie in a way that would make sense even if there were no 1984 original. It starts with the central conflict. The catalyst for the dancing ban—a tragic car accident that’s only hinted at in the original movie—is heavily emphasized in the opening scenes of the remake. It calls to mind other instances where personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of public safety, which makes it feel more contemporary.


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