DVD Review: Byzantium

Just in time for Halloween, a review of a movie about female vampires.

'Byzantium' Has New Vampires That Play by New Rules

...[Neil] Jordan also moves beyond the stage’s confines by putting together some strikingly composed images: a black beetle crawling across Eleanor’s pale face, a line of rich red blood dripping across white fingers, neon carnival rides glowing against a dark night. If there’s one good thing about a vampires that aren’t sensitive to the sun, it’s that they can walk around in the light, so you can actually see all of the art direction—from painstaking period details of the past to the dingy nuances of the run-down hotel where the characters hole up in the present...

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TV Review: Dracula

This American 'Dracula' Proves to Be Simply Irresistible to the English

...But apart from these familiar names, this Dracula has as much in common with The Count of Monte Cristo as it does to its own source material. In this iteration of the story, Dracula awakens in Victorian England. He adopts a false persona—that of Alexander Grayson, super-rich industrialist from the United States, “as American as God, guns, and bourbon”—and sets out to get revenge on the old order that imprisoned him in a coffin for centuries and murdered his wife.

Grayson decides that the best way to exact his vengeance is through emptying his foes’ wallets. The adversaries inhabit the entrenched upper echelon of society, fully at ease with their “overtly grotesque sense of entitlement,” with their money tied up, of course, in the oil industry. Naturally, Grayson takes them on by starting a green energy company, harnessing the power of wireless electricity. His attack sets up the most insistent, and strangest, theme that carries throughout the series. It’s a sort of class warfare, with Grayson positioning himself as an outsider determined on destroying the established societal order.

He seems an unlikely class warrior, considering his vast fortune, but his opponents consider his wealth “new,” and so, beneath their own. This gives him some odd moral authority, at least in this show’s version of such things. Plus, Grayson has a fondness for outsiders and misfits. The most obvious embodiment would be his second-hand man, R.M. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), a lawyer who’s often misjudged by the old money folks because he’s African American. It happens that Mina is also a nonconformist of sorts, as too many male doctors underestimate her.

Wealthy and well situated as he may be, with friends like these, Grayson takes on some underdog sheen, applied mostly to his business dealings, along with Grayson’s acquisition of patents, testing of alloys, and uncovering of bribes. The couple of high-energy action scenes and bouts of bloody violence might be said to punctuate these more mundane bits of corporate espionage. While these scenes can be unsavory, they’re hardly frightening and rarely suspenseful...

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DVD Review: The Bling Ring

...While Coppola doesn’t dwell on the situations that made the Bling Ring what they were, she does give you an overwhelming feeling of who they are: young, attractive, savvy, plugged in, and celebrity-obsessed. She scrolls through images of the Ring’s targets—Paris Hilton on a runway onDlisted, Lindsay Lohan at a court date on TMZ—then follows up with the Facebook photos of the Bling Ring members, often making the same poses. Even the celebrities’ bad behavior is mimicked; Lindsay Lohan gets a DUI, then so does Chloe. You can sense the characters’ attitudes towards these celebrities shift from admiration to a darker kind of “Why can’t that be me?” envy.

And if you’re looking for envy—or, depending on your attitude towards consumerism, revulsion—more than anything Coppola emphasizes the material aspect of Los Angeles’ celebrity culture. There are shots upon shots of enormous closets, with racks stuffed with designer dresses, drawers overflowing with jewelry, and rows upon rows of shoes in a spectrum of colors. Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to film inside her house—at the real scene of the crime—and it’s a good thing, because a fictitious version of the Hilton closet probably would not have been over-the-top enough. (A DVD featurette with Hilton gives a tour of her closet and house, complete with her backyard doghouse, modeled after her own, for her seven dogs.)

When Coppola shows these lavish closets or the celebratory club-going after a heist, it looks like a fashion photo shoot. Other times, she switches to a reality-show-style handheld, reflecting how the Bling Ring participants saw themselves—as the stars of their own series. Other times, she shows them as shadowy figures on green, night-vision security cameras, or how they looked to the outside world. In the most interesting scene in the movie, the characters barely register at all: the camera stays outside a celebrity home, and all you see is the lights flick on and off in different rooms as they burglarize the house.

The range of shooting styles gives the movie interest, but like her protagonists, Coppola has a problem with excess. The cycle of Googling celebrity houses, breaking in, luxuriating in other people’s property, and heading out to party repeats itself too many times in the middle of the movie, with nothing extra added except another celebrity name to the list of victims...

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TV Review: Hello Ladies

The show gets at this theme by making smart use of its Los Angeles setting. Telegraphing Stuart’s loneliness through takeout dinners and microwave meals only goes so far. Hello Ladiespushes that mood even further, showing the isolation he feels in crowds. As he heads out into the wilds of the city, rubbing up against velvet ropes and bottle service, his not quite earnest awkwardness also serves as an indictment of Hollywood superficiality and club culture. But as Stuart tries to become a part of this scene, throwing over a girl he was chatting up for someone hotter, then heading back to the first one, as she seems, on second thought, more of a “sure thing,” it’s obvious he’s unable to navigate any social nuances, such as they are. 

He’s not the only one stymied by LA. In the second episode, Jessica tries to push her social circle by hosting an at-home salon, with plans for the group to listen to jazz music, discuss politics, and watch foreign films (her choice: Battleship Potemkin). Here she shows herself susceptible to another kind of artifice. When Stuart asks her to name her favorite jazz musicians, she responds with “The Loneliest Monk.” Still, her friends resist, preferring to discuss celebrity recipes they haven’t tried yet, but really want to.

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TV Review: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

One thing the show doesn’t take from the Marvel movies, though, is their knowing tone. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is serious business. No one tries to imitate Tony Stark’s smooth-talking charm or Captain America’s goofy datedness. Sure, there’s a sprinkling Joss Whedon’s trademark quips. (“I don’t think Thor is technically a God.”/“You haven’t been near his arms.”) But mostly, the characters talk to each other like everything they’re saying is of paramount importance. “The battle of New York was the end of the world,” Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) tells fellow agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton). “This, now, is the new world.” Such overly earnest dialogue casts a dour feeling over the entire premiere.

For now, we settle for Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the leader of the pack, who’s an oasis amid all this peevishness. He delivers some of the same portentous lines as the rest of the cast, but Gregg is so affable and odd, he’s better able to ground them. He’s also most likely to follow up a government-agent cliché with a joke. “You’re asking me to drive the bus?” May asks him, unwilling to leave her desk. “I’m not asking,” Coulson responds. “But it’s a really nice bus.”

DVD Review: "Gimme the Loot" and "The We and the I"

Take Another Look at the Bronx with 'Gimme the Loot' and 'The We and the I'

It’s clear that Leon considers [Gimme the Loot] a personal movie. In his commentary, which his co-filmmakers drop in and out of at varying points, he discusses how certain elements of the story are rooted in his Bronx upbringing. Many of the actors in bit parts are people he’s known since high school. A great many others are regular Bronx residents he persuaded to be in the movie—for example, the man playing the owner of a pizza shop really is the owner of that pizza shop, doing what he does on a normal day.

Authenticity is also paramount for The We and the I, though it doesn’t feel as personal for [director Michel] Gondry. His film, on the other hand, is more of a vehicle for other people’s stories. He’s mentioned in interviews that the film was written in collaboration with students from The Point, an after-school program in the Bronx.

He had an outline for a script, then conducted long interviews with the kids to hear about their lives and experiences in their own words. Many of the conversations found their way back into the script, and the students found themselves playing characters with the same first names, based on themselves and their friends.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for any of Gondry’s typical magic. Outside the bus is a heightened version of the Bronx. The bus line, the BX66, is fictional, and wends its way through an unreal landscape. As the bus travels, the sun sets, going from mid-afternoon to twilight to mood-setting evening.

As daylight wanes, the mood in the bus becomes heavier. One by one, students reach their destinations and exit the bus. The real story of the movie takes shape and emerges as the remaining riders pare down. The antics and hijinx that mark the beginning of the film give way to something more serious, and it’s fascinating to watch how the movie develops as it goes on. 

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TV Review: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

'Brooklyn Nine-Nine': Cops and Recreation

The only thing that Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t try to cram into the pilot is any sense of place. Sure, plenty of cop shows are located in New York City. That Brooklyn Nine-Nine zeroes on Brooklyn specifically seems like it should be significant, but the locations used in the pilot—a generic electronics store, an empty storage center—could be found in any city in America. (I fully admit that, as a Brooklyn resident, I might be overly sensitive.)

It’s not that the borough doesn’t have comedic or even scenic potential. Brooklyn Nine-Nine may have even attempted a joke at its expense in the pilot, one of the items stolen during a theft is, of all things, a really expensive ham. That seems like a crack at foodie culture and the proliferation of yuppy grocery stores in Brooklyn, but to make the parody land, the show could have pushed it further; the sham could have been an artisanally cured, hand-butchered ham meant for some kind of farm-to-table, nose-to-tail dining experience. And the thug who rips it off is your run-of-the-mill TV criminal, which leaves you wondering if he really has connections to the black market that would be interested in such a very expensive ham.

That said, even without exploring Brooklyn’s gentrification growing pains, the premiere covers a fair amount of ground in its half hour, however superficially. You get the basic outline of how the precinct works, some jokes, an open-and-shut case, and introductions to the main players delivered as Holt gets a rundown on each of the detectives from Sergeant Jeffords (Terry Crews, sadly underused in the first episode).

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DVD Review: The Great Gatsby

...But The Great Gatsby isn’t just about details. It’s about people. You’d think it’d be hard for any performance to punch through all that art direction, but the assembled cast succeeds in making an impression—not just the shining DiCaprio, who fully earns his reputation as a movie star. Cary Mulligan as Daisy makes for a beautiful object of adoration, but Mulligan also embodies Daisy’s flightiness and superficiality, while Joel Edgerton is a brutal, physical Tom Buchanan. Still, no one projects the sleek, slinky Jazz Age glamour as newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan Baker.

Luhrmann doesn’t always get at the inner lives of all these characters. Poor Jordan is reduced to best-friend capacity, and her relationship with Nick is barely explored. That’s the other perpetual problem with The Great Gatsby adaptations—even at 142 minutes, your favorite part from the novel has probably been cut or altered. Luhrmann sneaks in as much as he can, but even he knows there has to be a limit somewhere.

But rather than mourning what has been cut, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is worth it for what he’s able to keep in: the exuberance and longing of people living out their younger and more vulnerable years in a glitzy time. This version of The Great Gatsby is for those who are all about the riotous excursions, not those looking for the privileged glimpses into the human heart.

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Film Review: Prince Avalanche

'Prince Avalanche': David Gordon Green's Quiet Comedy

Prince Avalanche remains resiliently funny. If there’s one thing Green has carried over from Pineapple Express and Your Highness, it’s silliness. This even as the new movie also resists the conventional aspects of that lesson: it may be painted with the same buddy-comedy brush as those films, but the description would be inaccurate here, since Alvin and Lance never develop a friendship. Instead of a movie where two people learn to accept the flaws in each other, Prince Avalanche is a movie about two people inhabiting the same space who learn to accept the flaws in themselves, even if these flaws are made up. Lance observes that they’re both “old fatties” (not true), Alvin minces his way through what an intellectual’s vision of an outdoorsman would be, and both argue about the “equal time agreement” on their shared boombox and chase each other around the woods. It’s some of the most enjoyable bickering ever put to screen.

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DVD Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Sam Raimi Puts His Twist on a Classic with 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Oz the Great and Powerful‘s origins are slightly ambiguous. It isn’t exactly a book adaptation. Baum wrote at least 14 books in his Oz series, and even after his exit, other authors took up Baum’s mantle. While Oz the Great and Powerful draws from details and characters in the books, it’s not an adaptation of any plot or combination of plots from the series, like Walter Murch’s Return to Oz was in 1985.

Nor is it a straight prequel to the MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz movie. It hews extremely close, with a visual style that’s of a piece with that world. The Wicked Witch bears the same trademark green skin, the Emerald City has those familiar glowing skyscrapers reaching into the sky, and the Yellow Brick Road winds its way through the land. But Oz the Great and Powerful didn’t have the rights to some of that movie’s other signatures—the ruby slippers, for example, which are entirely absent from Oz the Great and Powerful. You can tell the movie was striving for continuity, but not everything lines up exactly.

Instead, the not-book-adaptation, not-movie-prequel has a much harder job at the start. It has to return to a beloved fantasy land, staying true to both Baum’s words and Victor Fleming’s vision while expanding both of them. It has to not only tell the story of how Oz, the wizard (James Franco), goes from a Kansas huckster magician to a Great Man (“Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all mixed into one”), but it also has to fill in the backstories of all of Oz’s witches, including Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz)—one of whom turns out to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And it has to do it all on an epic scale, traveling through more than 30 sets; co-mingling live action and CG, animation and marionettes; and wrapping the whole thing in a unified turn-of-the-century stagecraft-meets-Hollywood-studio-glamour aesthetic. The only thing they didn’t throw at the production was musical numbers (though Danny Elfman does add a nice score).

It’s an extremely tall order, and it’s a shame that Sam Raimi didn’t record a commentary track to explain how he negotiated it all...Instead of hearing in-depth about the nuances of a new Oz film from Raimi himself, we can marvel about how much Raimi-ness he was able to add to such an iconic, established world. The twister that removes Oz from Kansas, with its speediness and slapstick, is quite possibly the Raimi-est act of severe weather ever brought to screen. Even Oz himself, at times, resembles Ash from the Evil Dead series—a stance of confident buffoonery described as “Charlie Chaplin meets Clark Cable”—that Franco doesn’t quite nail, but does well enough. (This is most evident in the character’s insistence on calling Glinda by the incorrect name of Wanda.)

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