DVD Review: Dark Skies

'Dark Skies' Leans on the Right Nerve

Dark Skies follows Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton), a typical small-town couple trying to make ends meet while raising their two sons, 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and six-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett). Throughout the movie, two types of dramas unfold simultaneously within the family. The first is a suburban tale of a weakened marriage, with a husband and wife at odds with each other, threatened by outside forces and tested under the scrutiny of a close-knit (and judgmental) community. The second is a sci-fi/horror story about unknown visitors wreaking havoc in the homestead and menacing the children...

All of the suburban elements of Dark Skies work well, even when they don’t necessarily further the plot. The movie often goes on diversions with Jesse, delving into his best-friendship with a neighborhood thug (L.J. Benet) and his first romance with a girl (Annie Thurman). It might seem incongruous to insert in a coming-of-age subplot into a movie already stuffed with a broken marriage and supernatural beings, but these scenes don’t seem shoehorned in. They’re genuine and give an honest, nostalgia-free glimpse at what it’s like to be a new teenager, even if this is the last movie where you’d expect to find such sentiment.

When the movie veers away from the naturalistic and towards the horrific, though, it starts to falter. Sure, the forces at work serve their purpose for the characters, driving a wedge between Lacy and Daniel. Taken on their own, however, the threats feel overly familiar. These forces cause clichéd ailments: birds crash into windows (didn’t we just see this in Red Lights?); noses become bloodied; time is lost; and rashes, bruises, and strange marks appear. Some of it is even captured on home-security webcams, just like in Paranormal Activity.

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TV Review: The Goodwin Games

Even though the show is basically pre-cancelled by Fox, I reviewed it and found it entertaining.

First challenge: complete a game of Trivial Pursuit, with all the questions altered to cover family history. (Dare we call that “adorkable?”) When the trio returns to home to compete for the money, running into former best friends and ex-sweethearts, The Goodwin Games expands its focus beyond the borders of a family-based sitcom. Now it becomes part-homecoming, part-Parenthood, part-It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World, with elements of David Fincher’s The Game thrown in for good measure...

It doesn’t seem likely that the estate will be settled before the show goes off the air. Yet even though the show may never fulfill its central plot purpose, watching the reduced number of episodes may be like one of Benjamin’s challenges: a little silly, likely to conjure up a few heavy sighs, but ultimately an entertaining diversion.

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DVD Reviews: BBC's Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland

Two of the worst Alice adaptations I've ever seen!

A 3-Dimensional World, Flattened: 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' & 'Alice in Wonderland'

...Alice Through the Looking Glass is hardly a joy to watch. The scenes mostly take place with the actors standing in front of painted, storybook backgrounds, a halo of green-screen surrounding them. In each scene, Alice comes upon another character, they stand almost stock-still and have some kind of loopy conversation, a poem is recited (reenacted by different actors in front of a different storybook background), and Alice is on her way again. It’s hardly cinematic and barely even dramatic. It’s one step beyond having someone read the book aloud at the local library. 

With all of its limitations, somehow Alice in Wonderland manages to be worse. The cheap sets and poor effects are still present despite the 13 year gap. Kate Dorning, who’s taken over the role of Alice, seems much too old for the part—with someone as old as she is demonstrating a basic lack of understand about how the world works, she comes across as just plain simple (and with a squeakily high voice). Sometimes she argues with herself aloud, other times her inner monologue is presented as a voiceover, and it’s impossible to tell why one is used over the other...

... With the low-budget production values and bad special effects, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland combine the worst of public-access television with the worst of community theater. Take, for instance, the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a crowd of extras, but the stage is so small there isn’t room for any running. Instead, the characters just shuffle about, remarking at how chaotic it all seems. It’s so ineffective, it can’t even be appreciated as camp.

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Film Review: Upside Down

'Upside Down': Two Worlds, Little Sense

By ignoring its own guidelines, Upside Down breaks a rule that’s even more important than the prohibition on combining matter and inverse matter: when inventing a new world, make sure the laws governing it are coherent. Trying to sync up the background information about life on these planets with what appears on screen becomes a distraction that plagues the viewing experience. It doesn’t matter what the film has to say about wealth inequality when all the audience is thinking is, “Wait, shouldn’t something be on fire by now?”

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PopMatters Best Films of 2012

My contribution to PopMatters' year-end wrap-up.

The Best Films of 2012

No. 4: Lincoln

In tackling one of the United States’ most iconic figures, a man who looms largest in American history, Steven Spielberg’s success is in matching Abraham Lincoln’s grandiosity with his film’s smallness. Instead of an all-encompassing biopic, Spielberg chose to focus on the final months of Lincoln’s life and his most important political success: the passage of the 13th amendment. And, while there is certainly much political theater surrounding the amendment, with flamboyant characters on both sides of the debate, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner choose to keep the showiest scenes away from the president. He has a couple of emphatic, passionate monologues, but mostly you get a sense of the man through the tiniest moments: a rambling story, a bawdy joke, a wordless and restless afternoon pacing the White House with his son while Congress debates, a sullen glance. As the 16th president, Daniel Day-Lewis is in full control of this remarkable restraint—though he’s buoyed by a supporting cast rising to meet his greatness. Like the characters in the film, with Lincoln you get the sense that everyone is striving to quietly accomplish their most important work.

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PopMatters: 2012 Film Recap

My contributions to PopMatters' 2012 film recap.
The Worst Films of 2012

No. 6: Dark Tide

Apart from a few pretty underwater scenes, there is no joy in watching Dark Tide, about a diver (Halle Berry) who swims with sharks for passion and profit. The story is uninvolving, with threads that dead-end never to be picked up again and people who make stupid choices for reasons that are never explained. The characters are spoiled—a thrill-seeking businessman coerces Berry’s character to take him on a free-dive that they both know is dangerous, and he spends the entire film throwing his weight around while she pouts about it—and spend most of their time arguing, all to serve an emotional arc that never materializes. Even the visuals become murkier and murkier, with the main characters blending into the background as an impending storm, opaque water, and people indistinguishable from either (or each other) all flood the screen. You’re better off with the sharks.

No. 8: The Devil Inside

It’s not just the fact that the theatrical version of The Devil Inside ended with a title card directing viewers to the film’s website for more information that made audiences howl with disgust. It’s bad form, to be sure, especially considering that the website hosted videos that none-too-subtly revealed further twists that would’ve been obvious had they been in the movie to begin with (and, with a running time of a mere 83 minutes, it’s not clear why those scenes weren’t included in the first place). No, it’s the very idea that The Devil Inside—an obvious and uninspired exorcism tale that treads on the same themes about faith that have been explored since The Exorcist—merited any further investigation into its surface-level plot that’s the true insult.  

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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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New Show Review: The Carrie Diaries

A couple reasons why I like The Carrie Diaries better than Sex and the City

'The Carrie Diaries': High School Origin Story


The Carrie Diaries
keeps that trademark narration, but maintains the idea that it’s comprised of diary entries. No one assumes that people are interested in reading the inner thoughts of a 16-year-old Carrie, and no one is paying her to write it. That detail alone makes The Carrie Dairies more endearing than its adult counterpart. If the lessons Carrie learns are a little too pat, if her sentiments are a little too treacly, and if her word choices are clunky and awkward, it’s okay. That’s what teenage diaries are for.


The consumer-oriented, label-obsessing focus of Sex and the City is also thankfully absent from The Carrie Dairies. Instead of rattling off the names of fashion houses, the names the girls drop are ‘80s cultural touchstones: Indochine, Interview magazine, Rob Lowe. When Carrie talks about how much she prizes the few possessions she has of her mother’s—a purse and a pair of sunglasses—the brand names are never mentioned. She treasures them for emotional reasons, not status-seeking ones.


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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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PopMatters: The 75 Best Songs of 2012

I contributed a write-up to PopMatters' end-of-year music list.

The 75 Best Songs of 2012

No. 32
Stars - “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”

It’s surprising that on The North, on of Stars’ chilliest records, you’ll find one of the band’s warmest songs. While their thoughts about love usually come wrapped in nostalgia, wistfulness, and regret, on “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”, the band uses its signature synth-pop to sound a note of hope (and, fine, indulge in a little bit of defeatism about the song’s chances of radio airplay). “Hold On” makes you wish that people still made mix tapes for each other, because this would’ve been a good lead-off song—something that could melt the heart and make you dance at the same time.

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