Monday, March 31, 2014

TV Review: "The Walking Dead" Season 4

Where's Beth?
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! If you're not caught up, don't read this post.

Among my many friends, family members and coworkers who are fans of AMC's "The Walking Dead," the consensus seems to be that Season 4 has been the best since Season 1 and I must say that I whole-heartedly agree. 

Season 2 was a slow (albeit necessary) build to an astonishing finale, establishing plenty of relationships between the many characters and culminating in a rather distressing end, sending it's survivors back into the wilderness and giving us the first glimpse of the comics' fan-fave character, Michonne. Season 3 was spent exploring the haunted-house horrors of the prison; the seeming banal horrors of Woodbury and introducing the Governor, who (as evil and twisted as he was) is probably one of the lessor villains in the comics. 

Season 4 started out with a glimpse into what the Governor went through after Woodbury was lost; how Rick and Carl redeemed their humanity and the battle against a viral infection that both decimated the prison population and resulted in Carol being expelled by Rick. The mid-season finale was nothing less than devastating. Hershel was killed by the Governor/Phillip/Brian and the prison overrun with Walkers. Rick's group was separated and scattered and it was anyone's guess as to when and if they might reunite. Then came the amazing 'Back 8,' in which our heroes and heroines spent time trying to find one-another, resulting in some amazing character and relationship developments. Rick first encounters the 'Claimers;' Carl and Michonne bond; Daryl and Beth bond; Carol and Tyreese bond and Glenn meets Abraham and Eugene. As events played out, Carol discovers that young Lizzie has lost her mind (ending in a rather devastating episode); Beth is kidnapped by an unknown assailant (who I am guessing is The Reverend - a character from the comics we have yet to meet); and all of the survivors are drawn to Terminus, a place found only in the video game.

Personally, I can't imagine a more satisfying season. Back-stories told; conflicts resolved (while new ones arose) and the creepiest place we've seen since Rick first awoke in the hospital all led up to the best season of "The Walking Dead" yet. There were some of the series' best performances by the exceptionally talented cast, combined with some awesome special effects; intense Walker kills (Michonne and the Walker on the post); lots back-stories the fans needed to see and several of the show's best cliff-hangers yet. Trapped in a railroad boxcar in the VERY creepy Terminus (Mary!), Rick has once again found the warrior within ("They screwed with the wrong people!"). And don't even get me started on the neck-biting and attempted child-rape in the finale.

Waiting six months to find out what happens next is anguishing, but understandable. Shooting on Season 5 is scheduled to start later this month. October seems so far away. At least the summer promises the return of  "Falling Skies" and the final season of "Warehouse 13"  for genre addicts like Uncle P... 

***1/2 (Three and a Half Stars Out of Four).

If you're half the fan of this show as Uncle P and his sister, you are chomping at the bit for Season 5!

More, anon,

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

I really like several of Wes Anderson's movies, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox. I did not particularly care for 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, which many found to be excellent. For me, it fell flat and at times was downright dull. But the trailer and the amazing, mostly all-star cast of his latest film had me intrigued, so when Q & Dale asked me to join them to see it tonight, I happily accepted. I needed to get out of the house and tonight was the first time in a several days I felt well enough (seasonal sinusitis) to do so.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is actually a story within a story, taking place mostly in 1932 in a made-up European country where most people speak in decidedly American accents and/or colloquialisms. Jude Law is a young writer spending time at the deteriorating titular hotel in 1985, where he meets the hotel's owner, a one Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him the story of how he came to own it. Flash back to 1932 when Zero was a young Lobby Boy under the tutelage of the ultimate Concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is a bit of a lothario, wooing the hotel's elderly lady guests and wearing enough perfume to linger several minutes after he's passed. When his favorite guest, Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) passes away, Gustave and young Zero (Tony Revolori, making his feature debut) become embroiled in an unlikely tale of murder, art theft, prison escapes and Nazi fascism.

Anderson's wicked sense of humor and very particular visual style are very much on display here. As Q said, "He certainly creates very specific worlds in his films." Oddly, that humor works against the more serious (and violent) aspects of the story and the improbable plot leaves much to be desired. And a rather glaring anachronism involving CPR jolted me right out of  the movie, which was a shame because it was a momentary visual joke that could easily have been replaced with something more period-appropriate.

The performances from the amazing and diverse cast, which also includes Jeff Goldblum; Jason Schwartzman; Edward Norton; Bill Murray; Soarsie Ronan; Adrian Brody; Willem Dafoe (in a weirdly hilarious turn as a particularly nasty assassin); Harvey Keitel; Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson, are uniformly excellent and appropriately quirky. But the heart of the film is young Zero and Revolori is simply delightful as a young man who only wants to be the best Lobby Boy ever. The one relationship I totally believed in the movie belonged to him and Fiennes. Teacher/student; father/son; brother/brother are all beautifully on display across the the course of the film. The production design, locations and costumes were all gorgeous and worthy of Anderson's visual palette.  I also must credit the Makeup and Hair team led by Mark Coulier, who will most certainly nominated for an Oscar on the basis of Ms Swinton's remarkable age transformation, alone. Honestly - had I not known it was her going in, I never would have recognized her.

While I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel much more than Moonrise Kingdom, I still couldn't help but feel it was rather slight compared to his earlier work. That's not to say I didn't like it. I just didn't like it as much as I had hoped to. **1/2 (Two and a Half Out of Four Stars).

The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated 'R' by the MPAA for language, violence and brief nudity.

More, anon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Sad Waste of Life

Glad I'm Not the First to Make this Comparison
So, on the day of the 2014 vernal equinox, the Reverend Fred Phelps (one of, if not THE most hated men in America) kicked the bucket. Bought the farm. Expired. Became an ex-human. Oh, wait -- maybe not that last one. Seems like he'd already done that to himself a long time ago.

Westboro Baptist started in 1955 as a branch of a small church in Topeka, where Fred Phelps was the assistant pastor. After his promotion to pastor of the new church on the other side of town, Phelps soon cut off all relations with the founding group. In 1964, Phelps earned his Juris Doctorate at Washburn and became a civil rights activist, defeating Jim Crow laws in Kansas. Somewhere along the way, Phelps lost his mind and became a religious fanatic, forcing his views on his family with threats and beatings (according to many who have since left the WBC, including Phelps' son Nate, now an LGBT rights activist in Canada). Disbarred in Kansas in 1979 and in Federal Court ten years later, Phelps and his followers (now mostly just members of his family) began their infamous picketing in 1991. By 2001, everyone knew the Westboro Baptist Church and their message of "God's" hatred of homosexuality. Phelps infamously told talk-show host (and original Tracy Turnblad) Ricki Lake the he "...worshiped her rectum..." after appearing on her show in 1994. Lake reportedly had Phelps forcibly removed from the studio.

But then a wonderful thing happened along the way... people started to hear and see Phelps' message for the lies and hate it was. A spotlight was shone on their bigotry and people took notice and started to rethink their own thoughts on LGBT people. So that was good, I suppose. 

Last year, a sort of coup was staged at WBC. Phelps, ailing and possibly softening his views, was excommunicated and the church elected a group of 8 Elders while ousting Shirley Phelps-Roper as WBC's official spokesperson. These details are just coming to light after it was announced earlier this week that Phelps was near death.

And while some might rejoice at the news of Phelps' death, I can't help but think of the sad waste of time and energy that was his life. If he and his congregation had spent just a tenth of that time and energy helping those in need as they did spreading hatred, the world would be a much better place.  Meanwhile, the WBC (having learned nothing) has announced that it's business and picketing* as usual for the SPLC-identified hate group. And of course, this could be the next step toward drinking the Kool-Aid -- and how sad would that be? There are still children there, being indoctrinated in hatred by fear. So, very sad...

Still, I can't imagine anyone wants to leave this world known for their hateful, hurtful actions, even if they are insane enough to truly believe they are doing the opposite. I'd like to believe that maybe Fred did soften near the end. maybe even felt bad about he'd done, or at least how he'd done it. I'd like to, but I don't. 

Here's what TMZ had to say:

*On a side note - in a purely self-serving move to generate publicity for JTMF's production of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, we tried desperately to get WBC to come protest. Sadly, their protest calendar was already full that summer. 

More, anon.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cable Review: "Doc of the Dead"

Produced by and currently available exclusively on the EPIX cable network is Alexandre O. Philippe's 2014 release, Doc of the Dead, which tries to encompass all that is the decidedly 21st Century Zombie phenomena. 

Featuring interviews with genre icons such as George A. Romero; Tom Savini; Bruce Campbell; Greg Nicotero; Robert Kirkman; Max Brooks; Stuart Gordon and Judith O'Dea (Barbara in Romero's Night of the Living Dead), Doc of the Dead is certainly a fun (if not exactly groundbreaking) examination of the cinematic history which has led to the pop culture phenomenon which captured my imagination at a midnight showing of Dawn of the Dead in a sleazy little twin cinema in 1979. Before the movie started, the theater manager came into the auditorium to make an announcement. "This movie is violent and disturbing. It makes people want to smoke. This theater has a strict 'No Smoking' policy." Of course, as soon as the movie started, multiple joints, bowls and bongs remained lit until the end credits. While I may have left with a pretty good contact high, I was a die-hard fan of the newly emerging sub-genre.

Starting with Haitian-inspired zombie movies and working its way up to "The Walking Dead" and the film version of World War Z, Doc of the Dead manages to ignore tons of movies, including White Zombie; Lucio Fulci's Zombie; Zombieland and schlockmeister Uwe Boll's House of the Dead, though they happily show clips from Zombie porn parodies. Really? I must admit, however, to enjoying the part about Zombie Walks and immersive Zombie experiences. I'd love to take a crack at designing one of those.

In the end, Doc of the Dead doesn't have anything really new to say that hasn't already been said about the genre. But it's still fun for fans. Doc of the Dead is rated "R" for language, violence and gore. **1/2 (Two and a Half Out of Four Stars). The trailer below is probably NSFW.

In full disclosure, EPIX aired Doc of the Dead just after it aired World War Z, which appears to be heavily promoted in the documentary. Just sayin'.

More, anon.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

How Squee Is Your Deathmetal?

BabyMetal's "Hungarian Style." What the...?!
My college freshman godson Josh has apparently developed a rather Punk style sense of late, much to the delight of his mother and myself, 80's New Wavers who spent many a 90 Cents Thursday night at City Gardens, being served Kamikazes by the future Jon Stewart and dancing the night away to Thompson Twins; early Sinead O'Connor; Oingo Boingo; Billy Idol; The Plasmatics; The Ramones; The B-52s and so many more. 

Today, Josh's mom shared a link with him on Facebook about the latest Japanese musical sensation, BabyMetal. We all know how insane Japanese pop culture is. We acknowledge and even embrace it, shaking our heads the whole time. BabyMetal somehow struck a nonsensical chord with your Uncle P, and I just loved it not only for its outrageous bizzaro-ness, but also for the earnest performances of its very entertaining trio of 14 -16 year old singers/dancers known as Su-Metal; Moametal and Yuimetal. I haven't found a video for "Hungarian Style" (though I am dying to know how a Japanese Pop/Metal trio might interpret a good old Csardas) but the trio's first big single is below. Love 'em or hate 'em, here's BabyMetal with "Gimme Chocolate!":

How adorable was that? Of course, one hilarious commenter on Jezebel said: "Somewhere in Norway there is a metalhead in corpse paint standing in a forest crying tears of blood.” Yes. And somewhere in southeastern PA, a weird, middle-aged gay man is taking (and hopefully sharing) great joy in the absurdity that is BabyMetal. Of course, this is hardly the first time we've witnessed adorable gals shrieking to the strains of electric guitars gone mad. Remember last season's "AGT" contestant Aaralynn and her lovely little ditty "Zombie Skin?" I sure do:

They're so sweet at that age...

More, anon.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Gayest Things You'll See This Week

Openly Gay Rapper Matt Palmer
While I had heard the name Pharrell Williams, the only thing I really knew about him was the ridiculous hat he wore to the Grammys. I also had not seen Despicable Me 2, so it wasn't until the Oscars earlier this week that I was finally able to put a face to the singer of an Academy Award nominated song I'd most certainly heard, but never connected to the singer or the movie. Got that?

 Papa Paris - which I must assume is some sort of International Gay Assembly, has taken the song and made it very, very gay in a video promoting an event coming up on March 15th... I wish I could remember where I first found this. It (and the following clip) may be NSFW. Otters, Cubs and other Bear fans should enjoy:

Not hot enough for you? Openly gay R&B artist Matt Palmer's latest is about desire, art and damn... I wish someone would break through a wall to kiss me! I hope you like "Teardrops" as much as I did (via):

While I honestly look forward when society stops quantifying people and things as 'gay,' I also hope that my fellow LGBTs will still be able to identify themselves however they prefer to, without judgement or hate.

More, anon.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Most Egregious Thing You'll See This Week

I was a sophomore in High School when Annie made it's Broadway debut (look it up and do the math). The comic-strip on which the musical was based debuted in 1933 and was still in syndication when the musical first arrived on the Great White Way. It's ubiquitous anthem "Tomorrow" is one the late 20th Century's most recognizable songs and without it, we wouldn't have Sarah Jessica Parker.  The show has had two revivals, one in 1997 and another in 2012. It was made into a not terrible movie in 1982, starring a local gal with whom my mother shared 1 degree of separation, Aileen Quinn (Mom worked with Aileen's mother back in her Playground Monitor days). Carol Burnett and Tim Curry were the villains in director John Huston's fairly faithful version.

News of a new version slated to star Willa Smith arose about three years ago. Last year it was announced that Smith was out, replaced by Beasts of the Southern Wild Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.All seemed well and good until we found out that Cameron Diaz (Bad Teacher) and Jaimie Foxx (Ray) were slated to play Miss Hannigan and the updated version of Daddy Warbucks, Benjamin Stacks (get it? -- ugh!). Okay. Fine. Maybe an update is in order. Urban orphans are certainly VERY different today from those of the Great Depression. I have no problem with making older works relevant to modern audiences. I've set both Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet in the 20th Century. A timeless story is just that, right?


Look at this trailer for the 2014 Annie and tell me it doesn't make you want to pull your hair out by the roots.

UGH! It's everything I hate about the treacly original show, combined with every unoriginal thought put to paper by modern, corporate filmmakers. Directed by Will Gluck (best known for teen sex comedies like Easy A), this shameless POS is a perfect example of everything wrong with Hollywood and the U.S. film industry today. The trailer makes it clear that this movie will undoubtedly be the miserable flop that it is destined (and deserves) to be.

More, anon.

PS - A special thanks to my friend Sally, who first shared that clip.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Day Late and a Dollar Short: An Oscars Post-Mortem

Nipple with a Z
I didn't get to the movies last year nearly as much as I wanted and usually do. A lot of that had to do with Mom's declining health and passing. Much of it had to do with the fact that there was very little to get excited about, this year. The only Best Picture nominee I saw was Gravity, and while it was the best movie Uncle P saw all year, that's not saying much. And honestly, I had little interest in seeing the other nominees. That's not saying they weren't excellent films, but I don't always want a life-lesson when I see a movie. I just want to be transported from reality for 90 to 120 minutes, forgetting about the problems of the real world for just a little while. Of course, the really great movies, IMHO, are the ones that can do both. Pan's Labyrinth springs to mind. I'm sure that 12 Years a Slave is a very good film. I just don't want to spend two hours watching another person suffer.

Of course, most people watching the Oscars feel the same way. It isn't about who or what wins or why. It's about the accompanying sideshow. Who wore or said or did what? What outrageous thing happened that's trending on Twitter. Travolta said what? Did Ellen just call Liza a tranny? Are Liza's nips really that huge? Did you see Kim Novak's face? Ellen ordered pizza? How wacky! 

And in what is both the funniest and saddest moment of this year's Overblown Ego-fest, Scientologist and alleged masseur molester John Travolta forever cemented his 'Oscars Fail' when he introduced Broadway star Idina Menzel as "Adele Dazeem." 

Is it any wonder poor Ms Menzel botched her performance of a song every little girl (and some big girls and boys) knows by heart after listening to the Frozen soundtrack for the 12,367th time? No pressure there, eh? Pink, however, managed to not only show up in a gorgeous red-sequined gown that was deliberately reminiscent of Dorothy's ruby slippers, but then fearlessly took on an iconic song which she managed to own! Brava!

Then there's the obsession with the celebrities' fashions. First, why didn't Lorna Luft tell her sister to wear a bra? Everyone else looked nice, I suppose. I wondered if Cate Blanchet's dress was designed by Tesla, though I thought Idina Menzel, Lupita Nyong'o and Camila Alves looked particularly stunning. Jared Leto's hair bothered some folks I know. I was just pleased that he finally acknowledged all the people living with and who have died from AIDS, unlike co-star Matthew McConaughey, who rambled on like the weirdo he appears to be. No one was surprised by Gravity grabbing all the technical awards, or by Frozen winning both awards for which it was nominated (I must admit. "Let It Go" has become a personal anthem, of late). 

Mostly, as for the past too many years, there wasn't a single surprise or upset. I didn't do a predictions post this year, but I should have. We all would have won our office pools had I done so. When the Oscars are that predictable, it's time to stop watching. 

Though there were a few things I liked:

Maybe I'm just too old and jaded to care anymore. As a life-long movie lover, that makes me kind of sad...

More, anon.