Friday, October 31, 2014

These Events Actually Happened

I'll admit something--I'm a bit of a sucker for found footage movies.

A fairly recent phenomenon, found footage is a movie format that presents itself pretty much as advertised--the film is a series of segments of footage discovered after an event and pieces together as a cohesive narrative. It differentiates itself from the mockumentary genre by being almost completely stripped of anything that isn't so-called "original" source material.

While the genre existed occasionally since about the 70s--when "found" footage was at least someone practical with mobile video recordings--it really kickstarted with 1999's Blair Witch Project. But even then, there weren't a ton of releases--the Blair Witch sequel dispensed with it more or less altogether in favor of a more conventional film, and the 2000s didn't have much else to offer.

The current resurgence is owed almost primarily by the movie Paranormal Activity. Released in 2007, it went full on with the "found footage" concept. Now, we live in a world where literally everyone carries around a small video camera; nearly every computer and laptop has a built-in camera; and GoPros and similar small, durable cameras are cheap and plentiful. Before, stories had to justify some reason to be recording everything, including details that normally wouldn't; now, you could insert a camera pretty much anywhere and have it be at least someone believable.

Of course, the found footage market is almost wholly owned by horror films. It makes sense--for pretty much any other type of genre, there would be no need for "found footage"; the entire concept is built around the fact that at some point the footage was lost, presumably due to unfortunate circumstances. Only the worst dates would qualify a rom-com for that sort of treatment. (That said, a few other genres have tried it, such as science fiction or crime, to mixed success.) It also helps that shaky, blurry, and non-professional camera work lends itself to spookiness on screen. Finally, of course, the horror genre, already notorious for low-budget fare, can get even lower; with only a modest outlay of funds one can record a movie you can go to the theater to see today.

I'm not sure why I'm such a sucker for these sorts of films. I'm very hit-or-miss on horror; it's a genre I only have a passing interest in normally. I think maybe it's because these films are usually more about suspense then special effects or gore. Paranormal Activity famously had almost zero special effects for the entire movie (only the last few seconds had any CGI at all), and built its narrative around creaky doors, moving shadows, and creepy reactions. To me, the ability to scare the shit out of me using ordinary household items and dialogue is significantly more impressive than a CGI-laden gore-fest.

Of course, the format has its downsides. Because it's so cheap, there's a glut of them out there; over two dozen have been released in 2014 alone. It can sometimes be difficult to sort through them all to get to the good stuff. (Of course, due to the economics of the industry, even modestly successful straight-to-video offerings still turn a profit.) In addition, many of these films concede more than just found footage, inserting more special effects and music. And even though there's so much technology out there, it still seems to stretch credibility as to why there are cameras everywhere. (Paranormal Activity 4, in particular, had to cobble together about a half dozen different excuses as to why something was being caught on camera.)

Still, I think it's a genre that's here to stay, and I think the horror genre is better for it. After years of ramping up expensive special effects, elaborate justifications for endless sequels, and a limited scope, it's nice to see a little bit of creative efficiency in the market.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Detention: A Horror Movie (or maybe Sci Fi or Comedy or Teen Romance) Review

It's getting closer to Halloween, and that means a lot of cut-rate horror films are being watched by people everywhere. No one has facilitated this quite like Netflix has, where both high-concept major releases and low-budget dated garbage compete for the same eyeballs come All Hallow's Eve.

Somewhere in the middle is the comedy-horror film Detention, which was released in 2012.

Starring Shanley Caswell (The Conjuring) and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), the plot involves...well, nominally, it's about a serial killer who is terrorizing the students of a high school in Grizzly Lake. The killer takes up the costume and persona of Cinderhella, an (in-universe) popular movie character. The two protagonists, Riley and Clapton, start off as bitter rivals (mostly over a love triangle involving Ione) but when Ione's ex Billy Nolan challenges Clapton to a fight over her, alliances shift. All the while, the killer is killing off popular kids one by one. The ever-suffering principal (played surprisingly effectively by Dane Cook) tries to control the situation, with varying degrees of success.

Well, hold up. Let's back up a bit, because one of the charms of Detention is the fact that the above, while it sounds like a trite teen slasher movie, actually has very little to do with the plot. The actual plot is that each of the characters is basically a star of their own horror movie. The angry jock? He's actually injected with fly DNA. The creepy loner in the detention hall? He's stuck in a time loop (see: Donnie Darko). Ione is actually acting out Freaky Friday with her mom. And so on.The thing is, none of these are the main plot. They're treated as sort of mini-episodes, no longer than a few minutes each, to explain why the characters act the way they do.

If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. Kind of. It all sort of makes sense in context, but not really.

Eventually, the plot resolves itself via a time machine, where Riley and Clapton have to go back to prevent a disgruntled student from blowing up the school and everyone in it, preventing the entire sequence of events from happening in the first place. (Just trust me on this.) The entire time this is playing out, it's toying with the very cliches that you're expecting. Ione and her mom are perfectly happy with their new bodies. The fly-jock acts like he's juiced up on steroids, but he's really just trying to channel the DNA. Weird things in the beginning of the movie make a lot more sense once they go back in time. And so on.

Here's the problem, though; while it's a refreshing chance of pace, the style and execution of it isn't optimal.

First things first: this movie was directed by Joseph Kahn, who got his start in music videos, and it shows. In some ways, the fast-paced, quick-shot format overlaid with poppy music covers works perfectly, but at other times it just gums up the works with unnecessary flash. The movie is also over-saturated with 80s and 90s pop culture references. It actually makes sense in context (Ione talks like it's 1992 because that's when she's from; of course we don't know it until much later in the film) but some things (like the Swayze vs Segal discussion) just seem like a sop to nostalgia porn fanatics. Some of it also feels lazy; given the time-travel nature of the film, there's a lot of weird plot holes that they just seem to handwave away with a new song and some catchy font effects. I'd also say there's too many characters. Some of them--Mimi and Mr. Kendall in particular--just seem to be there to fill some sort of cultural reference slot, but with such weak effort it never delivers.

As with most efforts like this, a lot of the negatives can be chalked up to "missed opportunities." The entire concept of "each character is in their own movie" is fantastic, but it doesn't quite get there with this script. It only applies to a handful of characters, and isn't always done properly. (What on earth was with the TV hand? Do bandages not exist in the 1990s?) It just tries too hard, and it shows.

And yet, there's something charming about the entire enterprise. It's certainly enjoyable (and a reasonably trim 93 minutes that seems half that) if you don't mind that it's not exactly the most airtight premise. It doesn't take long to realize it's just a breezy coast through a half-baked horror/sci-fi plot. To be blunt, it's a mess, but it somehow still feels satisfying.

I suspect the market for this movie is fairly narrow. Unless you have a fetish for 90's references, a lot of the dialogue in this movie is either going to be nonsensical or cringeworthy. And it seesaws between being a teen comedy, a satire, a straight-up horror flick, and a sci-fi movie without ever really settling on any of them. (The trailers make this out to be a horror film with some mild comedic moments, and that's far from what it is.) But if you hit that demographic, it's certainly worth watching.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Witnesses to And Four To Go

This is the sixth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

Today, we're looking at Three Witnesses, Might As Well Be Dead, Three For The Chair, If Death Ever Slept, and And Four To Go.

Sorry for the delay for this installment. I actually lost one of these books while reading it (it was hiding under some blankets); plus, I have one of the books (If Death Ever Slept) only in a compendium, which is huge (and why it's not shown above). So I didn't have as many opportunities to read as I would have liked.

Three Witnesses includes three short stories: The Next Witness, When A Man Murders..., and Die Like A Dog.

 In The Next Witness, Wolfe is compelled to tesitfy in court about a case he turned down, and so the story begins with Wolfe sitting (uncomfortably, as always) in a courtroom awaiting his turn on the stand. During the testimony, he realizes that the accused is probably innocent--plus a woman wearing hideous perfume is next to him. Both factors compel him to leave and investigate; since both he and Archie are under subpoena, this means risking arrest. While Wolfe travels everywhere except his beloved brownstone, he slowly pieces together the clues to the crime and, once he arrives in the courthouse the next day (under duress of arrest), he provides testimony to free the accused and point the finger at the rightful murderer.

A standard mystery is made exceptional given the circumstances; any story with Wolfe out of his element is almost always worth it, and this is no exception.

When A Man Murders involves a presumed widow whose husband was killed in the Korean War--only to turn up alive and well after she remarried. When the widow hires Wolfe to negotiate a divorce, the former husband is found dead, and the new husband charged with the murder. Of course, additional motives are injected once the will is sussed out, and Saul has to comb the east coast for a witness. A decent, if ultimately forgettable, story.

Die Like A Dog has a dog! When a client shows up to hire Wolfe, and Wolfe turns him down, he leaves in a huff and takes the wrong coat. Archie then walks to take the coat back, only to find the prospect murdered. At the scene, however, a black lab is found and follows Archie home. Archie, thinking this is a good way to needle Wolfe some, bring in the dog--only to find that Wolfe likes dogs. Wolfe then takes on the case after it is revealed that the dog may be a crucial piece of evidence.

This is one of the best short stories I've read so far--and not because it has a dog. (Well, not only because.) The mystery is an actual, find-a-physical-clue variety, which is always fun; the characters all play their parts wonderfully, and the entire concept of Wolfe accepting the dog almost immediately is not only funny but a little touching.

Might As Well Be Dead involves a father from Nebraska looking for his son. They had a falling out over what ended up being a wrongful accusation, and the parent wants to make amends, but can't find where his son is. As it turns out, his son (now living under an assumed name) just got convicted of murder, complicated by the fact that opening up information to clear him would identify him (among other embarrassments). Wolfe, looking for a way to increase his fee, works to clear the son's name of a murder charge while keeping him in the dark.

It's one of the few Wolfe stories with a shocking event--I won't go into it--but it directly affects the Wolfe mythos, much like Black Mountain did, although with much, much less impact. (It involves a recurring but minor character). A solid book.

Three For The Chair includes A Window For Death, Immune To Murder, and Too Many Detectives.

In A Window For Death, the death of a wealthy industrialist is ruled pneumonia in circumstances similar to his father's death. Since two doctors certified it as pneumonia, there's no reason for cops to be involved, but due to the situation (his estate is worth a significant amount, and there was bad blood between the business partner and the family) they all agree to go to Wolfe to see if there's enough evidence to present to the police. A good, solid mystery involving red herrings and actual evidence, it's one of the better short stories.

In Immune To Murder, another story that takes Wolfe out of his element, he goes to Washington as a favor to an ambassador. The ambassador requests Wolfe to prepare freshly-caught trout for him (along with a group of guests who--surprise!--hate each other), and Wolfe agrees...only to find that the Assistant Secretary has been killed while fishing. An interesting tale, and one of the better Wolfe-away-from-home ones.

In Too Many Detectives, Wolfe is called to Albany. New York State is doing a review of wiretapping laws, and is calling on all licensed private detectives to give testimony about any wiretaps they have done. Wolfe and Archie share the waiting room with about five other detectives, where they size each other up (and introduces Dol Bonner, one of Rex Stout's other detective series, into the world of Wolfe and Archie). Wolfe goes in first, and the testimony centers around a bungled wiretap job he had done a few months prior, only to be told that the subject is there with them that day--but when he's called to the office, he's found strangled. Wolfe and Archie are both then arrested as material witnesses. Outraged, Wolfe called all the other detectives called in that day and they arrange a meeting to try and determine who killed the victim--only to find that each and every one of them had had bad dealings with the victim at some point.

This collection of short stories is also really, really good; it's a nice balance between the using-logic-and-evidence school of mystery writing, as well as Wolfe's standard psychological games. I previously stated that I didn't care for the short story collections, but I'm finding that Stout really improved his abilities.

In If Death Ever Slept, Archie takes on the role of the secretary of a very rich man who wants to get some dirt on his daughter-in-law; he is convinced she is passing on vital business secrets to another party and has already cost him a million dollar deal. Archie takes on an assumed name and tries to get in everyone's confidence, but of course a gun is stolen and soon the former secretary is dead. Cue a bit of a farce as Archie tries to remain secretary without dealing directly with the police, who would blow his cover, and Wolfe internally debating whether to tell the police what they've found out before he gets his fee.

It's actually not a bad mystery, but I don't care for this one since the premise (Archie and Wolfe are on each others' nerves and so Archie goes undercover) was already used in another story, Too Many Women. While the story quickly diverges from that premise, it still seems recycled.

And Four To Go is the only Wolfe collection to have four, instead of three, stories. In addition, three of the four are holiday-based, another first. Most of them are significantly shorter than normal, even for novellas.

In Christmas Party, Wolfe demands Archie take him to meet a famous horticulturalist, but Archie had already made arrangements (a date, of course) and cleared it with Wolfe beforehand. And to get on his nerves, he produces a filled-out marriage license as to why it's so important. The date is to a company Christmas Party where, of course, the head of the business is poisoned. A man in a Santa Claus suit--whom no one recognized--leaves immediately upon the murder, and it's up to Wolfe to solve the mystery lest a major secret gets let out.

This is a fun story; there's not much time to get much of a mystery moving, but it's a great read. I can't say too much without spoiling the major reveal, so we'll just leave it at that.

Easter Parade involves Wolfe engaging in a little petty larceny. A prominent citizen who also deals with orchids has created a hybrid that Wolfe has been trying to perfect for years, and has Archie hire someone to steal it from the lapel of the citizen's wife at the Easter parade. Of course, once the hired hand reaches the wife she dies, and Wolfe has to find out why to deflect suspicion of off why a random person would steal a flower from her the moment she died.

Again, this one is a fun read--here's Wolfe, at his basest level and gets in the maximum amount of trouble for it, and he has to pay for his pride and vanity.

In Fourth of July Picnic, Wolfe is invited to speak at a union worker's picnic, only to have one of the speakers die before going on. Unfortunately, circumstances and evidence mean that someone who was on the speaker's list was the murderer, and to avoid being held as a witness Wolfe has to solve the mystery before being compelled to notify the police (and thus be under suspicion).

I wasn't as impressed with this story; it's not very interesting, which is a shame since a lot of usually the episodes where Wolfe is out of his element are the best. In addition, the trick at the end that reveals the murderer is the same trick he's pulled dozens of times before, except without anything interesting to add to it.

Murder Is No Joke has a nice premise but is otherwise forgettable. A woman comes to Wolfe to try and get rid of a suspected blackmailer at the company she works for; when Wolfe calls the suspect to arrange for her to come, she is presumably killed while on the phone. Wolfe, upset that he was made a fool of, brings the suspects in to solve the murder. Eh.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Selfie: A Review

I hadn't planned on watching the new television series, Selfie. But it happened. So I figured I'd do a review of the pilot, because why not?

Bow ties aren't always cool.

First things first: the only reason I even heard of this new TV show was because of two reasons: that horrifying title that had nearly everyone immediately dismiss it; and the fact that it stars Karen Gillan from Doctor Who. (If you don't know her from Doctor Who, you might from Guardians of the Galaxy or the well-received horror film Oculus.) American audiences might be more familiar with the other main star, John Cho, who was Harold from the Harold and Kumar series as well as about a hundred other things.

There are so many new shows each fall (or, increasingly, all year round) that it's difficult to pick out what to give a chance. I was going to give this show a pass because the premise didn't really interest me, and it felt like it was going to be one of those horrible, thrown-together projects trying to coast on the talent of the stars.

To be honest, the only reason I watched it in the first place was because I was setting the DVR to record Gracepoint (another show with Doctor Who connections, and is a retelling of the otherwise fantastic Broadchurch) and it just happened to be starting. It was a complete fluke; I had no intention of ever watching this. But I did.

Selfie wasn't the worst TV show I've ever seen. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it has potential. Sadly, it still has a lot of problems. But we'll get to that.

The premise isn't particularly original or notable: Gillan, playing an extreme exaggeration of a narcissistic millennial named Eliza, realizes she is shallow, unliked, and has no real friends--her entire life is online. She convinces Henry, one of the successful salespeople at her company, to "rebrand" her. (Shades of Pygmalion, and the obligatory My Fair Lady after mentioning Pygmalion.)

The pilot kickstarts Eliza's transformation. In the first few minutes, we establish that she's "famous" online and that her success is tied primarily to her sex appeal. She's then publicly humiliated--she finds out, while on a plane ride, the man she's involved with is married. (Other, grosser stuff happens as well.) An entire plane of her coworkers, sick of her nonsense, take great pleasure in disseminating the disaster that's unfolding before them.

This prompts her to talk with Henry to change her "marketing." Henry walks her through her life--she needs to stop spending so much time on her phone and more time taking an active interest in others. As a project, he tells her to accompany him on a date to a wedding, where she has to act professional, not be online, and dress modestly. Unaware of how to do so, she calls her book-club-having neighbor--in true sitcom fashion, they are polar opposites and dislike each other--to help her dress appropriately.

In the end, Harold and Eliza realize that they need each other--he's too stiff and formal, she's too shallow and vapid. Hilarity ensues.

Here are some of the things I liked:
  • Gillan and Cho. The two stars actually have pretty good chemistry together, and both know how to handle the situations they are in and scripts they are given. They actually managed to save some of the dialogue that otherwise would have come across as eye-rollingly trite. Gillan, in particular, has a way of reacting to situations with a simple facial expression that says a lot more than words.
  • The show has everything set up right. We've established her workplace and its various dynamics; we've established her proximity to a bunch of girls who could develop and be her friends; we've established reputations and histories for the main characters; and we've established the Henry-Eliza relationship.
  • There is a lot of clever writing. The entire scene with Charmonique is hilarious (each actor in that scene plays off one another excellently), and the closing scene (where Eliza and Henry have a heartfelt conversation with one another) is genuinely both charming and funny. While a lot of the writing was sloppy, there was a lot of good stuff, too. There's usually something that salvages most scenes.
  • So far, the pilot has done a good job at balancing comedy with plot development. Hopefully it will be more the former than the latter once they get things established, but right now it was reasonably good pacing.
Let's look at the things that didn't work so well:
  • First off: That title has to go. It's horrible. Sitcoms have survived name changes before. This is a good candidate to try. I suppose we should all just be grateful it wasn't called #Selfie.
  • The first five minutes of the show were almost unbearable. The flashy and unnecessary social media references, the painfully obvious exposition, the vomit...if they were trying to hook new viewers, this was the clumsiest way to do so.
  • They're trying too hard to cram social media in everything, including within the show itself and the jokes. ("All my friends' names start with an at symbol!") We get it. it's barely been halfway through the first episode, and it's already old. Move on.
  • Karen Gillan is hot. Yeah, yeah, sex sells, blah blah blah. But in the first five minutes we get Karen Gillan completely naked (strategically and briefly, of course) and then another long pan of her in her underwear (justified, but still). The latter scene, in particular, could have been played up for much more comedic value instead of simply presenting a chance to ogle her, but they decided to go the purile route instead. Far be it for me to insist on less scantily clothed Karen Gillan, but she's an amazing talent and her abilities are wasted when her body is used as a crutch when comedy should be the focus.
  • The script needs some work. While there was some legitimately clever writing, the rest of the other writing was clumsy and heavy-handed. during the closing, they actually say (this is a direct quote):
Henry: You shouldn't feel compelled to make everything so sexual.
Eliza: And you shouldn't be so uptight.

Really? Maybe there wasn't a frying pan nearby they could have beat us over the head with so they had to go with that. There's actually a lot of dialogue like this. Some of it, perhaps, can be forgiven--this is the pilot, after all, and they have to cram a lot of information in a small amount of time. It just seems like it could be handled better.
  • There's a lot of weird stuff that happens. The friends that help out with Eliza's makeover? They suddenly start singing Lady Gaga. Also, one girl carries a ukelele. Why? Who knows? Henry--who heretofore didn't seem like the type--suddenly starts talking in rhyme. Why? Who knows? There's a few other scenes that just made no sense. While some of them were funny, they just seem more awkward than anything else.
  • A lot of people were upset about the "sexual politics" of the show. While I get some of the criticism, most of it's clearly there to establish characterization and draw stark lines between people. If they keep it up I can see it being a problem, but right now I think it's just lazy writing and over-sensitive critics.
On the face of it, it seems like there's more bad than good. But not really. A lot of the bad can be chalked up to this being the pilot; they had to establish the premise and introduce characters. Other shows do it more skillfully, but it's not the worst thing in the world for a pilot to

Is the show worth watching? Honestly, I don't know. If they had a less talented cast, I'd just chalk this up to another forgettable sitcom that tried to pander to a specific demographic that wasn't me. But the abilities of both Gillan and Cho are amazing, and they carried this subpar script along to where I didn't want to stop watching. And yet one gets the feeling that the writers and creators are hung up on the "social media" gimmick, which is going to get real old real fast.

Will I continue to watch Selfie? I honestly don't know, but I doubt it. At the end of the show I didn't really care what happened to any of the characters. But I'm more than willing to watch again if I hear that things improve, and the good news is that while a lot of the writing was awkward and misfired too often, it did have a fairly decent foundation. So we shall see.