Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

February 27, 2012

Review: Chronicle

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:13 pm

Chronicle is a dark meditation on the folly of giving power to the weak, presented as a sci fi/action/found footage film.

There has been a glut of found footage genre films lately, following the ever-increasing availability of personal video recording devices and the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras. Found footage films began in 1980, with the mercifully forgotten, “Cannibal Holocaust,” and averaged one or two a year, until 2008 and 2009, (seven and six respectively,) then jumped to 17 in 2010 and 2011, following the startling success of the indy film, “The Blair Witch Project” in 2009.

This year has already seen 10 released as of February.

Found footage is most commonly used for horror films, with the premise that a video record was made of unspeakably horrible things by dead people, who tell the story from beyond the grave through the video left behind.

“Chronicle” follows high school uber-geek Andrew (Dane DeHaan) who hides from the world by putting a videocam between his face and it. He and his friends Matt (Alex Russell,) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan,) find a hole in the ground with a glowing otherworldly object in it. Shortly after contact with it, they all begin to develop the power to move objects with their minds, and eventually learn to fly. As the film progresses, their power grows and each character has to deal with the effect of unaccountable power on their personality.

Matt grows into a sense of responsibility for the power he’s been given, as does Steve.

But Steve should have remembered what Orlando Jones shouted in “Evolution” (2001,) “Uh oh, this is where the black guy gets killed!”

That’s one formulaic cliche in an otherwise good movie, that goes back to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968.)

Andrew initially evokes our sympathy, but as the film advances starts to create a sense of dread. As if “Revenge of the Nerds” was remade as a horror flick. He starts by using the power to become popular, performing a magic act in the school talent contest. The twist is, he pretends it’s skill when it’s really something like magic.

Then he and his friends use the power for pranks on shoppers, after which Matt and Steve come up short and realize they’ve gone too far.

A point comes when Andrew uses the power to defend himself against his abusive father (Michael Kelly,) and goes a little beyond pure self-defense. Then he uses the power aggressively against thoroughly unsympathetic people you rather enjoy seeing get their comeuppance. Then against an innocent convenience store clerk, when robbing the store for money to buy medicine for his dying mother. At each step there is an element of sympathy for his motive, or his excuse.

With each step he grows more unrestrained, finally deciding that he is an “apex predator,” and there are no rules that apply to him.

“Is it wrong for a lion to kill zebras?” he asks the camera as he crushes a car like an aluminum beer can with a gesture of his hand.

This is, among all the special effects, a thoughtful movie. There is also plenty of action, with cars and buses thrown around like a child throwing toys in a tantrum. Which is exactly the point.

The found footage technique may have been done here better than ever before. The three main protagonists can be in the same frame together because Andrew can float the videocam above them. Scenes captured by surveillance cameras start with the grainy picture quality we all know, then seamlessly segue into a more watchable format once the scene has been set.

Character development in real and convincing. Matt develops into a better and more responsible person, Andrew gives in to the basest emotions within himself, without either seeming one-dimensional.

Unfortunately you can’t say the same about Steve, who nonetheless competently fills his stereotypical role as the Noble Black Man Who Gets Killed.

But the flaws are really minimal, its virtues many. You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this movie, but it’s worth the trip to the dark side.

February 17, 2012

An Gorta Mor

Filed under: Eleagic mode,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:18 am

Note: Cross-posted from my newspaper blog.

That’s what went through my mind when I opened my email this morning. (Feb. 10)

“An gorta mor,” is Irish Gaelic and means, “The Great Hunger.” It refers of course to the Irish potato famine of 1845-46, when the potato crop was infested with a blight that turned the staple food of the Irish peasantry into an inedible fetid mush.

The famine was compounded by political stupidity and the incredibly callous attitude of the English government. The famine caused the starvation of an estimated quarter of the Irish population, and another quarter to permanently immigrate. It’s how a lot of us became Americans.

The reason I thought of this was that I am on the mailing list of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Today I got a notice of an international conference next Wednesday, Feb. 15, commemorating the great famine of 1959-61 in China.

That famine was also the result of political stupidity and an incredibly callous attitude on the part of Mao Tse Tung’s communist government. The famine came about because of their attempt to reorganize Chinese agriculture during the so-called “Great Leap Forward.” The price of their ill-advised experimentation was at least 40 million dead, and cannibalism in the countryside.

I got on the foundation’s mailing list by chance when I was living in Washington for a few months. My first week there I came across the Victims of Communism Memorial, located at at the intersection of Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues and G Street, NW, within view of the U.S. Capitol. The memorial is a replica of the statue the demonstrators at Tien An Min Square made, itself a copy of the Statue of Liberty with a Chinese face. The face was modeled on a woman who died under torture in a secret police dungeon for the crime of asking embarrassing questions of the regime.

When I stumbled across it, there were a bunch of Bulgarians conducting a memorial service around it. They were commemorating the panahida, a word which means a funeral service in Greek and many Slavic languages, but to Bulgarians means specifically a remembrance for the victims of the communist regime.

I introduced myself and told the organizers that I’d actually lived in Bulgaria and I wanted to write a story about the ceremony. I did, and there are Bulgarians who believe God personally directed my footsteps that day.

It was in Bulgaria that I experienced real hunger for the first time, living in a country that had not yet re-privatized agriculture, getting paid in local currency that depreciated at the rate of 10 percent per day. I lost an alarming amount of weight, with effects that linger to this day.

This morning I threw away half a ready-made lasagna that’s been around too long. Tonight or tomorrow I’ll probably throw away the rest of a bean and rice dish we won’t finish soon enough.

I can’t say this is going to change my behavior any. But for a while when I do throw food away, I’ll be a little more conscious of what I’m doing.

An Gorta Mor.

February 10, 2012

Review: Lost Girl

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:05 am

Note: My weekly review in the TV Guide section of The Marshall Independent.

Lost Girl is a Canadian import, already in its third season in the Great White North, which just premiered on the SyFy channel here. As a reviewer I had the advantage of having just seen the premier episode and a couple of the current ones, so I kind of know where this is going.

First let me make this perfectly clear, I would not let my children watch this. It’s definitely adult entertainment and SyFy only shows it after their bedtime.

The title character Bo (Anna Silk) has kind of a kinky sex life involving a romantic triangle with a man (Kristen Holden-Ried) and a woman (Zoie Palmer,) and indulges in too-casual sex including the occasional threesome. Not an example I want set for my daughter. So sue me, I’m a prude. At least as far as my children are concerned.

Oh, and did I mention that sex with Bo is fatal for humans?

Bo’s sidekick Kenzi (Ksenia Solo) is a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold. And how many of those loveable pickpockets have you ever met? I do not want my children to see thieves portrayed as anything but lowlifes. (Robin Hood is a special exception, a counter-thief recovering stolen goods.)

And in my other capacity as an anthropologist and folklorist I have very ambiguous feelings about media messing with my myths. On the one hand they take serious liberties with classical myth and folklore. On the other hand where else are people getting any exposure to it at all?

Bo you see, is a succubus. A succubus in medieval demonology derived from ancient Hebrew myths, is a female demon who seduces men in their sleep. The male counterpart is an incubus.

The succubus was thought to explain nocturnal emissions. In medieval myth the succubus would then transform into an incubus, using the seed gathered from one male to impregnate a female. I’ve always thought that was a convenient way to explain to your wife why the kid across town looks just like you. “A succubus Honey! I swear it!”

However Bo is an apparently normal albeit strikingly beautiful woman, who grew up in a normal family unaware of her fae origin. Until her first sexual encounter killed her first boyfriend.

In the first episode Bo met and teamed up with Kenzi after saving her from a cad who’d slipped a ruffie in her drink – and killing the cad by draining his life energy. (Bo is not a vampire, but the effect is the same.)

Bo discovers something of her nature as a fae, a Celtic word covering all tribes of supernatural creatures such as morrigans, werewolves, leprechauns, furies, etc. That’s a pretty multicultural bag of myths right there.

The fae are divided into the light side, and the dark side. When they attempt to force Bo to chose her path, she defiantly chooses, “Human!”

The series revolves around Bo and Kenzi’s supernatural detective agency helping humans who run into supernatural trouble, and vice versa. They are aided by Bo’s romantic interest, a police detective who happens to be a werewolf.

And right there is another thing that makes me uneasy, the notion you can be neutral in a fight between good and evil. But then again this echoes myths about the fae that they were once angels who attempted to remain neutral in the war between God and Satan. They fell from heaven, but not all the way.

After having said all of the above, I have to tell you I find the series oddly compelling. Anna Silk is lovely in a distinctive non-classical way with bone structure to die for. Ksenia Solo plays a delightful smart-mouth who frequently natters away in Russian, a beautiful language that always hovers on the edge of intelligibility for those of us who speak any other Slavic tongue.

The stories of the supernatural world existing side-by-side with our mundane world probably owe inspiration to the work of Canadian fantasy author Charles de Lint and have a lot of the same flavor.

So if you have a taste for fantasy you might give this a try. But it’s not for everybody, and it’s definitely not for children.

February 6, 2012

Review: One for the Money

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 3:19 pm

Note: This was my review for the Marshall Independent TV Guide.

I wish I had known I was going to like this movie so much before I set out to review it. I’d have started on the novels first.

This was one of those delightful experiences where you try something more-or-less on a whim, and discover a new treat. Like a new restaurant, a new brand of beer, or a new author.

“One for the Money” is based on the first of 18 Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich, published in 1994. Stephanie is a bounty hunter, who stumbled into the profession out of necessity after losing her job as a lingerie salesperson, getting way behind on her rent, and having her car repossessed.

It stars Katherine Heigl as Stephanie, Jason O’Mara as her onetime romantic interest turned prey, and Debbie Reynolds as Grandma Mazur in a small but very entertaining supporting role. Debbie has aged well and is a delight to see again sporting a Jersey accent – and attitude.

After the aforementioned financial misfortunes, Stephanie goes to work for her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman, going after FTAs – Failure to Appear. Her first case turns out to be a cop gone missing after being charged with murder in the death of a suspect.

Said cop Joe Morellli, and Stephanie have history. As in Joe was the man who took Stephanie’s virginity and never called her. Stephanie in return ran over Joe with her father’s car, breaking his leg in several places. Over the course of the film Joe saves Stephanie’s life on a few occasions. Stephanie returns the favor and proves Joe’s innocence. (No spoiler, you can see he’s innocent from the beginning.)

Their chemistry is to say the least, interesting.

OK, so why did I like this so much? Especially since I went in thinking, “Oh, another idiot movie which portrays a woman easily besting men in hand-to-hand combat.”

No such thing. Heigl’s Stephanie is a big girl, and does become proficient with a gun eventually, but is no superwoman. She’s more apt to use her street smarts than her muscles.

The villains are not romantic supervillains either. They are like real criminals, scary, brutal, scum. As Dean Koontz once remarked, you could put a hundred of them in a room together and you couldn’t get five minutes of decent conversation.

The neighborhoods are not the Hollywood Hills, but Trenton, New Jersey, like it says. Clothes are Jersey, not Armani, and accents are Jersey, but not overdone.
Heigl shows range some of us never knew she had from watching Roswell, where she was just kind of there, to Grey’s Anatomy where she played a whole different character. For this role she had to guts to go brunette and kind of dowdy, though there’s no disguising that Valkyrie figure.

There’s character development. You see Stephanie start out with her Jersey attitude and a lot of spunk. Under the tutelage of fellow bounty hunter and second romantic lead, Ranger (Daniel Sunjata) you see her start to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to survive, and prevail.

And did I mention the banter? Lots of banter, like we haven’t seen since Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in “Moonlighting.” The story is partly told with voiceover first-person narration by Stephanie, but there is no breaking of the fourth wall.

Evanovich’s bio said she spent the first few years of her writing career trying to write The Great American Novel before setting her sights a little lower and becoming first a romance novelist, then an action/adventure novelist. Likewise this is not “Gone with the Wind,” but if you have some time on your hands, try it, you might like it.

And you’ll really like Stephanie.

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