My Week: February 11, '12

Sheba, Baby
William Girdler, 1975
"Sheba" represents in its individuality so much of what I love about blaxploitation, from the nearly ever-present Monk Higgins funk seeming to emanate from slammin' Pam Grier's mere presence and the immediately grabbing storyline of an ethical family's empathetic financial struggle, to the presentation of its titular character as uniquely strong in both the everyday and the extraordinary (I.E. givin' the gun-brothers the frizzies) to a general extent that defies the bounds of "exploitation". The themes at hand are relevant for all, and rarely if ever rely on matters of race or cultural idiosyncrasy. The racial themes are subtle, rendering it merely circumstantial that the established entrepreneurs (headed by D'Urville Martin as, well, let's just call him Prince George, you follow me?) taking on small-time competition generates a black versus black scenario. Then, one must point out the poignancy in the fact that above it all a white man is orchestrating the conflict to his benefit. When you're after the top banana, you peel off the skin! Read the full review.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Brad Peyton, 2012
"Jules Verne, man, you gotta believe." I dig the concept of these "Vernian" adventures - they're not definitively based on Verne's works, per se, but imagine that his writings are science fact as opposed to fiction then accessibly allude to source events. They use this territory to not only take families on colorful adventures, but also to reinvigorate for a new generation what are by contemporary standards rather antiquated notions of spectacle. The casting of such charismatic stars helps helps immensely, as well, with actors like Josh Hutcherson and, in this sequel, Luis Guzmán and Dwayne Johnson (hey, that's the first I've earnestly referred to him by that name without mentioning The Rock-- ah, damn). Since "Bridge to Terabithia" I've believed in Hutcherson's talent and now hope he graduates to bigger spotlights through the opportunities "The Hunger Games" will surely bring. The ever-reliable Guzmán is boisterously hilarious as the shabby yet good-hearted pilot few adventure tales can be without. And Johnson? I apparently can't resist that signature "electrifying" charm - "The Great One" effortlessly maintained a smile on my face, with his campfire rendition of "What a Wonderful World" marking a highlight. As a side note, it must have been a pain maintaining the continuity of his sweat stains. Yes, there are awkwardly forced relationship dynamics perhaps better suited for sitcoms on ABC Family, and the creative team has peppered slow-motion moments of über-cheese throughout (Vanessa Hudgens falling from the bee is classic). Just as with its predecessor, the picture ain't perfect... but then it doesn't really need to be. No kid should be without this sort of wondrously imaginative journey, even if it is leaky at the seams. This is like what "The Swiss Family Robinson" was for me. Or, hell, what the original "Journey to the Center of the Earth" adaptation was. Plus, it has officially introduced the term "thunder cookie" to my repertoire, and for that, at the very least least, I thank it.

Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick, 1978
Though astonishingly gorgeous, "Days of Heaven" fails to truly engage me on any level beyond the aesthetic. The story feels frivolous under the weight of Malick's characteristic eye, which is somewhat more restrained in this earlier effort than what we're growing more and more accustomed to and expectant of through the progressively, wonderfully elusive titles "The Thin Red Line", "The New World" and "The Tree of Life". There is something eternally relatable about the careless endeavoring, simple pleasures, false hope and desperation as shown primarily through Richard Gere in what may well be his finest performance this side of "An Officer & a Gentleman", but I'm really just in it for the lovely pictures.

Further first-time viewings:

Safe House - Daniel Espinosa, 2012
Tony Scott's blood stains the coliseum floor! When I exited "Safe House", the stir amongst my fellow audience members was a resounding "pretty good". I can't disagree. "Safe House" is "pretty good". I have no real complaints about the solid diversion, and it would be reaching to point out that it merely offers the entertainment value of a YouTube video (although it's true; outside one briefly impressive yet instantly forgettable fight sequence it offers exactly that level of entertainment). If you love YouTube, however, or get off on those CIA, here's-what-goes-on-between-the-lines kinds of things wherein you can't blink because you'll miss something between all the chasing, shooting and camera shaking (amongst which the director and cinematographer do manage to scatter several pleasant compositions here), this extremely blunt film that moderately prospers simply due to an unexpected Capetown setting might be right up your alley. Denzel Washington is a shark, teaching young honky boys how it's done with a patented cold yet smirking glare. First Ethan Hawke, then Chris Pine, now Ryan Reynolds (wait, should Matthew Broderick count for that list, too?).

The Mysterious Island - Cy Endfield, 1961
Yet another down from the very few Harryhausens I've left to see. And, as it turns out, I'd already seen in biographic documentaries all that's worth anything from this dull tip-toe around Jules Verne's novel. Where more successful films such as "Jason & the Argonauts" and "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" capitalize on Harryhausen's involvement, allowing his stop-motion effects (in this instance labeled "Superdynamation") to dominate the spotlight and strongly impact the experience in multiple ways, "Mysterious Island" only obligatorily tacks in a meager smattering of brief and generic sequences involving a giant crab, a giant chicken, a giant bee and a giant crustacean. The bee in particular - which was shot in reverse to achieve its honeycomb-building effect - is a marvel, but of course only comprises so much of the running time. Considering the draining lack of luster, there emerges a certain satisfaction through the climactic crustacean bout's unsettling quietude - its deeply muffled determination is as though a representation of Harryhausen's yet-quelled creative spirit sinisterly forcing its way beyond the film's restrictive bounds and attacking the cardboard protagonists. And perhaps this is too modern of me, but I always find it so strange when films of this era relish the destruction of new lands and creatures without so much as implying the majesty, importance and wonder of discovery. Sure, run for your lives and try to excite us, but why glorify the finale of explosions laying waste to the scientific anomaly of an island without once lamenting its premature farewell?

Total: 5

Rewatches (1): Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alfredson, 2011)

Episodic Television (3): 30 Rock (Dance Like Nobody's Watching - Idiots are People Two!), Claymore (Great Sword), How I Met Your Mother (Pilot)
- "30 Rock" may be off to what is feeling like its second-weakest season yet (right ahead of last season, which was painfully uninspired at points), but that doesn't mean I'm not still eating it up. I won't be as forgiving with this one as I was with my beloved "Scrubs" when it started to lose its stride - its constant toying with sitcom tropes keeps it from being that kind of show - but for now I'm still very much on board the "30 Rock" train and laughing loud.
- The the first "Claymore" episode is anything to go by, its villainous contingent is a little too goofy for my liking, but the rest reminds me of the set-up to a good J-MMORPG. This is the part where I obligatorily lament the downfall of "Final Fantasy XI" for the thousandth time then go on about how "Claymore" captures a similar thrill to that of a good MMO's opening cutscene.
- Outdated four camera set-up, archaic canned laughter, stilted humor, Jason Segel trapped in a box of forced unfunny... does "How I Met Your Mother" get any better? I'm highly doubtful.

Video Games (2): Kirby's Dreamland, Mario Kart: Super Circuit
- Is "Kirby's Dreamland" the first truly great handheld platformer? I mean, really, is it? I don't know; I'm not an expert on these things. "Super Mario Land" is fun, but it's overshadowed by default. "Dreamland" is wholly original and inventive while feeling like a full-fledged game in and of itself. It also obviously laid the groundwork for a successful franchise, as every "Kirby" installment I'm familiar with has come packed with the very same enemies and nuances as were introduced on the GameBoy. As I stated two weeks ago, I'm not the biggest fan of Nintendo's little puff ball... but I'll be damned if I'm not coming around. Random platforming thought: how great would it be if the 3DS eShop included 3D ports of Sega Genesis' original Sonic games (read: the games that shaped my pre-"Final Fantasy" video gaming youth)? I'd pay pretty for "Sonic the Hedgehog" through "Sonic & Knuckles", and maybe even more offbeat titles like "Sonic 3D" that I only played because they starred my then-favorite (and, more importantly, then-unadulterated) gaming icon.
- Handheld gaming was not ready for something as involved and dimensional as a kart racer in the age of the GameBoy Advance. The graphics in "Super Circuit" give me a headache. On top of that, the courses are torture. Even when I get first place on a 150cc grand prix, I still get a Rank D rating. And this is coming from someone who has little trouble with other entries in the line, particularly "Mario Kart 64" and "Mario Kart DS". Princess Peach is the only character who seems to steer properly; with anyone else I'm constantly running in to walls - on the outside for lightweights like Yoshi and Toad, and the inside for heavies like Wario and DK. Still, it's a Mario Kart game. There's only so much one can whine. It's fun on at least a base level. Little in gaming is as satisfying as blasting the guy in front of you with a perfectly aimed turtle shell.

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