3.21.2012

UNCHAINED REACTION

Given that the Discovery Channel has many science-based programs, it's no surprise that their new game show Unchained Reaction is based on designing and building giant contraptions. Unfortunately, there's almost nothing else to the show.

Hosted by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (also the hosts of Discovery Channel's Mythbusters), Unchained Reaction has a very simple premise. Two teams of five people (and the teams are folks who have worked together in an area, like engineering or robotics) are given a theme (such as light and heavy, fire and ice, or tools) and identical materials. Each team has five days to build a Rube Goldberg-type contraption that incorporates that theme; in addition, the final device has to have at least ten parts, and each part has to be set in motion by the previous part. The "twists" are that the team has to get the first part of their contraption up for demonstration on the first day, and near the end the teams are given a surprise element that has to be incorporated in their contraption. At the end both contraptions are set in motion judged by Adam, Jamie, and a guest judge; and the winning team gets, well, bragging rights.


Chain Reaction might as well have been named "build something big, weird, and cool." While this supposedly demonstrates how chain reactions work, the teams also use special effects and visual tricks to get the job done. Since we see the designs and machines getting built step by step (as do Adam and Jamie), there's not a lot of surprise what each section will do. While it's fun to watch the final results, I'd be just as happy skipping the first 45 minutes of the show and just seeing the final result. And really: No actual prize?!? I'm amazed that they couldn't come up with something -- a cash prize, a car from a sponsor, a year's worth of electronic parts -- for the winning team.


The only thing Unchained Reaction has over other reality show competitions is that it skips many of the annoying gimmicks other shows use: rivalries and romances between competitors, dramatic pauses right before a commercial, etc. That said, Unchained Reaction is more of a scientific goof than a serious endeavor, a way to build something creative for its own end. And for no prize.


Overall grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.20.2012

HOME MOVIE dvd

The kids are far from alright. The 2008 independent film Home Movie is another first-person-perspective movie, this time about the twisted psychological horror of the Poe family between Halloween 2006 and Easter 2007.

The Poes are -- or should be -- the ideal American family. David Poe (Adrian Pasdar) is a Lutheran minister, while his wife Clare (Cady McClain) is a child psychologist. They have a pair of 10-year-old twins, Jack and Emily (real-life siblings Austin and Amber Joy Williams). They've just moved to upstate New York in a somewhat isolated area. And they have a new video camera: Clare wants to use it for work, while David likes using it to good around and make loving, if embarassing, movies of his family.

But something is wrong with Jack and Emily. Very wrong. The two children sleep in the same bed, never speak or respond to their parents, and invented their own language to talk with each other. They also seem to have a fascination with dead animals: first in the woods, and soon their own pets.

At first the parents seem to ignore their kids' behavior, but soon it takes their toll: Clare puts the kids on medicine (and she begins smoking), while David tries exorcising any demons from the house (and he begins drinking). Jack and Emily keep behaving worse and worse. And it's all documented on the video, which keeps rewinding and fast-forwarding...

Home Movie is a film of mixed quality. The acting is pretty good, with the parents being lovable and the kids extremely eerie. There are some nice cinematic touches, from the brightly lit house (with its dark basement) to the extremely disturbing finale.

Unfortunately, Home Movie also stretches plausibility to the breaking point. It's impossible to see even the most in-denial parents ignoring their kids' escalating behavior, nor would a non-preternatural film explain how a pair of 10-year-old kids could get away with so much -- especially when the adults know what the kids have been up to.


Like many horror movies, Home Movie creates scares, but at the expense of common sense. Still, this movie has its share of scares and tensions -- in the setting of the "ideal" American family home.


(The dvd extras are sparse: the theatrical trailer and making-of interviews with the actors (the Williams kids are quite normal, btw) and writer-director Christopher Denham.)


Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.17.2012

The Return of the Pro with the Heart of Gold

Perhaps it's a sign of the economic times, or the return of the same fantasy for men and women (for different reasons), but the Lifetime Channel's expanding their movie The Client List into an ongoing series in April is the latest foray of the prostitute with the heart of gold. It's also the latest example of the glamourization of selling sex.

In the original The Client List, Samantha Horton (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is a loving wife and mother. But when she loses her job and her husband gets injured and can't work, it's up to her to prevent foreclosure on their house -- by working at the Kind Touch Health Spa, where the clients expect a lot more than just a massage. (This movie is not loved by licensed massage therapists hoping to shake the reputation that "massage therapy" is a euphemism for prostitution.) The series will continue Samantha's storyline, where the biggest threats aren't STDs, adultery, or sex with strangers, but rather an economy where her family might lose its home, law officials who could arrest her (and cost her her source of income), and the intersection between her life as a wife and mother -- and her life as someone with a client list.

This type of character is hardly new. The film Belle de Jour (1967) featured Catherine Deneuve as a housewife who became a daytime prostitute out of boredom. Julia Roberts really became famous with 1990's Pretty Woman, in which we're led to believe rich, handsome men who pick up call girls on the street give them unlimited shopping and emotional attachments. And Billie Piper followed her beloved role of Rose on Doctor Who with Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Belle is a smart, attractive, fully likeable woman balancing her life as a prostitute with her "normal" life and friends.

Without pre-judging the series The Client List, it does seem to be idealizing trading sex for money. In the current issue of Maxim, Jennifer Love Hewitt comments, ""We have a lot of really fun things in the series eye-candy wise for our audience... It's a lingerie-heavy show every episode, for my character in particular. It's not going to be your mother's Lifetime." This may be a step up from the old "woman in danger, and a system that only helps men" formula, it also seems to be sanitizing the world's oldest profession (besides farming).

While I don't have a problem with prostitution per se (as George Carlin beautifully put it, "Selling is legal, fucking is legal, how is selling fucking illegal? Why is it illegal to sell something it's perfectly legal to give away for free?"), it seems like a lot of these shows portray the encounters as with great-looking, basically nice guys instead of potentially dangerous or pretty creepy individuals. (On Secret Diary of a Call Girl Belle did have a system where the she could let her pimp know if a client was trouble at the start -- but how many pimps are really less concerned with money than with keeping their prostitutes in good shape?) And since some of these have the prostitute as a married woman, that adds in the adultery aspect as well: Is providing for the family worth cheating on the husband?

(Incidentally, some shows have madams/female pimps (like Lady Heather, to the left, from C.S.I.) that are always well educated, polite, sophisticated, and concerned first and foremost with the treatment of their women. I suspect that's idealized as well, as I'm not sure sisterhood trumps profit.)

Perhaps the return of this trend is a reflection of the economy, as women who can't find jobs can still provide for their family by selling themselves. (On Secret Diary of a Call Girl Belle didn't have a family; but that show was paired on Showtime with Weeds, about a mother turning to crime (selling pot) to support her family.) Perhaps it's a re-affirmation of the woman who's damn sexy, not just a wife and mother. And perhaps men are happily tuning in just for the "damn sexy" part of the shows -- or the famtasy that the beautiful woman isn't just after their money.

With the current concerns about the economy and controversy over contraception, turning The Client List may be a reflection of concerns -- or sensationalizing the selling of sex. It should prove interesting to see what directions the series takes.

Written by James Lynch

3.11.2012

REGULAR SHOW

There are plenty of anthromorphic animals on cartoons -- but they seldom get into such surreal situations as frequently as they do on Regular Show. This cartoon may look like it's for kids, but its strange, dry sense of humor is more geared for adults.

The main characters are Mordecai (J.G. Quintel), a bluejay, and Rigby (William Saylers), a raccoon. These friends live together and work (or avoid working) as groundskeepers at a park. In their spare time they sit around and play video games, punch each other in the arm, and try to be cool. Rigby also tends to get in trouble, while Mordecai has a crush on Margaret (Janie Haddad Tomkins), a red bird who works as a waitress. Their boss is Benson (Sam Marin), best described as an uptight humanoid gumball machine. His father is Pops (Sam Marin), a childlike and happy lollipop-shaped man who likes Mordecai and Rigby. There's also the short, obnoxious "Muscle Man" (Sam Marin), who hangs out with High-Five Ghost, a floating ghost with a wrist and hand sticking out of his head. And finally there's Skips (Mark Hamill), an immortal ape-like being who can fix anything and skips everywhere he goes.


And I haven't even gotten to the really weird stuff yet.


While most episodes start off fairly normally, things almost always get pretty twisted. Mordecai and Rigby enter a music competition -- and get visited from their future selves (who are rock stars). Mordecai and Rigby's game of "punchies" escalates to martial arts-style epic battles. Rigby's quest to eat a giant in an hour to win a hat that says "It's Eggscellent" winds up with Rigby in a coma, Mordecai performing a training montage of egg eating (to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero"), and a challenge out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When the characters enter a bowling competition, they wind up battling magicians and Death for their very souls. When Mordecai accidentally butt-dials Margaret, he and Riggy wind up facing the "Keepers of the Voicemail, Guardians of All Messages Throughout History," shown below.And it's not uncommon for characters to die during the episodes, but come back by the end. And Mordecai and Rigby remain slackers, unaffected by all the weirdness and still happy hangin' with each other.

Regular Show is odd -- and oddly appealing. This show is very unpredictable, yet it remains at heart about two friends trying to slack off, have fun, talk in sync, and watch each other's back --even in the midst of insanity and while ragging on each other. The voices are good (I could've sworn Mordecai was voiced by David Wain; my bad), the strange characters are somehow more realistic (the frustrating boss, the happy-but-oblivious guy, the rude co-worker) than those on many other cartoons, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. So check out Regular Show.

(And the punk unicorns are gone as well. For now...)


Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch




John Carter


2012
Disney
PG-13
132 minutes
Director: Andrew Stanton
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and some other people.

I Claim this Cinema for Mars!

I was fourteen when I first read Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. It was dated science fiction even then, in 1984, and I don't think that it could have been considered proper science fiction even in 1912, when it was first serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story. But I was hooked nonetheless. It was more truly science fantasy, in which the tropes of science fiction, such as airships, alien worlds, and ray guns, coexist with swords and sorcery. Everything about A Princess of Mars was thrilling. It was packed with all the things that an adventure should have: stalwart heroes, noble and savage aliens, deadly enemies, lost cities, and beautiful princesses. I was not alone in my fandom - astronomer Carl Sagan also enjoyed A Princess of Mars. No, seriously, you can look it up!

Nonetheless, it took a long time for Burroughs' tales of Barsoom - that's the Martian name for Mars - to make it to the silver screen. Tarzan, another of Burroughs' characters, saw cinematic fame come much more rapidly, but the main character of the Martian tales, brave John Carter, was a purely literary creation for a century. Perhaps it was the sheer strangeness of the milieu, perhaps it was just too difficult before the advent of computer graphics to do justice to the myriad creatures that populate Barsoom, that caused the story to languish for so many decades, unfilmed.

Now the wait is over. Disney has just released John Carter, a science fiction extravaganza aimed at just about everyone. The film's eponymous stalwart hero, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a dejected former Confederate cavalryman with a serious attitude problem. While prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory, he is sought out by the U.S. Cavalry (the Seventh Cavalry, no less) for his help in fighting the Apaches. He refuses, and is imprisoned, but escapes. While fleeing from the cavalry and running from the Apaches, he hides in a cave. An oddly-dressed man appears, there is a scuffle, and moments later John Carter awakes on Barsoom. It will take him just a little while to figure out that he is not in Arizona Territory anymore. One major clue is the tusked, fifteen-foot tall, four-armed green dude that he meets named Tars Tarkas, the film's noble and savage alien. Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) is a farsighted and relatively friendly Green Martian chieftain, especially when compared to his nastier Thark tribesmen who shoot their own unhatched eggs for laziness because they take too long to hatch. He befriends John Carter, and eventually allows him to escape from the Thark's tribal encampment.

Once free, Carter makes his way across the face of Barsoom with his loyal kind-of, sort-of dog-like pet named Woola, a compassionate Green Martian woman named Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), and the lovely, raven-tressed, blue-eyed, pilates-toned Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). You see, while Carter wants to get home, Dejah, princess of Helium, wants John Carter to help protect her city from the depredations of the deadly enemy Sab Than (Dominic West), ruler of the ugly, clanking, moving city of Zodanga. Than has been given a superweapon of sorts by the mysterious Therns, who seek to aid him in conquering all of Barsoom. Helium, though populated by valiant warriors such as its jeddak, or king, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and general, Kantos Kan (James Purefroy), have no answers to Sab Than's devastating, Thern-provided death ray. So Jeddak Mors decides that it is in the best interest of Helium that his daughter Dejah marry the creepy Sab Than, and so bring peace to Barsoom.

Do you think that there is even a chance that John Carter is going to let that wedding go ahead? Do you think that Tars Tarkas will have nothing to do with helping John Carter knock the stuffing out of the Zodangans and ending their imperial designs on all of Barsoom? Do you think that Helium and Zodanga will resolve their differences peacefully? Do you think that John Carter and Dejah Thoris are not going to get hitched by the end of the movie? If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, then John Carter is not for you. You also might want to consider getting out of the house once in a while. But for the rest of us, who like thrills with our popcorn, John Carter is tough to beat.

Oh sure, the plot can be flimsy. The motivation of the Therns, led by the evil Matai Shang (Mark Strong), for seeking the unification of Barsoom is never really explained. The Therns seem to exist to manage the ecological collapse of worlds, and then move on. Mars is a dying planet, and the implication is that one day, humans will wreck Earth just as Mars itself has been damaged, and the Therns will then take it over. But why they decide that the immature dolt Sab Than is a good candidate for world ruler is impossible to fathom.

Raise your hand if you really care. No, I didn't think so. John Carter is rollicking fun, and you should not waste too much time trying to make it all hang together in your head. Save that for Downton Abbey. Go see John Carter, and buy popcorn.

Marc

3.04.2012

PROJECT X

Perhaps, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like excess. And perhaps some teens just want to party and to be popular. But mixing the two doesn't make for a good movie, as shown in Project X, the latest movie shown from a handheld camera point of view.

Teen buddies Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) have always been losers at their Pasadena high school. But with Thomas turning 17 and his parents going away for the weekend, the wannabe gangster Costa has a plan: throw an epic house party to make them all popular and get them all laid! And the mostly-quiet schoolmate Dax (Dax Flame) will record it all. Thomas is nervous about getting in trouble and tries laying down some ground rules: no more than 50 people, no one in the house itself, only people he knows. But Costa's been inviting everyone at school -- plus online postings -- and soon the party has hundreds (thousands?) of people, with lots of booze, sex, drugs, and loud music. Perhaps using two 12-year-olds for security was a bad idea...
While there have been plenty of teen comedies about epic day, from Ferris Bueller's Day Off to Superbad, those movies had something Project X lacks: characters with some sort of appeal and personality. Instead of getting to know and like the stars, this movie revolves mostly around loud party music, lots of t&a (from innumerable shots of women bumping and grinding to the topless pool), and ever-escalating destruction. There's a small subplot about Thomas deciding between his cute longtime friend Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and the ultra-hot Alexis (Alexis Knapp), but for the most part it's a never-ending amount of Costa's profanity-filled trash talk and getting the perfect party on film -- apparently the same goal of director Nima Nourizadeh

While it's easy to criticize Project X for its irresponsibility (downing pills with beer, wanton destruction), that's forgivable if looked at in the context of creating the ultimate teen fantasy party. What's harder to overlook is that this movie is all surface, content to just make a bitchin' party video instead of a movie where we care at all about the main characters. There are some funny scenes here, but Project X never tries to be more than very immature humor about teens gone wild.


Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.02.2012

THE ART OF THE KAMA SUTRA

While The Kama Sutra has the reputation of being a manual of sex positions, it's quite more. This ancient tome, arguably one of the oldest guides to dating and love between men and women, is as concerned with relationships as with physical mixing and matching. The Art of the Kama Sutra by Mallanaga Vatsyayana: The New Illustrated Edition of the Classic Indian Guide to Sexual Pleasure is an interesting historical document that still has plenty of relevance today.

The Art of the Kama Sutra is not a visually explicit book. (There are plenty of other "Kama Sutra" versions out there that are little more than collections of positions.) The illustrations here are pieces of ancient Indian art, color photographs of nature and statues, and black-and-white photos of people embracing. The Art of the Kama Sutra begins with a discussion of Dharma (the spiritual), Artha (the worldly/material), and Kama (pleasure), and how all three must be in balance for a harmonious life.

Sexuality is soon covered, often in a scientific way. There are discussions of pairings, based on the sizes (hare, bull, and horse) of the man's lingam and the sizes (deer, mule, and elephant) of the woman's yoni. While there are some positions covered, there are also types of activity (who is more dominant, types of biting and scratching), how each sex should attract the other (men are more aggressive, women play hard to get), the sixty-four arts to be studied, how to get a wife, how to have affairs, how a wife should behave, how she should get on with other wives of her husband, aphrodisiacs and sexual devices, and how courtesans should act to benefit themselves in both love and wealth.

The Art of the Kama Sutra demonstrates that, while some information certainly belongs more in ancient times than today (anyone want to learn fixing stained glass in a floor, or sharing betel leaves to attract a woman?), some truths are universal. Many (most?) of our readers are not in polygamous situations, but the information on courting, the importance (for better and worse) of passion, and how relationships involve a certain degree of planning and subtlety are true today as when this tome was written. The entries are in sutras of a few sentences, and at times the phrasing feels a little stiff: "...as variety is necessary in love, so love is to be produced by means of variety. It is on this account that courtesans, who are well acquainted with various ways and means, become so desirable, for if variety is sought in all the arts and amusements, such as archery and others, how much more should it be sought after in the science of love."

The end of The Art of the Kama Sutra advices, "This work is not intended to be used merely as an instrument for satisfying ou desires," and this translation provides far more than carnal instruction. This book sometimes has parts that doesn't work today, but more often it offers information for men and women that is as relevant today as when it was written.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch