Monday, October 12, 2015

My Top Ten South Park Episodes

I haven't been a very consistent "South Park" viewer.  I started watching regularly from around the fifth season in 2001 until the 13th season in 2009.  That's roughly the same amount of time covered by the early episodes of "The Simpsons" I wrote up a previous list for, so while this one isn't all-inclusive, I feel sufficiently well-informed.  And as I don't think I'm a typical "South Park" viewer, some of these choices are probably going to strike more ardent fans as a little odd.

As usual, episodes are ordered by airdate, and I will cheat and count multiparters as single entries.  Spoilers ahead.

"The Spirit of Christmas" - The first episode of "South Park" to air may have been the one with Cartman and the anal-probing aliens, but the true genesis of "South Park" was a pair of crudely made short films depicting beloved Christmas icons fighting for domination over the holiday season.  Jesus and Frosty the Snowman brawled in the first short, a student film, and Jesus went on to fight Santa in the follow-up, commissioned by a FOX executive as a video Christmas card.  The shorts were viral videos in the pre-internet age, and are still very funny and impressive today.

"Scott Tenorman Must Die" - The episode where Cartman went too far.  "South Park" was always known for pushing people's buttons with its unapologetic crudeness and adult humor.  Kenny dying every week was already considered plenty subversive.  However, the sordid tale of Cartman seeking revenge against Scott Tenorman is where the show really started testing the limits and seeing how far it could go.  What sells it for me is how self-aware the creators are about what they're doing, with the Radiohead cameo and the Looney Toons bullseye as the perfect finishing touches.

"The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers" - As much as I respect their way with social commentary and more ambitious "Imaginationland" style high concept epics, many of the best episodes of "South Park" are the ones that are actually the truest to life.  The boys accidentally getting ahold of a porn VHS was taken directly from the childhood experiences of one of the directors, though the various wild hijinks that ensue (and digs at "Lord of the Rings") reflect the present times.  And I love Butters turning into Gollum and obsessing over his "precious."  He's probably my favorite character.

"Ginger Kids" - I don't find Cartman entertaining, but he's such an important part of why "South Park" works.  Here, he starts a wave of oppression against redheaded kids, and when the other boys try to give him a taste of his own medicine, essentially creates a Nazi cult in retaliation.  I love the ridiculous and very specific complaints against the "gingers," the way that the commonly used "Black Like Me" teaching tactic backfires completely, and how of course Cartman doesn't learn a thing from the whole escapade.  And what really gets me is that "Ginger Kids" was actually inspired by a real anti-ginger bullying incident.

"Trapped in the Closet" - I'm not going to say that "South Park" was responsible for turning Scientology into the laughingstock it is to most of us today, but boy did it help.  The creators didn't hold back, strongly implying A-list movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta are gay, excoriating Scientology texts as nonsense ("This is what Scientologists actually believe"), and flat out accusing the "church" of being a scam.  The controversy only put the show in a better light, and gave Trey Parker and Matt Stone more of a spotlight.  This is the point where "South Park" started being recognized for its satirical fearlessness.

"The Return of Chef" - Alas, the "Closetgate" controversy spurred the end of one major relationship.  Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, left the show over "Trapped in the Closet."  Hayes hadn't made regular appearances for some time, but it was still a bit of a shock.  Parker and Stone gave him a fitting sendoff, pasting together a final performance from previously recorded dialogue, depicting his character as brainwashed by child-molesters, and then graphically killing him off.  It was simultaneously very touching, totally disgusting, and petty as hell.  And I'm so glad that "South Park" had the guts to do it.

"Fantastic Easter Special" - The "South Park" kids try to figure out what bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with Jesus's resurrection, revealing a secret society that reveres rabbit popes, who were wrongly ousted by the Catholic Church long ago.  The story pokes a lot of fun at Christianity and various religious figures, but not in a particularly provocative or confrontational way.  I just find it endlessly charming and creative, from the Latin version of the "Peter Cottontail" song to the delightful return of ass-kicking Jesus.  There aren't many Easter cartoons out there, but this is by far my favorite.

"Britney's New Look" - This is my favorite episode of "South Park" because of how utterly sick, and yet how perceptive and humane it is.  Britney Spears comes to South Park fleeing the paparazzi, and is driven to attempt suicide.  She fails, and goes through the rest of the episode with most of her head missing, which nobody seems to notice.  The ending involving ritual sacrifice, Miley Cyrus, and the boys essentially giving in to peer pressure, is very disturbing and uncomfortably on point.  During Spears' meltdown debacle, she got a lot of sympathy, but not many were willing to call out who was actually responsible - the audience.

"The China Problem" - As the child of very pro-China immigrant Chinese parents who wouldn't be caught dead in a P.F. Chang's, this episode was meant for me.  I found Cartman's paranoia towards yellow invasion absolutely hysterical.  However, the episode is better known as the one where Steven Spielberg and George Lucas violate Indiana Jones physically, having already done the job metaphorically in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."  The pair had been ragged on before in "Free Hat" for going back and "fixing" their older films, but this time Parker and Stone went full "Deliverance" and really let them have it.

"201" - Finally, we close out with the most notorious episode of "South Park" to date, and I still haven't seen it in the way that the creators intended me to.  This is because Comedy Central caved under pressure, and not only censored the image of Muhammad from the entire episode, but bleeped all mention of him as well.  I fully admit that "201" is on this list purely because of what it represents in the American media landscape, rather than for its actual content.  Parker and Stone figured out exactly how far artistic speech could go in this country, and got everyone to pay attention.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Robert Bresson Film I Dislike the Least

I don't like the French director Robert Bresson much.  I don't like the way he views the world, his filmmaking methods, his aesthetics, or his depressive misanthropy.  I don't deny that he was a vital and important voice in cinema whose influence was far-reaching and impactful.  Some of my favorite films probably wouldn't exist without him, and he's clearly overdue for a "Great Directors" post.  I certainly respect his work and the opinions of the many critics  and filmmakers who admire him.  However, after working my way though the majority of his filmography, I have to conclude that I have no particular fondness for any of his films.  I outright despise some of his most famous ones, like "Au Hasard Balthazar," where he harps on how miserable the world is for 95 painful minutes.

I find that the most tolerable of Bresson's films are those dealing with crime and punishment, where his nihilistic opinions on spiritual matters are the least apparent.  I suspect his views grew more pronounced with age, since his earlier films tend to be less confrontational and offer a more palatable view of humanity.  In 1959's "Pickpocket," the thief Michel (Martin LaSalle) is an amoral ne'er-do-well who lives a troubled, unhappy life. but at least there's some hope to be found through his relationship with the lovely neighbor girl Jeanne (Marika Green).  Also, the scenes of criminal activity in "Pickpocket" are tense, dramatic, and quite enjoyable to watch.  This makes Michel's constant ruminating on their moral significance much easier to take.

Style is always important in Bresson's films, and he was notoriously particular about it.  His images are spare and efficient.  All traces of artifice are minimized or removed, particularly in the acting.  LaSalle, like many of Bresson's leads, was a non-professional actor at the time, who would have been told to avoid giving a performance.  Natural action is often highlighted, and plot is always subordinate to mood and tone.  "Pickpocket" follows Michel as he steals from various victims, each theft presented with a terrific amount of suspense to mirror Michel's state of mind.  He knows he needs to quit before his luck runs out, but finds himself taking greater and greater risks instead.  It is suggested that Michel steals not only for the money, but because it is a growing compulsion for him, fulfilling some psychological need.  In his regular interactions with other people, he's cold and unfeeling.  His narration of the story reveals feelings of alienation and apathy.  Stark, simple black and white close ups of hands and pockets are used to convey the strongest emotion in the film: anticipation.

The pickpocketing itself is well researched and executed, and the sequence of multiple thieves working in concert to rob a group of train passengers is beautifully choreographed.  We've seen countless imitators over the years in other films, but the thefts here are still impressive in their simplicity and daring.  Bresson reportedly got the idea for "Pickpocket" from observing Henri Kassagi, a thief and magician who served as a technical advisor on the film, and played Michel's primary accomplice. While Bresson doesn't make pickpocketing look like a particularly attractive option to the audience, we can understand why Michel is so fascinated by the act, and can sympathize with is struggle to resist temptation.  His subsequent abandonment of his moral and intellectual reservations in favor of a criminal career also feels very true to life.

"Pickpocket" has been cited as an influence by many filmmakers, notably Paul Schrader in the writing of "Taxi Driver."  It helped to kick off a new breed of more psychological crime films about social outcasts and outsiders.  Bresson, however, left the genre entirely after "Pickpocket," quickly moving on to more spiritual films about martyrs and saints, none of them ultimately happier than poor Michel.   Along with the prison escape drama "A Man Escaped," "Pickpocket" is probably the most accessible of Robert Bresson's films, because it tells the most conventional story.  Michel, for all his philosophical ramblings, is a Raskolnikov figure, and the plot heavily resembles "Crime and Punishment," including a mildly uplifting conclusion.  Past this point, Bresson's films became too obsessed with unrelenting misery for me to take.

What I've seen - Robert Bresson

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Pickpocket (1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Mouchette (1967)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
The Devil Probably (1977)
L'Argent (1983)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The First Five of "Rick and Morty"

Dan Harmon, one of the creators of "Rick and Morty," has described the animated show as a combination of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."  The main characters, the grossly immoral mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his timid teenage grandson Morty Smith (both voiced by the show's other creator, Justin Roiland), go on wild science-fiction adventures, often traveling to other dimensions.  Meanwhile, the rest of their family, mother Beth (Sarah Chalke), father Jerry (Chris Parnell), and sister Summer (Spencer Grammer), deal with more typical domestic issues back home - though Rick's presence often introduces unpredictable elements and escalate situations quickly.  I think the show also shares a great deal of DNA with Seth McFarland's "Family Guy," due to its adult content, shock humor, and often anarchic, morally ambivalent attitude.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot smarter than "Family Guy," though, and much, much weirder.

As you might suspect from the visual similarities, "Rick and Morty" originally started out as a series of "Back to the Future" parody shorts.  Harmon and Roiland made the characters distinctly different for the Adult Swim version, however.  Rick is a selfish, greedy, drunk and very, very dangerous, but you can tell he cares about Morty,  He just doesn't have the capacity to  help him without also simultaneously scarring him for life.  Morty, meanwhile, is a high-strung, nebbish, high school loser who nervously objects to being dragged along on his grandfathers' deranged schemes, but doesn't have the backbone to really say no.  The relationship between the two is wildly abusive, yet also oddly sweet at times.  I also like the rest of the Smith family, who aren't the oblivious suburban zombies you might expect.  They're intelligent and perceptive to varying degrees, but hampered by their own personal baggage and easy for Rick to manipulate.  Beth still has abandonment issues.  Jerry is pathetic and insecure.  Summer is self-centered and status-obsessed.  They don't have an outwardly unhappy household, but there are a lot of resentments and dysfunctions beneath the surface.  Some of their interactions are startlingly well observed and true to life.  

And here's where I should drop the quick reminder that Dan Harmon was also the creator of my dearly departed "Community," a show that also indulged in crazy high-concept premises, multiple universes, and unusually deep existential self-examination by its main characters.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot sicker and more cynical than "Community," but I can already see some of the same approaches to character-building and relationship-building being applied to the core cast.  Also, the animated format gives free reign to Harmon's notoriously complex, metatextual, pop culture homages.  In one episode we have "Jurassic Park" crossed with "Fantastic Voyage."  Another is built around "Inception" style nested dreams. The writers do a great job of imposing some structure and thematic depth on what could have easily been another "Family Guy" ripoff relying on simply being dark and twisted.  There's a lot more going on here, which is why I think "Rick and Morty" is going to be a be able to sustain itself for a good long while.

I also want to give some love to the production, which deftly handles a lot of complicated environments, characters, and concepts in every episode.  This is one of the most impressive-looking things I've ever seen out of Williams Street.  The designs are simple, reminiscent of a lot of current Cartoon Network shows, but animated with care.  There are always fun little details to look out for, like the empty liquor bottles cluttering up Rick's spaceship or the various items in the garage laboratory.  Everything feels looks a little grungy and a little alienating, and I know it takes a lot of work to maintain that.  Rick's constant burping and hacking, for instance, all has to be carefully recorded and timed and animated.  "Rick and Morty" could easily be a network show if it weren't so committed to content that no network would want to touch with a ten foot pole.  

Like all Adult Swim shows, "Rick and Morty" aims for the niche, and its humor will not be to everyone's taste.  My SO dropped it quickly, finding Rick's behavior too annoying to take.  But I think I'll stick with it for while, as these first couple of episodes impressed me enough that I'm willing to overlook some of the more sophomoric shtick.  I've heard good things about some of the later episodes and I feel I could do with a little of its uniquely sick and twisted outlook in my life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Roger Ebert Movie Love Questionnaire

I generally try to avoid posting questionnaires and quizzes, but once a year I'll fill out something that's caught my interest to help me reasses my media junkie status.  This year, I'm going with the "Movie Love Questionnaire" that was given to the writers over at Roger Ebert's site a few years back. 

1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in Southern California, Orange County.  Very suburban, very safe, and too quiet for some of my friends, but I didn't mind.  I was a bookworm, and then a nerd, very academically focused all the way through school.  I had caring, busy parents, and a younger brother who I more or less got along with.  There was a good community of other second and third-gen immigrant families to keep us in touch with our roots, and some of the best weather in the entire country.

2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

Both of my parents liked movies, and eventually got into the habit of renting a few video cassettes from the $1 place every week.  However, they were never more than casual viewers.  They didn't track movies the way I did, or anticipate particular ones.  My dad was very vocal about not liking particular types of films and got fussier about his preferences with age, but would end up watching just about anything we put on.  My mom just didn't like the ones with too much cursing, or the horror films that were so dark "you couldn't see anything!"

3. What’s the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

The first movie I saw in a theater was "Oliver & Co." in 1988.  I vaguely remember a few Disney movies before that, particularly "Dumbo," which we had on VHS.  I've been a lifelong Disney addict and animation enthusiast as a result.  I still feel absolutely no shame in watching children's films by myself.

4. What’s the first movie that made you think, “Hey, some people made this. It didn’t just exist. There’s a human personality behind it.”

The Coen brothers' "Raising Arizona" had such a distinctive style and sense of humor.  I knew to expect certain things from Disney and Steven Spielberg films, but only in terms of quality.  I never associated them with a particular artistic voice.  It wasn't until I was in high school that I was exposed to more films for grown ups, and started noticing that they would reflect their director's personalities.  Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" was another one, with this very calculated atmosphere of menace that I grew to associate with him.

5. What’s the first movie you ever walked out of?

I have yet to walk out of a theatrical movie.  Even "The Stupids" with Tom Arnold. 

6. What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?

The movie I had the best time at was "Borat," which I first saw in theaters a college crowd.  I need an audience to fully enjoy a comedy, as I'm far less self-conscious in a group setting.  "Borat" is far from my favorite comedy, though.  "Trading Places" makes me laugh more consistently - really anything involving young Eddie Murphy does, while "Raising Arizona" and "Groundhog's Day" are far, far more entertaining as a whole.  However, there's no denying that "Borat" got me laugh harder than anything I've seen since.

7. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever seen?

I've watched "Grave of the Fireflies" multiple times, but now that I'm older and have small children in my life again, I don't think I'll be able to revisit it anytime soon.  "Fireflies" cuts so deep because it's so personal, so well-observed, and so matter-of-fact about the tragedies that befall its young protagonists.  There's no attempt to make any larger points about war or violence - it's simply concerned about the fate of a boy and his sister, who have the misfortune of being children in wartime.

8. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?

Oddly, it was a trailer to the 1994 "Nostradamus" film that gave me the worst nightmares when I was younger.  I saw it in front of a print of "Pocahontas" when I was in Taiwan, and something about the apocalyptic tone (I was paranoid about apocalypses when I was a kid) and the strange environment spooked me in the worst way.  I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks.  Today, as a grown up, I'd say "The Shining" and Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake still get to me.  I wish Snyder would go back to making horror movies.

9. What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?

It's got to be "Gone With the Wind."  The antagonism between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler is what really made that movie for me, and helped me to understand that a good romance could be just as exciting and involving as any adventure story.  

10. What’s the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

My parents were very careful about the kind of programming me and the younger brother watched when we were young.  It was all "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers" for ages.  Meanwhile, I mostly remember them watching the nightly news and "60 Minutes."  So it was quite a while before I understood that most people watched TV for entertainment instead of information and education.  Now, the first television show that I understood to have some real artistic ambitions was a 1988 Chinese-language miniseries about the Last Emperor that my relatives sent us on recorded VHS tapes.  I don't remember all that much about it, except that my parents treated it as something Very, Very Important.

11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?

I had a copy of the "Watchmen" graphic novel stashed at my parents' house for years, that I'd reread over the holidays whenever I visited.  Then the film version came out, and I didn't like it.  As a result I've had many contentious arguments about my position, and the book inevitably gets brought up.  I got a bit sick of it at all one point, and just avoided any talk of "Watchmen" entirely. 

12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Popular music was never my forte.  I think I owned a grand total of one album - They Might Be Giants' "Flood."  Everything else was movie soundtracks, musical recordings, and some classical.  My favorite recording artist is still Weird Al Yankovic, because he's awesome.

13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

I have a substantial list of films like this, usually the ones that are very emotionally overwhelming.  I've already mentioned "Grave of the Fireflies," but I'm also wary of "Dancer in the Dark," "Requiem for a Dream," "Johnny Got His Gun," and "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  They get me entirely too worked up for me to really enjoy them.

14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?

The animated "Robin Hood" that Disney made in the '70s.  My brother and I learned to use the VCR with our copy, and watched it constantly.  One summer it practically became daily viewing.

15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

My parents were fairly permissive when it came to movies as long as they were watching with us, so I saw R-rated films pretty early on as a kid.  "Conan the Barbarian" was one of my mother's favorites, and I liked it too.  The first R-rated film I remember seeing in a theater was the Beethoven biopic "Immortal Beloved" with Gary Oldman.  That one had several embarrassing instances of unexpected nudity, which was awfully distracting.  I'd gone with my mother and preteen brother, and everything afterwards was just awkward.

16. What’s the most visually beautiful film you’ve ever seen?

There are some great candidates, but I'm going to have to go with "Fantasia," namely parts of the "Nutcracker Suite" and "Night on Bald Mountain."   There's nothing more breathtaking than traditional animation done by old masters at the height of their craft.

17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Depp, and currently Michael Fassbender

18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Kathleen Turner, and currently Tilda Swinton

19. Who’s your favorite modern filmmaker?

Hayao Miyazaki, which is a bit ironic as I don't think there's anything particularly modern about him.  He and his films have this quality of timelessness that is very rare, and very precious.

20. Who’s your least favorite modern filmmaker?

Michael Bay.  There are worse, but few are so visible and influential in their excess.

21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

I'm not sure what so many people had against Wally Pfister's "Transcendence."  It's got a lot of flaws and a crummy ending, but I liked its treatment of AI and the cautionary messages about trusting too blindly in science and technology.  Also, the production was just fabulous to look at.

22. What film do you hate that most people love?

Most raunchy comedies don't do it for me.  "This is the End" was absolutely insufferable and I have no idea how It made anybody crack a smile, let alone laugh.

23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget – not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

The one and only time I was ever carded going to a movie was in 1999, upon the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." I went with a group of friends who were curious about all the controversy over the adult content, and none of us were really sure what we were in for. Coming out of the theater, after two and a half hours of obtuse erotic imagery, and very little of the actual nudity or graphic sexuality many were hoping for, I remember one friend vocally expressing his displeasure with the film. I countered that "I kinda liked it."

He responded, wearily, "You would."

 And thus, on that day a pretentious cinema geek became self-aware.

24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

Sadly, it's too expensive for me to go as often as I'd like.  The ticket prices in my area have risen to the point where I've stopped going casually.  I always plan out long in advance what movies I want to see in theaters.  Even the second run places are mostly gone - I used to love going to $1 or $2 screenings of random flicks that were already on video.

25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

I miss the social aspect.  Matinees used to be cheap enough that I'd go to movies like "Lord of the Rings" or "Titanic" multiple times with different friends.  I don't feel like I can justify that anymore.

26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

No.  My mother disliked "Amelie," which disappointed me, but that's about it.  People have different tastes and reactions to media that can be very unpredictable.  I don't think it really says anything about the individual, unless their response is particularly abnormal. 

27. What movies have you dreamed about?

I've had dreams about being in a movie, or dreams that unfolded like a movie, but not specific movies.

28. What concession stand item can you not live without?

All of them.  I traditionally sneak in my Junior Mints.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Is Black Widow a Problem?

I'm conflicted over the necessity of writing this piece, but the only conversation anybody seems to be having about "Avengers: Age of Ultron" concerns whether Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, was unfairly shoehorned into the token girlfriend role, and by Joss Whedon of all people.  So I want to put down some thoughts.

Spoilers ahead.

Scarlett Johanssen returns in "Ultron" as Black Widow for her fourth appearance in the MCU.  Previous films have established her as a Russian-born spy, a resourceful member of the Peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and best friends with the sharpshooter Hawkeye.  None of this has changed in "Ultron" except that she's become romantically involved with Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and we learn more about her unhappy background.  The objections to her portrayal seem to boil down to two major issues.  First, that the Widow's connection with the Hulk allows her to use a technique called the "lullaby" to calm him down during his rages and help him turn back into Bruce Banner, essentially putting an awful lot of importance on her role as a romantic figure.  Then there's the revelation that she was sterilized during the training process to become a spy, which some saw as losing a big opportunity to examine the shades of gray in her morality in favor of a rather cliché infertility crisis.

Now, Black Widow also gets spiffy new weapons, a new costume, and has one major action sequence nearly all to herself.  She and Bruce Banner get about the same amount of narrative emphasis - she gets a bit more, really - so she's certainly not being sidelined or deemphasized in any way.  She gives us no reason to doubt her competence or her heroism at any point.  Whedon even pointedly includes some of her interactions with Hawkeye's family as Aunt Nat, nixing any speculation about a possible romance on that front, and underlining the point that men and women can simply be good friends.  Her story arc is a little rushed and ungainly, but that's true of pretty much everything in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."  It is a messy film with too much going on, and the problems with the portrayal of Black Widow seem to reflect the problems of the film in general.  I think a contributing issue is that most of the other major characters like Iron Man and Captain America have been featured in their own films, so we have more context for their actions.  Black Widow and Hawkeye have not, and Whedon trying to delve deeper into their characters here, with a fraction of the available screen time, ran into trouble.  With Hawkeye it wasn't so bad, because his story is pretty simple and straightforward.  Black Widow, however, is more complicated.

Once again, we have to ask why Black Widow hasn't gotten a solo film yet.  Many of the bits and pieces of her story in "Ultron" would have played so much better if they had been part of a whole film that focused on her character.  The romance, the sterility - I can see all of it working if they had been presented better, and there were more time to explore the implications.  Fleshing out those flashbacks to her time as a spy and her other relationships would have helped too.  Others have pointed out that the Widow's search for redemption, which was a big part of her arc in the first "Avengers" movie, hasn't really come up since.  There's been an irritating inconsistency to Black Widow from film to film.  To some extent her personality (and hairstyle) have been adapted to whatever each movie needs - Iron Man's femme fatale assistant, Captain America's cool gal-pal, and now the Hulk's paramour.  The suddenness of the match with Banner doesn't help, making it feel like the filmmakers have reworked her role yet again, instead of revealing new dimensions of her character.  With her story being told so piecemeal like this, Black Widow simply isn't on the same footing as the rest of the Avengers.

I give Joss Whedon credit for trying to do right by the character - and I look forward to what extra tidbits might be revealed in his Director's Cut of "Ultron," but I'm afraid it's not enough.  The real problem with Black Widow is that her origin story is too big for a subplot, and I don't think she's ever going to get more than that in a Marvel movie.  She's due to appear next year's "Captain America: Civil War," another team-up movie overstuffed with interesting characters.  Is she still going to be with the Hulk in that one, I wonder, or back to being the super S.H.I.E.L.D. agent?  Your guess is as good as mine.


Monday, October 5, 2015

"Monster Hunt" Makes it Big

When I got the opportunity to see "Monster Hunt," now the highest grossing Chinese film ever made, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Chinese animation is very inconsistent stuff, and even with a Dreamworks Animation vet, Raman Hui, at the helm, I had my doubts.  I'm not a big fan of films with CGI characters in a live action world in general, after years of watching Hollywood churn out "Alvin & the Chipmunks" and "Scooby Doo" reboots.  On the other hand, "Monster Hunt" is definitely not a Hollywood production.

Long ago the yaogwai, monsters of Chinese legend, had a civil war that left the pregnant former Queen and her remaining supporters on the run in the human world.  With a reward out for the capture of the Queen and her baby, human "monster hunters" and evil monsters are searching for them.  Our hero is Tianying (Jing Boran), a cheerful young man who is the son of a famous monster hunter, but spends his days running a restaurant and doing odd jobs around his village.  He ends up in the middle of a fight between a pair of monsters trying to protect the Queen, Zhu Gao (Eric Tsang) and Pang Ying (Sandra Ng), and the rival monster hunters Luo Gan (Jiang Wu) and Xiaonan (Bai Baihe).  Tianying, after various shenanigans, ends up pregnant with the baby monster, and partnered up with the feisty Xiaonan for a wild adventure.

There was far less animation in "Monster Hunt" than I was expecting, though it is integral to the film.  This is very much a live action martial arts comedy that happens to feature some CGI characters, and it's a pretty good one.  The leads have strong chemistry and their slapstick hijinks are loads of fun.  The action's not particularly impressive, but there are some standout sequences that are very memorable.  The whole thing reminded my of the goofy, but awfully entertaining old fantasy wuxia films I used to watch as a kid, except that the monsters were no longer people in costume, but big, roly-poly cartoon characters.  And while there's some mild gender subversion humor aimed at grown ups, especially all the silliness with the pregnant man, "Monster Hunt" is clearly a kids' film.  It's aimed directly at the same audience that went to see the "Minions" movie in droves this summer.

Is the animation of "Monster Hunt" up to the same level, though?  I have to say no, but they're getting close.  Even allowing for the considerable differences between Chinese and Western aesthetics, the rubbery character designs for the monsters are much more simplified and primitive than anything you'd see in an American theatrical feature today.  You can tell that the Chinese animators had a much smaller budget and had more limitations to work around than comparable American productions.  However, with that in mind, the animation itself is pretty good.  The integration of the animated and live-action elements, particularly involving the monster baby and the various monsters in "human suits," is sophisticated and well executed.  The filmmakers deserve praise for being ambitious and pushing the envelope.  There's a brief scene with a talking door knocker that easily could have been cut out, but they took the trouble to design and animate a complicated character that doesn't appear anywhere else in the movie for it.

I'm not optimistic that the charms of "Monster Hunt" will translate well overseas.  As much as it apes movies like "Shrek," including the now ubiquitous dance number over the closing credits, the animation just isn't quite good enough to be a selling point.  Notably, the opening scene featuring a monster battle is very weak.  It's not until the human characters show up that the film finds its footing.  The movie is also far too family friendly to appeal to the usual martial arts crowd, and probably too silly for the arthouse.  I enjoyed it though, and I'm grateful to have a Chinese language fantasy film that I could actually show to small children, that they might actually sit through.  And I'm sure that the success of "Monster Hunt" will mean more films like it in the future, and continuing advances in the Chinese film industry.  This could be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and I'm looking forward to them.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can We Justify "The Jinx"?

It's now been over six months since the finale of Andrew Jarecki's crime documentary miniseries, "The Jinx," aired its final controversial episode.  It feels a little silly to warn for spoilers, but on the off chance that someone reading this hasn't heard about what happened to Robert Durst, now would be the time to go and watch "The Jinx," which is an excellent crime documentary by every conceivable measure, before upcoming events inevitably spoil all of its surprises.  For the rest of us who are more well-informed, I feel enough time has passed that we can talk about the actions of the documentarians and the fallout from the broadcast and surrounding events.

I don't know if this is the first time that the news media has spoiled a television show, but the collision between Jarecki's miniseries and the unfolding events of the Robert Durst arrest on March 15th created one of the biggest television events of the year.  I'd never heard of Robert Durst, but suddenly he was all over the news, and at the center of a furious debate about the extent to which it was permissible for documentary filmmakers to insert themselves into the events they were documenting.  Jarecki's not the first to have done his own investigating for the sake of the film.  Heck, "The Jinx" isn't even his first work about a criminal case.  "Capturing the Friedmans," made a decade ago, seemed to throw a pair of child molestation convictions into doubt, though Jarecki was criticized for misleading editing and other tricks to make his film more suspenseful and entertaining.  Many of the same criticisms have been levied against his work on "The Jinx," where several events didn't play out the way the series suggests that they did.

I finally got a chance to marathon the six-part series this week, and it's a knockout piece of entertainment.  I can't speak to its overall veracity, but "The Jinx" offers the tantalizing chance to hear Robert Durst have his say about the various crimes that he may have played a part in over the years.   Durst is absolutely fascinating to watch, and the show's biggest asset.  I have absolutely no qualms about the first four episodes, which explore each of the three murders Durst has been connected to.  I especially enjoyed the fourth episode, where the case against Durst for murdering an elderly neighbor falls apart in spectacular fashion during the trial.  It's a riveting look at how money and privilege can tip the scales of justice, even in the most egregious cases.  The last two episodes, however, raise an awful lot of questions.  Suddenly we're not simply watching a profile of Durst, but the documentary team's efforts to nail him based on evidence that they've independently uncovered.  And this builds to that holiest of holy grails in any true crime documentary - getting an apparent confession on tape.

The ending is amazing, but at what cost?  Jarecki's team insist that they turned over all their evidence to the authorities long before "The Jinx" aired, but is any of it admissible in court now?  If Durst was able to beat a murder charge despite admitting that he dismembered the corpse, the new trial will be a cakewalk.  Think of all the ammunition his defense will have this time, provided by a documentary crew known for muddling some very basic facts.  If there's anything that "The Jinx" made clear, it's that Robert Durst is a disturbed individual with way too many resources at his disposal.  Jarecki's actions and all the media attention may have gotten him locked up, but I'm worried that the process was tampered with too greatly to keep him there.  And I keep coming back to the lead-up to that final interview, where the sequence of events was entirely fabricated.  Why include the later arrest for violating the restraining order at all?  The interview was plenty suspenseful without pretending that Jarecki's cooperation with Durst's lawyers had anything to do with it.  What else did Jarecki invent or enhance or tweak to suit his own ends?

Too much of "The Jinx" reminded me of a documentary that Andrew Jarecki did not direct, but did produce: "Catfish."  To date, nobody is clear on what was real, fake, or recreated in that film, but it was a smaller personal story and the stakes weren't nearly as high as they are here.  The integrity of "The Jinx" seems fundamentally compromised, and its conclusions therefore untrustworthy.  I'm very interested in the legal ramifications for Robert Durst, and the possible consequences for Andrew Jarecki.  Ultimately "The Jinx" is one heck of a miniseries - but a terribly flawed documentary.