Sunday, July 5, 2015

Falling Through the Digital Distribution Cracks

I'm very excited about making time to see "Advantageous," a new independent dystopian science-fiction film directed by, written by, and starring Asian-American women.  However, I almost missed it - the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but was then acquired by and premiered exclusively on Netflix last week with little fanfare. 
With no theatrical release, that means that the title didn't appear on the film release calendars I use - Wikipedia and Boxofficemojo currently.  Because Netflix paid for exclusivity, "Advantageous" is only available online - it's not even considered a VOD release.  That means that many film outlets didn't run reviews.  At the time of writing there are only twelve reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes for "Advantageous," 75% positive.  The big names like Variety and the New York Times covered it, but not most of the smaller publications and websites.  I only learned about the movie because I stumbled upon a rave by Katherine Trendacosta at io9 through a content aggregator site, and then another review over at WIRED - neither of these sites appear to be counted by Rotten Tomatoes, mind you.   I'm subscribed to a couple of film blogs, Film School Rejects and Indiewire, specifically to catch smaller titles like this, but neither of them have run anything substantive on "Advantageous" aside from basic synopses from when the film premiered at Sundance.
As an Asian-American woman and science-fiction fan, I am the exact, dead center, target audience for "Advantageous."  Outside of monitoring the new release schedule for Netflix, there was no way for me to know that this film existed, even though I'm a cinema buff who makes a point of keeping an eye out for films like this.  Netflix has generally been considered great for indie films, because they can get smaller films in front of more people.  However, it doesn't really have the resources to promote them the way that other distribution outfits might.  I'm fairly sure this release strategy makes "Advantageous" ineligible for any awards that might give the picture more buzz and coverage.  Also, the film is stuck in an odd kind of media jurisdictional limbo.  It's comparable to if it had been picked up by one of the premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime.  The lack of a theatrical release means they're treated like television films, which often end up being covered by television writers and reviewed by television critics.  Exceptions are made occasionally when there's an auteur involved, as with Steven Soderbergh's "Beyond the Candelabra."  Netflix isn't television, though, so which critics should lay claim to "Advantageous"?
This is a rare occurrence now, but it won't be in the future.  Netflix's recent push for more content had lead them to acquire more and more films themselves.  So far it's been mostly documentaries, including the Oscar nominated "The Square" and "Virunga."  "Advantageous" is the first feature they've acquired in a while, but it will soon be followed by Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" and Richie Smyth's "Jadotville."  Netflix is also producing a new "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel, a Pee-Wee Herman movie, all those cringeworthy Adam Sandler comedies, and Brad Pitt’s upcoming “War Machine,” which Netflix recently paid $30 million to finance and distribute.  And I have no doubt that Amazon, and other competitors will soon follow in the film distribution game - Amazon is already chasing film directors like Woody Allen and David Gordon Green to create programs for them. 
Most of the coverage of the "War Machine" brought up the implications for theaters, but there will surely also be an impact on viewers as well.  There are more films being made now than ever before, and so many, many places to view them.  It's going to become tougher to keep track of current releases when they're scattered across multiple VOD platforms, streaming services, theater chains, and other venues.  Television is already in the thick of it.  Did you hear about the superhero series "Powers" that's being run on the Playstation Network? Did you know the Playstation Network existed?  I expect that the existing organizational tools I use will be updated eventually to reflect this, or that better alternatives will be come available.  But for now, during the transition, I'm going to have to either become more vigilant or just learn to be okay with letting a few titles slip through the cracks.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mad for "Max"

I'll be honest.  After all the hype and all the hosannas that have been heaped upon "Mad Max: Fury Road," I was expecting something a little more off-the-wall and well, um, mad.  Don't get me wrong.  "Fury Road" is loads of fun, and a welcome departure from the humdrum, by-the-numbers action spectaculars we've been seeing in theaters lately.  It's not the be-all and end-all of action movies, though.  Frankly, no movie, especially one as pulpy as this, should have to live up to expectations that high and mighty.

Now with that little caveat out of the way, let's get to the juicy stuff.  If you've never heard of the "Mad Max" series before, rest assured that you don't need any knowledge of it whatsoever for "Fury Road."  A lot of the fun is exploring the weird, wacky post-apocalyptic Australian outback, and this is a new corner of it that we haven't seen before: the Citadel, ruled by the terrifying warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his War Boys.  Max, our hero, was once played by Mel Gibson, but is now Tom Hardy, who has no trouble filling his shoes.  Max is a Man-With-No-Name type, a wanderer of few words and great survival skills, hesitant to get involved, but willing to put everything on the line for a cause once he's committed to it. In this outing, he's taken prisoner by the forces of Immortan Joe, and his escape coincides with a daring breakout committed by one of Joe's lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping to liberate Joe's five young "wives" from their captivity.

Now, if you are a fan of "Mad Max," or really any older action films from the '70s and '80s, "Fury Road" is sure to be a treat.  There's plenty of CGI prettying up the desert landscapes, but the bulk of the action is good, old fashioned, practical machine v. machine and man v. machine mayhem.  And what machines!  Max and Furiosa spend most of the film driving a stolen "War Rig," a gasoline tanker modified with weaponry and various steampunk gadgets.  In hot pursuit are scavengers driving VW bugs covered in metal spikes, nomad motorcyclists wielding grenades, and Immortan Joe's vast war party of pursuit vehicles.  It even includes a moving stage covered in amps, reserved for his musical accompaniment.  Even wilder than the cars are the drivers.  Immortan Joe heads a cult of personality that has become a religion, where the War Boys worship him and perform insane feats of physical daring in the hopes of winning a place in the shiny chrome afterlife of Valhalla.

The best part is that the action is entirely coherent and easy to follow.  And it retains all the same grime and dust and sweat and anarchic glee of "The Road Warrior," made over thirty years ago.  It's almost miraculous that the seventy year-old George Miller has lost none of his enthusiasm or his radical vision for this universe.  The only real difference seems to be the expanded budget, which has allowed for more stylized visuals, crisper picture, and a more saturated color palette.   The characters, as ever, are simply constructed with little time to impart much psychological depth.  Yet still there's so much suggested about them so quickly and efficiently - Max's visions of a little girl who seems to embody his survival instinct, Furiosa's recitation of her origins, the painted slogans left behind by the wives, and the fervent devotion of the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), all help to provide little details that enrich the fascinating Mad Max universe.

And all this makes "Fury Road" a very good movie, but not quite a great one.  There's not enough meat here for that, not enough substance to really chew on.  If Miller had pushed a little deeper with Max or Furiosa and let there be some real emotional stakes beyond simple survival, maybe the film would have left a more lasting impression.  Immortan Joe reminds me so much of Thulsa Doom - another memorable cult leader who builds his own little society in the desert - but isn't nearly as compelling.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a good popcorn movie, and more plot probably would have just gotten in the way of the adrenaline-pumping fights and stunts. 
I guess all I can hope for is more "Mad Max" movies in the future, so we can explore more of George Miller's strange, mad desert world.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Great Directors Non Update

It's been over a year since my last "Great Directors" post, and honestly over a year since I've spent much time watching older films.  I've had so much to catch up on and so little time to do it, the classics have fallen by the wayside.  I do hope to pick up the series again soon, so as a little tease (and to try and give myself a push), I'm listing out a couple of the eligible directors I'm considering for spotlights, along with what I've seen from each - essentially all the possible films from each that I might write about.  Looks like the French are overdue for some attention here.

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)
John Cassavetes
Shadows (1959)
Husbands (1970)
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Opening Night (1977)
Gloria (1980)
Love Streams (1984)
Clint Eastwood
Play Misty for Me (1971)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Pale Rider (1985)
Unforgiven (1992)
A Perfect World (1993)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Mystic River (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Gran Torino (2008)
Invictus (2009)
Hereafter (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)
American Sniper (2014)
Sergei Eisenstein

Strike (1924)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928)
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Ivan the Terrible (1944-46)
Jean-Luc Godard
Breathless (1960)
A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
My Life to Live (1962)
Contempt (1963)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Alphaville (1965)
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Masculin FĂ©minin (1966)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)
Weekend (1967)
Number Two 1975)
Every Man for Himself (1980)
Hail Mary (1985)
Goodbye to Language (2014)
Elia Kazan

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
On the Waterfront (1954)
East of Eden (1955)
Baby Doll (1956)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Wild River (1960)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
America America (1963)

Kenji Mizoguchi

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
The 47 Ronin (1941)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1947)
The Life of Oharu (1952)
Ugetsu (1953)
A Geisha (1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)
Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)
Roman Polanski
Knife in the Water (1962)
Repulsion (1965)
Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Macbeth (1971)
Chinatown (1974)
The Tenant (1976)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Pianist (2002)
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Carnage (2011)
Jean Renoir
Night at the Crossroads (1932)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
Toni (1935)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Human Beast (1938)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The River (1951)
The Golden Coach (1953)
French Cancan (1954)
Francois Truffaut
The 400 Blows (1959)
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Jules and Jim (1962)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
The Wild Child (1970)
Bed and Board (1970)
Two English Girls (1971)
Day for Night (1973)
The Last Metro (1980)
The Woman Next Door (1981)
Luchino Visconti
La Terra Trema (1948)
Senso (1954)
White Nights (1957)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
The Leopard (1963)
The Damned (1969)
Death in Venice (1971)
Ludwig (1972)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

So Kristen Stewart Can Act

The claim that Kristen Stewart is a terrible actress has been in circulation for a while now, mostly due to her work in the "Twilight" series. I've never been able to comment on this before, as I still haven't seen any of the "Twilight" movies, and I've managed to miss just about every other movie that Kristen Stewart has had a significant role in over the past few years.  The only exception was "Snow White and the Huntsman," where she looked dazed and not quite all there for most of her scenes.  But in the last few weeks, I've seen all three of the 2014 releases that Stewart appeared in, and I think I have a much better picture of her as an actress.  And not only can she act, I think she's awfully good in the right role.
Let's start with "Still Alice," the Alzheimer's drama that Julianne Moore won her Oscar for.  Stewart plays the title character's youngest daughter Lydia, an aspiring actress who becomes one of her mother's strongest sources of support as her disease progresses.  It's not a very big or interesting part, but substantial enough to get a sense of Lydia's place in her family's changing dynamics, her hopes and aspirations.  Stewart has no trouble holding her own in her scenes opposite Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, who plays her father.  And unlike her blockbuster turns, here Stewart was fully engaged, brought plenty to the role, and made a very good impression on me overall.  No sign of a disastrously wooden bad actress to be found.
Next was "Camp X-Ray," where she plays a young guard at Guantanamo Bay who becomes friendly with one of the prisoners.  I found the film itself fundamentally flawed, but Kristen Stewart was perfectly fine as the lead.  She's onscreen constantly, in practically every scene as Private Cole, who quickly becomes disillusioned with her work in the prison.  Stewart is very credible as a soldier, thanks in large part to the script taking pains to show her strictly regimented daily routine, interactions with other soldiers, and the impact of the military culture on her behavior.  Stewart manages to give Privale Cole a strong presence though, and here you can definitely see her characters fit a certain type - introverted, insecure to a certain extent, and struggling with some inner turmoil.  Stewart is also also likeable, engaging, and very good at conveying her character's often difficult emotional state. 
And that brings us to "Clouds of Sils Maria," the one that Stewart won a Cesar for, the French equivalent of an Oscar.  In "Sils Maria," She plays Valentine, the awkward assistant to Juliette Binoche's aging actress, Maria Enders.  It's one of Olivier Assayas's terribly thoughtful character dramas, one I found a little too indulgent for my taste.  However, I really enjoyed Kristen Stewart here.  Binoche is excellent as she always is, but Stewart is the standout in the film.  As Valentine she's still reticent, but far more talkative and expressive than either of the other two roles allowed.  She gets to be playful.  She gets to be funny.   Especially delightful are a few meta bits where she gets to comment on her own past work in terrible genre pictures.  You can certainly see why the French got excited. 
I think Kristen Stewart's bad reputation comes from taking roles in big blockbusters that don't suit her.  She works best in smaller, more intimate films.  Unlike Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway, she doesn't have the larger-than-life quality of a marquee movie star.  And many of our best actresses don't.  If you didn't see Michelle Williams as Glinda in "Oz the Great and Powerful," count yourself lucky.  You could say Kristen Stewart doesn't have a lot of range, or that she still has a long way to go before reaching her full potential.  She's certainly made some terrible choices.  However, there's no question that she can act.  And I look forward to her getting on with her career and putting the whole awful "Twilight" business behind her.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Revisiting "A Little Princess" v. "Casper"

This has been an exciting summer at the movies, full of giant tentpoles and franchises, with a few original properties staunchly holding their ground too.  Yet, none of these clashes have been as gripping to watch as the one that happened between two children's films twenty years ago, a clash that you can still see the repercussions of in how the movie industry operates today. 
In early May of 1995, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," to huge critical acclaim.  It was lauded by practically everyone who saw it, and several prominent critics got the behind the movie.  The trouble was the Warner Brothers couldn't sell it.  Everything about the film's marketing seemed lackluster, from the posters to the trailers, failing to capture the film's low-key charms.  There wasn't much marketing either, as Warners opted for a smaller release, initially only opening "A Little Princess" in about 1300 theaters, with plans to expand later.  That expansion never happened.
The week after "Princess" hit theaters, "Casper" from Universal was released.  "Casper," which had been heavily marketed for weeks as the big summer kids' film from executive producer Steven Spielberg, opened to crummy reviews, but raked in $22 million its first weekend.  "Casper" opened in twice the number of theaters that "A Little Princess" did and completely steamrollered it for the rest of the summer.  When all was said and done, "Casper" had a domestic gross of $100 million.  "A Little Princess" made $10 million, even after an attempted rerelease in August.  And the only reason I know this is because the Los Angeles Times was documenting all of it. 
All through that summer they published op-ed pieces, analysis pieces, and plenty of readers' letters speculating as to why Warners couldn't get anyone to watch "A Little Princess."  Again and again people pointed to the release strategy and the marketing.  It looked like a movie aimed only at little girls.  It had "Princess" in the title.  It was clearly a holiday picture rather than a summer one.  Nobody knew it existed because the ads were so sparse.  There were no toys or tie-ins to create extra awareness.  This was 1995, when summer movie season wasn't totally dominated by big event movies, and you could still take risks with prestige films now and then - but suddenly everything about "A Little Princess" looked foolhardy.
There were a few stories featuring interviews with the Warner marketing execs themselves, who apparently took all of these criticisms to heart.  One even joked that they should have released "A Little Princess" under the title "Batman 4."  What came across, though, is that they believed in the movie and that everyone at the studio had tried wholeheartedly to do right by it.  And so I always think about them and the fate of "A Little Princess" whenever I hear complaints about the studios not having the guts to put out more challenging, more ambitious summer fare.  This is what happens, kids.  Your heartfelt, life-affirming masterpiece gets beaten up by CGI cartoon ghosties making fart jokes.
Twenty years later, I don't think any major studio would even finance "A Little Princess," let alone try releasing it in May.  Sadly the film has passed into almost total obscurity, though some of its chief creative talent has flourished.  This was director Alphonso Cuaron's English language debut, long before "Children of Men" or "Gravity."  Emmanuel Lubezki picked up an Oscar nomination for the film's gorgeous cinematography - his first of many.  I'm also gratified that actor Liam Cunningham, who plays the title character's father, is getting more attention these days - you might recognize him as Davos from "Game of Thrones."
Note that "Casper" has also quietly disappeared from the public consciousness too, despite several direct-to-video sequels and a Saturday morning cartoon following in the movie's wake.  The character is reportedly being prepped for yet another reboot over at Dreamworks, but the 1995 film seems to be remembered chiefly for James Horner's lovely, melancholy score.  Looking at it now, "Casper" is very much a product of its time, with little that holds up, though I still have some nostalgic affection for it. 
And what of the summer movie season?  Well, we're not getting any more delicate adaptations of Victorian era children's novels, but there are still a few studios attempting to try something new and different every year - Disney/PIXAR's "Inside Out" about the inner world of a little girl inspires a lot of optimism that audiences can still be drawn to quality over pandering, even when the subject matter might be difficult.
Provided that the marketing campaign takes no prisoners, of course. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Jupiter Ascending" and "Kingsman"

Roger Ebert made a point of evaluating films based on the kind of experience they set out to be.  The same scale wouldn't apply to "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List," for instance, even though they were made by the same director.  I'm trying to keep that in mind while sorting out my reactions to "Jupiter Ascending" and "Kingsman," a pair of action films from earlier this year.  These are both clearly escapist popcorn films, but there are distinctions to be made within this classification.  "Jupiter Ascending," for instance, resembles the Wachoswski siblings' last film "Cloud Atlas" aesthetically, but it's not remotely as ambitious.  Rather, it's about the fluffiest, campiest action movie to come out of a major studio since Joel Schumacher stopped making Batman movies.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a poor young Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who cleans houses with her mother while dreaming of a better life.  After being targeted for assassination by a group of alien beings, Jupiter is rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a disgraced alien supersoldier now working as a gun for hire.  Jupiter turns out to be space royalty, an exact genetic match for (and thus the presumed reincarnation of) the deceased matriarch of the powerful Abrasax family.  The Abrasax's fortunes depend on "harvesting" the human beings they've "seeded" on various planets.  Earth is next, of course, except that Jupiter's royal status means she technically owns the planet, running afoul of the plans of her past self's three children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth).
And sadly, it's all a bore.  As you might expect, the plot is really beside the point.  The movie is far more concerned with flashy action scenes, wild overacting by everyone (but especially Eddie Redmayne), and a fuzzy romance between Jupiter and Caine.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  There have been plenty of silly, weird, self-indulgent sci-fi romps like "Barbarella" and "The Fifth Element" that are loads of fun without making a lick of sense.  "Jupiter Ascending," though, is just badly executed from top to bottom.  There is way too much exposition being lobbed at viewers constantly.  Some of the visuals are nice, but the action scenes are frequently too murky, and the tone is far too self-serious.  Kunis and Tatum do what they can, but their characters are too busy being shuttled from one ludicrous, overexplained dilemma to the next to engage in much banter or bonding.  Most of the humor falls flat.  The movie wants to be a romp, but it's a slog. 
At the same time, there's good stuff here, in bits and pieces.  I chuckled at the "Brazil" homage in the middle of the film where our heroes have to navigate a nightmare bureaucracy, capped off with a cameo by Terry Gilliam.  Lots of the concepts were interesting, like the treatment of reincarnation and the genetically engineered aliens.  And for all the digs that have been made at Eddie Redmayne for his performance, at least he was able to hold my attention when he was onscreen.  That's better than a lot of the villians in recent Marvel films have managed.  I think "Jupiter Ascending" could have been a much better film if it had been lightened up, and embraced the cheese.  I mean, we have characters that are part dog and part deer and part dinosaur, and one of the major plot points involves stopping an incestuous space wedding.  This could have been a total riot.
"Kingsman," by comparison, has a better idea of what it's doing.  There's a scene about a third of the way into the film, where two characters share a discussion about James Bond movies over junk food, heavily winking at the audience that they're well aware that they're playing with beloved old tropes, and none too gently.  "Kingsman" is based on a comic book, but is much more directly an update of the broadly comedic Bond films of the Roger Moore era, complete with fancy gadgets and outlandish villains.  This was co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, creator of "Kick-Ass," so there's a lot of graphic violence, constant profanity, and a fair bit of raunch too. 

Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a young, lower-class Londoner of promising talent, but an awful home life that has derailed his prospects.  He's recruited one day by Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad (Colin Firth), a gentleman secret agent for an independent spy agency, the Kingsmen.  While Eggsy undergoes training and testing with several other young recruits under Kingsmen quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry investigates a series of disappearances linked to tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his lovely assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).  Of course Eggsy and fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) end up getting involved as the mystery unfolds.  Michael Caine and Mark Hamill also appear as the leader of the Kingsmen and an environmental scientist respectively.
"Kingsman" has a solid, funny script, full of little meta moments, subversions, and homages.  Occasionally it can be crass and very mean, with R-rated content in abundance, but never to the point of causing any real offense.  The tone is light, the action scenes are a blast, and the performances are exactly what they need to be.  I'm especially impressed with Egerton, a newcomer who easily holds his own in scenes opposite Firth, Strong, and Caine.  Sam Jackson seems too over the top at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that's exactly as it should be.  And he's clearly having so much fun in the role, I can't really begrudge him.  Ditto Colin Firth, who tackles his superspy role with gusto.
The visual style plays a big part in the movie's effectiveness.  It's very kinetic and colorful, suffusing the film with an infectious energy.  There are a lot of fanciful little touches in the fight scenes, lots of classic spy iconography and cartoon physics, deployed with loving dollops of blood and gore.  It's easy to mistake this as a film meant for the YA crowd, because of the younger lead and comic book stylization, but it's definitely got an adult sensibility while remaining gleefully juvenile.   I felt guilty about laughing at the series of assassinations choreographed to look like a morbid fireworks display, but also impressed that the filmmakers had gone through with it.
So I recommend "Kingsman" with some reservations - it's not a film that's going to appeal to many outside its bloodthirsty young target audience.  However, for that audience it's going to be a treat, which is more than can be said for "Jupiter Ascending," which will be a chore for even the most committed Wachowski fans.


Monday, June 15, 2015

"Game of Thrones" Year Five

Spoilers Ahead.
What a bumpy, ugly, gorgeous, weird, and fascinating season it's been.  The highs were high, the lows were low - and in some cases very low, but you couldn't say any of it was boring.  This was the year that "Game of Thrones" started moving into "off-book" material, and we got a better sense of the storytelling sensibilities of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.  And frankly, the show has never felt sloppier or more rushed.  Or like more of a grim endurance contest.  Horrible things happen all the time in "Game of Thrones," but never have they happened with such alarming regularity to the weakest and most innocent characters - Shireen, Myrcella, and Sansa in particular.  It's getting harder and harder to wait for the comeuppances and payoffs that may never come.  While the spectacle of Hardhome was impressive, that doesn't make up for the slog through the deeply compromised Dorne storyline.  While watching Jon, Danaerys, Arya, and Tyrion gain new victories was invigorating, on the other side of the equation you have Stannis, Ramsay, and Jamie killing the mood.  And as much as the creators might deny it, you can tell they're stalling on some fronts to give George R. R. Martin more time to finish the next book.
As usual, it's fairest to go down the list of characters and consider each storyline individually.
Let's get the worst one out of the way first.  Dorne, for all its prominence in the preseason marketing, for all the nice costumes, strong acting talent, and the picturesque shooting locations, was a total wash.  There was clearly a much richer, more complicated storyline here originally that was boiled down to bare bones and then executed terribly.  The new characters were left shockingly shallow archetypes, the narrative felt like a bit of side quest filler to keep Jamie occupied, and Dorne felt weirdly uninhabited next to Bravos, Mereen, and King's Landing.  I knew we were in trouble when the Sand Snakes didn't show up until the fourth episode, and then had a sad little scrap with Jamie and Bronn upon their big confrontation in the sixth.  Indira Varma, Alexander Siddig, and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers are among the season's MVPs for salvaging what they could of Ellaria, Doran, and Tyene.
Over in Winterfell, it was so frustrating to have Sansa poised as a mature player in the game at the end of the last season, only to heave her tossed into Ramsay's clutches this year for more torture.  I suspect that her involvement here was just to give her, Theon, and Brienne something to do, but surely the writers didn't have to make Sansa into such a victim again - haven't they established that's she's learned how to manipulate from Cersei, Margaery, and Littlefinger?  Her grappling with Ramsay intellectually would have been so much more interesting than more of the usual sadism.  And good grief, but Littlefinger's actions here don't make any sense.  I didn't find the depiction of Sansa's wedding night nearly as upsetting as some of the other violence against women and girls we saw later in the season, but I'm glad the controversy happened anyway, because these are important conversations to have. 
Arya's training at the House of Black and White has been one of the most consistently strong stories this year, and it finally feels like Arya's getting somewhere in her quest for revenge.  I loved that we got Tom Wlaschiha back for Jaqen H'ghar, and the addition of Faye Marsay as the Waif.  Personal and spiritual growth can be difficult to depict, and the show's been doing a great job with Arya and the strange religion of the Many-Faced God.  The effects in particular, while not as flashy as what we see in Mereen or Beyond the Wall, have been a highlight.  And it's been so nice to see Maisie Williams get a few costume changes this year, and acknowledge that Arya's quickly growing up.  She's one of the last few characters on this show I can really root for, and I'm glad the creators have been doing right by her.
King's Landing, usually home to the more central plotlines, took a bit of a backseat this time out because most of the action was happening elsewhere.  It's been almost comical how quickly things have gone awry without Tywin or Jamie keeping Cersei in check.  Her hatred of Margaery prompted her to hand power over to Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow and a pack of religious zealots, and of course it backfired on her.  This paints Cersei as a much weaker figure than we've seen in previous seasons, but boy has it been fun to watch her this year. The petty machinations, getting the tables turned on her, and the most jaw-dropping nudity scene in "Game of Thrones" history have been absolutely great for Cersei as a character.  The list of power players in King's Landing may be growing short, but there's still the potential for drama in abundance.
If you want to talk about hard downfalls, though, there have been none worse than Stannis Baratheon's campaign against Winterfell this year.  It was often difficult to watch Stannis, one of the most promising contenders for the Iron Throne a few seasons ago, brought so low so quickly.  After he came to the rescue of Castle Black last year, he won a lot of new fans, but I was never onboard, and wasn't all that shocked when he sacrificed Shireen - a little shocked that they showed as much of the act as they did, but not at the decision he made.  It was the people he dragged down with him that really hurt - Shireen of course, Davos, Selyse, and to a certain extent Sansa and Theon.  I was really looking forward to Stannis squishing Ramsay like a bug.  It may still happen eventually, but I'm still disappointed at how the storyline was tied up. 
Let's lump Tyrion's story in together with Dany's, because the really important part of both is that they get together and start making bigger plans toward the show's endgame.  Tyrion makes pretty much everyone he interacts with more interesting, so thank goodness he's joined up with the Mereen crew, who have now spent two seasons mucking up the job of ruling the place.   Danaerys doesn't come off as incompetent after all this, thankfully, just inexperienced and naive.  Tyrion getting shuttled off into a new adventure was a little rushed, but I can buy his newly flippant attittude and eventual conversion to Dany's side - the two shared some great scenes together.  I'm still not so keen on the rest of the side characters - Jorah, Daario, and the lovebirds - or where Dany ended up in the finale, but clearly things are getting back on track.
Finally, there's Jon Snow.  He's had a great year, becoming Lord Commander, kicking butt at Hardhome, and sticking his neck out for the Wildlings.  He may know nothing, but he stands for something now, and has become a character worth rooting for.  Too bad about that last bit of the finale, but I'm not convinced that Jon or Stannis are actually dead yet.  It's nice that the scenes at and beyond the wall have been some of the most compelling in the show's run.  The two storylines that were boring me to tears three seasons ago have become two of the most compelling, and currently driving the show towards its conclusion.  Yes, this season of "Game of Thrones" was less satisfying than many of the others (still better than Year Two), but it's doing enough right and clearly going somewhere.  And I want to see how it all ends.