Saturday, April 30, 2011

Trailers! Trailers!

It's been a while since I've had a trailer post, and as we move into the big summer movie season, some of the most anticipated (and not-so anticipated) titles are finally putting out their promos. Here's a quick rundown of some of the highlights. As always, all links lead to Trailer Addict:

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" - Things are looking so grim for Harry and his friends, even the familiar orchestral theme has taken a hit. As a fan of the books who was a little worried that too much of the action was being held back in "Part 1," the trailer offers reassurances of thrills in abundance. Get a load of that dragon! And the confrontation with Voldemort! Like the previous installment, this one will probably be a little too dark for the youngest fans, but it has plenty of the older ones buzzing. Here's hoping the filmmakers can stick the landing to one of the biggest franchises in modern movie history. No pressure, David Yates.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" - This is the film previously know as "Rise of the Apes," but the FOX execs were worried that audiences wouldn't realize it was a prequel to "Planet of the Apes," as if anyone in their primary target audience even remembers the franchise. The concepts in the "Rise" trailer sell themselves, though. There's a certain campy charm to the idea of a killer animal film that will end with the animals in question defeating humanity and taking over the world - like if "Jurassic Park" had ended with the velociraptors becoming our overlords. And after Tim Burton's disastrous attempt to reboot "Planet" a few years back, the series really has nowhere to go but up.

"Immortals" - I've always liked director Tarsem Singh's ornate visuals in his previous projects like "The Cell" and "The Fall," but the stories never connected very well. For a souped up take on Greek mythology in the vein of "300," however, he seems like a good fit. Our newly anointed "Superman," Henry Cavill, will star as the classic hero Theseus, charged by the gods to fight the Titans, led by a mean-looking Mickey Rourke. Lots of flashy CGI battles will ensue. My hope is that this can be a challenger to the grimy "Clash of the Titans" franchise, which is getting a sequel next year. "Immortals" will be hitting screens in November.

"Another Earth" - I was expecting a hard science-fiction picture when I first read up about this film from festival reports, but the trailer suggests that it's going to be a much quieter, more existential affair. A young woman with a past gets the chance to visit a mirror version of Earth, which has appeared in the sky without warning or explanation. The visuals are lovely, with all the shots of the other Earth (ooh, maybe it's Gaea!) and the concept is intriguing. On the other hand, this could turn out to be one of those unbearably melancholy indie films just borrowing the sci-fi conceit for some easy allegory. Also see Lars von Trier's latest, "Melancholia."

"Anonymous" - Roland Emmerich, king of disaster films, is making a movie about Shakespeare. Uh... okay.

"Mr. Popper's Penguins" - I wasn't a fan of "Happy Feet" or "March of the Penguins," but for some reason I'm curious about "Mr. Popper's Penguins." Maybe it's the sight of Jim Carrey subjecting himself to certain humiliation again, after so many years off chasing more adult material, and only loaning his voice out occasionally to animated films. Or maybe it's because these penguins, despite having picked up some fancy dance moves, are not nearly as anthropomorphized as we usually see in most cute animal movies. I don't have to worry about them breaking into song or telling off-color jokes. Maybe I just feel sorry for the little guys, because they're probably going to be creamed by "The Green Lantern," which is opening on the same day.

"The Hangover: Part II" - The action is being moved to Singapore, but this looks like pretty much the same film as the first "Hangover," except with different cameos and more screen time for Ken Jeong. That's a good thing, I think? And there's a monkey! Monkey's are funny! Random thought - is this the same monkey who gave Ken Jeong a pummeling on last week's episode of "Community"? Is another TV star breaking into the movies? Let me get back to you guys on that one.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Documentaries About Elaborate Fabrications

A few weeks ago, I wrote up a post about a trio of 2010 documentaries that blurred the line between fact and fiction - "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Catfish," and "I'm Still Here." The last of these, the notorious chronicle of Joaquin Phoenix's self-destruction, turned out to be almost entirely created from staged or scripted footage. The creators of "Exit" and "Catfish" have managed to keep secret which parts of their films were real, and which events may not have played out on camera exactly as they did in real life. Now I have two more 2010 documentaries for the list, that don't engage in any line-blurring themselves, but instead examine the act of creating similar elaborate fictions, and the motivations behind them.

First we have "A Film Unfinished," which looks at the creation of the unfinished 1942 Nazi propaganda film "Das Ghetto," depicting life in the Warsaw ghetto. Directed and narrated by Yael Hersonski, the documentary systematically reveals that almost all the footage seen in "Das Ghetto" was staged, often through the violent coercion of the film's subjects. The goal was to show life in the ghetto was pleasant and happy for the Jews, while in truth there was massive overcrowding and most of the population was starving to death. When harsher realities were shown, it was only to insinuate that the more well-off Jews were stingy or unfeeling. The surviving footage from "Das Ghetto" is remarkable in that so much of it looks innocuous, consisting mainly of scenes of normal, everyday life. Yet the Germans often went to elaborate lengths to create these scenes, essentially manufacturing that sense of normalcy out of whole cloth. It's no wonder, as Hersonski informs us, that originally some historians were deceived, and treated parts of "Das Ghetto" as factual.

Several different sources are used to uncover all the various untruths in the film. The diary of the ghetto's Jewish leader provides a detailed account of the Nazi film crew's efforts to create a list of scenes they wanted, coupled with descriptions of the continued subjugation of the ghetto's inhabitants. Recorded war crimes trial testimony and additional filmed footage from one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, provides the perspective of the German filmmakers. A reel of outtakes and alternate takes, discovered decades after the edited footage, is especially illuminating, as it reveals that not only were many scenes staged, but filmed over and over from multiple angles to achieve the desired effect. The most moving moments come from the survivors of the ghetto, who are shown watching the film and reminiscing over their experiences. Here, the deceptions come across as especially cruel. At the sight of a funeral scene, one elderly woman exclaims in disbelief that Jews were never buried in coffins, as the film depicts. Alternate footage of the actual means of disposing corpses from the ghetto, provides more sobering context.

"A Film Unfinished" does an exceptional job of setting the historical record straight, but it's also a stark reminder of how easily films can lie to us. The happiest and most joyful scenes in "Das Ghetto" were often those filmed in the most horrifying circumstances, or were achieved through unthinkable tactics employed by the filmmakers. The extent of the Nazi effort to rewrite history is monstrous, but familiar. We've seen similar techniques used by so many filmmakers since 1942, sometimes playfully as in Orson Welles' "F is for Fake," sometimes satirically, as in "Borat," and sometimes for far less altruistic purposes. "A Film Unfinished" stands as a cautionary warning of the power of film to warp, or even supplant reality. It's especially dismaying to realize that "Das Ghetto" contains some of the only surviving film footage of the Warsaw ghetto, which was liquidated in 1943.

But, so as not to leave you totally depressed, I also want to write briefly about another documentary, "Marwencol," which also looks at the creation of an alternate, idealized reality, but for therapeutic purposes. Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New Yorker who suffered debilitating brian damage after a brutal attack, created the fantasy world of Marwencol to help deal with his demons. Located in Mark's backyard, Marwencol is an incredibly detailed World War II era Belgian town, populated by dolls that have been modified to resemble the people from Mark's life, including his mother, friends, co-workers, and a neighbor he develops a crush on. General Patton, Steve McQueen, and a witch with aquamarine hair are also residents. Here, Mark plays out various storylines and relationships, with the doll representing himself as the central figure.

Mark treats "Marwencol" as a real place, so the documentary, directed by Jeff Malmberg, often treats "Marwencol" as a real place as well. Several scenes are shot within the reality of the town itself, with the dolls acting out various scenarios like Mark's arrival to the town, a German infiltration, and a wedding. Some of these stories can get a little wild, like Mark running a bar that features staged catfights between Barbie dolls, for the entertainment of the troops. Marwencol is shown to be Mark's way of trying to gain control over his own fractured mind, after the attack robbed him of most of his memories and much of his ability to function normally in society. When the town is discovered and publicized by a local photographer, Mark has to grapple with the idea of Marwencol being a work of art, and decide whether he's willing to share something so personal to him with the rest of the world.

"Marwencol" is a great story about a man's imagination being his salvation, and makes for a good pairing with "A Film Unfinished," because it argues that sometimes the urge to rewrite reality can lead to very positive end results. Both are extremes on the spectrum, of course, with "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "Catfish" falling somewhere in the middle. All these films tackle the question of what reality is or should be. It's a pressing question in this day and age, where the boundaries are getting more fluid than ever between our fantasies and our real world lives, with unpredictable consequences. I think we're bound to see more documentaries and pseudo-documentaries in the same vein in the future, but after the batch from last year they're going to have a lot to live up to.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Obligatory Royal Wedding Post

This is the obligatory royal wedding post, obligatory in the sense that the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton has all the earmarks of an epochal media event, so I feel I ought to say a little something about it. This may turn out to be one of those moments that will come to define the era, just as Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding did thirty years ago. I must have seen the news clips from that day a hundred times, and heard countless commentators wax poetic about the fairy-tale beginning of their troubled marriage. If I have to constantly hear about William and Kate's big day for the next thirty years, maybe I ought to get all the enjoyment out of the communal experience of the wedding excitement while I can.

But do I really want to haul myself out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to watch Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters tastefully shoehorn references to Princess Diana into the narrative wherever they can, or watch the "Good Morning America" crew have conniption fits over Kate's wedding dress? West Coasters like me will have it the worst, because the ceremony begins at 3AM in our time zone. I'm all for the excitement of a live event, but all the highlights will be aggregated in a couple of prime time specials, and the media will be running clips and post-ceremony analysis for the rest of the day anyway. I'm sure a couple of stations will be rebroadcasting the coverage at a more reasonable hour, and it shouldn't be too hard to find relatively commentary-free videos on the internet later, to avoid the media excess.

On the other hand, half the fun of the royal wedding is the media excess. Oh yes, I agree that it's annoying, inescapable, and getting entirely out of hand. I'm sure there are plenty of people desperate for all the fuss to be over with, so they can get on with their lives without being reminded of the wedding every five minutes. Yet, can you blame the media for their excitement? The wedding is something frivolous and happy to talk about, another chapter in the soap opera saga of the British royals, and a break from all the wars and the disasters and Donald Trump. The gossip magazines that have been chasing Charlie Sheen and those pregnant teenagers around for months must be thrilled to have a reason to talk about the royals again, who just haven't been generating as much drama in recent years as they once did.

And so the media has gleefully pounced on everything with any sort of peripheral connection to the big day. The wedding souvenirs have been cataloged. The donkey named after Prince William has gotten press. The guest list has been turned into a political battleground. The Middletons have been profiled everywhere. And the biggest non-story of the year must be the wedding dress that nobody has laid eyes on yet, but has nonetheless been inspiring endless speculation. And the fed-up wedding haters? The media loves them too. Story after story has given the gripers plenty of airtime and column inches to vent their spleen. Bloggers need no such invitation, and have spent the past several weeks declaring, one after another, why they don't care about the royal wedding.

There have been some good articles that have offered analysis on the broader historical, political, and cultural significance of William marrying Kate, and what it could mean for the future of the monarchy. However, with less than two days to go, probably the most fun reads have been the ones by journos who are totally out of ideas on how to stretch out the coverage for a few more hours, and have started giving into the madness. Are the Americans paying too much attention? Not enough? Are we all secret monarchists who wish George Washington had decided to become a king rather than a president? The New York Times says the French are excited. Why are the French excited? Should we be worried? And the Obamas weren't invited? But then, neither were Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. But how can that be possible? What does it all mean?!

Well, for most of us it means that on Friday there's going to be a big, shiny event wedding which will feature a lot of pomp and circumstance, pageantry, and celebrities everywhere you look. For older viewers, it might be a nice time to look back and take stock of everything that's happened since the last royal wedding in 1981. And it's as good an excuse as any to take a day off, stay up all night with friends, and make a long weekend of it. Or disconnect from the grid for a day or two until the whole thing blows over. These royal weddings are irregular, once-in-a-generation events, like coronations and papal ascensions. They have undeniable historical significance, but in the end they mean exactly as much or as little as you want them to. And there are really no rules on how to celebrate or acknowledge them, if you choose to.

Which is why I'm sleeping in on Friday... probably.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Unfinished Trilogy Tribulations

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, we saw a spate of pretty good sequels to popular popcorn films, that never yielded third installments. There was a "Ghostbusters 2" but no "Ghostbusters 3." Bill and Ted had an "Excellent Adventure" and a "Bogus Journey," but stopped the time-traveling hijinks there. Probably the most famous stymied franchise was "Terminator," after "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" became the highest grossing film of 1991. I'd also add "Predator," "Gremlins," "Conan," and "Short Circuit" to the list of two-film franchises that had the goodwill for more sequels, though I probably liked their second installments more than most. Of course it's not hard to see why the creative minds behind them stopped when they did. The cinema landscape was littered with horrible "Part III" films at the time, from "Superman III" to "The Karate Kid, Part III" to "Poltergeist III" to "Exorcist III." There's a good chance that these two-film franchises avoided fueling more cinema disasters.

And yet here we are, twenty years later, and "Ghostbusters 3" and a third "Bill and Ted" movie both exist in script form. Though there are still big roadblocks in the way, namely Bill Murray and Keanu Reeves, there's growing support for moving ahead with new sequels. After all, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" was finally made back in 2003 and promptly cleaned up at the box office. And with the wave of 80s nostalgia currently hitting Hollywood, now seems like the perfect time to finally cap off some much-beloved franchises of our youths and complete their unfinished trilogies. But wait a second. Why are "Ghostbusters" and "Bill and Ted" assumed to be unfinished in the first place? "Ghostbusters 2" and "Bogus Journey" had happy, definite endings. Why are these the franchises that are being readied for another sequel, decades after the first two films, instead of remakes? "Predator," "Conan," and "Short Circuit" have gotten new versions, or will be getting them shortly. Nobody argued that they were missing their "Part III" films.

Well, the "Ghostbusters" and "Bill and Ted" sequels are better remembered and beloved than the others, and many fans have been waiting a very, very long time for the second sequels they always assumed were coming. Rumors of "Ghostbusters 3" were in circulation in one form or another for years, while there weren't many people who cared whether we were getting another "Short Circuit" or not. And frankly, nobody wants to see these series remade. They've become too iconic to be touched. A "Ghostbusters" film with someone besides Bill Murray playing Peter Venkman? Perish the thought. It would be like someone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones - probably why that series opted to go for a sequel as well. "Bill and Ted" is more of a cult film, sure, but one that was such a product of its time, there is no way to modernize it without compromising its surfer dude charms. If you're going to make another of these movies, there's the sense that it has to be the missing third installment.

Also, there's a certain cultural cachet that's developed around the big popcorn trilogies of yore, like "Indiana Jones," "Back to the Future" and "Star Wars." It's a very appealing notion to be able to elevate the likes of "Ghostbusters" into their company by thinking of those two films from the 80s as parts of an unfinished trilogy, even though they were certainly never meant to be. And at this point, there's no danger of a quick, cheap, cash-grab sequel that so many of those older "Part III" films were. If we get a third "Bill and Ted" movie, there's a much better likelihood that they're going to do it right with a decent budget.

Of course, the big question remains - do we need a "Ghostbusters 3" or a "Bill and Ted's Radical Walkabout"? No, of course not. Even if they made third films, you couldn't really turn the existing franchise films into proper trilogies at this point. You'd just have the first two films and what amounts to a reunion special. But having new films aren't going to hurt the older ones, just like "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" didn't ruin the reputation of the original "Indiana Jones" trilogy. If the new films are terrible, we'll just quietly forget about them, like the "Psycho" sequels and "The Blues Brothers 2000."

However, it would be fun to see the "Ghostbusters" gang together again. If they can't get Bill Murray, maybe they could lure Rick Moranis out of retirement for a little while. And though we've lost George Carlin, maybe Ringo Starr or Alec Baldwin could fill in as Rufus's cousin on Bill and Ted's next adventure - yes, that reference was for you, 80s kids.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Too Much "Love," Not Enough "Drugs"

I like both Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, but I don't think either of them have had enough chances to show us much beyond the likable screen personas we tend to associate them with. They both make excellent movie stars, no doubt, but their darker, more interesting roles, have a tendency to be overlooked. Hathaway is probably better remembered for hosting the Oscars than being nominated for one, and Gyllenhaal can't seem to escape the vestiges of his lovable loser role from "Donnie Darko," whether he's playing a gay cowboy or a shell-shocked jarhead. Edward Zwick's "Love and Other Drugs," seemed to be a good opportunity for both of them to stretch a little, playing caustic lovers who trade sarcastic barbs instead of sweet nothings, but the film is a real mess.

Set in the mid 90s, "Love" comes off as a dark, satirical comedy at first. It charts the rise of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newly minted drug representative for Pfizer, trained to push new drugs samples on doctors, using any means necessary. Jamie goes to war with a rival (Gabriel Macht) to win over the influential Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), with the goal of getting him to replace prescriptions of Prozac with prescriptions of Pfizer's new Zoloft. Through Knight, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman suffering from early-onset Parkinsons disease. Maggie wants nothing to do with romance, but is all for enthusiastic, no-strings-attached sex with Jamie. Of course the relationship gets complicated, which means it falls right back into the pattern of a very generic movie relationship. Jamie finds new success shilling Viagra, Maggie's illness worsens, and suddenly the snark gives way to sentiment, and the satire all but evaporates without a trace.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have some good charisma together, but their performances just aren't very interesting. Gyllenhaal's starts out as a brash, fast-talking serial womanizer who seems like a junior version of Aaron Eckhart's character in "Thank You For Smoking." Hathaway's Maggie is the dark version of the manic-pixie-dreamgirl, who is artsy and impulsive, but also brimming over with ironic dialogue and salty insults. And then the film has them slowly reveal that they're both just damaged, fluffy bunnies underneath all the snark and defense mechanisms. Sure, they have their problems, but it's nothing that a good last-minute confession scene won't solve. The portrayal of the romance is somewhat more daring than the norm, I suppose, in that we see several shots of Hathaway's character naked, and her nickname for Gyllenhaal includes a loving expletive, but it's all way too self-conscious and on the nose.

What I found the most disappointing abut "Love and Other Drugs," though, was how it failed to do anything interesting with all the material about drug industry practices, which the first half of the film does a great job of setting up. We're shown that Jamie and his fellow reps are unscrupulous, but there's very little negative fallout from their tactics. We don't hear anything about the adverse effects of Zoloft that were subsequently discovered, or the ethics concerns about doctors having such close ties to major drug companies. Eventually Jamie's rivalry with the Prozac pusher disappears into the background, and we start to get the feeling that maybe everything involving the prescription drug racket was window dressing to begin with. Or maybe Pfizer sicced their lawyers on Zwick and had the latter half of the film neutered.

Speaking of Zwick, this is his first attempt at lighter material since the early 90s, after a string of epic dramas like "Defiance," "Blood Diamond," and "The Last Samurai." The first half of "Love and Other Drugs" was a little bumpy, but I enjoyed it, especially the early scenes of Gyllenhaal behaving badly. I'd be happy to see Zwick try his hand at another comedy, because he does show promise with this kind of material, and it's good to see him doing something different. In this case, however, much like his lead actors, he ends up falling back on what he's most comfortable with - heartfelt drama and an uplifting ending. It wouldn't have been so bad if there hadn't been that tonal 180 in the last act, and the various pieces of the picture didn't end up so mismatched.

Finally, I want to point out some of the film's strong supporting performances that deserve attention. Josh Gad as Jamie's brother is an earthy, lovable lug with a good character arc. Oliver Platt shows up for too few brief scenes as Bruce, an older drug rep. Hank Azaria's Dr. Knight is just neurotic enough without going over the top, and I wanted to see more of George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jamie's parents.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Life With the NY Times Paywall

It's been nearly a month since the New York Times enforced its paywall, and a month since the blog post where I freaked out about the paywall. So how am I doing? Surprisingly well.

I still visit the New York Times website daily and spend a lot of time with the "Most-Emailed" and "Most Blogged" stories pages. I've still been reading more of the World News than anything else, especially the coverage of the Japanese tsunami aftermath, which has been excellent. However, I haven't hit my twenty-story limit for the month yet. I've been pretty good about only reading one full story per weekday. There were a few early mishaps, where I clicked on links to stories without remembering that I wasn't supposed to, but that only happened a few times. Now I go to the Times website directly and take a look at all the headlines before I figure out what I want to read.

In the course of the last month, the biggest change was really that I became more self-aware of my browsing habits. According to the Times' hit counter, I racked up nearly two hundred articles in the month before this, but I wasn't really reading all the articles. More often than not I just skimmed a few paragraphs before moving on to something else. I could get the gist of many pieces simply by reading the headlines and brief descriptions that were provided on the aggregation pages, and usually that was all I wanted from them. For instance, the most controversial New York Times story of the past month was probably "Is Sugar Toxic?" published on April 17th, which profiled the research of Dr. Robert Lustig. While I was curious about the alarmist article title, I wasn't in the mood to read a multi-page analysis on the evils of refined sugar, so I just did some Googling and figured out the gist of Lustig's arguments.

However, opinion pieces and reviews have gotten more of my attention, since these are the articles containing information that really can't be found elsewhere. I tried reading other writer's counterpoints to the various New York Times opinion columnists, but I kept running into too many recontextualization problems, especially with anything political. Eventually I concluded that you really can't get the impact of an opinion article from a response piece. Most of the people who take David Brooks to task simply don't write as well as David Brooks, and it's often not the opinion itself that makes an op/ed worth reading, but the expression of it.

There are also a few sections that I've given up reading almost completely. I skip the travel and business articles pretty much without a thought now, where I used to feel a little guilty about it. Ditto the food and wine pages. I used to read through them for fun, but the truth is that I'm no big fan of alcohol, any profiled restaurants are usually well outside my price range, and I've never used a single recipe I've ever gotten out of a newspaper. I've also drastically cut down on the local New York stories, and instead have been making an effort to pay attention to what's going on in my own neck of the woods. There's really no excuse for knowing New York politics better than my own state's, no matter how much fun Eliot Spitzer is. New York is not the center of the universe, and the New York Times need not be the center of my online news media galaxy.

Or so I thought. One thing that surprised me as the weeks went on, was that I still found myself reading up on all the biggest news stories on the Times website, including those that were being heavily covered elsewhere, that there were plenty of other sources I could have gone to instead. The New York Times simply has the better journalists in most cases, and they turn out better written and more comprehensive articles than I'm going to get from the Associated Press or Reuters. Faced with a decision between a smaller story with content only the New York Times was going to feature and a bigger story that every publication would have something to say about, I usually went with the bigger story. I want to see what the Times has to say about the events of the day. That's why I've been putting up with all the hassle of counting my page hits and weighing articles against each other. It's why I still automatically go to the New York Times website first, out of all the news sites I browse.

Paywall or no paywall, I still think of it as my newspaper, even if I can't afford it. And even if it can't afford me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Grades? Stars? Perfect 10s? No Thanks

I'm about to get into some navel gazing here. You may have noticed that I don't give out scores or use scaled measures when writing up my movie reviews. I don't give my favorite films A grades, five stars, or perfect tens, though I admit that I do use one of these ranking systems in my own offline records. However, I'm not comfortable using them for the reviews I post on this blog.

Let's use the example of "Burlesque," the Christina Aguilera film about burlesque performers. It's a terrible film and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Rated by the usual grown-up movie critic measures, the highest score I can give it is something like 5/10, or rating only a marginal recommendation for its artistic and cultural value. However, on a pure enjoyment level, it's closer to 7/10 or even 8/10, and something I'd recommend to many of my girlfriends for good, brainless fun. In good conscience, I can't put it up there with films that are better on a technical level, such as the Coen brothers' "True Grit," though I actually liked them about equally. It makes no sense to me to try and evaluate the two films on the same scale, when they might end up with the same grade for entirely different reasons, or totally divergent ones that don't reflect how I ultimately feel about them. I know other reviewers use multiple means of valuation or will give more than one score to a film, but I honestly don't think it's necessary to use scores at all.

The only reason I can see to have ratings is as a handy shorthand for the reviews, but I haven't found that they're particular good for this, except in the cases of very high or very low scores. Also, using them tends to negatively affect my writing. I did write reviews for anime in the past that used a ranking system, since that's what everyone else was doing. However, I found that many times I'd end up spending the whole review trying to justify the score I gave a show or film, and sometimes I would be overly critical or laudatory to try and offset a score I was worried might be a little too low or too high. For instance, I might give four stars to a film and then spend the whole review giving caveats because I wasn't so sure it really deserved the high rating. If I don't have to worry about the scores, then I find it easier to get what I really want to say about a film out on the digital paper.

And I don't think that this applies to just me. I find less structured reviews tend to be much more fun to read or listen to. The absolute worst are the reviewers who want to break a film down into its base components and assign scores to every single aspect of a film, from the music to the cinematography, even if they didn't make much of an impact on the viewing experience. Better, but still often tedious, are the reviews that are mostly made up of pro and con arguments for why you need to see a certain film in theaters, or why you should wait until it reaches rental stores, or just hold off until it shows up on basic cable and you have two hours to kill. Reviews built around these basic recommendations are the standard, of course, but you can do so much more with a film review.

I like more free-form reviews that give me context for the viewing experience, that talk about the career of the director, or that point out the contributions of the sound designer, or that highlight the performance of an oft overlooked character actor in a minor role. Even better is when reviewers get personal and get meta and get ambitious. Sometimes a film is just a film, but sometimes it's part of an art movement, or indicative of a cultural trend, or maybe a harbinger of someone's creative downward spiral. Are these notions better suited for features and editorials? Maybe, but with many films it seems a shame not to talk about the issues that go beyond simply liking or disliking it. But then how are you supposed to quantify all of this was a simple letter grade or a couple of stars?

This is not to suggest that the reviews I write are in any way superior for getting all pretentious and not using a ranking system. I'm an amateur scribbler who uses dodgy grammar and this blog is a totally self-indulgent enterprise. Right now my reviews primarily consist of whatever thoughts and impressions I want to remember from seeing a film. I hope they can be helpful to other viewers, but mostly they're written for my own benefit. And I guess in the end that's why I don't use rankings. I almost always write reviews that gauge what I think of a film after a single viewing, but my relationships with certain movies can get complicated over time. Scores are often very arbitrary, but awfully permanent. So not using them essentially allows me more wiggle room to reevaluate or even outright change my mind later, especially when measuring up films against each other. It's not like you can work out any kind of numerical score just from the text of a review anyway. At least, not any I think are worth reading.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Guys Like "My Little Pony," and That's Okay

It's always bothered me that we have a double standard that says boys are not allowed to like the media that is primarily created for girls, and men must be viewed with suspicion for admitting a penchant for media aimed at women. Girls can play with Hot Wheels cars and watch action movies without too much fuss, but boys are not allowed to play Barbies or read romance novels unless they want their sexuality questioned. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as we're still living in a society where the innocuous act of painting a little boy's toenails pink can get "traditional values" watchdogs worked up into a lather. This ends up devaluing the media aimed primarily at women and girls, which often get characterized as having limited appeal because it seems like it's unacceptable for half of the population to think these shows and films could possibly have any appeal for them.

So I was happily surprised to discover that the new "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" cartoon, created for Hasbro's fledgling Hub Network, has amassed a huge Internet cult following among young adult and adult males since it premiered last year. This isn't the first time that a cartoon for kids has found an unintended audience. "Spongebob Squarepants" was famously popular with the college crowd and Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block has found success programming nostalgic content in the late night hours. Animated features have been cleaning up at the multiplexes with all audiences. But wait, "My Little Pony"? The Hasbro 80s toy line was associated with the most pandering, hyper-feminized depictions of girly girlhood from day one, all cuteness and sparkles and light. I had a Princess Sunbeam and a So-Soft Sundance when I was a kid, who came with magic glitter wands and mane-and-tail-brushing accessories. What on earth could possibly be drawing grown menfolk to this?!

The new "My Little Pony" differs in some significant ways from the old. From what I've seen of the cartoon, it's a modernized revamp with many similarities to "The Powerpuff Girls" in style and humor. And no wonder, since series creator Lauren Faust worked on both "Powerpuff" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." There are six major characters, all female, big-eyed, candy-colored little ponies with names like Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Twilight Sparkle. "My Little Pony" still caters to a traditional feminine visual aesthetic, and vehemently so. Yet there's nothing overtly girly about the stories or the jokes or the show's messages. Popular tomboy characters like Rainbow Dash and Applejack balance out the lone glamor girl, Rarity. And with such a diversity of personality types, there's almost no gender stereotyping to speak of. The show comes off very positive and bright and fun, with lots of universal appeal. I don't see why cartoon-loving guys shouldn't be fans of the new "My Little Pony," except the mainstream American culture insists that anything cute and cuddly and aimed at little girls is absolutely verboten for their demographics.

Well phooey to that, I say, and I'm not alone. There's been a proliferation of male "My Little Pony" fans, who have been dubbed in some circles as "bronies." You still see a lot of self-hatred, a lot of mockery, and a lot of plain old fear of ridicule emanating from some male viewers. The naysayers can get pretty vicious. However the fansites have been popping up like daisies, the fanart has gone nuclear, and the Internet memes are everywhere. I haven't been able to get through a message board lately without seeing Rainbow Dash or Twilight Sparkle graphics. And what I find most encouraging is that this isn't ironic fannishness or trend following or some retro nostalgia thing going on. The guys who like the show tend to genuinely like the show for being exactly what it is. The sincerity, the lack of cynicism, and the sunny attitude of "My Little Pony" are taken as good points. I think part of the reason why so many guys are flocking to this cartoon is because these are qualities often lacking in the media aimed at them.

Pulling out the armchair psychologist for a minute, media folks often seem to forget that boys have protective, nurturing instincts and get warm and fuzzy feelings just like girls do. It's not a bad thing to encourage this. I mean G.I. Joe and He-Man and the Transformers have their place, and I certainly don't want to devalue the merits of a good Ninja Turtle martial arts battle, but I see nothing unmanly about getting some joy out of the adventures of a couple of cute, wacky little ponies too. It's always good to have some balance in your media consumption, and maybe it's time to broaden the ambit of masculinity, just a little. The new "My Little Pony" is really pretty darn awesome, and nobody should feel bad for being a fan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"X-Men" Marketing Fail

This post marks the inaugural use of my new marketing tag, because even though many of us film nerds don't like to think about it, marketing efforts and ad campaigns play a huge part in the business of moviemaking these days and are a major determining factor in how well they perform at the box office. Which brings us to one of this summer's blockbuster hopefuls, "X-Men: First Class," a prequel film to the popular "X-Men" series. Today we saw a new international trailer released, and yesterday there was a new poster, both unremarkable and not very exciting. They're only the latest in a stream of muddled or mediocre marketing material that has some "X-Men" fans worried about the new film.

While there are a lot of rumors flying around that director Michael Vaughn was stuck with a very rushed production schedule, which is never a good sign, I still think there's a good chance that the new "X-Men" film will be decent. Vaughn is a good director and he's a assembled a lot of good actors for this, including James Avery, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Jennifer Lawrence. Having seen the trailers multiple times now, what's interesting is how little they show us of the film. There's barely any dialogue, lots of effects shots, and the whole things is hampered by a distracting framing device that hammers us over the head with the fact that the main characters are younger versions of Professor Xavier and the villain Magneto. You can also see the efforts to link the older and younger versions of the duo in these very nice posters and these amusingly bad ones.

This signals that 20th Century Fox's marketing team really has no idea how to sell this movie, aside from getting us to associate the new film with the original trilogy. I sympathize with them to some extent. "X-Men: First Class" is not only a prequel, but a period piece set in an alternate version of the 1960s. The iconic badass Wolverine is not in this movie, having been spun off to do his own series. Neither are Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm, Iceman, or most of the other mutants from the older films. Instead, "First Class" is sending out several of the lesser-known "X-Men" characters for this outing, including Moira McTaggart, White Queen, Banshee, Sebastian Shaw, and Havok. The marketing campaign has done a terrible job of introducing us to any of them. Emma Frost, the White Queen, is one of my favorite "X-Men" characters, but at the moment she's being presented as little more than a statuesque blonde in campy, revealing outfits. Almost nothing has been said about the plot of the film, though from the trailer and the characters I've guessing it involves an early version of the Hellfire Club and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Another tactic has been to mirror elements of the marketing campaign for the older "X-Men" films, which didn't have the greatest marketing to begin with. I've seen early teaser posters and theater standees clearly based on the teaser image for the first "X-Men" film, which can be seen here. The big metal X is the door to the X-Mansion's Danger Room, and of course X is for "X-Men." For the new film, since there's no Danger Room yet, the X forms the center of a big metal school seal, with "Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters" and "First Class" written around the edges. The trouble is that the text is difficult to read and nowhere does "X-Men" appear on many of the marketing materials that use the seal. It's often not clear what the title of the film is, and those who aren't familiar with the older marketing campaign might not be able to link it to "X-Men" at all. And really, am I supposed to get excited about a theater standee that's just a big, gray circle with an X on it, sitting in the middle of the lobby? Where are the mutants? Where's the excitement?

The "X-Men" film franchise has had its ups and downs and been saddled with its share of bad marketing decisions before this (Does anyone refer to the second film by its official title, "X2: X-Men United"?). However, Fox's efforts to promote "X-Men: First Class" have been remarkably poor, to the extent that it might adversely affect the film. And this is a shame, because "First Class" could be a good opportunity to revitalize the series. Matthew Vaughn is hoping it will be the first of a new trilogy of darker, more challenging "X-Men" films. I could get behind that. It's a shame Fox can't seem to.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Looking for Alternatives to Cinematical

I wish I could say something insightful about the unfortunate demise of my favorite movie blog, Cinematical, but all I can really offer by way of commentary is that I think the situation sucks, AOL and the Huffington Post are run by reprehensible twits, and I feel awful for all the writers who have been drop-kicked out the door. This also leaves me without a primary movie blog to follow, and on the lookout for potential replacements. What I liked about Cinematical was that it pulled together so many different types of content:

News - Deadline Hollywood Daily gives me the basics on deal reports and production announcements, though the commentary and the context provided aren't great. What Cinematical did so well was filter and condense the disparate bits of information into a much quicker and easier read, occasionally expanding on some of the bigger stories. They were also very good about pointing out trailers for smaller films, interesting shorts, and special screenings that that the big shots would often ignore.

Reviews - I follow several reviewers individually, including Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott, but Cinematical was great for general reviews because it covered a broad range of titles, including the occasional indie and foreign film. The early festival reviews were especially nice to have. I first heard about films like "Slumdog Millionaire" and the upcoming "Meek's Cutoff" through Cinematical's early reviews, and I often built "to watch" lists around their festival coverage. I know that Eric Snider and Todd Gilchrist and the rest are still out there and easily followable, but it's just not going to be the same.

Columns - Like everyone else, they did box office predictions and DVD release roundups, but Cinematical also had "Criterion Corner," "Scenes We Love," "Their Best Role," "Stars in Rewind," and "Actors We Miss," which I don't think need any explanation. There was also "Framed," devoted to favorite single frames in films, "Doc Talk" for documentaries, "Shelf Life" to reevaluate older films, "400 Screens, 400 Blows" to spotlight limited releases, and many more I know I'm forgetting. My favorite was Monika Bartyzel's "Girls on Film," which was always good for some Monday night girl power. And I'm going to miss following along with Jacob Hall as he tackled cinema classics he hadn't seen yet in "Where Everyone Has Gone Before."

Features - Festival reporting, interviews, editorials, set reports - we got everything from in-depth interviews with Mike Leigh to a visit to the set of "Bridesmaids" in the last few months. Again, what I loved about Cinematical was the breadth of their coverage. They couldn't afford to send people off to Cannes or Venice, but they could cover the hell out of Sundance, SXSW, and Comic-Con. And they would interview everyone from B-movie directors to Hollywood stars to documentarians to the guy who runs the Alamo Drafthouse. Nowhere was it more evident that the editors understood and loved films and the creative culture around them.

Geekbait - Occasionally there would be random posts linked to fanart, humorous Youtube videos, really cool movie-related T-shirts, a pizza cutter shaped like the Starship Enterprise, and other things that only a movie fan would geek out over. I probably enjoyed these posts more than I should have, but these offhand oddities were like getting best of Reddit without actually having to wade through Reddit.

And the Rest - The commenting system was a royal pain to use since AOL took over the blog over a year ago, but it was nice to see some actual discussion in the comments of many posts, some of which could get pretty heated. Sure, there were the bots and the trolls, but there were also some good regulars who stuck with Cinematical over the years, and as much as I'm going to miss the writers, I'm going to miss some of the readers too.

I visit several other film sites daily that cover many of these categories, but not all of them and not as well. I've still got the LA Times' entertainment blogs, Aint it Cool News, The Vulture, the Wrap, HitFlix, Deadline, Roger Ebert, and a couple of others, but there are no easy substitutes to be found. What I'm really going to miss are those Cinematical columns, that let the individual writers explore their own interests and further develop their own voices. I hope they all manage to land somewhere that lets them keep doing what they love.

And I want something suitably nasty to happen to whoever fired everyone, possibly involving Kate Hudson rom-coms and the "Clockwork Orange" eyeball machine.

Thanks for everything Cinematical.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Picking a Fight with "The Fighter"

I've found the hardest reviews to write are the ones where you have nothing particularly good or bad to say about a film. This was the case with Ben Affleck's "The Town," and it's in the same with David O'Russell's similarly Boston-based boxing film, "The Fighter." While I like many of the actors who appear, I didn't find the the characters particularly compelling. David O'Russell partially uses a pseudo-documentary format, and does fine job of recreating boxing matches and bringing a certain degree of realism to the film, but otherwise I really don't see what all the fuss is about.

"The Fighter" follows "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), starting at a low point in his boxing career. He has plenty of potential, but suffers from the inattention of his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), who act as his manager and trainer respectively. Alice's mismanagement puts him in fights he's ill-suited to win. Dicky, a crack addict and former boxer best known for once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, is distracted by his habit and his participation in an HBO documentary. Mickey's personal relationships don't fare much better. He struggles to stay in his young daughter's life, despite the hostile attitude of her mother. Alice is preferential to Dicky, and both are very good at out-talking Mickey when he tries to bring up any concerns, backed up by a passel of Mickey and Dicky's foul-mouthed sisters. However, things start to turn around when Mickey begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty bartender. He also finds new success in the ring with the help of his father George (Jack McGee) and a new trainer, Sal (Frank Renzulli). Mickey has concerns about abandoning Dicky and Alice, but reconciliation seems impossible as the two sides of the family only come together to clash in spectacular fashion.

As you may have gathered, while "The Fighter" is billed as a sports film, it's largely a domestic drama. Mickey's contentious relationships with the various members of his family are far more exciting than any of the matches he fights. The boxing aspects of the film follows the conventional sports movie formula to the letter, with the setbacks and big wins in all the usual places. The personal conflicts going on, however, aren't as predictable. If "The Fighter" strives for anything, it's authenticity. And it's to O'Russell's credit that he brings just as much care and attention to detail when portraying Mickey's messy home life as he does to the training and fight scenes. The characters scream and yell profanities at each other, there's no trace of Hollywood sugarcoating, and as it's been widely reported, several of the actors, including those who play Mickey and Dicky's vociferous sisters, are non-professionals who were chosen for their hard-knock looks and genuine Bostonian accents.

But what does all this authenticity add up to? While I can appreciate the efforts to be true to life, that doesn't mean it makes the story any more interesting to watch. As someone who isn't a boxing fan, I found that not enough attention was focused on Mickey's boxing career to really set up the stakes for the audience. Though I could more or less follow what was going on, I still don't understand why Mickey Ward is worth following, and I found the context for the big fight at the end of the film severely lacking. I've had similar problems in the past with films like "The Damned United" and "Invictus," where the filmmakers assume a certain level of sports knowledge from the viewer that I just didn't have. And looking at the drama going on behind the scenes, the constant bickering was grating and difficult to sit through, especially whenever the female characters got confrontational. Just because the real life characters might get into catfights doesn't mean that we necessarily need to see them up close and personal. The subtler relationship bits were fine, but had a tendency to be overpowered by the big personalities until the last act.

The performances could have made up for some of these problems, but unfortunately this is another area where I found some significant weaknesses. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale brought home Oscar statuettes for playing Alice and Dicky, and they're both very good. Their performances are loud and flashy, but taken on their own, they're sound. Amy Adams as Charlene was a nice break from her usual good-girl roles, giving her a chance to play someone harder and more aggressive. However, I could never get away from the fact that I was watching Amy Adams rather than her character, and it didn't help that she was stuck with some of the worst lines in the film. Similarly, Mark Wahlberg is well cast as Mickey Ward, but though he sells those fight scenes, he isn't doing much heavy lifting in the acting department. He plays essentially the same tough-guy character that he always plays, though at his most sympathetic.

I have no special beef against "The Fighter," but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It's well made with plenty of style, but the substance is a little lacking. Some of the supporting performances were exemplary, but others only so-so. In the end, I felt exactly the same going into the film about Mickey Ward and his family as I did coming out if it, which is totally ambivalent. I don't think that reflects too well on the film.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Shouldn't Like "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

I really shouldn't like "It's Kind of a Funny Story" as much as I do. It's a coming-of-age film with the remarkably twee premise of the main character Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a depressed sixteen-year-old with grave concerns about his future, checking himself into a local hospital after contemplating suicide. He's placed in the psychiatric ward, but upon meeting his fellow patients, wants out almost immediately. However, the doctors insist he stay for a minimum of five days for observation, and his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) agree with them. So in those five days, Craig works through many of his personal issues and learns valuable life lessons from his fellow patients, especially a similarly depressed man named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), his roommate Muqtada (Bernard White), and the requisite pretty girl, Noelle (Emma Roberts).

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is a feel-good movie about very troubled, unhappy people. The directors manage this by never letting us see the particularly unpleasant parts of mental illness, preferring to portray all the patients in the psychiatric ward as affably quirky, or at worst, temporarily curmudgeonly. Craig easily makes friends with everybody, gains self-confidence through the simplest therapeutic exercises, and even falls into the unlikely situation of wooing two girls at once, Noelle and his longtime crush Nia (Zoe Kravitz). This greatly sanitized, oversimplified version of life in treatment should be very troubling, and may possibly even ping as borderline exploitative to some. However, I found the story very sweet and funny and hopeful, with an admirably positive outlook on life.

I think what made the movie work for me was the performance of Keir Gilchrist as Craig. He never visibly seems depressed or afflicted, aside from projectile vomiting when he gets nervous. There are no meltdowns, no scenes of silent misery, and none of the other hallmarks of the usual movie mental patient that every edgy young actor seems to have played at one point or another. Gilchrist just comes across as a bright, guileless kid who is going through a hard time. It takes a while to realize how anxious and unhappy he really is. Since the film is told from his very subjective point of view, where the narrative is occasionally interrupted by fantasy sequences, it becomes somewhat more understandable why there would be some selective editing of his psychiatric ward experience.

The supporting cast is great, with several familiar faces in smaller roles. Aasif Mandhvi from "The Daily Show," appears briefly as the admitting doctor in the emergency room, Jeremy Davies from "Lost" shows up as a hospital staff member, and Viola Davis plays a psychiatrist. I like Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, possible his only non-jerk role this year, but he doesn't get as much to do here as he probably should. Neither do many of the others actors, including Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's parents. The scope of the story is extremely limited, so we don't get to look in on Craig's home life or learn much about the other characters' backgrounds except in the most superficial sense. There's clearly more to Noelle than we see in the film, for instance, but her reasons for being at the hospital are barely acknowledged and seem to evaporate by the end of the story.

The film admits that it's too pat, addressing the issue directly in the ending narration. Problems are solved too easily, and the epiphanies come too fast to be believable. I worry a bit that it may set some unrealistic expectations about the treatment process, since Craig's breakthrough is almost comically easy. But then again it's nice to see a portrayal of people with mental health problems that doesn't romanticize the angst of affliction. Instead, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" looks on the bright side, and seems to be aimed at younger audiences who might benefit from the film's positive messages. I suppose that makes the movie a very, very good after school special, essentially, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I got a real kick out of watching Craig and Bobby practicing flirting techniques together. And watching Craig and Noelle sneak up to the roof in borrowed scrubs. And Craig's fantasy sequence where everyone in the ward is jamming together in a flashy rock band.

So while my rational mind insists that "It's Kind of a Funny Story" is too flawed and too slight a piece of work to take seriously, I still like it. I like everyone in it, I like its attitude, and I like what it's trying to say. It's my favorite comedy of 2010 so far, and here's to more like it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

ABC Soaps Hit the Suds

Pull out the hankies, soap opera lovers. ABC has canceled the long-running "All My Children" and "One Life To Live," and will replace them with information and lifestyle shows by 2012, cutting the number of American daytime soaps down by a third. "One Life" has been running since 1968 and "All My Children" since 1970. They're only the latest in a string of daytime TV casualties. Last year saw the end of "As the World Turns," which had been airing since the 50s, and the year before that we lost "Guiding Light," which began on radio in 1937. This will leave ABC with a single soap, "General Hospital." With NBC down to "Days of our Lives" and CBS hanging in there with "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," there will fewer daytime soap operas airing in 2012 than at any time since 1955.

The decline of the American soap opera is old news. Ratings have been falling precipitously since the 80s as more women went to work and younger audiences failed to replace older ones. There were several attempts to bridge the generational divide with hipper material, but none got very far. I remember the ruckus around the cancellation of "Another World" in 1998, with its slot going to "Passions," a soap aimed directly at younger viewers that featured a lot of silly supernatural shtick. It lasted until 2008, despite coming in dead last in the ratings for most of its run. Talk shows and reality programs have dominated the daytime landscape for as far back as I can remember, and it's no wonder why the networks prefer them since they're much cheaper and easier to produce.

But why should this matter? Why should we care? Daytime soaps have long been derided for their romance novel plots, lethargic pace, and propensity for cheap tricks. They're practically time-fillers by design, meant to be easily followed while doing mundane housework. Surely from a critical standpoint there's not much here worth saving. I gave soap operas a try when I was in high school, since a few of my girlfriends watched and enjoyed them. I picked up "General Hospital" for a few months, and caught a couple of episodes of its spinoff, "Port Charles." "General Hospital" was generally favored by my friends because it featured mobster characters and occasional fisticuffs. I went along for a while, but the shallow characters and corny dialogue got on my nerves, and I lost interest.

However, I watched for long enough to understand why soaps can be addictive. Despite their reputations for storylines that can go in endless circles without resolution, the individual epiosdes are full of over-the-top drama and emotional turmoil. They're easy to make fun of, but they can also be a lot of fun. And once you become interested in a particular character or relationship, you can follow the lives of these people for years and years. It's no wonder some viewers become so attached to certain shows, because they've invested so much time in some of the stories. And there is a certain art to keeping these long-running daily programs interesting, and coming up with new ways to engage the audience five days a week, for roughly fifty weeks out of the year. The level of quality is actually pretty impressive when you realize the lightning fast production times involved. I learned with "General Hospital" that even though the most exciting events always happened on Fridays, usually with a cliffhanger going into the weekend, you couldn't only watch on Fridays if you wanted to keep up.

But who has the time to devote to daily soap operas anymore? And in the age of Netflix and Hulu and watching whatever you want whenever you want, how could they compare to all the other content out there? Daytime soaps, like Saturday morning cartoons, once flourished because of how television programming was structured and because of certain American cultural norms that simply no longer exist. It's notable that all daytime programming has seen losses in viewership as the notion of appointment television has steadily eroded. With the departure of Oprah Winfrey in a few months, 2011 may mark the end of traditional daytime television as we know it.

I expect that daytime soaps will still linger for a few years to come as talent and audiences consolidate around the remaining shows. In the short term, the cancellations mean a lot of lost jobs and another blow to scripted television. However, viewers may be glad to know that prime time is still full of soap operas, like "Brothers and Sisters" and "Desperate Housewives," but as once-a-week programs they have higher production values, quicker paces, and generally enjoy more creative freedom. But then, they'll never have the kind of audience intimacy or ability to do those day-to-day storylines the way their daytime cousins do.

So in the end, I am going to miss them, even if I was only part of their audience for a very short time. There is a certain comfort in the continuity of the soap opera, the knowledge that I could turn on the TV today, and find the Spencers and the Quartermaines still living their crazy, dramatic lives on "General Hospital" just like they were fifteen years ago. It's always sad to see any kind of storytelling format die out. These shows didn't last for as long as they did by accident.

And the saddest part is, with soaps we won't even have the reruns.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Excuse to Talk About Time Travel Movies!

In the past few days we've gotten several headlines proclaiming that China is banning depictions of time travel movies and television. The truth is a little more complicated. One of China's media monitoring agencies is issuing new guidelines for the portrayal of time travel in Chinese-produced media, in response to the rising popularity of a certain genre of fantasy television program where modern-day people go back in time. Time travel isn't being banned outright, but the guidelines will probably lead to a lot of hand-wringing and self-censorship. The stated reasoning here is that the historical inaccuracy of these programs is a cause for concern, but many aren't buying it. This is a totally idiotic decision, of course, so I'm just going to spend the rest of this post talking about my favorite time travel movies. And no, I haven't seen "Source Code" yet.

"La Jetée" (1962) - In English, "The Pier." This 28-minute French short by experimental filmmaker Chris Marker is one of the best time travel stories ever put to film. It's almost entirely composed of black-and-white still photographs, and tells the story of a man from a post-apocalyptic future who is sent back to the present day, to witness a moment of tragedy that has haunted him since childhood. The images in "La Jetée" are so simple, but incredibly indelible and resonant. It spawned a quasi-remake, Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, that's also worth a watch.

"Scrooge" (1970) - This is my favorite live-action version of "A Christmas Carol," the boisterous musical with Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley. (I confess it still comes in second to "Mickey's Christmas Carol" for me.) I can never seem to get through a holiday season without this movie, especially the big finale ending musical sequence. I include it here because the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is the perfect example of time travel as pure fantasy, as a concept that existed in fiction across many different cultures long before it became associated with science-fiction.

"Time After Time" (1979) - This film posits that H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell), who wrote "The Time Machine," not only built himself an actual time machine, but Jack the Ripper (David Warner) got his hands on it and traveled to present day San Francisco, forcing Wells to give chase. McDowell is excellent as Wells, who is a fish out of water in the modern world, of course, but resourceful and smart enough to quickly find his way - and then right into the arms of Mary Steenburgen. I always wondered if Steenburgen being cast in the third "Back to the Future" film might have been a nod to the ending of this one.

"Time Bandits" (1981) - A little boy and band of miscreant dwarves have adventures together, while traveling through time and space with the help of a map stolen from the universe's Supreme Being. They meet historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), tangle with a ogre with a back problem, take a cruise on the Titanic, and have a final showdown with Evil, who is naturally played by David Warner. "Time Bandits" remains one of Terry Gilliam's best films, a gleeful romp through history and mythology, jam-packed full of "Monty Python" humor with some wickedly dark touches.

The "Back to the Future" Trilogy (1985-1990) - Surely you didn't think we were going to get through this list without these movies, did you? Robert Zemeckis' time travel trilogy has aged wonderfully, even though we're fast approaching the date when it will be definitely proven that we will not have hoverboards and Mr. Fusions by 2015. These are such perfect popcorn pictures, full of energetic comedy and action, with two immortal heroes of the 80s at the forefront - Marty McFly and Doc Brown. In the same vein, though not in the same league, are the "Bill and Ted" movies, which are silly and cheesy and still totally excellent, dudes.

"Primer" (2004) - An indie horror film about a pair of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who accidentally invent a time machine and proceed to misuse it. "Primer" was shot on a shoestring budget and has almost no special effects, but generates plenty of tension with a great script and performances. Full of paradoxes and multiple timelines to untangle, some viewers have worked out incredibly elaborate explanations for what we see onscreen. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the escalating madness like I did. Covering similar ground is the Spanish language "Los Cronocrimenes" ("Timecrimes") from 2007, another intense little cautionary tale.

"The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" (2006) - Mamoru Hosoda's anime is a charming, sweet fantasy about a teenage girl named Makoto who discovers she has the ability to make short jaunts into her past. She has a lot of fun with her power at first, but then it starts causing no small amount of trouble. The movie is distinctive for its sunny tone and easygoing atmosphere, which features a lot of humor and sentiment. There are some pretty eye-catching visuals too, especially where time slows down or speeds up.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The "Smothered" Pilot

I happened upon the pilot for the new ABC sitcom "Smothered" recently. Nobody asked me to sign anything or to refrain from talking about it, so I thought I'd put down some thoughts. The short version is, there are a lot of talented people in the cast, but this is one of those shows where I am reminded why I no longer watch many network sitcoms.

"Smothered" is about two pairs of smothering grandparents competing for the affections of their baby granddaughter. The young couple caught between them, Gillian (Brooke D'Orsay) and Zack (Kyle Howard), try their best to mediate and be fair about access, but they're no match for the new grandmothers, who are willing to go to any lengths to spend more time with baby Peyton when everyone convenes for her first birthday party. The older couples are polar opposites of course, conforming to the usual sitcom types. Zack's parents Fran (Marcia Gay Harden) and Alan (Adam Arkin) are Jewish New Yorkers, who do things like vacation in Europe and eat gazpacho soup. Gillian's parents Patty (Julie White) and Skip (John C. McGinley) are from Tennessee and do things like quilt and show affection through manual labor. The final member of the cast is Kate Micucci, playing Gillian's younger sister Susie, who also lives nearby, but is totally ignored by her parents in favor of the baby. She's essentially the sad-sack Robert Barone character from the early seasons of "Everybody Loves Raymond," but cuter.

This is not the only blatant attempt to try to summon the mojo of "Raymond." All the action in the "Smothered" pilot is driven by Fran and Patty, who seem determined to be nosier, needier, more stubborn, and more manipulative than Marie Barone at her worst. Their husbands barely register, happy to hang back and deliver wry one-liners once in a while to remind us they're still there. All I could think throughout the episode was that there must be something terribly wrong with both grandmothers, some awful void in their lives or unspoken traumas that would drive them to act like this. It was painful to see actors like Marcia Gay Harden, Adam Arkin, and John C. McGinley playing such empty, two-dimensional characters. Julie White came off the best, since Patty at least offers up some excuses for her behavior, but if she went any broader she'd be the horizon line. And while I've liked Marcia Gay Harden in her other roles, her Fran is such an affected snob, she's downright unlikeable.

I'd say that the biggest problem is that D'Orsay and Howard, playing the young couple, get totally steamrollered by the older actors, and come off very generic and dull. All I really got was that Zack was a bit of a snarker, Gillian was probably much smarter than the lousy dialogue coming out of her mouth, and both of them couldn't find the backbone to stand up to their parents. Like too many sitcom creatures, it was all high energy and good looks with hardly a shred of personality to go with it. "Smothered" reminds me more of "Dharma and Greg" than "Everybody Loves Raymond," with the opposing sets of in-laws, but "Dharma" worked because of that wonderful chemistry between Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson that got the audience to root for them. Zack and Gillian simply don't cut it. My favorite part of the pilot wound up being Kate Micucci as the sister. She made for a good running joke, but it's one that's been done so many times before, I wonder if it can really be sustained for multiple episodes.

I don't think the premise of "Smothered" is unworkable, but the execution was so ham-handed and overwrought, I was cringing where I was probably meant to be laughing. There were so many tired old cliches about Middle Americans and about New Yorkers, none of which rang even vaguely true. Every situation was overblown, overplayed, and made me like the characters less and less as the episode wore on. And worst of all, by choosing "Everybody Loves Raymond" as their template, "Smothered" felt like a sitcom at least ten years out of date. Is ABC really going to put this thing on after "Modern Family" or "Cougar Town"? Older audiences would probably appreciate the cast, but not the constant histrionics. I expect younger audiences would have the same reaction I did, and flee in terror.

I laughed at "Smothered" exactly twice, both times when Adam Arkin delivered mild one-liners that suggested he was as miserable existing within the confines of the pilot as I was watching it. I'd keep him, keep Micucci, and chuck everything else.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Over Halfway Through "Farscape"

It's only been a couple of weeks since my last "Farscape" post, but I've just mainlined about half a season's worth of episodes and I'm currently in the middle of Season Three. There's a lot to talk about that I don't want to put off. Some spoilers are ahead, but I'll try not to get too specific about the big events.

Over the last season, "Farscape" has become a full-fledged character drama, built on budding relationships, interpersonal tensions, family dynamics, and a whole lot of pulse weapon battles. It's still primarily an action show, full of Jim Henson Creature Shop aliens, but the nature of the adventure has changed The appearance of Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) as the series' major antagonist seems to have been the catalyst for the shift from mostly standalone episodes in the first season to a semi-continuous storyline. Multi-parters abound, with no guarantee that anything will be resolved in the final installments, and every season so far has ended with a cliffhanger. I've never been so happy to have access to an entire series all at once, because I can imagine that some of the waits between seasons must have been aggravating as hell.

There are now very apparent character arcs and issues constantly in play. John Crichton (Ben Browder) is still trying to get home to Earth and is slowly turning up the heat on his romance with Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), but his most pressing problem is Scorpius. Thanks to a little gift from their first encounter, Scorpius has gotten awfully close to taking over Crichton's mind and driving him insane. D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) has also had his share of drama, thanks to various relationship troubles and a major betrayal at the beginning of the third season. It looks like Chiana (Gigi Edgley) is being set up for bigger conflicts down the road and Crais (Lani Tupu) must be up to something. Finally, to say anything of Zhaan (Virginia Hey) would be a spoiler.

"Farscape" has really benefited from exploring character-based dramatic storylines. While the show does deliver up many episodes devoted to exploring various science-fiction concepts like parallel universes and time-travel, its primary concern has become the ongoing development of its characters. The latest episodes, particularly the multi-parters, have gotten very compelling with everyone's problems compounding on each other. Resolving one character's crisis may create bad consequences for another, or lead into a new arc for someone else. I love this kind of science fiction when the creators can really commit to it. Shows that focus on big ideas and novel concepts tend to have overly idealized or very flat heroes. Don't get me wrong. I adore Picard and Data from "Star Trek: TNG," but it's hard to imagine them bringing their personal baggage into their fights, or being able to grow and change and get involved with each other's lives the way the crew of the Moya do.

Right now "Farscape" has much more in common with "Firefly" and the original "Star Wars" trilogy, which both featured imperfect, everyman heroes and more rough-and-tumble universes. What distinguishes "Farscape," though, is that it likes actively subverting our expectations about science fiction and tells a much broader range of stories. It has silly comedy episodes, weird experimental episodes, and some that go to very dark and twisted places. And there's not only romance, but plenty of sexual activity going on too, much of it inter-species. Even the villains see their share of action. "Farscape" has also had much more time to build up its storylines and flesh out its cast of oddball characters. It makes for a nice change of pace from the more traditional starship shows, which almost always feature a stifling military culture and the heroes upholding terribly lofty ideals.

This isn't to say that "Farscape" couldn't stand some improvement. I don't see too many production problems anymore, but the show's writing is still very uneven. There have also been two new additions to the crew of the Moya. One is Stark (Paul Goddard), a former slave who first appeared at the end of Season One, and popped up again halfway through Season Two. He's another victim of Scorpius's who is not very mentally sound, and the writing of the character has been very inconsistent. In one episode he's all sweetness and light and nobody questions his intentions, and in another D'Argo and John are both actively hostile towards him for no apparent reason. Sometimes he's lucid and sometimes he's a gibbering, paranoid wreck. The other newcomer is Jool (Tammy McIntosh), who I haven't seen enough of to say much about yet.

And while I like that the writers have embraced the personal stories and aren't afraid of taking risks and changing the status quo from episode to episode, some of the resolutions have just been messy. A fake-out with one character's apparent death made the subsequent departure of one of the other leads harder to believe. And are we really supposed to buy that D'Argo's storyline with his son just ends the way it does? And that Crichton's mental breakdown doesn't have more consequences? And surely there has to be a limit on the number of times Moya can be dying of some horrible affliction on other. Maybe this is just setting up future stories, but I've done some checking and it doesn't look like some of these loose ends will ever be wrapped up.

So while "Farscape" has hit some very strong highs, it's still got its share of lows. But I have to say I'm really enjoying the good parts, especially the ongoing struggle between Crichton and Scorpius. I initially thought Crichton was a bit of a self-centered jerk, but he's grown on me as the universe has steadily turned against him and put him in some dark and unhappy places. The pop-culture references still stick out, but it's become clear that they're a coping mechanism. And I really appreciate the sillier side of his personality, which has fueled some of the show's great comedic episodes. It's become something of a running joke that every time Crichton wakes up on Earth, it means another alien is screwing around with his brains, leading to all kinds of bizarre scenarios. I'm looking forward to the next time this happens.

Sigh. Alas, I am already more than halfway through the series. Why is it that the good ones go so quick?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who is "Hanna"?

It would be easy to draw parallels between "Hanna" and the recently released "Sucker Punch." Both stories feature images of young girls committing acts of violence upon their foes. But while "Sucker Punch" was heavily influenced by video games and anime, "Hanna" echoes older, more primal source material. It fits in nicely with our recent spate of fairy-tale films, though I suspect "Hanna" hews closer to the actual form and function of a fairy-tale than most of the others. The story, boiled down to its essentials, is pure Brothers Grimm. An adolescent girl named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), has been raised by her father Eric (Eric Bana), in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. One day, when she's old enough and strong enough, she leaves their forest sanctuary and sets out on a mission to kill the wicked witch, a CIA agent named Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Wiegler was responsible for the death of Hanna's mother, and Eric warns that she will do everything in her power to kill Hanna as well, unless Hanna kills her first.

"Hanna" has been marketed as an action film about a child assassin, and action fiends should be happy to find plenty of fights and chases here. Hanna has been prepared all her life for the mission to kill Wiegler, and has been trained in all forms of combat. Killing doesn't faze her, as she demonstrates in the opening scene by bringing down a deer several times her size. But though Hanna is very proficient at dispatching any poor goon who steps her path with ruthless efficiency, she's not ready for the larger world. Hanna can speak several different languages and parrot statistics and dictionary definitions that may be necessary for her mission, but she has to learn to adapt to and appreciate civilization as she goes. This journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of the story, so much of the film is taken up by Hanna's travels through Morocco and Spain, and her first encounters with little things like electricity, music, and boys. She also becomes attached to a nice British family on holiday, particularly their teenage daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden). But will becoming a real girl end up jeopardizing Hanna's mission and endangering her new friends?

Until now director Joe Wright has been known for much more sedate material, like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement." Here, he shows he can shoot an action scene with the best of them, playing with a variety of techniques. Keep an eye out for a fight sequence with Eric Bana that takes place entirely in a single shot. And there's a nighttime sequence where every sound we hear is slowly revealed to be digetic - coming from within the scene. I also liked Hanna's flashy escape from a government holding facility, which plays a bit like a techno music video. The stylization is gratuitous, perhaps, but it keeps up the energy and sufficiently dazzles the eye without resorting to the use of any noticeable CGI. Rather, the most climactic scenes in "Hanna" take place in unglamorous settings rife with decay and thematic significance - a children's playground full of rusting equipment, and an old amusement park in serious disrepair. The whole film is full of these wonderful, stripped-down visuals, but often used in a way that signals that we're still very much inside a fantasy story.

The performances are good all around, but several are seriously underwritten. Saoirse Ronan again proves that she's one of the best young actresses we've got, especially in those moments where she slowly adjusts her behavior to adapt to different social situations, or memorably fails to. The sight of her fighting her way through multiple enemies, often much larger than she, should be ridiculous but somehow isn't. Ronan credibly sells the image and idea of Hanna as an amoral child soldier, but more importantly one with a great desire to be something more. The rest of the characters are fairly flat, though Eric Bana exhibits some signs of depth as Hanna's father and the vacationing family pings as more or less genuine. I was looking forward to Cate Blanchett's performance as the villain of the piece, but though Wiegler is a fun, fearsome caricature of an evil career bitch, she gets too few juicy scenes to herself and is not portrayed despicably enough to really make us root for her demise.

But this is Hanna's story and not Marissa Wiegler's. Perhaps it makes sense that Wiegler is portrayed as a fairy-tale villain, since this is how Hanna sees her. The script follows suit, not as concerned with making sure the events of the assassination story always make sense, as with capturing the smaller character moments and charting Hanna's personal growth. In one of the boldest exposition cheats I've ever seen, Hanna uncovers reams of backstory in a two-minute montage sequence involving a computer. However, there are some deft little instances of humor and well-observed character interactions that help to make up for it.

Make no mistake that "Hanna" is a pure genre picture, and has all the usual gratuitous violence and indulgent logic leaps that come with them, but it does a lot of interesting things with the formula, and it's as entertaining as hell. For those concerned, there is no sexualization of Hanna or really much sexual behavior to speak of, except in the most innocent sense, so it avoids any skeevy exploitation overtones. There are a few grisly moments, however, that make me question the film's PG-13 rating. This begs the question whether "Hanna" is appropriate for young viewers. I'm not sure. Hanna is no role model, but I found her far more engaging and sympathetic than Hit Girl or any of the "Sucker Punch" beauties. And I found the decision she reaches at the end of the film a far more valuable victory.

But I leave that to you to discover for yourself.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Burlesque" is Such a Guilty Pleasure

Let's get one thing out of the way first. "Burlesque" is a bad film. It's a corny old story about a girl from a small town in Iowa who comes to Los Angeles in search of her dreams. In this case, the dream is becoming a burlesque performer, after the girl wanders into a club and becomes enamored with what she sees on stage. Of course, after overcoming various obstacles and digressions, the girl becomes a star, chooses the poor songwriter over the real estate tycoon, and manages to save the club from financial ruin at the very last minute. You've seen this all before, and done better. But that said, I haven't had more fun watching a movie in a long while.

Christina Aguilera plays Ali, the girl from Iowa. Aguilera tries, but she's not much of an actress, and her scenes with her primary love interest Jack (Cam Gigandet), are hokey and endless. But when you put Christina Aguilera on a stage, with a microphone, she does what she does best, which is sing her guts out and make us love her for it. The best sequences in "Burlesque" are the actual burlesque performances, full of flash and dazzle and peekaboo sexiness in just the right amounts. They're campy, but so much more vibrant and engaging than the inert posing on display in "Nine" or the chaotic visual overload of "Moulin Rouge." It's made clear from the start that the performers in "Burlesque" are enjoying themselves and want to be on stage, and that makes all the difference.

This is a fantasy, of course. The realities of this kind of lifestyle are not explored in any detail, and the usual seedy underbelly beneath the glitz and glamor is noticeably missing. Instead, the burlesque club exists in a kind of idealized world free of sexual predation and moral judgments. The girl who has to leave the show due to an unplanned pregnancy goes off to be happily married. Even the villain of the piece, a businessman named Marcus (Eric Dane) who is trying to buy the club, never engages in any remotely threatening behavior. The club itself is owned and run by Tess, a world-weary but still fabulous woman of mature years, played by Cher. It has to be said that Cher often looks artificially preserved to the point where we can practically see the formaldehyde fumes, but she gamely does her best to serve as the mentor figure and den mother to her girls, and even hauls herself up on stage for two numbers to remind us that her pipes are still in good working order.

There's so much talent in this movie, that as bad as the material is, it can't seem to help but be entertaining. For every dull scene of Aguilera flirting stiffly with Gigandet, there she is in a Swarovski crystal bustier two minutes later, setting the stage on fire. For every contrived moment where Cher has to worry over the future of the club, we get a few lines of delicious banter between her and Stanley Tucci, playing her long-suffering and very gay club manager. I did a double take when I realized that the ticket taker was Alan Cumming and the stage manager was Glynn Turman. They're both sorely underused, along with Kristen Bell, who plays Aguilera's comically hostile rival at the club. I haven't made up my mind about Cam Gigandet yet, who undeniably has some charisma, but suffers for being in a role that has all the depth of floral wallpaper.

I think "Burlesque" would have been more entertaining if it consisted only of the burlesque sequences, which are lavishly produced and feature a mix of old standbys like "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and original songs for a consistently rousing soundtrack. I'm astonished as to how not a single song from the film got any recognition from the Oscars, after the miserable showing the Best Song category had this year. They snubbed Cher and Christina Aguilera performances in favor of Gwyneth Paltrow? Really? But then, it may have been difficult for Academy members to overlook the fact that "Burlesque" is really just a vehicle for Christina Aguilera to play movie star, and the story is so thin that it would have been better suited to a concept album and a corresponding series of music videos. Come to think of it, that's practically what this is.

Still, there's no denying the entertainment value of "Burlesque" for a certain audience, which includes me. I'm a fan of both Cher and Aguilera, so I relished the chance to see them work together. And for them, I was willing to put up with more nonsense than I suspect many other viewers would. But how could I resist? The movie is so happy and vulgar and toothsome and wholesome and idealistic all at the same time. It doesn't make a lick of sense, and how could it? But I suppose that's part of the fantasy, and we all need a silly feel-good movie like "Burlesque" every now and then.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I Don't Get "Sym-bionic Titan"

I'm sorry to hear that "Sym-bionic Titan" hasn't been renewed by Cartoon Network. I know a lot of fans of the Genndy Tartakovsky animated series, who are all of the opinion that a single twenty-episode season is simply not enough. Who have been dismayed that the network has bounced the show all over their schedule, and finally stuck it in its current Saturday morning slot. The last episode airs this weekend. And so this puts me in the awkward position of being that person who simply doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. I still enjoy cartoons and action cartoons in particular, but something about "Sym-bionic Titan" just rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning.

I had reservations from the moment I saw the first preview at last year's Comic-Con. "Titan" is Tartakovsky's take on the old 60s and 70s style Japanese giant robot shows, like "Voltron" and "Gigantor." There are three main characters, Ilana (Tara Strong), Lance (Kevin Thoms), and Octus (Brian Posehn), two refugee aliens and a robot from the planet Galaluna. They're forced to hide out on Earth and disguise themselves as humans, in order to evade the evil Mutraddi mutant monsters. When they fight, it's with mecha suits that combine - through the obligatory hokey transformation sequence - to form the superior Sym-bionic Titan of the title. To date I've seen three or four episodes, enough to give me a decent look at the show. It's certainly well-written, the production values are great, and it isn't nearly as formulaic as the premise would suggest. But that said, I still don't get what makes this show so special.

More than anything, I think it's the style of the visuals that are giving me a hard time. I liked Tartakovsky's "Dexter's Lab" as much as anyone else, and I thought his take on the "Star Wars" characters for "Clone Wars" was inspired, much better than the CGI versions currently mucking around on Friday nights. "Samurai Jack," with its spectacular art direction and character designs, is one of my favorite modern animated shows. But I think Tartakovsky dropped the ball with "Sym-bionic Titan." Ilana and Lance look like very simplified versions of Leiji Matsumoto space opera characters, but they're rendered in such different proportions with lines typical of cartoonier Western fare, it's visual culture clash. The evil aliens they fight are just plain ugly, often insectoid, jagged creatures drawn in lurid colors. The mecha designs had the opposite problem. They were all very Japanese and very dull. I can't think of any distinguishing features of the Sym-bionic Titan beyond the fact that it's translucent and the name doesn't roll off the tongue so easy.

The characters? Fun, but typical. Lance is often suspicious, Ilana tries to stay cheerful, and Octus has occasional existential crises. They all have pasts and they all have inner struggles, but nothing particularly original or groundbreaking. Some of the stories are ambitious, sure, and sometimes the images can be very visually striking, but I haven't seen anything on the level of "Samurai Jack" or the Tartakovsky version of "Clone Wars." Ultimately all signs point to "Sym-bionic Titan" being a pretty typical giant robot show, with some high school shenanigans tossed in for humorous purposes. Is there a larger story arc here that I've missed somehow? Did they play all the good episodes at the beginning of the season? The installments I've watched have been those I've been specifically directed to by ardent fans, and this doesn't ping as a serialized adventure where you have to watch every episode in sequence to get the full effect of the story. So what am I not seeing?

I wonder if it's because I've watched the original Japanese shows that "Sym-bionic Titan" references, and so many of the subsequent mecha and robot anime that followed in their wake. I already know how these stories work, and Tartakovsky's not straying very far from the usual formula. Or maybe I'm missing out on some context because I haven't been keeping keeping up with the most recent ones. I certainly don't think I'm getting too old for cartoons - the ones who really love them never do. I'm afraid I just have to conclude that "Sym-bionic Titan" is not to my taste. It seems to have hit all the right marks for a lot of people, but it's just not for me.

But seriously, could someone tell me what's the point of casting Brian Posehn to play a robot who does not sound anything like Brian Posehn?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Glenn Beck is Going

This week there are a slew of news anchors and presenters who are rumored to be leaving their programs. Katie Couric is probably vacating the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Meredith Viera and Matt Lauer might exit from NBC's "Today." Only one move is certain. Over on FOX News yesterday, to the surprise of many, it was announced that Glenn Beck's eponymous political commentary show, is being scuttled later in the year. Beck's more outrageous antics prompted some advertisers to pull their ads from the program in 2009, but his ratings remained high. Well, until recently anyway. His viewership numbers are currently half of what they were a year ago, and are on an apparent downward trajectory.

It's hard to believe that it's only been two years since Beck joined FOX, after a long stint on CNN Headline news. I don't watch FOX News and I don't watch Glenn Beck, but it's been hard to escape his presence in the infotainment world. He's brought up constantly in criticisms of the media, FOX News, and the Tea Party, because he makes for such an easy target. His over-the-top self aggrandizement, increasingly nutty conspiracy theories, paranoid chalkboard diagrams, and commercials for gold retailers have been constantly parodied by late-night comedians. And of course, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert responded to his "Restoring Honor" rally with their own "Rally to Restore Sanity" last year. The more cynical among us long ago concluded that Beck was either a real-life Howard Beale ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!") with possible emotional or psychological issues, or that he was putting on an act and knowingly egging on the worst impulses of his audience. Both possibilities have some disturbing implications.

But maybe the picture isn't so bleak when you consider that Beck ultimately couldn't maintain his audience. I'm sure there are people out there who actually take Glenn Beck at face value and believe all his unhinged ranting. Beck is a charismatic man and a good performer, with a long history of attracting attention on his various television and radio shows. But I have to assume from the steep decline in his ratings, that many were only there for the sideshow. Or perhaps Beck went too far with his attacks, and people stopped taking him seriously. Or they just got bored with his act. FOX's ratings fell and CNN's went up in the first part of the year, largely because there was actual news going on - revolutions across Northern Africa and the Middle East, and the earthquake in Japan. When political battles recede from public view, so do the fortunes of those who exploit them.

Glenn Beck seems to work best as a populist instigator, and has often aligned himself with the Tea Party movement. However, the election cycle is currently at a low point, with the midterm races behind us, so he can't build on any Get-Out-the-Vote energy. The closest thing to grassroots political action of much efficacy lately has been in regards to the Wisconsin union controversies, and politically he and FOX News are on the wrong side of that fight. So the timing of Beck's decline and departure makes sense. Any benefits of keeping him in reserve until the 2012 elections, possibly in a less visible timeslot, have probably been outweighed by the fact that Beck has made himself into the network's biggest target for mockery and criticism. And while his controversial nature may be appealing to some viewers, it's also costly in terms of ad revenue and the network's reputation as a serious news operation.

Beck won't be going away entirely of course. He'll still have his radio shows, his speaking tours, his website, and his books. He'll no doubt still show up on other FOX shows once in a while as a guest commentator. He's such a recognizable name, the media will still gladly pass along his most outrageous pronouncements for us to gawk at. And the extremists, of course, will still seek him out and use him as validation for their own warped views. However, I can't see his departure as anything but a good thing. Insightful political commentators can be valuable, but someone like Glenn Beck just muddles this discourse and derails meaningful dialogue. It's wishful thinking that this move may indicate FOX News is turning a corner - they can always give Beck's timeslot to someone worse - but I hope this will at least prompt them to reign in some of the shock jock tactics before they get out of hand in such spectacular fashion again.

As for those who wish to follow Glenn Beck's career path to infamy, if the current state of his career isn't enough to dissuade, I suggest renting "Network" and getting an eyeful of the ultimate fate of Howard Beale.