Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Miracle Day" is a Mess

I planned to wait until the Starz run of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" had finished before watching it, but I was in the position to marathon the first half of the season while I was visiting the folks (who have satellite with a Starz package), so I thought, what the hell? Readers of this blog know that I enjoyed the "Children of Earth" miniseries that British sci-fi series "Torchwood" got instead of a third season. "Children of Earth" attracted so much attention and good ratings, the "Torchwood" gang got to follow it up with a ten-episode series titled "Miracle Day," which is set mostly in the United States and co-produced by Starz. With a bigger budget, bigger scale story, twice as many episodes, and some high profile new additions to the cast like Bill Pullman and Mekhi Phifer, "Torchwood" got a rare opportunity to expand on the success of "Children of Earth." And so far, they've really blown it.

And it's a shame, because "Miracle Day" has so much going for it, from stellar acting talent to a wealth of interesting ideas. The crisis at the heart of "Miracle Day" is a wonderful science-fiction "what if" scenario. What if, one day, everyone on Earth stopped dying, people survived even the most grievous injuries and illnesses, and humanity apparently entered a new age where the entire populace became immortal? Initially the halting of death is hailed as a miracle, but soon unforeseen problems begin to compound. Hospitals are swamped with the injured and infirm who should have died under normal circumstances. Executions can no longer go forward. Resources are strained. Simultaneously, the two remaining members of Torchwood, a secret paranormal investigation team, are being hunted by sinister forces.

Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is living in hiding with her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and baby daughter. The normally invulnerable Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) discovers that while everyone else on the planet has become immortal, he has suddenly become very mortal. New characters in the mix include CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), a young CIA analyst in over her head, Dr. Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur), a doctor at the center of the new medical crisis, Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), a convicted pedophile and child murderer who survived his execution, and Jilly Kitzinger (Laura Ambrose), an ambitious PR go-getter for a drug company. Genre fans will also appreciate the appearances of Wayne Knight, Dichen Lachmann, John de Lancie, and Nana Visitor, among others.

So it's a real shame that the writers don't manage to give any of these characters much depth and the plot is a jumbled mess. Initially the series is off to a decent, if bumpy start when it looks at the individual responses to Miracle Day and sets up the negative consequences that the series will be dealing with for the rest of the season. "Miracle Day" at its most interesting when it's at its most brainy, rewriting the rules for emergency room triage in a world where nobody can die, or figuring out how to concoct an antidote for arsenic in the middle of a transatlantic flight. However, as the story focuses more and more tightly on uncovering who the culprits are behind the Miracle, the series loses its edge. Ten episodes feels like five too many, because there's a lot of padding in the story, and a distinct sense of every mostly-good episode being followed by one that is mostly-bad. The pacing stumbles constantly. The narrative will speed along one minute, then falter and meander, or just come to a dead stop, undercutting all the tension that came before.

I never saw the early seasons of "Torchwood" with their monster-of-the-week simplicity, but I have to wonder if the team was as incompetent and undisciplined as they frequently are in "Miracle Day." There are moments of Gwen and Captain Jack being badasses, but there is also an awful lot of bad planning, emotion-driven decisionmaking, and general stupidity on display. This cropped up in "Children of Earth" as well, but that series was so tightly plotted and had so many other excellent moments, that the mistakes were forgivable. In "Miracle Day," while I like many of the story threads and themes in play, there are too many things that don't work at all. Chief among these is the ascent of Oswald Danes, who becomes a media superstar but is still despised by enough of the public to leave him feeling constantly persecuted. This is an awful man freed on an absurd technicality, and though Pullman tries his best, it's impossible to feel sorry for him even when it becomes clear he's only being used as a pawn by others. And though he's a vital cog in the story, after six episodes Oswald just seems to be treading water, waiting for the rest of the characters to catch up.

I have so many conflicting feelings toward "Miracle Day." On the one hand, I love the prevalence of strong, interesting female characters. On the other, they all have the terrible habit of getting on soapboxes at a moment's notice and delivering browbeating, morally superior speeches. It's great to see Captain Jack be able to indulge in a few sex scenes, thanks to the looser standards of premium cable, but they're so gratuitous you suspect the writers only stuck them in to kill a few minutes. One thing I sorely missed from "Children of Earth" was a character like the government toady Frobisher (Peter Capaldi), who had a direct hand in the morally bankrupt policy decisions that caused so much trouble for Torchwood. In "Miracle Day," we only hear about extreme new directives being handed down from on high without any insight as to their genesis. Despite all the different characters and the frequent globetrotting, the new series is lacking in scope. There isn't even a man-on-the-street character to keep us updated on the mood of the general public, unless you count Gwen, who filled that role last time to much better effect.

And yet I want to keep watching "Torchwood: Miracle Day," because I'm hoping the series can pull itself together in the second half and develop all these ideas it has into something more cohesive and focused. On the whole I think this series is going to be seen as a misfire, but at least it's a very ambitious, uneven, interesting misfire. I'll go into a little deeper analysis in my next post on "Miracle Day," after I finish the series.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Technical Difficulties

So the backlight in my laptop screen is kaput and the parts are on order. I'm still writing and will be posting as often as I can from other computers, but expect some irregularities in your Missmediajunkie experience in the coming days. My apologies for any aggravations this may inadvertently cause. Oh, and no Twitter updates until the repairs are done, since the direct Twitter interface doesn't like me, and I'm not about to go through downloading Tweetdeck again on any temp machines.

Off to appease the angry gods of busted electronics with my hard-earned cash. Sigh.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Impending Wave of Chinese Co-Productions

If you can't beat them, join them. After multiple efforts to build up its own film industry in the past few years, the Chinese have started warming up to Hollywood, or at least being much more receptive to forming partnerships and recruiting top Hollywood talent to bolster their presence in the international market. The latest joint venture along these lines is Legendary East, a partnership between Legendary Pictures, responsible for last year's hit "Inception," among others, and various Chinese entities. According to this recent LA Times article, the intention is for the new company to produce "one or two English language movies based on Chinese history and culture per year to be distributed globally."

The benefits for the Hollywood side of the partnership are obvious. China is becoming a major film market and the films produced by Legendary East would not be subject to the strict limitations on foreign film imports enforced by the Chinese government. And because the films are technically local co-productions, the percentage of returns they could reap would be greater. Legendary East already has its first project lined up, a movie about the Great Wall of China, to be directed by Edward Zwick, who's always been very handy with a historical epic. The words "global" and "commercial" come up in the quotes a lot. Other studios are taking notice, including Relativity, which has also announced a new Chinese joint venture. Nu Image has the "The Expendables" sequel set to shoot in China as a Chinese co-production.

A line in that last article caught my attention. When Nu Image tried to land a co-production deal for the "Conan the Barbarian" remake, they didn't have much luck, because according to Nu Image CFO Trevor Short, "They seem to have a problem with mysticism and fantasy." "They," of course, means the mainland Chinese film production companies operating under the eye of the communist government. Let's get something straight here. The Chinese don't have a problem with mysticism and fantasy. Chinese folklore is full of beloved stories of demons and monsters and spirits. The Chinese government, on the other hand, hates any sort of escapist entertainment it suspects might be subversive, and does stupid things like try to ban TV shows portraying time travel. Rather, the Chinese government likes self-aggrandizing historical dramas, like last year's maudlin "Aftershock," which was about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, and "Red Cliff," a four-hour war epic. Both films are perfectly decent and made a lot of money at the box office - but only the Chinese box office. Globally, historical dramas aren't exactly in vogue. The big moneymakers, rather, are the big, fun escapist fantasies that the Chinese government looks down on.

That doesn't mean "they" won't keep funding these films and trying to exert their influence on global popular culture. And plenty of penny-pinching Hollywood filmmakers are happy to make a few artistic compromises in order to gain access to Chinese markets and capital. However, neither side is going to come out of this completely happy. Just because Zhang Yimou got Batman to star doesn't mean that his harrowing drama about the Rape of Nanking is going to be an easy sell outside of China. Ed Zwick's Great Wall movie doesn't strike me as global box office winner either, even if it's in English and even if the budget is astronomical. And though Hollywood has been very careful to always portray China in a positive light in recent years, in order to help ensure their films pass muster with the Chinese censors, the new influx of Chinese funding is going to mean even tighter controls over content. Heck, the the censors may not even have to say anything anymore. MGM's "Red Dawn" remake was shot featuring Chinese infiltrators as the villains, but without any prompting from the Chinese government, MGM digitally altered the film to feature North Koreans instead, citing fears over potentially alienating Chinese audiences.

But none of this bothers me as much as the fact that both sides are keeping up the ridiculous pretense that this isn't all about money on the part of Hollywood, and pushing "soft power" on the part of the Chinese. Legendary is going to make pictures that will make plenty of money in China, and probably do mediocre business anywhere else. Chinese costume dramas and wuxia films stopped being novel for American moviegoers ages ago. Nobody saw "Red Cliff," even after it was cut down to two hours and had nearly every critic on the Tomatometer singing its praises. Adding Hollywood star power might help other prestige pics, but not as much as adding aliens or zombies or a couple of giant transforming robots. And Western filmmakers working for Legendary East are going to discover that they'll be limited in their ability to do anything with their material beyond grand scale spectacle and melodrama. You have to stick to the government's version of events and you can't portray the Chinese in anything but a positive light, remember? That's a creative dead end if there ever was one.

I find it especially galling that while China is happy to pursue these co-production deals with Hollywood, it's also let one of the most vibrant, commercially successful arenas of Chinese cinema wither - Hong Kong cinema. The entrance of Western cinema into China has been at the expense of the Hong Kong film industry, which has been in decline since the mid-1990s. But then, Hong Kong cinema, with its genre films full of sex and violence, never had a good record of toeing the party line. I'd rather watch the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy over "Red Cliff" any day, but I guess I'll have to settle for co-productions between mainland and Hong Kong studios like "Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame," which seems to be the midpoint between the two. And I guess that's the upside. Maybe while the Chinese government is busy trying to spread its influence through these new collaborations, they'll be influenced themselves. And if they finally figure out one day that reaching global success means making films that will not only impress but entertain audiences, maybe they'll learn to broaden their horizons a bit in the process.

I doubt it though.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Save Your "Beaver" Puns

I don't know the last time I saw a Mel Gibson movie. Having skipped much of his directing career, I'm going to guess it was probably all the way back in 2002, when he made "Signs," and hadn't yet been at the center of all those ugly public blowups. So when I saw his latest film with Jodie Foster, "The Beaver," I was briefly taken aback. What had happened to Mel? Who was this tired, sad-looking actor who trying to sell the ludicrous premise of a depressed family man reconnecting with the world through a British-accented beaver hand puppet? I spent an hour and a half gawking at the man, and by the end of the movie had more or less come to terms with the fact that yes, it was Mel Gibson, and yes, he was playing this ridiculous role straight as an arrow. To his credit, he gives a tolerable performance as the hero Walter Black and Walter-Black-As-The-Beaver. It doesn't do the movie much good though.

The script places Walter Black at the head of a nuclear family of four. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directed) tries to be supportive, an older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), does good business writing papers for his high school classmates, and younger son Henry, (Riley Thomas Stewart), is often ignored. All have been adversely affected by Walter's depression, which has dragged on for two years by the start of the film. When Meredith finally asks him to leave the house, Walter attempts suicide. He is only stopped when the ratty hand puppet he randomly fished out of a dumpster manages to talk him off the ledge. So enters The Beaver into Walter's life, who quickly takes on the roles of father, husband, and CEO of Walter's company, and begins to rebuild Walter's life. I would make a Wally and The Beav joke at this point, but I suspect that reference is a tad too obscure these days.

But I digress. "The Beaver" takes the very serious subject of depression and treats it with all the seriousness and gravity it deserves. At the same time, it's trying very hard to be some kind of comedy, because Mel Gibson is walking around with a frickin' puppet on his left hand and talking in a funny voice. The trouble is, it's not funny. Not remotely. The film doesn't do a bad job of setting up The Beaver, so the audience can suspend disbelief and go along with the absurdity of the situation. But then it insists on sticking with this morose, dolorous tone, that sucks all the life out of the picture, and refuses to do anything interesting with The Beaver. I've never seen a story with this much potential for black comedy refuse to have any fun with its premise. Mel Gibson keeps a straight face, and he's good enough with the puppet that you might be able to buy The Beaver as a separate character, but they don't really use that angle. Nor does anyone question or test or challenge The Beaver except in the most predictable ways.

And then you have the whole subplot with Walter's son cozying up to the popular cheerleader valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who wants him to write her graduation speech for her. Theirs is a remarkably pedestrian teenage romance, centered around another contrived scenario that I had to struggle not to roll my eyes at. To be fair, the film does more with the graduation speech than it manages to do with the hand puppet, though it sledgehammers the message home awfully hard. I find it notable that "The Beaver" spares no time on developing the wife, the younger son, or the girlfriend in any meaningful way. Instead, they're convenient props for the two troubled men who spend the whole film meandering around in tepid emotional limbo. I understand that one is depressed and one is in high school, but the self-obsession is laid on awfully thick. It's fine for a film to be miserable, but not to the point where it becomes a bore.

The best thing I find that I can say about "The Beaver" is that it was a good opportunity to for Mel Gibson to show he still has his chops as an actor. What little enjoyment I got from the movie was purely due to his efforts. I'd like to see him pick himself up and mount a comeback someday. He definitely needs to pick some better material the next time around, but I'm glad that he's back.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On the Importance of "Poetry"

It's clear that I'm a sucker for South Korean crime films with mothers as the protagonists, or in this case a grandmother. Mija Yang (Yung Jeong-hie) is a sixty-something widow, getting by on checks from the government and a part-time job as a cleaning lady. She shares a small apartment with her sixteen-year-old grandson Wook (Lee David), left behind by a divorced daughter who works in another town. Mija is pleasant, cheerful, and perhaps a little eccentric. We first see her visiting the hospital, exhibiting a habitual forgetfulness that may be a symptom of something more serious, her doctor warns. On her way out, she sees a grief-stricken woman in the parking lot, inconsolable over the death of her teenage daughter - who we later learn was driven to suicide.

These events are the beginning of a string of misfortunes for Mija, and a corresponding internal struggle to sort out her complicated feelings and decide how best to respond to a bad situation. She does so slowly and quietly, never resorting to any extreme measures. This is not a crime thriller, like Bong Joon-ho's "Mother," a film that shares similar themes, but approaches them in an entirely different way. In "Poetry," there's never any question as to who was responsible for the girl's death or why it happened. The film is more concerned with the impact of the tragedy on Mija's relationships and worldview. And then there's the poetry. Near the beginning of the film, Mija impulsively joins a poetry writing class at the local community cultural center. As her fortunes worsen, poetry becomes an important outlet for her. Through the class she receives the encouragement to closely observe the world around her, take notes, and be honest in her reactions. She leans not only to "seek beauty," but also to gain the conviction to express it.

And this isn't as easy as it sounds. Director Lee Chang-dong does a fantastic job of slowly revealing the lonely inner world of his seemingly happy heroine. After various encounters and exchanges, viewers will slowly come to realize that almost everyone else in the movie habitually ignores or patronizes Mija. In multiple scenes, she holds conversations with people who refuse to look at her directly. The grandson does his best to ignore her entirely. Important decisions are made for Mija, nominally in her presence, but without her input or acknowledgement. She is casually lied to, tricked, coerced, and dismissed without hesitation. People politely remark that she is charming and well dressed, but then wonder if she's gone senile once she's out of earshot. Sadly, the only other character in the film who really interacts with her on even terms is the elderly invalid (Hira Kim) she helps to care for. So is there a point to her trying to say anything, if no one is listening?

The title "Poetry" might trouble some viewers, conjuring visions of esoteric imagery and pedantic dialogue, but the film's ambitions are fairly modest when it comes to actual verse. Poetry is treated as an approach to life, a state of mind as much as the plain text on the page. Through Mija's attempts to write, the film argues for the value of poetry to the individual, rather than trying to edify or instruct the audience on the dry particulars of the literature. More importantly, the poetry never trumps the film. Mija drops in on a few poetry readings for inspiration, and her teacher is allowed his monologues on truth and beauty, but these interludes always remain in the service of the larger story and its characters. Mija is not saved or redeemed by poetry, as she might have been in a Hollywood film. Poetry can broaden her worldview and clarify her choices, but she still has to make the hard decisions by herself.

I appreciate "Poetry" for exploring potentially sensationalist subjects with rare restraint, for its meditative mood and deliberate pacing. The visuals are never anything but lovely and tranquil. Yung Jeong-hie's performance as Mija has such empathy and sensitivity, you won't be able to take your eyes off her. I also quite liked Kim Yong-tak, who keeps his own name to play Mija's poetry teacher. But what really struck me about the film was its message. I was glad to see an undercurrent of social commentary running throughout the story. At first I wondered if the the callousness of the reactions to the girl's death was simply a cultural difference, but it soon became apparent that she was another poor soul being ignored and forgotten for the convenience of others. And Mija's choice to sympathize with the victim, in spite of all the trouble it brings, was one of the most touching things I've seen in a film in a long time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Best Films I Haven't Seen

Every once in a while in the conversations among film nerds, the question comes up: what important, influential, well regarded, or much beloved films have you neglected to see, and why? Since we're in the middle of August and the summer movie season is winding down, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the titles that have been sitting on my "To Watch" list for too long and maybe figure out why they're still there, while I've made time for so much dreck lately. Below are eleven films I really should have seen by now, not counting titles that simply keep slipping my mind like "Bottle Rocket," "The 25th Hour," "Three Kings," "Papillon," and "Fletch." Let's see if I can break down a few more of those irrational movie-watching prejudices still lurking in my head, shall we?

"In America" – Directed by Jim Sheridan, "In America" follows the struggles of an Irish immigrant family in new York. I know it must be much better than the twee premise suggests, but I'm wary of a film that pings so strongly as a feel-good tearjerker. I don't mind tearjerkers, but I respond very badly to the manipulative ones, and I'm not convinced this isn't one, even though it's won over lots of fans.

"Dancer in the Dark" and "Breaking the Waves" – A pair of Lars von Trier's most well-regarded films, both about women down on their luck, dealing with hardship and despair. I've seen Von Trier's other work, enough to know that he's capable not just of breaking my heart, but stomping on it repeatedly, and leaving a bloody mess. I prefer to tread carefully with this man.

"Almost Famous" – A young writer goes on tour with a 70s rock band that is on the verge of hitting it big, and becomes embroiled in their behind-the-scenes troubles. Rock 'n' roll and groupies may be a popular fantasy for some, but I never understood all the fuss. And writer/director Cameron Crowe? Well, he's capable of very good things and very, very bad things. Which is this?

"Pink Flamingos" – There's every reason for me not to want to watch "Pink Flamingos." It was deliberately made to be an exercise in bad taste, a low-budget, gross-out, shock-fest foisted on the world by the cheerfully amoral John Waters. But if I got through "Salo," surely this couldn't be nearly as awful, right? I mean, how shocking could something made in 1972 for $10K be?

"Pretty in Pink" - Well, I don't much care for "Sixteen Candles," and everything I've heard about Molly Ringwald's other big John Hughes movie suggests I'd like it even less. Ths story revolves around a working-class girl vacilating between two beaus while trying to hide the fact that she's poor. And it doesn't help that so many viewers seem to believe that she picks the wrong guy in the end.

"Anchorman" – I'm at the point where I'll recognize that someone is making an "Anchorman" joke, but I still don’t get the references. What's keeping me away from this comedy is remembering clips of Will Ferrell in the ads in full SNL buffoon mode, but not striking me as particularly funny. But apparently the move is well loved by many, so why should I let a bad marketing campaign get in my way?

Everything by Satyajit Ray – I confess "Pather Panchali" is the only Indian film I've ever seen. So still on my list are the other two films that make up Ray's "Apu Trilogy" and all of Ray's other films. My lack of familiarity with the Indian culture is the main culprit here, and the knowledge that watching these films is probably going to take more effort than watching everything else on this list combined (with one exception).

"South Pacific" - I grew up on musicals, including the ones by Rodgers and Hammerstein. "South Pacific" is one of their most famous and well remembered, but I've been avoiding it like the plague for years. Every time these two try to be serious and socially progressive, to me they come off as dismissive, insensitive, and boring – see "Carousel" and "Flower Drum Song" for starters.

Everything by Todd Solondz – I admit this guy intimidates me. The way people talk about him and his work always makes me think I'm not quite ready for what he has to show me, which is probably ridiculous. Then again, I know that his films deal with heavy themes and are full of explicit sexual content and other risky material. All the signals I'm getting say to approach with caution.

"Sátántangó" – Because though Belá Tarr is great, this movie is still seven hours long.

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Netflix Game Plan

September is just around the corner, which means the new Netflix pricing structure that we were all wailing about last month is about to go into effect. After weighing my options, I've finally decided what I'm going to do: I'm going to get my money's worth as a Netflix subscriber by swapping between the various plans from month to month as follows:

First month: DVD rentals only, two disc plan, primarily for new releases and titles that are only available on DVD. The one disc plan would cost me $8/mo, and the two disc would cost $12/mo (not $11/mo, as I had in the previous post). With the one disc plan, I'd average eight DVDs a month, and with the two disc plan, I'd average sixteen, so the unit price goes down the higher the disc count. I've done three discs before, but you really need to have the free time to keep up with all the movies showing up in the mailbox, so I'm more comfortable with two discs.

Second month: Switch to the streaming plan for $8/mo, for streaming only titles (there are more than you think), older titles I that might not be on the top of my to-see list, and whatever else catches my eye. There are pretty good resources around for keeping track of which titles are on Netflix's streaming service, so I can coordinate my DVD and streaming viewing accordingly. I know to leave titles like "Hobo With a Shotgun" and "White Material" off my DVD queue because they're on Instant Watch right now. Conversely, I don't expect too many recent Sony and Warners titles to be streaming, so I'd better catch them on DVD.

Third month: Take a break from Netflix entirely. I'll raid my local library collection and see if they've gotten a new batch of old films. Or I'll switch over to Hulu Plus, which costs the same amount as the Netflix streaming plan, but has different content, including all those Criterion titles I haven't seen yet. Or I could use the free trial of another movie service or cash in a few of those free Blockbuster Express one-night rentals I've been accumulating.

Once the cycle is complete, I'll start over with the two-disc DVD rentals only again. The two month gap should be enough time for me to fill my queue with newer releases again that I actually feel are worth the money to seek out and rent. Right now, I'm in a waiting game with my DVD queue, with over half of my list full of titles with their future release dates next to them in red numbers, telling me I'll have to wait a few more days or weeks to see them. I know for sure there aren't another sixteen films on my queue that are going to be available in the next month, that I would have sought out to rent if they were available elsewhere for the same price point.

As for the streaming service, I'm better at finding the hidden gems than most, but I keep an eye on the new additions like everyone else. I've started and stopped my Netflix service multiple times now, so I know that mentally I get a greater sense of satisfaction after I've been away for a while and find a bigger chunk of new content upon my return. The downside, of course, is that streaming titles will expire, unlike the DVD catalog, but I've never seen any come and go in less than three months, unless it's a really drastic event like Sony pulling their Starz films.

Netflix may have phased out affordable combination options, but I think this way I can have the best of both worlds. If they insist on charging me separately for each service, that's fine. I'll just use one service at a time. Also, the math works out in my favor. Average the cost of one month on the two-disc DVD plan and one month on the streaming, and it works out to $10/mo. That's a dollar less than the combination plan most Netflix subscribers are using right now.

Don't get me wrong. I love Netflix and I'm very happy with it. As far as I'm concerned it's the best rental service out there. But we all need to make a dollar stretch a little father these days, and if Netflix is raising the price, then I need to scale back and rethink how I use its services. There are actually a lot more options here than there seem to be at first glance. My game plan takes more effort than most, but I think it'll work for me. I'll give it a try and let you know how it goes.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bracing For A New "Blade Runner"

First "TRON" returned to the theaters, and now one of the other great 80s science-fiction sacred cows is following suit. It was announced a few days ago that Ridley Scott would be returning to the world of replicants and cyberpunk for a new "Blade Runner" movie. No, there are no plans for Harrison Ford to return yet. No, we don't know if this is going to be a prequel, sequel, reboot, homage, or something completely different. We just know that "Blade Runner" will be in the title somewhere, and 73-year-old Ridley Scott, coming off a string of middling Russell Crowe films and an ambitious set-in-the-"Alien"-universe-but-not-an-"Alien"-movie called "Prometheus" no one has seen yet, will be directing.

Do I sound skeptical? I honestly don't want to be, especially since many recent reboots and remakes have turned out to be perfectly good movies. And yet, I reacted to the news of the new "Blade Runner" with instant incredulity. They're making a new "Blade Runner"? Why on earth are they making a new "Blade Runner"? Of all the nostalgic 80s films, how on earth did this one rise to the top of the list to revisit? I mean, "TRON" was a cult classic, but at least the original was meant to be a popcorn film to begin with. "War Games" is a little obscure, but it has a premise with a lot of mileage left that would make for easy updating. "Blade Runner" is a much more difficult, cerebral piece of work, a detective noir dressed up in science-fiction trappings with an existential bent. Yes, it has been massively influential and much beloved by ardent fans. Yes, there are still places that the story could go, and the ending of "Blade Runner" provided an obvious jumping-off point for a sequel. But the only reason I can see that Scott wants to make another "Blade Runner" now, after thirty years, is the same reason the studios have been strip-mining the 80s for new franchises - they've run dry creatively and want to return to their older, proven successes.

And I'm highly doubtful that the new "Blade Runner" can recapture that strange, peculiar alchemy that made the original 1982 film so memorable. "Blade Runner" had the heart of a 30s noir film, but was set in a far-off future with a distinctly 80s sensibility. The heroine sported a costume with giant shoulder pads, villains looked liked they'd escaped from a glam rock band, and there were tons of gorgeous, elaborate practical effects. They look dated now, of course, but they also lent an extra layer of artifice and oddity to the cyberpunk setting that was a reflection of the 80s itself. "Blade Runner," as much as "E.T." or "Back to the Future," is a film that draws much of its power from being a piece of science-fiction of a certain age and time, already swimming in its own brand of nostalgia. An update or a reboot that tries to bring the "Blade Runner" universe up to date with the modern day would likely compromise or alter an important strand of the film's DNA. So already, the filmmakers are at a disadvantage here.

Ah, you might say. But they have Ridley Scott back in the director's chair, and he'll be sure to keep the film on course and true to its origins. Well, I think we can expect more of Scott's trademark atmospheric cinematography of murky city streets, but there's no guarantee he's capable of making a new "Blade Runner" in the same vein as the first one. And if he can't, he might not be self-aware enough to try to give us something new instead. As we've seen with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whenever seasoned directors try to revisit their old films and old material, it's never quite the same because they aren't the same filmmakers they were when they were in their twenties and thirties. Sometimes this can be a good thing, like Alfred Hitchcock's second go at "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But these days, we're more likely to end up with the "Star Wars" prequels or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Scott trying to recapture the spirit of "Blade Runner" may not go as well as he might hope, though I certainly won't begrudge him the chance to try.

It's still far too early to do much speculation about the project yet, but I'll be watching its development like a hawk. As always, I'd love it if this new film exceeds my expectations and Ridley Scott can prove he's still got it. But right now from where I'm sitting, this is a hell of a risk, and it doesn't help that reboot mania seems to be driving the decisionmaking more than any real creative impetus here. I hope that will change. I really do.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Good Year For Science Fiction Movies

I watched "Limitless" last night, which was essentially a new spin on "Flowers for Algernon," with an ending that some are going to find audacious and some are going to find an outrageous cheat. I might write up a full review of it later, but I want to talk about the bigger trend it's part of first. "Limitless" is one of a string of smaller, solid science-fiction films from earlier this year that I've been catching up on. There was also "The Adjustment Bureau," loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, that sent Matt Damon and Emily Blunt off on a metaphysical adventure, and "Source Code," which gave us alternate universes, time travel, and a little bit of body swapping. The indie circuit has also been serving up good buzz about Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's "Another Earth," Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," and Miranda July's "The Future," which all have science-fiction elements. Meanwhile, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" turned out to be a surprise late summer hit with a lot of critical support behind it.

2011 has been pretty good to science fiction fans so far. This isn't to say that there haven't been stinkers. We're currently smack in the middle of that invasion of alien invasion movies, which hasn't yielded many gems. "Battle: Los Angeles" and "Super 8" managed decent returns, but there have been some major flops like "Cowboys and Aliens" and "Mars Needs Moms." And of the ones I've seen so far, nobody has been doing anything novel or interesting with the concept. Frankly, the higher profile, bigger budget science-fiction films tend to be more concerned with putting their money on the screen than doing anything interesting with thier material. But that was always understood to be the tradeoff. Any film that wanted to include things like space travel or fully realized utopian societies always cost too much to risk being too cerebral or too niche. "Inception" was a big fat exception. Recently, however, that's started to change.

The cost of big, shiny, cutting-edge special effects still sends the budgets of tentpole films skyrocketing, but they've also come down enough that a good director who knows what he's doing can now tell much bigger stories for much less, or at least comparatively less. "Limitless" was peppered with eye-catching visual effects sequences, and cost less than $40 million, a steal for any action thriller these days. "Another Earth," with all its beautiful panoramic shots of a doppelganger planet, cost $150,000. Suddenly the big ideas are affordable. So why not have a romance like "The Adjustment Bureau" take place in a universe where every door is a potential teleporter? Why not make a brooding domestic drama with the literal end of the world as a backdrop, like "Melancholia" or "Take Shelter"? Now suddenly everyone seems to be making science fiction films, all the weird, brainy, alternative, oddball science fiction films that used to only be the domain of the auteurs and the independents. I seem to be stumbling over a new one every week, instead of two or three in a good year.

And they've been finding their audience. While most mid-range dramas and romances have been disappearing, the smaller-scale high-concept science-fiction feature has been carving out a niche for itself over the last few years. "Limitless," "Source Code," and "Adjustment Bureau" were all made for $30-50 million apiece, got released during the slower spring months, and made back their budgets plus a little extra, though none broke $100 million. All three were aimed at slightly older audiences, all dealt as much in ideas as action sequences, and I doubt any of them would have been made if they had been more expensive pictures. Well, maybe "The Adjustment Bureau" would have gotten through based on Matt Damon's involvement. But in that case, it would have been considered a major flop and probably put the studio off from making anything else like it for a long while.

I'm keeping an eye on several titles coming up later in the year like "In Time," "Contagion," "Hugo," and the remake of (the remake of) "The Thing." And I'm probably the last one holding out any hope that "Real Steel" won't be as silly as it looks, but this year has been full of surprises, so you never know. But what I'm really excited about is next year, and the year after, and all those smaller, under-the-radar science-fiction films that I haven't heard about yet, but that I know are getting made thanks to this year's crop of successes. Let's hope they can keep a good thing going.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Let's Visit "Uncle Boonmee"

The plot summary on the Netflix sleeve for last year's Palm D'Or winner, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," is nice and straightforward. Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying, and so spends his final days reminiscing over his past lives in the company of his relatives, both alive and dead. I'm not sure I ever would have figured that out if I'd seen the film blind, and I'm still not entirely convinced that this is what's going on, except that the title makes specific reference to Boonmee's past lives. Instead "Uncle Boonmee," directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul, is a series of encounters between its human characters and the spiritual world, and not all of them involve Boonmee.

We begin with a family reunion, as Boonmee's sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) arrive at Boonmee's farm, and no one voices out loud that they all expect it is for the last time. They chat about work and family, and Boonmee updates them on the progress of his illness. Later during dinner, the ghost of Huay, Boonmee's wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and a red-eyed, fur-covered "ghost monkey" who was once Boonsong, Boonmee's son (Jeerasak Kulhong) arrive at the kitchen table to chat some more and give updates on what they've been doing in the years they've all been separated. That's the kind of movie this is, slow and incidental and full of strange, fanciful occurrences that are never explained.

The lack of exposition and conventional narrative may confound some viewers. How can everyone react so calmly to the appearance of the ghost and spirit members of the family? How can a walk in the forest lead to a scene from a past life? And what on earth was going on with the monk who gains a double for no apparent reason? That's just the way things are in this universe, where the borders between one world and the next, one life and the next have grown very thin for Uncle Boonmee, and sometimes aren't there at all. So the natural and the supernatural worlds are situated together quite comfortably for him, and as we watchi him live out his final days, there's often no indication of when we're passing from one to the next.

Despite Boonmee's past lives being highlighted in the title of the film, they only take up a very small portion of the story, and we're never told who Boonmee is in any of the scenes as they play out. In the encounter we witness between a princess and her lovers, who is Boonmee? The princess? The catfish in the pond who speaks to her? Or someone else observing them? If I hadn't known this was a vision of a past life, I would have assumed the appearance of the princess was as simple fantasy. Is the opening scene with the runaway cow another past life? One segment unfurls in a wartime photo collage with soldiers in modern military fatigues - most likely memories from Boonmee's current life, but it's hard to be sure. If there is a key to decoding the film and Boonmee's spiritual path, I'm afraid haven't found it yet. Perhaps it's not there at all.

However, there's so much more in the film that's easy to overlook if you only focus on the supernatural questions. "Uncle Boonmee" is an exceptionally beautiful, immersive piece of cinema, especially when it explores the natural world, another universe that the modern characters must coexist with at all times. At the kitchen table, chirping cicadas provide the soundtrack. In bedroom scenes, there always seems to be a curtain or a bit of mosquito netting shifting slightly in the wind. Boonmee and his relatives visit jungles, waterfalls, mica-flecked caverns, and other nearby natural wonders as his time grows short, returning Boonmee to his roots in the most literal sense.

At a certain point I stopped trying to figure out the mechanics of what was going on in "Uncle Boonmee" and just sat back and let the film become an experience. Even if the plot was incomprehensible at times, the mood and the characters were not. Spending time with Boonmee's relatives felt like spending time with my own extended family on a humid summer night in Taipei or Southern California, with everyone gossiping about the neighbors' kids, batting at flies with paper fans, and then taking an unhurried walk around the neighborhood outskirts to cool off. The rhythm of life in the film is familiar and welcoming. The ghosts and red-eyed spirits, while a little unnerving, are benign. Unlike in most fantasy films, they serve not as instigators, but only as reminders.

I liked "Unclee Boonmee" very much, but it does take an open mind, a yen for the spiritual, and a lot of patience to get your head around. The title and that too-straightforward plot summary aren't wrong, but they are misleading as to the kind of movie this is and what its intentions are. To be honest, I'm not sure what its real intentions are after a single viewing, but I wouldn't mind sitting down with "Uncle Boonmee" again sometime to find out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What Are Your Overrated Movie Classics?

Last week Slate put up an article where they invited various notables to pick the classic books that they would kick out of the literary pantheon if they could. Turns out that I'm not alone in my doubts about James Joyce. But movies are my medium of choice, so I figured I'd try out the exercise with cinema classics - which of the great films, in my humble opinion, really aren't all that great? My five choices below.

"L'Atalante" - This highly influential 1934 French film directed by Jean Vigo contains lovely cinematography and some beautiful effects, but the story is bare bones, the character development is scant, and the performances are unmemorable. I understand that some of its groundbreaking technical and artistic achievements look rudimentary by today's standards, but that doesn't excuse the leaden pacing and the flat characters. Being languid and lyrical is all very well and good, but it's been done by so many others to so much better effect - see Murnau's "Sunrise," for instance - I don't understand how "L'Atalante" still ends up on so many Top Ten lists. Vigo was a great visual stylist, with a lot of offbeat charm and whimsy, but between this film and his "Zero for Conduct" short, I don't think much of him as a storyteller.

"Rashomon" - I understand why "Rashomon" is an important film. When it showed at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, it was the first encounter Western viewers had with Akira Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general. And of course it was groundbreaking for its narrative ingenuity and some new technical innovations. But "Rashomon" pales in comparison to Kurosawa's other films like "Seven Samurai," "Ikiru," and "Ran." I understand why doing something important first may rate some extra points when people make up these lists, but I think "Rashomon" has had the benefit of a few too many over the years. I like the film and appreciate it, but the older it gets, the more apparent its flaws become and the more gimmicky its premise comes across.

"The Lady Eve" - This one is a casualty of time and changed cultural mores. In 1941, I'm sure it was a perfectly delightful screwball comedy, courtesy of Preston Sturges. Now, it's hard to watch the film without cringing at some of the plot developments. To put it bluntly, Barbara Stanwick's con-artist character wins and reforms Jimmy Stewart's ladykiller character by wooing him both as herself and in disguise as a bad-girl named Eve. She seduces him as Eve first, than behaves so unbearably towards him, it sends Stewart running back into the loving arms of her real self. This sort of manipulation isn't funny when it's the man up to the hijinks, and even though I appreciate the role reversal, it's not funny when the woman plays the part of the jerk either. Stanwyck's performance is an awful lot of fun though.

"Gertrud" - I was entranced by "The Passion of Joan of Arc," moved by "Ordet" and "Day of Wrath," and bored to tears by Carl Theodor Dreyer's last major film, "Gertrud." It's literally a succession of conversations between the middle-aged Gertrud and the men in her life, presented in interminably long, slow, lingering shots that contain nothing particularly interesting to look at. "Ordet" was slow, but at least gave me moral dilemmas and religious turmoil. In "Gertrud," the heroine indulges in lukewarm existential angst about her life and relationships, and nothing important happens aside from her gentle rejection of potential suitors. Does it work as a character portrait of a strong-willed woman working out what she wants for herself? Sure. Would anyone have paid so much attention to it if Dreyer hadn't directed it? Hell, no.

"Shane" - I've mostly gotten over my biases about Westerns, but the one I could never seem to warm up to was "Shane." Brandon DeWilde as little Joey was naive to the point where I wondered if he was supposed to be mentally deficient. Alan Ladd's Shane looked the part of the iconic cowboy, but had all the personality of a fence post. I understand why people embraced the film back in 1953, why its sentiment and idealism hit home for so many. I liked the action scenes, the cinematography is gorgeous, and I can't be too hard on any film that features Jean Arthur as the female lead. It's a fun movie, but when you get down to it, "Shane" didn't do anything new or different or even very well. It's a good film, maybe, but not a great one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Superhero Summer at the Movies

Now I've seen all four of the big 2011 summer superhero movies, so it's time for a little post-game analysis and wrap-up. Who fared the best? Whose franchises are in trouble? What were the highlights and who needs to be sent back to the comic book store?

Financially, the big winners are "Thor" and "Captain America," the latter of which is still in the middle of its theatrical run, but performing about on par with its Nordic cousin. Both were made for about $140 million apiece, and both should make a profit based on domestic returns alone. "X-Men: First Class" won't quite manage that, having pulled in about $145 million so far on a $160 million budget, but the foreign numbers have been very healthy. "Green Lantern" is a flop, having made only around $115 million domestic on an estimated $200 million budget, and foreign audiences have been mostly ignoring it.

This puts Marvel and Paramount in a great position with the "Avengers" next year, being able to tout the convergence of stars from three hit films instead of just Tony Stark and some second-stringers. They should also be able to squeeze out at least a sequel apiece for "Thor" and "Captain America," no matter how "Avengers" performs. Warners has announced they're still looking into a "Green Lantern" sequel, but this may just be posturing to try and shore up the performance of the film while it's still in theaters. "X-Men: First Class" is in a trickier spot, since the prequel didn't do nearly as well as any of the prior "X-Men" films. However, director Matthrew Vaugh has expressed that he's perfectly willing to go ahead with more films in the same universe, and "First Class" had among the best reviews of any superhero outing this summer, according to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

What about the talent? Newcomers got much of the attention, including Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston from "Thor," and Hayley Atwell from "Captain America." Michael Fassbender has been a known quantity among the art house fans for a while now, but his performance as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class" has won him more buzz than all the rest combined. Chris Evans is also enjoying a career rebound for his work as Captain America, along with directors Joe Johnston and Kenneth Branagh, who have proven that they can helm moneymakers again. On the flip side, I'm afraid Ryan Reynolds' ascent to the A-list may prove short-lived after "Green Lantern" didn't take off. I don't think he really had much to do with the film's failure, but as the most prominent star associated with the project, it doesn't reflect well on him. Maybe Reynolds should consider returning to the Marvel camp to play Deadpool again.

But what about what really counts? When you take away all the marketing chatter and the financial measures and the hype and the hand-wringing, were the 2011 superhero films good entertainment? Do they measure up to the best of the genre? And what do they mean for the future of cinema superheroes, if they mean anything at all?

Despite a few prognostications of doom, I see no indications that filmmakers are running out of things to do with superheroes creatively. The Marvel films tackled challenges like period settings, fantasy elements, and the idea of a shared universe where Nick Fury was running around behind the scenes to set up a movie we're not going to see until next summer. The biggest takeaway of the year is that Marvel can turn out good films based on its most outlandish properties and unlikely ideas. I thought "Thor" didn't have much of a story and "First Class" was only lukewarm when James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender weren't on the screen, but both films had a momentum and a confidence to them that DC's "Green Lantern" was sorely lacking. This bodes well for future risky Marvel projects like the "Spider-Man" reboot, "The Avengers," and its possible spin-off films.

DC has a lot of potential and a lot of good superheroes in its roster that I think are long overdue for film adaptations, but Warner Brothers has been far too cautious and shown a consistent lack of faith in their material. There is no reason why "Green Lantern" should have turned out the mess that it was with all the talent they had onboard, or why we don't have "Wonder Woman" or "Flash" films yet. If they let the failure of "Lantern" slow them down, they're going to keep falling further and further behind Marvel. I thought there were plenty of good things about "Green Lantern" worth salvaging, and if DC is serious about a sequel I hope they learn from their mistakes and Marvel's successes. With the next "Superman" movie facing delays and Christopher Nolan's Batman films coming to an end, they need to get their act together and soon.

In the end, I think there was only one great superhero film this year that's going to last the test of time, and that's "Captain America.'' It's not "The Dark Knight" or the original "Superman," but it's at least up there with the best of Spidey and the X-men. Like "Iron Man," "Captain America" was such a great blend of old-fashioned values with modern sensibilities and just a little bit of subversion of formula. "X-Men: First Class" had better individual sequences and a bromance for the ages, but the Captain won me over more fully with the consistent excellence of the production. It was a better movie and a better time at the theater.

I love superhero movies and I'm glad that they're still making strides and will be around for a long time to come in the future. I was deeply skeptical at the beginning of the summer about most of these films, but I was proven wrong at nearly every turn. Yes, we did need another "X-Men" movie. Yes, a "Captain America" film could not only work, but be a lot of fun. And alas, "Green Lantern" sucked, but not for any of the reasons the geeks were worried about. And "Thor," well, I don't have much to say about "Thor." I thought it was mediocre, but I'd give a sequel a chance.

That's it until next year, when "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avenger" make landfall. Happy watching, superhero fans. A more comprehensive wrap-up on the summer is coming soon, once I take care of a few loose ends.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Second Guessing the Studios

Things have been pretty exciting in Hollywood lately. Last week Disney halted one of their tentpole films for next Christmas, "The Lone Ranger," which would have paired up Johnny Depp with director Gore Verbinski again, with Jerry Bruckheimer producing. A ballooning budget was responsible, apparently, and the film may yet go forward if the filmmakers can figure out a way to get costs down. And over at AMC, it came out that showrunner Frank Darabont was fired from the popular zombie series, "The Walking Dead," over the network's attempts to reduce the show's budget. AMC has been in very contentious negotiations with all three of its most prominent shows, and finally reached a deal for the final season of "Breaking Bad" over the weekend.

But this post isn't about Disney or AMC, but about the media response to their decisions. Over the past week, we've been bombarded by story after story evaluating and second-guessing the actions of studio executives. Over at AICN, the the most prominent feature has been an editorial calling for regime change at AMC, and it's only one of many articles that have questioned the competency of the AMC brass. The reaction to "The Lone Ranger" scuttling has been more positive, but there have been plenty of eyebrows raised at the fact that the studio's biggest star plus Jerry Bruckheimer wasn't enough to launch a new franchise at the Mouse House. Every entertainment reporter out there has been very gung ho to figure out what it all might mean.

This kind of intense media scrutiny wasn't possible before the internet, when you had the trade papers and a few columnists covering Hollywood deal-making, and that was about it. Even then, the more comprehensive coverage was largely inaccessible to those who couldn't afford a Variety subscription. Sure, everyone who loves the movies has heard the stories about the studio titans of the old days, but Hollywood had a certain autonomy to it back then, a sense of being closed off from the influence of anyone who wasn't in the game themselves. Big deals were announced, sure, but you didn't get nearly as much information about budget numbers and accounting tricks and all the behind-the-scenes wrangling as you do these days. In the age of Deadline and HSX, if the hard numbers aren't available, there's always an analyst ready with unofficial or estimated numbers ready to go.

The old-school press may grumble about the decline of traditional publications, but more people are getting more information about the entertainment industry than ever. And with all these new facts and figures available, everybody can play studio mogul now. The chatter about executive decisionmaking just keeps getting louder and bolder, especially when the studios do something that fans don't like, which is pretty often. Everyone has always had their eye on Hollywood, but it's only been in recent years that we've all gotten ourselves such a handy platform to talk about Hollywood called the Internet. And we all have an opinion about what's going on, from the entertainment reporters to the link retweeters and everyone in between.

Of course Disney should have shut down "Lone Ranger" if the budget was expected to go over $250 million. Disney is crazy for not jumping on the opportunity to start another blockbuster franchise with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski. But "The Lone Ranger" is too old and obscure a brand to be the basis for a tentpole, and Westerns have been doing terribly lately. But the studio has already committed all these funds to pre-production, set a release date, and the major talent is under pay-or-play contracts, so it's economically riskier not to make the film at this point. But should they really take the risk of ending up with another Bruckheimer dud like "Prince of Persia" or "Sorcerer's Apprentice" on their hands?

See what I mean? If Disney makes a wrong step here, everyone's going to pounce. I guess the big question is whether this kind of increased transparency and scrutiny is a good thing or a bad thing. I'm leaning toward it being a good thing, because it does create a new kind of enhanced accountability in Hollywood that didn't exist before. AMC might have been able to keep its behind-the-scenes difficulties out of the spotlight in the print age, or at least the juiciest details, but now there's a good chance that everyone who actually watches "The Walking Dead" has heard that teh show is in deep trouble. That puts more pressure on AMC to straighten up and fly right, before its investors start listening to the naysayers. One anonymous kook on the internet doesn't mean much, but a whole lot of them saying the same thing can make a difference.

These days Big Brother may be watching us, but once it a while it cuts both ways.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Let's Talk About the Ending of "Source Code"

Firstly, a mini-review. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I recommend it. This is a good, no-frills science-fiction thriller, a solid second outing for director Duncan Jones, and features good work from a lot of dependable actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.

"Source Code" has been out on DVD and readily available via all the usual rental services for a few weeks, so I think it's safe to address the film's ending, which has sparked so much debate and discussion. When I set out to write up a review of the film, I found the only strong opinions I really had were about the ending, so I decided to devote the whole post to it. And now, on to the spoilers.

Many think that "Source Code" should have ended a few minutes before it did, with one particularly striking variation on a freeze-frame shot, which would have let the story conclude on a poignant note. Instead, we got a brief coda that gave the film a much more conventional happy ending, which ended up frustrating many critics and viewers. Many assumed the studio had demanded the last few minutes be added to make the film more palatable, but according to interviews, it was the director who fought for the happier ending while the studio preferred the darker one.

Whose side am I on? First, I don't agree with the assumption that just because "Source Code" dealt with heavy subject matter, and was strongly influenced by films like "Johnny Got His Gun" and "La Jetée," which had unhappy endings, that "Source Code" was also obligated to have one. Duncan Jones' last science-fiction film, "Moon," explores similarly themes but ends on a fairly upbeat note as well, and no one was complaining about it. But that said, I prefer the darker ending, and thought that the coda weakened the rest of the film.

I wasn't bothered by the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal's character got a new life (stolen from someone else, my boyfriend pointed out), won the girl, and cheated certain death. The possibility of alternate branching universes being created by his actions in the "source code" program had been set up earlier in the film, along with some discussion of time travel and causality that foreshadowed the ending. The plot played out in a fairly conventional way that anyone familiar with mainstream science-fiction films could have predicted was coming.

My beef with the ending of "Source Code" comes down to the execution. While I think that Duncan Jones did a fantastic job with the rest of the film, the alternate universe coda came off as pretty ham-handed. It went on for too long, removed any the ambiguity about the hero's fate, and had a distinct feeling of tying up loose ends while also leaving room for a possible sequel. It also pales in comparison to the false ending, which would have left Gyllenhaal's character and all the others on the doomed commuter train frozen forever in a moment of joy and mirth as the source code program was terminated.

I get the sense that the filmmakers only intended the freeze-frame scene on the train to be a fake-out, and perhaps inadvertently created an ending to the film that was better than the one they had in mind. I doubt it was intended for viewers to become so attached to the false resolution to the story that they would reject the events that followed, but that's exactly what happened. In so many reviews and reactions I've read, people were deeply disappointed that the ambiguous, bittersweet finale that they thought they were getting was totally negated by what came after.

My reaction was similar. While I was watching the coda play out, I wondered whether we were going to get a second coda to subvert the first, similar to "Brazil" or last year's "Repo Men." Surely the film wasn't going to end on such a jarringly upbeat note after all the dark, paranoid intensity that had come before, was it? And yet, I think I'm among the few who believes that the ending Jones wanted could have worked, if it had been truncated, if it had been made more ambiguous, or if maybe it had just been crosscut with scenes of what was going on in the universe where the hero and everyone else on the train did die.

I still think Duncan Jones does stellar work and has a lot of potential, but this was a misstep. Moreover, it was a big one. I mean, a lot of films stumble with their endings, but "Source Code" is one of those rare pictures, along with Steven Spielbeg's "A.I." that gave us these bold, moving, powerful endings – and then abandoned them for lesser ones. I liked "Source Code," but I'm afraid I'm always going to remember it for what it could have been and almost was, instead of the movie it is.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

DC's Great "Green" Hope

I didn't grow up with Green Lantern, and was only introduced to him through the various animated "Justice League" and "Superman" cartoons. I liked John Stewart, the African American Lantern who featured the most prominently in those versions. I wasn't clear on all the particulars of the Green Lantern ring that gave him his superpowers, or the Oath that was his creed, but I didn't need to. I liked the character, and when I heard that Warner Brothers was going to bring him to the big screen, I was looking forward to it. Of all the superhero films this summer, this was the one I thought had the best shot at success. You had a solid director in Martin Campbell, a rising star in Ryan Reynolds to play Hal Jordan, and a story that had a lot of potential.

Hal Jordan's origin differs from most, because the Green Lantern is one of many, each chosen by his or her ring, the source of every Lantern's power, to become a member of the Green Lantern Corp. Think intergalactic marines, who recruit from every corner of the galaxy. Hal, a test pilot, is called to duty when an alien Lantern named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) loses a battle with a villain called Parallax, and crash lands on Earth, mortally wounded. Hal becomes the first human member of the Corp, a distinction that doesn't impress his new mentor Sinestro (Mark Strong), the Lantern who is leading the continuing fight against Parallax.

Of course Hal also needs a more personal villain to do battle with at home on Earth. Enter Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a troubled scientist who is exposed to Parallax and gains a very different set of superpowers. His beef with Hal is that both of them are in love with leading lady Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), Hal's childhood sweetheart and fellow test pilot at Ferris Engineering. Carol is also a rising executive at the company, owned by her family, and growing increasingly frustrated with Hal's flyboy antics. Put down a check for romantic tensions and mild bickering. Are we missing a comic relief character? Well, there's Thomas Kalmaku (Taika Waititi), upgraded from Hal's mechanic in the comics to an engineer in the film. He's really only around to be the helpful ally in a pinch, and someone for Hal to show off his new Lantern powers to.

Does this sound awfully formulaic and by-the-numbers yet? My guess is that "Green Lantern" was made by people who had been told what elements had to appear in a Green Lantern movie, and dutifully followed orders, but had no particular understanding or passion for the property itself. Despite multiple alien characters and superpowers that allow Hal Jordan to create literally any weapon he can imagine from the ring's energy, the film comes off as woefully lacking in imagination and short on surprises. The lousy script is so concerned with laying out plodding, predictable story beats, and making sure we understand all the nerdy technical things, like the difference between the green energy used by the heroes and the yellow energy used by the villains, it barely makes room for anything else.

I think part of the problem was the scale of the story, which has to send Hal off to other planets, and have him use these fantastic powers that are visually so outlandish that they often look cartoonish. The CGI suit and the special effects everyone was so worried about looked perfectly fine to me, but it was clear that the filmmakers had less faith, and were wary of leaning too heavily on the sequences where Hal is off training on the Lanterns' base on the planet Oa, and the scenes where he uses the ring. So we get action set-pieces that feel too short and perfunctory, and that hardly take advantage of the promised potential of the Green Lantern's powers. The most interesting elements are totally ignored or wasted. You'd think, having established that the ring needs to be periodically recharged in a literal green lantern, this would figure into the plot somehow.

But no. Instead, the film spends a lot of time pushing the story of Hector Hammond as a parallel to Hal Jordan. This doesn't really work, because the writers do such a poor job of establishing who Hammond is to any of the other characters or setting up any emotional stakes before he begins his transformation, and there's nothing particularly distinctive about him post-transformation aside from the comically huge cranium we've seen him sporting in all the television ads. Hal Jordan suffers many of the same problems, though to a lesser degree. He gets several anchoring relationships – with Carol, Thomas, a worried brother, a cute nephew, and a departed father – but all of them are badly underdeveloped. Only Carol is involved in the climactic ending, despite the movie deliberately taking the time to introduce all the others. What gives? All these loose ends suggest the four credited writers were working at odds with whoever was editing the film, or were simply not up to the task.

At least Ryan Reynolds has the presence and the charisma to keep Hal sympathetic, even though he behaves like a jackass for the first act, turns into a cipher for the rest of the movie, and gets the worst of some awful, awful dialogue. I felt bad for Reynolds, since this was supposed to be his shot at the big leagues, and now he's forever connected to a notorious flop. Carol Ferris was similarly a one-note shrew, but Blake Lively showed signs of a more promising performance as well. It was depressing to see so many other good actors wasted, like Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett. They didn't deserve to have this movie happen to them. Nobody did, least of all the Green Lantern himself, who could have been such a great contender in this summer's superhero wars.

I don't know what went wrong behind the scenes, why DC and Warner Brothers couldn't figure out how to make this story work when their competitors were doing so much more with considerably more difficult material. All I know is that "Green Lantern" felt slapped-together, amateurish, and all the extra money spent on special effects created some shiny images, but couldn't hide the fundamental truth that the script did not work. Maybe they should have focused more on the grander scale space opera sequences, which were the most consistent parts of the film. Or maybe they should have minimized the presence of aliens and confined the story to Earth, with Hal learning about the ring on his own, and only introduce the Corp at the end. Maybe a lighter tone and a few good one-liners would have helped.

And that's what I'm left with, a lot of maybes and what-ifs and coulda-beens, instead of the "Green Lantern" movie I wanted to see.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Avoid TV Spoilers

Have you read about that new study that says spoilers don't really affect how much we enjoy films and TV shows? Yeah, I don't buy it.

On my Twitter feed the other day, someone innocently made an offhand reference to an event, which I will abbreviate as "RW." I ran the term through Google, not realizing what it was, and found myself confronted with a major potential spoiler for a future season of "Game of Thrones." I managed to hit the back button before I learned the particulars of how "RW" played out, but much of the damage was done. I knew the broad outlines of the event, and knew roughly when to expect it would be coming, and so had likely ruined a major surprise for myself. Grrr. Aaargh. There was nothing I could do but try to forget about it as best I could and move on. Stumbling over some spoilers on the internet in this day and age is inevitable. I've done plenty of ranting about this before.

However, there are ways to minimize the potential for getting spoiled for shows, and some of these tactics are a necessity when you're catching up older programs like "The Sopranos," "Battlestar Galactica," or "Lost" and still want to be able to maintain an online presence. The easiest way, of course, is to simply stay away from everything online that concerns the show you're watching until you've finished, every Wikipedia and IMDB article, ever message board, and every review. If you're like me though, and like using some of these resources while watching a show, then more complex tactics need to be employed.

First and foremost, you want to avoid the official sites for a show if you're more than a few episodes behind, especially if it's still on the air. One of the most frustrating accidental spoilers I ever came across was for the ending of the first season of "Dexter." I was introduced to the show through the CBS rebroadcast a few summers ago. When I went to the official "Dexter" site to figure out how many episodes I had left to watch, I stumbled across introductory information for the then current second season, which started out by spoiling the first season finale in the first damn sentence. The primary purpose of official show sites is to get you to watch the show is it is airing, which means they frequently try to catch latecomers up on the story through spoilerific summaries of what's gone on before. This helps infrequent watchers, but not the viewers like me working through older seasons.

Enjoy reading reviews and summaries and post-show online discussion? There are plenty of sites with archives of older reviews, like AV Club, and they're relatively safe to browse as long as you keep an eye on the publication dates. These also tend to be pretty good sources of information for identifying specific characters and actors and other general information. The show guides and credit listings on IMDB and Wikipedia are more accessible of course, but they're also rife with more recent information and news tidbits that create a higher chance of spoilers, because these sites strive to provide up-to-date information. With IMDB cast lists, the name of the actor who plays a particular character on "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" may come with how many episodes they appeared in, often a dead giveaway that their characters gets killed off in an upcoming episode.

Fan-run sites and communities tend to be a mixed bag, but the ones that try to be newbie-friendly will often do a better job of policing spoilers and putting up warnings than the bigger sites will. So many people are introduced to older shows through DVD sets now, that there's more sensitivity about spoilers among fans than there used to be. You take your chances with the trolls and the jerks, but in my experience the attention seekers tend to gravitate toward the larger, more official sites. Comments on articles and message board discussion threads are also riskier, but again, in the ones dated to the time roughly when the show originally aired, the spoilers should be minimal.

There are always going to be those spoilers that seep into the popular culture, like the final scene of "The Sopranos" or the rage over the first season ending of AMC's "The Killing," but otherwise I've found that once you figure out where the spoilers about a show tend to accumulate, they're much easier to avoid. I've successfully managed to remain spoiler-free about "Boardwalk Empire," "The Walking Dead," and many other shows that have gotten a lot of chatter recently, so I can enjoy them later on my own terms. And frankly, I these days I often have more fun mainlining older TV programs than watching the new ones week to week.

Happy watching!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bludgeoned by "Biutiful"

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is known for making a certain kind of film, one with multiple narratives following diverse characters through stories about grief, loss, and transcendence. But after he parted ways with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who penned his previous features "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," and "Babel," many wondered what the impact would be on Iñárritu's work. "Biutiful," his fourth film, is a break from the norm in some ways, but continues to display the director's penchant for stories about families and tragedy. It's two and a half hours of utterly depressing drama, only made bearable by Iñárritu's facility with finding beautiful visuals in unlikely places, and an outstanding performance by leading man Javier Bardem.

Instead of multiple narratives, Iñárritu chooses to focus his attentions on a single story, that of Uxbal (Bardem), a small time operator in Barcelona's underworld. Though he makes his living facilitating black market deals, Uxbal does his best not to exploit the recent immigrants who figure into his schemes, including Chinese sweatshop workers, managed by a pair of gay lovers, Hai (Taisheng Cheng) and Liwei (Luo Jin), and the Senegalese Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye) who moves pirated merchandise on the streets. He is also a single father to two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), who he is strict with, but who mean everything to him. Their mother is the deeply troubled Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) a bipolar wreck of a woman who is sleeping with Uxbal's brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) on the sly. When Uxbal learns he has terminal prostate cancer and only months to live, he must put his affairs in order, take care of outstanding business matters, and find someone to look after his children.

"Biutiful" is a lovely film to look at, and Iñárritu is great at sussing out images of unexpected beauty in everything from the urban landscape to kitchen lampshades. I didn't mind the languid pacing and meditative moments of stillness, though I don't think they added much either. However, when it comes to telling the story at hand, the director's tactics are so heavy-handed they often become unbearable. Iñárritu piles so many troubles on Uxbal's shaggy, graying head that they require no small suspension of disbelief, and some of the plot twists are so manipulative that they border on distasteful. One element I never thought really worked was the idea that Uxbal had some minor psychic powers and could commune with the recently deceased. This is clearly supposed to introduce more spiritual themes that I just found too pandering and on-the-nose. I had similar problems with the dismal dramatics of Iñárritu's "Babel," but "Biutiful" has the benefit of better actors who help to make some of the absurdities of the script more palatable.

Most of the heavy lifting is done by Javier Bardem, who is magnetic every time he appears onscreen. He conveys the emotional weight of Uxbal's despair and desperation so well, without ever being showy or obvious. Though Iñárritu lost me about halfway through "Biutiful," once I realized where the story was going, Bardem never did. His best scenes are with the children or with Maricel Álvarez as Marambra, a woman he clearly still loves but can no longer trust. Álvarez also deserves abundant praise for portraying Marambra as such a an awful, poignant mess, but still a sympathetic human being. When she pleads her case for being allowed to look after the children, she is convincing enough that we understand why Uxbal relents, and yet at the same time it's immediately obvious he's making a terrible mistake.

I think "Biutiful" is worth a watch for these performances, but Alejandro González Iñárritu needs to regroup and reevaluate. It's all well and good for him to keep making these miserable passion plays, but after "Biutiful," I'm not sure he can push in these direction much further without becoming the Mexican Lars von Trier. I do appreciate his eye for composition, his yen for multiculturalism, and his ability to assemble such wonderful talent, but I get the sense that Iñárritu has become mired by his early successes. His movies have gotten more and more pretentious and weighty and meaningful, and are now on the verge of collapsing under their own angst. He would benefit by broadening his horizons into other genres and other kinds of stories, if only for a chance of pace. I hope with "Biutiful" he's exorcised some of these lingering personal demons at last, so he can finally move on as a filmmaker. And then maybe I can stop coming out of his movies feeling like hell.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Already Hate "H8R"

Remember that montage at the end of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," when the title duo find the names and addresses of trash-talking online commenters from a movie discussion board, track down the offenders, and proceed to pummel each poor dweeb into oblivion? That was a fun bit of fantasy catharsis for director Kevin Smith, but no one in the media would be stupid enough to try that in real life, would they?

Well, last week CW announced its new reality show "H8R," that's more or less going to take that "Jay and Silent Bob" premise, remove the physical pummeling, and stick it on prime time. In each installment, according to TV Guide, a celebrity like Snooki from "Jersey Shore" will ambush and confront one of their online "haters." The sales pitch is that the show will contain a strong anti-bullying message and empower victims. However, anonymous online vitriol-spewing trolls are not bullies. They're trolls. The insults they lob are meant to entertain themselves and those like them. Their rants are never meant or expected to be seen by the celebrities in question, and are easily ignored. Moreover, celebrities are public figures by nature of their profession, which makes them perfectly legitimate targets for public criticism and discussion. Snooki and Kim Kardashian aren't some poor high school freshmen being harassed by the cool kids all over Facebook, but well-compensated TV starlets who play up their own bad behavior as part of their public personas. So when they single out some poor inconsiderate schmuck for belittling them online, that makes them the bullies.

And that's not even getting into the power imbalance that's inherent in the show's setup. Each target who appears on "H8R" thinks they've been recruited for a different reality show. They have no warning before they're suddenly getting lectured at by some indignant C-lister who wants to make it clear that "rich and famous people are really wounded and hurt when they hear someone hating on them," according to executive produced Mike Fleiss. And of course, we know whose side the cameras and the editing folks are on. The goal is to get the hater to renounce his or her hating ways and make up with the celebrity browbeater in a round of hugs and apologies. The setup is so absurd that it doesn't always go according to script, and those behind the show have admitted that sometimes the haters refuse to be intimidated and just go right on hating. Will these segments go to air, I wonder? An average schmoe shouting down and knocking one of these celebrity accusers off their high horse sounds a lot more entertaining than the other way around.

The only reason I can imagine that any celebrity would want to appear on "H8R" is for the network screentime and a chance for a little "image rehab" as the producers put it. Snooki's episode has already been shot, and apparently gives her a chance to talk about her charity work. Of course, this begs the question why, if Snooki wants to come off as a better human being, why she doesn't just change her dim-bulb party-girl act on "Jersey Shore" or in any of the other media arenas she already occupies. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too. If Snooki complains to the hater she confronts that he's not getting the whole story about her, that's not really his fault, now is it?

On a meta level, maybe this is some indication of the growing influence of the Internet and Twitter, arenas that the traditional media gatekeepers have found they can't control as much as they'd like to. "H8R" feels like an attempt to counterbalance the collective power of the anonymous masses who hold sway on message boards and discussion forums and now play a big part in shaping attitudes toward media. A crucial part of "H8R" is taking away that anonymity so that a single identifiable individual can be held responsible for the negative views expressed by many. In an odd way, the entire show is actually an admission that the trolls and the haters have a certain measure of real clout, and that Hollywood may be secretly scared to death of them, hence the ridiculously overblown celebrity reactions to what some nobody said on the internet.

Is anyone going to watch "H8R"? Initially, there's sure to be some curiosity over the concept, but I can't see an audience sticking around once they realize how one-sided the farce is. Will the show actually change any attitudes? Of course not. This might actually create an uptick in celebrity-targeting takedowns by people looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. And though the show's creators might be able to pressure their targets into renouncing trolldom, there are millions of others who will go right on mocking Snooki and the Kardashians, then mock the reformed haters for caving, and then mock "H8R" for trying to shame them with such obvious tactics. I am already anticipating the parodies and send-ups that are sure to come.

And though I am blogging with a pseudonym, I'll be quite happy to tell anyone involved with the show to their face that "H8R" is a really stupid idea.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Will "Twilight" Be a Classic?

Marketing jargon is great at twisting the definition of simple words. A blockbuster film used to be a play or a film that was massively popular and financially successful, such as "Jaws" or "Star Wars." Of course, since there were no strict definitions of what a blockbuster was, soon advertisers started referring to all big films as blockbusters, then all films that were expected to be big as blockbusters. Nowadays, they usually refer to movies that have large studio-funded budgets, like most of the summer franchise films.

Then we have the word classic, which used to mean an older favorite that stood the test of time and was still popular with contemporary viewers. Think "The Wizard of Oz," "It's a Wonderful Life," and "The Ten Commandments." In the hands of DVD and Blu-ray hawkers, a classic is any older film, whether well-regarded or not. On Netflix, "Classic" designates films of a certain age. Of course some have tried to apply the term to newer films too. "A new family classic!" is a common line of totally oxymoronic advertising copy. Disney used to release everything on video as a "Walt Disney Classic," including all of their new releases. They can get away with it, I think, since Disney is awfully good about maintaining their legacy films and making sure they stick around in circulation forever.

But for many film fans, I've noticed, the term "classic" still manages to retain loftier connotations, and you'll occasionally see debates about what the criteria should be. How old does a film have to be before you can start slapping on the moniker? How popular does it have to be to be regarded as a real classic instead of a cult classic? Does box office matter? Does name recognition? How about influence and historical/cultural value? It's funny that you rarely see anyone ask whether a classic film has to be any good or not, because the presumption is that a film that is still remembered and beloved after a certain span of years by so many people must be good. And that brings us to "Twilight."

People, mostly female, love the "Twilight" books and movies. Other people, of both genders, hate and revile them. To date, I still haven't seen more than the occasional trailer or television commercial for the film series, which launched with the first "Twilight" in 2008, so I'm not taking sides. However, it's plain that these movies are massively successful and profitable, have been very influential on the popular culture, and they're going to be remembered in years to come by a whole generation of girls and women. It's premature to call "Twilight" a classic yet, but by all indications it stands a very good chance of being one in the future, especially if it manages to work its magic again on up-and-coming young audiences.

"But it's a terrible movie!" the naysayers rage. And yes, it probably is, but that doesn't make a difference in the long run. "Dr. No" is a fairly tame thriller, but it retains its place in history and movie lovers' hearts because it was the first James Bond movie. I thought "Jason and the Argonauts" was a bore, except for those fantastic Ray Harryhausen special effects sequences that have gotten so much press over the years. And have you seen the original "Star Wars" lately? I love that film as much as anyone else, but I have to agree with more critical viewers who point out the stiff acting, dodgy effects, and crummy science. Time has a tendency of making people forget or be more forgiving of the bad bits.

As someone who watches a lot of older films, I'm continually astonished at the kind of mediocre stuff that gets so much attention, while better quality titles languish in obscurity. Shirley Temple and Busby Berkeley have been immortalized, but no one save the academics and the film geeks like me think much of mostly forgotten directors like Victor Sjöström and Erich von Stroheim - both probably better known to the general public for acting performances than the masterpieces they directed. So it's probably inevitable that "Twilight" and "Transformers" and their ilk are going to be what most people will look back on fondly in seventy or eighty years, while the more prestigious, less accessible films become even more niche than they are now. Quality doesn't have a thing to do with it, and never did.

So sure, "Twilight" will probably be considered a classic in the future. But given enough time, all high profile films become classic films eventually, whether through marketing tactics or our own nostalgia. It's really not anything to get worked up about.

Monday, August 8, 2011

7 Things That Bothered Me About "Harry Potter"

I think we're far removed enough from the final "Harry Potter" film that I can get a few issues I've had with the franchise off my chest. These are mostly nitpicks, but the series has been around long enough and discussed and dissected to such an extent that I think it can stand a little more good-natured needling.

What's With the Labels? - Hogwarts divides up students into four houses, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, according to their most prominent traits. All the cool kids are in Gryffindor because they have alpha personalities, while all the bullies are in Slytherin, the smarties are in Ravenclaw, and the losers are in Hufflepuff. Good grief, I thought the cliques in high school were bad. I know houses are a real feature of boarding schools, but putting such obvious labels on kids is always iffy, especially as they get older, and creating this obvious hierarchy within the wizard school just seems to be asking for trouble. It also puts too much value on qualities like being brave and headstrong, and discounts other positive traits like loyalty, constance, intelligence, and cunning. So much of children's fiction is about breaking down arbitrary categories like this, it's a little disturbing to find one that reinforces so many stereotypes.

What Happened to Banding Together To Defeat Evil? - Since the four Hogwarts houses have relatively even numbers, apparently the quarter of the wizard population that gets sorted into Slytherin is comprised of irredeemable evil folks, conspirators, and cowards. At least in the book JK Rowling had a few major Slytherin characters turn against Voldemort in the end, but in the film, the entire Slytherin population of Hogwarts gets sent to the dungeons for the duration of the big battle, or sneak out the back when no one is looking. Gee, that's a great message to send to the kids with totally understandable negative emotions that might get the better of them sometimes. Once a baddie, always a baddie, huh? Maybe I'm just bitter because I think I'd be sorted as a Slytherin at Hogwarts, due to my penchant for schadenfreude. Or Ravenclaw for being an incurable know-it-all.

Is Part of My Soul Stuck in That Portrait? - The existence of the living portraits always creeped me out. The people in the paintings don't have full lives, but we've seen that they do have their own wills and emotions and memories. So it's a jolt to realize that they're trapped forever within their frames, stuck living with whoever happens to inherit them with no hope of escape. In other stories, that's considered a fate worse than death. Sure, there are the lucky ones like the Pink Lady, who watches over the Gryffindor dorm and gets to interact with people on a daily basis, but then you have the covered-up, hidden-away portraits like the nasty Mrs. Black. Wouldn't you be grumpy after spending decades stuck in an abandoned house, with only Kreacher to talk to? Who would ever want to get their picture painted and risk having their portrait end up like that?

Better Education Through Child Endangerment? - I think Dumbledore is great and all, but I'm not sure I'd want to send my wizardly kid to a remote boarding school like Hogwarts, especially when the place constantly seems to be a magnet for danger and peril. What are the alternatives if you'd rather not subject your little spellcaster to mortal danger every year? There are other schools in the "Potter" universe like Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, but Hogwarts seems to be the only choice if you want to stay in the United Kingdom. The wizarding population is notably smaller than the human one, so maybe they don't really need all that many schools, but Hogwarts still feels like it has a skeevy monopoly on the educational destinies of too many kids. It's the kind of thing that might make you want to consider homeschooling.

Doubting Dumbledore Continued - I can understand Harry and friends being so loyal to Dumbledore in the early books, when they were kids and the readers were still expected to trust in the obvious authority figures. However, when Harry reached his adolescent years and was due for some teenage rebellion, he rarely questioned Dumbledore or tried to fight against his destiny to defeat Voldemort. One reason why I never empathized much with Harry was because he was too willing to go along with Dumbledore's plans, even after the headmaster kicked the bucket and we learned he wasn't a saint. Then again, we never saw Harry being given any alternate paths to take, or other choices about how to fight Voldemort. That made Harry's loyalty to Dumbledore too easy, I suppose, because Dumbledore was always the only game in town.

Ever Hear of College? - One thing totally missing from the "Harry Potter" universe is universities, colleges, and any kind of higher education. So much of the Potter series mirrors the typical school life of British kids, complete with testing for the equivalent of O Levels and A levels, so this means that the majority of the wizarding population only has a secondary or high school education. Apparently some of the kids from the series continued to study specialized subjects with specific professors or got further job-specific training, but the details are awfully sketchy. Then again the heroes spend their last year of school, when they would have been talking up their future plans, running around in the woods trying not to be killed by evil megalomaniacs. I guess priorities were going to end up a little skewed.

Little Wizards - The epilogue was fine in a kind of classical, reaffirmation of the nuclear family and life is cyclical kind of way. On the other hand, it does suggest that Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and even Draco all got themselves married and had kids in their early-to-mid-twenties. Of course we don't know what else they've been doing - if they had other adventures along the way or active careers or whatnot - but everyone having kids by twenty-five just doesn't seem plausible in this day and age, when the average marriage age in the UK is well above that. Eh, maybe it's just a wizard thing.