Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" (and "Fables," Oh My)

Since writing up this post about the potential similarities between the Bill Willingham comic "Fables," and the new fairy-tale themed shows "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm," I've finally had the chance to sit down and watch the two pilots and do some assessment. Thought I'd share a few thoughts on them below.

Of the two, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" appears more impressive at first glance. It has a cast with bigger names, and the creators seem much more gung-ho about the whole fairy-tale idea. In the pilot, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and other fairy-tale characters are transported by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) to a small town in Maine called Storybrooke. They live out normal lives, with no memory of who they really are, but they can't leave and never age. The only one who can break the spell is the grown-up daughter of the prince and princess, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), spirited away to Earth as a baby before the spell could affect her. Emma is brought to Storybrooke at the urging of her own son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who she had to give up at birth, and reappears in her life as a precocious ten-year-old. Henry knows the truth about Storybrooke, but his adoptive mother is none other than the Evil Queen – the town's mayor.

"Once Upon A Time" is so family-friendly, brightly-colored, and utterly harmless, it almost makes my skin crawl. It does nothing remotely interesting with the fairy-tale characters, letting them all conform to the utterly sanitized, cartoonish, Disney-fied versions that the popular culture is familiar with. And no surprise, as "Once Upon a Time" airs on the Disney-owned ABC network and makes use of its library of characters. Human versions of Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) and Grumpy the Dwarf (Lee Arenberg) appear in the pilot, and the extended cast list promises more to come. Aside from Jennifer Morrison, the performances are too broad and over-the-top. Lana Parilla's bald-faced bitchery is already making me think this could end up being "Desperate Housewives" with glass slippers. The writing is clever in some respects, but so bland and so clearly uninterested in exploring the classic stories in any real depth, I found it hard to stay engaged. Also, the production design is pretty atrocious – like Disney's "Enchanted" or their 90s "Cinderella" special on a fraction of the budget.

I'm much more partial to NBC's "Grimm," which takes a completely different approach. It's a police procedural, following police officer Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), who discovers he's descended from a line of Grimms, who protect humanity from fairy-tale villains. Russell Hornsby plays Hank Griffin, Nick's partner, and Bitsie Tulloch plays his girlfriend. Two other characters more worthy of note in the first hour are Nick's tough Aunt Marie (Kate Burton), and Eddie Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a twitchy, reformed "blutbad," better known as a Big Bad Wolf. The Blutbaden, who live among humans and are undetectable save by Grimms, are set up as the major villains of the series. In the first hour, a blutbad snatches girls wearing red hoods, including one who took a shortcut that she shouldn't have.

"Grimm" has a pretty shaky first outing, but I also think it has a better premise and the right attitude toward adapting fairy tales to the modern day. It emphasizes the horrific elements at the core of most of these stories instead of playing on our nostalgia for happily ever after endings. "Little Red Riding Hood," referenced heavily in the pilot, has always been a cautionary tale, based on potent, real-world fears. The concept of the blutbad is hokey, and there's not much that distinguishes them from the demons on "Supernatural" or the vampires on "Buffy" right now, but "Grimm" has plenty of room to improve. The acting is solid. The effects aren't great, but they're used well. And then there's the chilly, edge-of-the-wilderness atmosphere, helped by the fact that the production is based out of Portland, with all those Pacific-Northwestern forests in close proximity. Also, I really think the procedural formula is going to help rather than hurt "Grimm" in the long run, because it'll help some of the more outlandish elements go down easier.

I'd like to reiterate that I really see no similarity between either show and "Fables" at this point. The mythology of "Grimm" is totally different, and so is the way that it uses fairy-tale allusions. "Once Upon a Time" is a closer match, but the tone and focus of the story aren't, and the show totally rejects the subversive edge of the comics. For some that may not be such a bad thing. I suspect that I would have liked "Once Upon a Time" much better if I were younger and less familiar with the gorier, toothier, original versions of "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," and so on. And while I think "Grimm" is more promising, it is a little frustrating that I already suspect that if it does well, it may never break out of the procedural formula.

So will somebody please just adapt "Fables" already?
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Friday, October 28, 2011

This Fella Phibes Just Handed Me a Horror Quiz...

Following the lead of some esteemed associates, I have filled out the first ever (hopefully) annual Dr. Anton Phibes' Abominably Erudite, Musically Malignant, Cursedly Clever Halloween Horror Movie Quiz from over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, a classic film blog caretakered by far more knowledgeable geeks than I. Sadly, I think I've failed this one.

1) Favorite Vincent Price/American International Pictures release.

Oh holy hell. I haven't seen any of them. Most of the Vincent Price horror movies I know are from the 50s, like "The Fly," "House on Haunted Hill," and "House of Wax." My favorite role of his is Lionheart from "Theater of Blood," but that was a 70s picture. So I'm going to have to go with Egghead from the "Batman" TV series, because at that's pretty much the only role I know if his from the 60s, when he made the AIP films.

2) What horror classic (or non-classic) that has not yet been remade would you like to see upgraded for modern audiences?.

I'm surprised that nobody's ever properly remade "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." It seems to have inspired or heavily influenced a bunch of different media, but no remakes. Hmmm.

3) Jonathan Frid or Thayer David?

This is first of several "Dark Shadows" questions that will make me rue not being alive during the 60s.

4) Name the one horror movie you need to see that has so far eluded you.

See questions #1, #13, #18, and #29. And "Re-Animator."

5) Favorite film director most closely associated with the horror genre.

It's a toss-up between David Cronenberg and Guillermo Del Toro. Cronenberg's the better director, I think, but Del Toro's much more fun, and better versed in horror standbys like vampires ("Cronos," "Blade 2"), ghosts ("The Devil's Backbone") demonspawn ("Hellboy"), giant bugs ("Mimic"), and good old fairy-tale monsters ("Pan's Labyrinth").

6) Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele?

Barbara Steele. Slightly more familiar with her through some of her non-horror roles.

7) Favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror creature.

Godzilla! King of all monsters!

8) Favorite/best sequel to an established horror classic.

"Bride of Frankenstein." I think "Evil Dead 2" is up there, but it just doesn't have anything as iconic as the sight of Elsa Lanchester making her grand entrance as The Bride. And Dr. Pretorious! Remember him with the homunculi? He totally should have gotten his own movies.

9) Name a sequel in a horror series which clearly signaled that the once-vital franchise had run out of gas.

"Treehouse of Horror XI," specifically the final segment where dolphins take over the Earth. I think this was the point where the "Simpsons" writers ran out of horror ideas and just started lobbing alternate universe stories at us.

10) John Carradine or Lon Chaney Jr.?

Chaney.

11) What was the last horror movie you saw in a theater? On DVD or Blu-ray?

The last one in a theater was "Season of the Witch" back in January. I know, I know, but Nicholas Cage! And Ron Perlman! The last one by rental was "Mystery of the Wax Museum," the Michael Curtiz film that "House of Wax" was a remake of. Good movie. Liked the Fay Wray character way more than her counterpart in the remake.

12) Best foreign-language fiend/monster.

Most monsters don't exactly speak in the first place. Fiends are easier - Klaus Kinski.

13) Favorite Mario Bava movie.

Resisting the urge to bury my head in the sand. Haven't seen any of these either.

14) Favorite horror actor and actress.

For actor, Lon Chaney Sr. For actress, Sigourney Weaver, narrowly beating out Jamie Lee Curtis.

15) Name a great horror director’s least effective movie.

I always thought Cronenberg's "The Brood" was awful. I don't know whose idea it was to dress up the demonspawn kids in pastel jammies, but I ended up laughing my way through most of the last act because if it.

16) Grayson Hall or Joan Bennett?

Another "Dark Shadows" question, another reminder that I'm not that old. Yet.

17) When did you realize that you were a fan of the horror genre? And if you’re not, when did you realize you weren’t?

Saw "Poltergeist" as a kid and loved it. That was the first time I connected with any kind of horror movie, when I realized they could be fantastic and inventive and full of fun things to look at, instead of just screaming and running and dim lighting. I still like monster and supernatural films much more than the slashers.

18) Favorite Bert I. Gordon (B.I.G.) movie.

Do half-remembered "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episodes featuring his stuff count? No? Didn't think so.

19) Name an obscure horror favorite that you wish more people knew about.

Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves." Best werewolf movie ever made, bar none.

20) The Human Centipede-- yes or no?

I'll watch it, but do I have to pay attention to it?

21) And while we’re in the neighborhood, is there a horror film you can think of that you felt “went too far”?

I try to stay away from the ones that I think are probably going to go too far.

22) Name a film that is technically outside the horror genre that you might still feel comfortable describing as a horror film.

Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun."

23) Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott?

Again with the "Dark Shadows." This is starting to rival the BNAT13 application's obsession with "Teen Wolf."

24) If you’re a horror fan, at some point in your past your dad, grandmother, teacher or some other disgusted figure of authority probably wagged her/his finger at you and said, “Why do you insist on reading/watching all this morbid monster/horror junk?” How did you reply? And if that reply fell short somehow, how would you have liked to have replied?

I was the scaredy cat of the family, actually. But I do remember one evening when my mother was trying to get my brother and I to stop watching "Chopping Mall" (runamok mall security robots decapitate hapless teenagers) and go to bed. I told her it was very important to see how they defeated the bad robots so we'd know what to do when they came after us. I found horror movies very educational on the subject of self-defense tactics. I mean, you never know, right?

25) Name the critic or Web site you most enjoy reading on the subject of the horror genre.

Shoutout to Scott E. Weinberg, the most active horror-loving guy on my Twitter feed by far.

26) Most frightening image you’ve ever taken away from a horror movie.

The head-spinning in "The Exorcist." Saw it with the right crowd at the right time that went ballistic when it happened on screen. I've never forgotten the impact of Regan on that audience.

27) Your favorite memory associated with watching a horror movie.

Being home alone in a darkened house, watching "The Shining" and quietly freaking out for hours, but unwilling to move an inch away from the TV set.

28) What would you say is the most important/significant horror movie of the past 20 years (1992-2012)? Why?

Well there's "Scream" for the 90s irony, "Saw" for sparking its own subgenre of of extreme torture film, or "The Ring," for unleashing J-horror upon us. I'm going with "The Blair Witch Project," for popularizing the microbudget found-footage horror film, which is still regularly cleaning up in theaters with titles like "Paranormal Activity."

29) Favorite Dr. Phibes curse (from either film).

I want to see these films so I don't want to spoil them for myself by Googling. I'll take a rain check.

30) You are programming an all-night Halloween horror-thon for your favorite old movie palace. What five movies make up your schedule?

80s horror revival night! "Poltergeist," "The Shining," "The Fly," "Beetlejuice," and "The Thing!"
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shouldn't it Be "Defend the Block"?

I wonder if it was a stroke of good luck or bad luck that "Attack the Block" was released so close in time to last summer's London riots. Recent events certainly made the movie more relevant, but it also made the young heroes, a group of teenagers from "The Block," a council estate in South London, seem less sympathetic in retrospect. Not that the filmmakers ever try to paint their young subjects as angels. In the opening sequence, five boys led by the grim-faced Moses (John Boyega) mug a young nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker), making off with her purse, phone, and jewelry. However, by the end of the movie we'll get to know the kids, and find out they're also brave, resourceful, loyal, and perfectly redeemable.

Because when push comes to shove, Moses and his gang play by the rules - well, by their own rules, which can seem pretty arbitrary and nonsensical to outsiders. It's much like the shorthand slang that they use, punctuated by exclamations like "Believe it!" and "I'm not even lying!" that takes a little while for an unfamiliar audience to adjust to. The push comes in the form of an alien creature that smashes into Earth, interrupting the mugging and drawing the attention of the gang. And the shove would be the pack of other aliens that follow, that launch an attack on the Block and threaten all of its residents. Of course nobody believes the boys about the alien invasion, so they take matters into their own hands, gathering weapons to go into battle and protect their turf.

The kids playing the gang members are all newcomers or have few other screen credits, including Alex Esmail as the talkative Pest, Franz Drameh as the scowling Dennis, Leeon Jones as bespectacled Jerome, and Simon Howard as Biggz, who is heard on the phone assuring his mother he'll be home by ten. They bring a lot of energy and authenticity to the film, embodying threatening hoodlums, disrespectful brats, and sympathetic kids trying to do the right thing, as necessary. Michael Ajao and Sammy Williams also tag along as a pair of younger kids, who ape the badassery of their elders for comic relief. For many, the only familiar face will be Nick Frost, playing an affable stoner who deals marijuana out of a penthouse flat for a truly dangerous adult gangster, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). However the standout of the cast is John Boyega, who has this wonderfully stoic, thoughtful presence. As Moses he provides real focus and leadership to his group, and proves capable of being far more than just a bully or a gangster.

But this is an alien invasion movie, and of course dear reader, you want to hear about the action. Well it's great. Even without the alien threat, the kids (and the camera) are constantly in motion, bouncing around in stairwells, racing through the streets on bikes and scooters, and ducking the police. But when the aliens do show up, I love the look of them. Instead of little green men or bipedal insects, we get a pack of big, quadrupedal, black furred beasts, snapping at their prey with glowing, fang-studded maws. They're mean and vicious, chewing through a couple of hapless policemen in seconds. The gang goes after them with baseball bats, a borrowed katana, fireworks, and big attitudes, and quickly find themselves in over their heads. Like "Super 8" earlier this year, it's refreshing to find a film where the kids face down real, serious danger, giving them a chance to trade in conventional posturing and platitudes for meatier moments of heroism.

But that brings us back to the news of the day, where the real world youngsters the "Attack the Block" kids were based on, spent several nights terrorizing London and surrounding areas in August. Does this underline the need for more media like "Attack the Block," to try and bridge the gap between these alienated youth and the mainstream public? Or does it mean that the is movie too flippant and overly idealistic about the social ills it touches on? Learning that Moses and the gang are really good kids after all is an awfully blunt, simplistic moral that doesn't go down so easy, given the circumstances. Or am I reading way too much into a modest action movie that just wants to give us a peek into an unfamiliar youth culture?

At any rate, the movie is a lot of fun. The action's a blast. The jokes are smart. The young actors all did a great job. You can't ask for more than that in a kid-centric science-fiction adventure movie.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

High Hopes for "The Walking Dead"

Most zombie media share certain familiar characteristics. People become zombies en masse with the ability to infect others, creating a pervasive threat to the rest of the populace. Social infrastructure has broken down or is inaccessible, leaving the heroes to scrabble for survival by themselves or in small groups. This makes zombie apocalypses a great opportunity for scrutinizing social ills and social dynamics, looking at how people behave when you remove all the niceties of civilization. George Romero's early films always had sharp insights about racism or consumerism embedded at their cores. The only trouble I really have with zombie films, and most horror films for that matter, is that so many of the characters are very superficially drawn, so as to provide easy zombie fodder. So when you have a whole zombie television series, surely all the extra hours means you could really delve deeper into the social critiques and actually get to know some interesting characters before they get chomped on and dismembered, right?

Well, maybe and maybe not. After marathoning the first six hours of the gorgeously grim "The Walking Dead," I commend the creators for delivering a show that looks great, that has lots of explosions and action scenes, and isn't afraid of showing off the gore and bloody kills. The zombies look fantastic, and the post-apocalyptic landscape is marvel, especially the zombie-infested city streets the pilot, littered with artillery and other signs of struggle. So it's disappointing to have to report that "The Walking Dead" really isn't doing anything interesting with the premise. The first season is mostly concerned with the consolidation of a group of survivors lead by Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who wakes up in a hospital "28 Days" style, to find the world in shambles, and much of the population dead and shambling. His immediate goal is to find his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs), who may have been evacuated to Atlanta.

Much of the effectiveness of any kind of survival story depends on the characters you're following. "The Walking Dead" takes place in Georgia for the most part, and has a strong Southern Gothic flavor to it. And sadly, many of the recurring characters are pretty basic, one-dimensional Southern types - the troublesome redneck brothers Merle (Michael Rooker) and Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), an abusive husband Ed (Adam Minarovich) and his meek wife Carol (Melissa McBride), and an old man with an RV named Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn). Oh, and one of Steven King's favorite stock types, a man with prophetic visions, Jim (Andrew Rothenberg). I should point out that the minority characters, one scrappy Asian youth (Steven Yeun), a Latino father (Juan Gabriel Pareja), and an unrelated black woman (Jeryl Prescott Sales) and black man (IronE Singleton), are badly characterized and have little to distinguish them but their ethnicities. But frankly, hardly any of the characters enjoy much development, making it difficult to care when they fall prey to zombies or simply choose to leave the group and fend for themselves.

One exception is Andrea (Laurie Holden), the only female character who gets to do much of anything, who cobbles together a makeshift new family with her sister Amy (Emma Bell) and Dale. Another with some potential is Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), an asshole policeman who worked with Rick and may have betrayed him. Neither storyline has really gone anywhere yet. "The Walking Dead" is fun and exciting as long as it's dealing directly with zombie attacks and other external threats. But when it comes down to basic interactions between characters in quieter moments, the show drags laboriously. Practically all attempts to offer social commentary fall flat. Racism and misogyny are addressed, but in a blunt, clumsy manner that rings totally false. Right now I'm with those who think the show may have peaked with the pilot, where Rick spends most of the hour with Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), a compelling pair who are never seen again in subsequent episodes. Rick himself makes for a good hero icon, but he's also totally flat as a character. Thus, "The Walking Dead" doesn't come remotely close to the level of fellow AMC series "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" when it comes to good, solid human drama.

But, and it's an important but, the first season was only six episodes, and we're just getting to the point where all the characters are on the same page, and we've figured out who the long-term players are going to be. "The Walking Dead" has loads of potential to improve upon itself, and it could turn out to be a very good series in the long run. I'm happy to give it more time to work out some of the issues I've pointed out. There are clearly enough talented people involved in this show that they should be able to to hammer things out eventually. And thank goodness for the zombie apocalypse to distract us in the meantime.

Now on to to Season Two.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Miss Media Junkie v. iTunes

I finally caved and rented "Margin Call" through the iTunes store the other day. I'd been anticipating this one since hearing the buzz about it from the Berlin International Film festival back in February. I was a little wary of iTunes though. I use the service to listen to free podcasts all the time, but I find the interface very user unfriendly, and I'll be damned if I can figure out how to get individual audio files into my iPod Nano without them automatically self-sorting into odd places. The Slash Filmcast is many things, but "jazz album" is not one of them.

But I had an iTunes gift card that had been sitting around since last year, so I figured it was at least worth an attempt. I've tried pretty much every other major online video service, from Amazon Prime to MLink. It was time to give iTunes a whirl. Initially there were the usual hassles of creating an account and E-mail verification, but that's par for the course these days. Then I went browsing. Again, I really dislike the iTunes web interface, which requires a lot of scrolling through bulky graphics. Most titles are automatically sorted by popularity, so the indies and foreign films I like are always buried about three or four pages back with the dreck. Fortunately "Margin Call" was a new release, and had its own separate graphic in a sidebar touting the fact.

Then there was actually renting the film. This is the part of the service I take the most issue with, because after clicking the "Rent" option for "Margin Call," there was no confirmation of my transaction. I didn't get any kind of onscreen acknowledgement or instructions as to what to do next. An E-mail receipt didn't show up in my inbox until this morning, after the period I had to watch the film had expired. If I hadn't noticed that $7 had been deducted from my gift card balance, a small line of text at the top of the page, I might have been tempted to click the button again. I know that Apple likes to let the user intuit things without a lot of explanation, but this was really pushing it.

So where was my movie? Fortunately I had my iTunes desktop application open, which was automatically downloading the video file for me. It took a little clicking around for me to find my video download queue, but I got there eventually. Then came the next eyebrow-raiser. "Margin Call" is 105 minutes, but the file size was well over 3 GB, which I thought was a bit much. If there's anything that's going to keep me from using this service very often, it's the sheer amount of resources it requires. A film of the same length streamed in HD over Netflix is about 1 GB smaller in size. Oh, and it starts automatically while iTunes makes you wait an hour for the entire file to finish.

The quality of the viewing experience was very good though. I have no technical issues with the iTunes video player. Watching the film at home can't compare to seeing it in a theater on the big screen, but I felt I got my money's worth. $7 is cheaper than what I usually pay for an evening ticket at my usual art house theater, which isn't playing "Margin Call," by the way. To see this particular limited release, I would have had to drive about three towns over. That makes iTunes a good option for me regarding films that only get platform releases, that I might not otherwise get a chance to see before they reach DVD. With the holidays and so many prestige titles coming in the next few months, the convenience factor is very attractive.

However, there is still the little matter of resources. I'm not willing to put down $7 for every new movie I want to see, especially since matinees and discount tickets are usually priced lower. So I don't see myself using iTunes too often for films, unless it's another of these simultaneous or early VOD releases of something I'm highly anticipating that isn't otherwise accessible. The majority of the time I can wait for the DVD, or I'll pay a little more and drive a little farther for the theater experience. I wouldn't have watched "Tree of Life" through iTunes, for instance, because that movie simply has to be seen on a theater screen. "Margin Call" is a boardroom drama, and looked fine on the old laptop.

Anyway, it's nice to know I've got options.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

The Long Night of "Margin Call"

"Margin Call" captures 24 hours in the lives of a group of traders and executives, on the eve of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Their firm, MBS, is fictional, but is clearly patterned off of Lehman Brothers and the other financial companies that made headlines around the globe for their recklessness and malfeasance. There have been numerous documentaries and dramatizations on the crisis already, but "Margin Call" is easily among the most nuanced and character-driven.

It takes a while for the vital characters in this drama to emerge. At first we follow a pair of low-level analysts, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), weathering a round of layoffs that claim their immediate supervisor, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Eric leaves an unfinished project to Peter, who puts in a late night to complete it - a risk analysis model that predicts the certain doom of the firm. Peter and Seth alert their boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who in turn alerts his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a thirty-five year veteran who runs the firm's trading operations. A late night turns into an early morning as higher and higher levels of management arrive and escalate the situation further. Sam's boss Cohen (Simon Baker) pulls in Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) for second opinions, and finally calls a meeting of all the senior executives, including CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who descends from the heavens in a private helicopter.

Sam Rogers emerges as the lynchpin, a good man asked to compromise his morals and play executioner as brutal damage control tactics are put in motion. Kevin Spacey's performance here is his among his best, leading a superb ensemble cast. Stanley Tucci sets the bar in the opening layoff scenes, saying plenty with minimal dialogue. Paul Bettany gets some of the best lines, full of bile and self-hatred as the situation worsens. Much of the film documents quiet, urgent conversations between two or three characters at a time, giving the actors a chance to play off each other in various combinations. The approach feels a little gimmicky, but with a cast this strong it works. The script wisely doesn't push too hard for any sort of climactic finale, keeping the drama on a personal, approachable level. Some of the best moments are in the pre-dawn hours after the characters' fates have largely been decided, and they simply wait, mostly alone, for the axe to fall.

In addition to humanizing the individual players, "Margin Call" also does an excellent job of capturing the ruthless corporate culture and twisted ethics endemic in these financial firms. Penn Badgley's character is the low man on the totem pole, swept up in the night's events by chance. Throughout the film he tabulates the other characters' salaries, their ages, their positions in the firm, and other traditional measures of success. The scorekeeping is a little too obvious as counterpoint to the coming collapse, but pays off in impressive fashion when Badgley finally gets his own moment of personal reflection. And it's only the tip of the iceberg. In conversation after conversation, the audience is shown how money supplants loyalties, ethics, and even basic human empathy. The size of a bonus or compensation package is expected to assuage all ills. In a revealing moment, when CEO Tuld is confronted about a particularly heinous decision, he shrugs it off. "It's only money," he explains, cementing his imperviousness to the pain he's caused.

On that note, the scripting and direction by first time filmmaker J.C. Chandor is impressive but lacks finesse. He hits all the right story beats and emotional notes, but he tends to hit some too hard and others not hard enough. Though the story centers around the young analyst Peter Sullivan, he's about the least interesting character of the lot, and Zachary Quinto doesn't have a whole lot to do beyond playing straight man to the other actors. Demi Moore is severely underutilized, though she's makes a great, seething impression in her few scenes. Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons' odious executives could have benefited greatly from a little more texture. And while the camera makes the most of the New York City skylines, ornate conference rooms, and night driving sequences, there's little that makes the visuals distinctive or memorable.

These are all minor issues, but the film has so much going for it, particularly the performances, it's the little things that stand out. I doubt this will be the last film about the 2008 Wall Street crisis we'll be seeing, as the event has such potential for really probing, interesting narratives. "Margin Call" accomplishes plenty, but I can't help wishing the filmmakers' ambitions had been a little larger, and that they'd taken advantage of their material to a fuller extent.
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

An IMDB Rant

I suspected that this day was coming, ever since IMDB changed their default layout to adopt a clunky, graphics-heavy design that was a pain to navigate. But only yesterday, while doing research for the anime article, did I realize that Wikipedia has become my default website for looking up basic information about films and television shows. IMDB has more complete information, such as pages for every credited member of the production, no matter how obscure, release history for foreign markets, and lists of guest stars for individual television episodes. But as a reviewer/blogger, nine times out of ten I find that Wikipedia has everything I'm looking for, and it's presented in a far more accessible format. Wikipedia also features far more comprehensive plot summaries, production notes, and summaries of critical reaction. And information about unreleased and in-progress projects? There's no comparison.

The Internet Movie Database, beloved source of Hollywood statistics and an early example of the internet's ability to transform reams of random information into indispensable websites, long ago became more than a simple database. It has its own news aggregator, offers streaming videos, maintains influential film and TV rankings, and hosts millions of user reviews. Unfortunately, IMDB doesn't do any of these things particularly well. In fact, it does a lot of things notoriously badly. The majority of the site's content comes from user contributions, the same as Wikipedia. However, the levels of quality control and fact checking are much poorer. People in industry circles love griping about IMDB errors and the difficulty of getting anything corrected. I'd be more forgiving if the site were non-profit or fan run, but IMDB has been part of Amazon since 1998, and really ought to have more professional content standards.

And then there are the message boards, which have only bare-bones functionality and don't archive posts beyond a certain numerical threshold. And the useless clutter of video clips and pictures at the top of each page, which massively increase load times, and actually displace the basic credits and filmography information on some pages. And the distracting ad banners and omnipresent Amazon marketing widgets, cheerfully reminding you that you can purchase whatever you're looking up over on Amazon.com, even for entries like the the experimental short "Rose Hobart," that was never commercially released in any form. (The Amazon page in that case just defaults to a list of their best sellers). The ability to rate things quit working for me several versions ago. And the video content just mirrors what's being offered on other sites.

Want any kind of production specs or development information for upcoming projects? Better pony up some cash for an IMDB Pro account. I find it puzzling that the site offers so little information about in-progress films that fans are buzzing about, even when that information is already public knowledge. Compare the starkly minimalist IMDB page for "The Dark Knight Rises" with the paragraphs and paragraphs of summarized development and production news already on its Wikipedia page. The IMDB page does generate an individual newsfeed for the film, but it's way too broad, pulling in any story that references one of the actors appearing in the movie, or any other "Batman" media. There's no editorial eye at work, no feeling of direction or oversight, making it a far less valuable resource.

IMDB is still a very good site for more general information about movies and actors and such, but the problem is that these days it's no longer the only source. Back in the 90s, IMDB became hugely popular because it was a unique of index every actor and actress and director with everything they had ever worked on. Now that's no longer the case. You can get filmographies, cast lists, and production information from a lot of different sites. In addition to Wikipedia, there's also Box Office Mojo, which offers financial analysis of the box office, and usually has most of the fancier stats. There's also a recent challenger, Inbaseline, a no frills database which caters to industry needs, and has titles that are missing from IMDB like this one.

There are still things in IMDB that I like, such as the simplified format of the TV listings and the movie showtimes. The user submitted reviews can be invaluable and smaller features, like the lists of quotes and trivia, can be a lot of fun. However, since the site's godawful redesign last year, I've been avoiding IMDB unless I can't find the information I need anywhere else. Like too many other made-over Web 2.0 sites, it tries to do too much and sacrifices its core service in the pursuit of too many other agendas. The old site was nerdy and basic, but it was also convenient, clean, and easy to use. The current IMDB is none of these things.

It's a lamentable headache.
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Friday, October 21, 2011

Reviewing TV Reviewing

They say we're in a golden age of television, with more quality programs on the air than at any time in the history of the medium. As a corollary, largely overlooked, is that we've come into a golden age of TV criticism. Much of this has to do with there being so many shows around that are actually worth the time and effort to critique. However, the changing habits of the viewing audience in recent years and the rise of the internet have also been major factors.

Let's take the example of the recent fourth season of "Breaking Bad." Media sites like the AV Club and HitFix, offered weekly reviews and analysis of each episode as it aired, along with interviews and wrap-up pieces after the season finale. This never could have been done in a print publication, simply for lack of physical column inches. I think the closest I've seen to such an intensive, ongoing critique of a show in print, is back when Howard Rosenbaum of the LA Times devoted several installments of his weekly television column to chronicling the final season of "Seinfeld." And that was an exception, made for a show that was one of the highest rated network programs of the day. If a paper wanted to highlight a particular series, like "The X-Files," usually a feature story would be written about it. The closest you got to episode reviews were the weekly recommendations in various critics' columns. Or if a show was popular enough, someone might publish a book about it, with multiple pages devoted each individual episode. I own a few of the old "X-Files" guides that did this.

These days, ongoing episode-by-episode analysis is becoming the norm, written by critics who assume that the reader is following along episode-by-episode with them. They develop ongoing viewing relationships with particular programs, better capturing the way that television serials impact the audience over successive weeks. Episodes are rated against each other, and evaluated in the context of the season in which it airs. TV is a very different medium than film, and it is appropriate that the method of critique should likewise be different in structure and approach. However, prior to the 1990s, you rarely had television shows that were dense or distinctive enough to justify doing this. Now, shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" essentially offer up two-thirds of a feature film every week, comparable to anything that you could see in theaters. Some media observers have argued that television has in many ways surpassed film as the most culturally relevant media of our times. Creative talent now go back and forth between the two worlds without any eyebrows raised, which was never true in the past.

Another major change is that TV critics now spend less time catering to the mainstream. In the past, critics tended to talk about less popular programs in terms of introducing them or promoting them to a wider audience. But now, thanks to cable and the internet, that wider television audience has fractured into countless different segments. More interesting, oddball shows tend to stick around longer than they used to, thanks to the attention of viewers who may be smaller in number, but also tend to be far more devoted. "Chuck" is a good example, rescued from cancellation season after season, despite lackluster ratings, by fans who ran save-our-show campaigns targeted at specific sponsors. And these are the fans that most of the in-depth episode reviews are written for. It's become more acceptable to be niche. Sites like the AV Club devote countless webpages of analysis to a multitude of nerdy shows with tiny audiences, that add up to big ones.

The reviews themselves have gotten more interesting as a result, no longer simple episode summaries or post-season wrap-ups. The best ones almost seem like ongoing conversations, charting a series' ups and downs, highs and lows. In addition to analysis, television reviews spend considerable time on predictions and conjecture, making them great starting points for discussions. The fourth episode of "Community" generated a lot of buzz last week for pulling off a spectacular multiple-timeline story. It also ended three weeks of nervous speculation that the show was playing it too safe this year, and possibly losing its touch. There was a lot of grumbling about the slower pace of this season of "Breaking Bad" too, and then everyone reversed course during the hair-raising second half of the year.

However it doesn't feel like everyone in the media is quite on the same page yet. Most sites and publications still stick to the older format of acknowledging a television show only when it becomes particularly prominent in the media, or only following one or two particularly high profile shows through a full season. Few beyond the AV Club and Television Without Pity are willing to commit so many resources to so many different shows. Considering the number of programs going at any one time, this is understandable. However, I think the new style of ongoing, multiple-installment reviews is where television criticism is headed. In the future I expect I'll try my hand at them myself, instead of the pilot reviews and periodic check-ins I've been doing to date.

Maybe next year, when "Breaking Bad" rolls around again.
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

6 More Upcoming Anime Adaptations to Worry About

That Americanized live-action "Akira" project just won't go away, will it? Unfortunately, it may be the beginning of a trend. The studios have snapped up dozens of popular anime and manga properties over the past few years, hoping to cash in on the popularity of Japanese media among the Gen-Y crowd. Most of the resulting projects are stuck in development hell or have quietly been abandoned or forgotten about. However, if "Akira" proves to be a success, there are a couple of titles that we ought to be keeping an eye on:

"Noir" - This one's already in the bag. Originally "Noir" was a 26-episode 2001 anime series about a pair of female assassins, teenager Kirika and gun-for-hire Mireille, who team up together. Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, of "Xena" and "Evil Dead" fame, are turning this into a series for Starz. I found the original anime pretty dull and uninspired in execution. The premise had some potential, though, and I think Raimi and Tapert could do good things with it. However, I worry that some of the concepts ping awful close to the new version of "Nikita" on the CW.

"Death Note" - Another one coming along quickly is Warner Bros' adaptation of the popular 2006 "Death Note" manga, which has already become an anime series and a trio of Japanese live-action films. Shane Black was announced as director back in January, with Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry scripting the tale of a death-dealing notebook and the twisted teenager who finds it. This could be a fun supernatural thriller, especially with Shane Black at the helm. Let's just hope no one tries to warp the cat-and-mouse premise and turn it into the next "Twilight."

"Ghost in the Shell" - The rights to produce a live-action film were snapped up by Dreamworks in 2008, and there have been rumors of various scripts and treatments ever since. Originally an 80s manga, followed by a groundbreaking 1995 animated feature, a sequel, and two seasons of an anime television series, "Ghost in the Shell" has proven to be a versatile, enduring franchise with a big universe to explore. The first film remains one of the the major cyberpunk classics which, along with "Akira," played a big part in popularizing anime in the States.

"Cowboy Bebop" - The last anyone heard about the state of a potential "Bebop" movie starring Keanu Reeves was about a year ago, back in 2010. They had a script, but one that was more expensive than FOX was willing to foot the bill for. Subsequent rewrites didn't seem to be helping. It's a shame, because the excellent 1998 space cowboy series remains popular, and its style and tone are very western already. On the other hand, do we really want to see Keanu Reeves playing bounty hunter Spike Spiegel?

"Robotech" - This one was announced by Warner Bros back in 2007. Tobey Maguire would produce and possibly star in a post-apocalyptic reboot of "Robotech," which was itself an American adaptation of the 80s mecha classic "Macross." Like the "Ghost in the Shell" and "Cowboy Bebop" movies, we still hear developments popping up now and then, but as time goes on, it seems less and less likely that this one is going to find its way to the screen, especially since it's a much older and more obscure franchise than most of the others in the pipeline.

"Battle Angel" - And of course there's the movie that James Cameron's been talking about making for years, about the adventures of a cyborg girl named Alita, based on the manga "GUNM," which was released in North America as "Battle Angel." Cameron has had this thing in development for ages, supposedly waiting for special effects technology to catch up to his ambitions. It was supposed to be his next film in 2004, then his next after "Avatar," and now who knows? IMDB seems to be the only one willing to make predictions, offering a potential release date of 2016.

And now for the miscellanea. A "Ninja Scroll" remake was being prepped with Appian Way, but nobody talks about it anymore after the Wachowskis' "Ninja Assassin" went bust. "Voltron," or more likely a "Transformers" rip-off called "Voltron," might get made as soon as a few lawsuits and bidding wars get cleared up. I have no idea why Mandalay Pictures acquired the rights to "Full Metal Panic," as it was a lousy show and pretty low-profile. Warners nabbed the rights to "Bleach" last year, and promptly did nothing with them. I know the series is popular, but I can't think of a property less Hollywood-friendly. As for the live action "Neon Genesis Evangelion," I'm sorry guys, but I don't think it's ever going to happen. The concept art was neat though, wasn't it?
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Goodbye Stabler, Goodbye Cuddy

It's always awkward when a popular show loses a major cast member, but this year there were two particularly painful departures. Chris Meloni opted not to return to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," after twelve seasons headlining the program with Mariska Hargitay. Over on "House," Lisa Edelstein has vacated after seven. Thus, the abrupt removal of Detective Elliot Stabler and Dr. Lisa Cuddy from our lives.

Eager to avoid the prospect of these events becoming shark-jumping moments, both high-rated shows have barreled ahead. Stabler has been replaced by new characters played by Kelli Giddish and Danny Pinto. Dr. Foreman (Omar Epps) was promoted to Cuddy's vacant administrator position, and a new doctor played by Charlyne Yi was added to the cast of "House." It's early yet in the broadcast season, and it remains to be seen how well both shows will manage. However, it's going to be an uphill climb. Both "Law & Order: SVU" and "House" are very popular, but they're also fighting the inertia of being shows that have been on the air for unusually long runs. We've seen multiple cast changes in these shows before, notably the assistant district attorneys on "Law & Order: SVU," and "House's" diagnosis team. However, Stabler and Cuddy were central roles, and their absence is going to change the alchemy of their respective shows considerably.

That Edelstein and Meloni were both expected to return didn't help matters, so neither of their characters received proper sendoffs last year. In the season premiere of "Law & Order: SVU," Detective Stabler simply quit after being placed on administrative leave after a shootout in last year's finale. Detective Benson, Hargitay's character, was seen on the phone making inquiries about him throughout the episode. A brief scene where she breaks down in tears, after learning Stabler had chosen to leave the unit, was all we got for a goodbye. In the next episode, it was back to business as usual. "House" fortuitously ended last season with Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), driving his car into Cuddy's house in a fit of spite, giving her a very good reason to never speak to him again. However, we were denied the emotional confrontation between the two characters that surely would have resulted if Cuddy had returned. This also marks the end of years of character development and relationship building involving Cuddy, leaving a gaping, ungainly void in the story.

Now compare this to the departure of Steve Carrell from "The Office," which was built up to for weeks and made every possible effort to ready the audience for the changeover to a new leading man. This wasn't necessary, but it conveyed a certain honesty in its approach, an acknowledgement that "The Office" was about to make a radical change. Of course this wasn't possible with "Law & Order: SVU" or "House" because of the timing of the actors' contract negotiations falling through. But it's hard to shake the feeling that characters who have been familiar presences on television for so long deserve to be sent off with a little more fanfare. When "Criminal Minds" dropped A.J. Cook last year, at least they worked out how to bring her back for the premiere, for a chance to say goodbye. After all, close co-workers and colleagues don't just drop out of people's lives without consequences. And these consequences are often a good source of drama, which makes it even more odd that they should be so quickly downplayed and swept under the rug.

Anyway, it's expected that Mariska Hargitay will also be leaving "Law & Order: SVU" in the near future. There were reports earlier this year that NBC was seeking out a replacement for her, and that she might only appear for the first half of this season. Transitioning in two new leads at this point makes sense. If all goes well, the show can familiarize the audience with the new detectives and move on without Meloni and Hargitay, as other "Law & Order" properties have swapped our popular leads in the past. The procedural format is better suited to this than most other shows. However, no "Law & Order" leads have had tenures as long as Meloni and Hargitay, who have been with the show from the beginning and are very closely associated with it. After the original "Law & Order" lost Jerry Orbach, the show was never the same, though it ran for several more years and ran through many more cast changes. I expect the same will be true for "Law & Order: SVU."

As for "House," it's Hugh Laurie's show and it'll go on for as long as FOX can keep convincing him to keep playing the character. However, Cuddy was the closest thing House had to a regular antagonist, not to mention her being positioned as his major love interest for multiple seasons and storylines. It's going to be hard for someone else to fill her shoes in either capacity. On the other hand, "House" has been in a rut lately, and finally pairing up House and Cuddy officially last season didn't help anything. And though I'll miss her, I will admit to no small satisfaction, knowing Lisa Cuddy dumped House's malevolent ass for good this time.

Honestly though, I think both shows are getting close to their expiration dates, and I'm glad Meloni and Edelstein took the initiative to move on, hopefully to more interesting roles. Considering how "Law & Order: SVU" and "House" handled the departures - not terribly, but also with little creativity or self-reflection - I don't know how much juice they have left in them. Maybe this could be an opportunity to inject some new blood and return to some early season highs. Or it could be the beginning of the end. It's too soon to tell, but it sure does seem like those sharks are getting jumpy.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Favorite David Cronenberg Film

It's October, so I figured that this month's director ought to be someone with a few scares on their resume. And so we come to David Cronenberg, who makes scary movies like no one else. I don't pretend to understand what is going on in his headier films half the time, but no one can summon up the disturbing and the horrific quite like he does. After weighing the merits of his more ambitious titles, like "Naked Lunch" and "Videodrome," I have to go with my gut and pick the film that made me a Cronenberg fan in the first place. Remakes are sustaining some heavy bashing at the theaters this week, but once in a while you'll get one that knocks it out of the park, like Cronenberg's 1986 horror masterpiece, "The Fly."

And what would be more appropriate for Halloween? "The Fly" is a classic monster film, complete with its own mad scientist. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) invents a teleportation device, which can send objects from one specially designed pod to another. However, he's having trouble with living organisms, as the computer program running the pods can take them apart at one end, but isn't so good at putting them back together on the other. After Brundle reaches a breakthrough that seems to fix the problem, a minor spat with girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis) leads to him get drunk and send himself through the pods as a test subject. At first, the experiment appears to be a success. Then, he experiences unexpected benefits like increased strength and energy. Then other changes, more physical, more severe. After his fingernails start coming off, Brundle realizes something went wrong with the teleportation. Further investigation reveals the horrible truth: a housefly, unnoticed, was in the pod with Brundle, and has now been fused with him at a genetic level. Brundle is now slowly, but surely becoming Brundlefly.

"The Fly" is based on a very enjoyable 1958 creature feature of the same name, much beloved for its nightmare visions of a man and fly with swapped heads, but it doesn't hold a candle to the acheivements of the remake. The 1980s were the true glory days of practical special effects, and the gradual, gruesome transformation of Jeff Goldblum into a man-insect hybrid is one of the highlights of the era. In every shot he looks more and more awful, until the viewer starts wondering how it could possibly get any worse than what's already on the screen. And then it does. And then it does again. The camera rarely cuts away, showing us everything. But more than the special effects work, it's the performance of Jeff Goldblum that sells the movie. Seth Brundle deteriorates mentally as well as physically, going from a nerdy, Jeff Goldblum-y nice-guy to an insane, murderous fiend. The slow, progressive nature of the transformation is portrayed like an advancing disease, and Brundle's major struggle becomes a doomed search for a a cure. As Brundle becomes more desperate and commits worse atrocities, the character manages to evoke both great revulsion and sympathy.

"The Fly" is about the most conventional horror picture than David Cronenberg has ever done, with a simple linear narrative that stays in a single, unambiguous reality throughout, except for one quick dream sequence. There is also a fairly sweet love story between Goldblum and Davis's characters that has nothing to do with sexual fetishes or obsessions. However, many of Cronenberg's usual hallmarks appear. There's the human body as the source of ultimate terror, the creeping, persistent discomfort of encroaching madness, and those wonderfully organic, physical manifestations of psychological fears. These are themes come up again and again in his work, but never with such dramatic heft or clarity of vision as in "The Fly." I often find that the most commercial work of noted auteurs is often the most revealing, since it forces them to simplify and distill their ideas into their purest forms. Or in this case, into a big, acid-spewing man-bug.

It's easy to dig deeper into the film if you like. Some have identified it as an AIDS allegory. Some have noted the many influences of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." For me, it is one of the most effective modern monster movies, wherein Frankenstein and Frankenstein's creature are truly one and the same at last. Cronenberg seems to have moved on to smaller crime thrillers and dramas, like the upcoming "A Dangerous Method," but I hope it's not for good. Horror is such a rich, strange genre, and too few filmmakers seem comfortable exploring its depths. Cronenberg is among the few who seemed to truly thrive there, and made movies like "The Fly" that made you pause and remember what a really great horror film could do. And we could stand to be reminded of that more often.
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What I've Seen - Cronenberg

The Brood (1979)
Scanners (1981)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Videodrome (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Crash (1996)
eXistenZ (1999)
Spider (2002)
A History of Violence (2005)
Eastern Promises (2007)
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Cosmopolis (2012)
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Monday, October 17, 2011

"Alphas" Got Better in a Hurry

Boy it feels good to be wrong sometimes. After the series premiere of "Alphas," I was certain that the superhero show was going to position the character of Cameron Hicks (Warren Christie), the former Marine who fits the mold of your typical handsome male action protagonist, as the primary focus of the series. Instead, the people behind the scenes were quick to realize that the show had two really interesting, unique characters - Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) and Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) - and gave the bulk of the screentime to them instead. But I think the key to why "Alphas" has turned into a show worth watching over the course of its stellar first season is how the writers have figured out how to make these characters work together as an ensemble.

Kindly Dr. Rosen is everyone's therapist and the team leader, always there to smooth out bumpy interactions and offer sage advice. Gary is an even more unifying force, being an austistic youngster who can't really function on his own without supervision, so everyone else on the team has to put aside their own baggage and look out for him. "Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure" is a good example that pairs Gary up with unfriendly ex-FBI agent Bill Harken (Malik Yoba) for a madcap case, which finally gets Bill to soften up a little and reevaluate his place on the Alphas team. Rachel Pirzad (Azita Ghanizada) struggles to come out of her shell, and ends up rooming with the more outgoing Nina Theroux (Laura Mennell), who has trouble curbing her own worst impulses. Nina and Cameron are clearly in the early stages of a romantic relationship, which Dr. Rosen is doing his best to dissuade, considering Nina's messy past history with men.

Oh, and there's the crimefighting and shiny special effects and action scenes and stuff. Don't get me wrong. That part's all great, but it's a lot more fun when you've got interesting characters dealing with ongoing personal issues at the same time. This is the reason why "Alphas" is one of the few recent superhero shows that works where so many others have failed. It sticks to a very basic procedural format and just lets the characters be themselves and develop organically, instead of trying to shoehorn them into particular roles. Nina and Cameron have the fewest major issues to work out, and often end up being supporting characters, where other shows would have pushed them front and center because they're played by the most conventionally attractive actors. Bill might have been stuck as the go-to heavy, but instead he's being transitioned from grumpy badass to a more paternal figure. Sometimes it's just little character moments here and there, but they count for a lot.

Should "Alphas" really be considered part of the superhero genre in the first place? The show carefully avoids most comic-book conventions like code names, flashy costumes, and secret identities. There's some series mythology, but it doesn't come up all that often, and the episodes are easily watched out of sequence. But when you get down to basics, "Alphas" is a stripped-down "X-men" with a minivan. They've laid the foundation to take on bigger, wilder adventures, and the last few episodes suggest that they could be heading in that direction. If they want.

So future genre entries should take heed. Superheroes can work on television, but the superhero-y parts of a superhero show generally matter a lot less than the stories and characters and simply being good television. Gary Bell's character is about 1% being able to read invisible electromagnetic frequencies, and 99% being an enthusiastic autistic kid, having the time of his life playing secret agent. And that's why he works, and why he's so often at the center of "Alphas."

I feel I've oversold the show a bit, which I don't mean to. "Alphas" is a fun, low-key piece of genre entertainment that's heavy on the humor and light on originality. It has the potential to be bigger and better, but considering it's on Syfy and the original showrunner has been just replaced by someone with a considerably less impressive resume, I don't think we're going to see it get too ambitious any time soon. But that's okay. Not every show has to be "Lost" or "Battlestar Galactica," nor should it be. "Alphas" works just fine as a modest procedural, and if it never upgrades its special effects or turns into a convoluted science-fiction epic, you won't hear any complaints out of me.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Top 10 Rock Musicals

You may find my taste in music (and films) on the old fashioned side, but ladies or gentlemen, whether you like it or not, I present a list of my favorite rock musical movies, in chronological order.

A Hard Day's Night (1964) - There had been rock 'n' roll musical films before, notably the Elvis pictures, but this was the first time we saw the beginnings of a very different attitude and style being associated with the genre. A cinéma vérité exercise with no real plot, "A Hard Day's Night" is a little satire, a little mockumentary, and a lot of irreverent charm and humor. The Fab Four genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, winking at the media and their fans. Sadly the later Beatles films never again had the spontaneity and carefree ease of their first feature.

Head (1968) - This is the movie often credited for destroying the Monkees. This is fitting, since "Head" essentially takes the polished, commercial image of the Monkees and deconstructs it. From a psychedelic romp through a series of artificial television landscapes, full of non sequiturs and random cameos, emerge moments of surprising wit and dark comedy. Director Bob Rafaelson and writer/producer Jack Nicholson lent the film so much counterculture verve, it proved too much for mainstream audiences to handle, leaving "Head" to become a beloved cult film.

Yellow Submarine (1968) - Almost an afterthought to the Beatles filmography, "Yellow Submarine" became an animation classic. The visuals created by Heinz Edelmann, George Dunning, and Charlie Jenkins look like nothing made before or since. Experimental techniques, psychedelic imagery, and pop art graphics help to create a bizarre onscreen universe that is a perfect complement to the Beatles' evolving music of that era. Watch the "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" segment, and you'll never hear the song without thinking of rotoscoped dancing girls again.

Tommy (1975) - The first bona fide rock opera, and a major influence on all the rock narratives that followed. Was there ever an icon of youth alienation to match Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard whose true desire was human connection? The rise and fall of a messianic figure and the quest for spiritual enlightenment come up a lot in these movies, but nobody did it better than Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. "Tommy" is one of the most genuinely moving films of its era, and has one of the best finales of any musical, rock or otherwise.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - "Rocky Horror" has been in theaters continuously since 1975, and there are no signs that it's going away any time soon. It is the ultimate midnight movie, a horror film parody populated by a cast of lovable deviants and freaks. To try and explain its cross-dressing, cannibalistic, mad doctor, alien sex fiend charms is an exercise in futility. It is simply a movie that you have to experience first hand, preferably with a costumed crowd, very late at night, that knows all the words to "Time Warp."

Hair (1979) - High energy and youthful enthusiasm carry "Hair" through its sillier moments and shore up a minimal script. Most remember the movie for its portrayal of New Ageism and hippies. I always remember it for the toothsome, naughty lyrics in songs about free love and interracial mixing. Oh, and Ren Woods' spectacular power vocals, the groovy Twyla Tharp choreography, and the best song ever about the joys of long hair. Alas, no one gets naked, like they do in the stage musical, but I'm fairly sure that everyone got high.

The Blues Brothers (1980) - I'm cheating a little, since "Blues Brothers" is far more motown, blues, and soul than rock. But how could you leave this one off a rock 'n' roll movie list? The film's comedic and action bona fides are endless, but I'll always remember it for all the great musical stars they managed to round up for performances: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway singing "Minnie the Moocher" one more time, and so many others. Heck, even my mother, the stalwart classical music champion, loves this film to bits.

The Wall (1982) - Easily the darkest entry on this list, and one I admit I like much more for the Pink Floyd soundtrack than what's happening at any point on screen. But then, there are those fascinating Gerald Scarfe animated sequences, and the sight of a giant grinder turning British school kids into processed meats. The story is often incoherent, full of obtuse symbolism and gritty visuals, but it's a riveting watch nonetheless. "The Wall" is among the angriest of the angry yong man movies, and offers up the potent dark side of the rock musical.

Velvet Goldmine (1998) - David Bowie never did get around to making a "Ziggy Stardust" movie, so director Todd Haynes more or less did it for him. A gorgeous, nostalgic paean to the age of the glam rock gods, "Velvet Goldmine" charts the rise and fall of a Bowie-like figure, wrapped in a present day crime mystery. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christian Bale put in great pre-stardom performances, but the highlight for me is Ewan MacGregor, playing a feral Lou Reed/Iggy Pop amalgam, who at one point literally sets his own stage on fire.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) - Our hero/heroine, after suffering a sex reassignment surgery gone wrong, staves off despair by adopting the persona of Hedwig, a wronged rock goddess with a lot of pain to share. "Hedwig" takes a deeply personal struggle with gender and sexuality issues, and renders it magnificent through a brilliant soundtrack and the performance of John Cameron Mitchell. It is easily the best rock musical of recent times, being one of the few that is so distinctively of our times. Alas, too few in the last decade have followed in its footsteps.

Whatever became of that "American Idiot" movie? Or the Gorillaz movie? Come on Hollywood. We wanna rock!
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Friday, October 14, 2011

"Thundercats" Ho!

Now this is how you do a reboot. You take a much-beloved, nostalgic property with a lot of room for improvement, keep the things that people love, toss the things that didn't work, put in the money to give the production values a big upgrade, and have creators at the helm who love and understand he original, but who also have the know-how to put together something modern viewers will enjoy. All the boxes have been ticked for the new Cartoon Network version of "Thundercats," which brings back Lion-O, Tygra, Cheetara, Panthro, and all your other favorites back in new anime incarnations.

Before you recoil at the thought of moe and mecha invading the "Thundercats" universe, let me set the scene. The new "Thundercats" places young Lion-O (Will Freidle) as prince and heir to the throne of the quasi-feudal kingdom of Thundera, home of the Thundercats. Instead of being a child in an adult body, he's a typical adolescent, distracted by tales of mythological technology and occasionally going out in disguise and getting into fights with ruffians. His adopted older brother Tygra (Matthew Mercer) is more level-headed and more capable, but a bit of a jerk to his younger brother.

However, there's not much time to squabble because the kingdom is soon under attack by the forces of the evil Mumm-Ra (Robin Atkin Downes) and his army of lizards. King Claudus (Lenny Kenney, the original Lion-O) puts up a good fight, but in the end Thundera is lost. And so, Lion-O is left to take up the Sword of Omens and lead a scrappy band of the remaining Thundercats on a long journey to regain his kingdom. Other regulars include the sleekly sexy Cheetara (Emmanuelle Chriqui), mischeivous street kids WilyKat (Eamon Pirruccello) and WilyKit (Madeleine Hall), avuncular Panthro (Kevin Michael Richardson), wizardly Jaga (Corey Burton), and Snarf (Satomi Kohrogi), a tubby sidekick/pet who doesn't speak in this version. Mumm-Ra's recurring underlings include the turncoat Grune (Clancy Brown) and a lizard heavy named Slithe (Dee Bradley Baker).

Visually, the new series looks like a mid-90s epic fantasy anime, and specifically Shoji Kowamori's "Vision of Escaflowne," with its lush environments, mix of low and high technology, and anthropomorphized cat characters. The designs feature interesting details, the animation is fluid, and the direction is top notch. I don't think it compares to the higher-end productions that have come out of Japan in recent years, but it's still a considerable leap in quality from the 80s version. Moreover, "Thundercats" follows the pattern of a typical anime action series, with an ongoing narrative that switches between plot-heavy and self contained episodes. And to my surprise, there actually turns out to be quite a bit of plot - much of it drawn directly from the older series. However the treatment of the material has been a bit more serious and a bit more in depth, though plenty of humor and cheesy moments keep things light. It wouldn't be "Thundercats" without the cheesiness after all.

The reaction to the show has been almost uniformly positive, and especially among the older fans who grew up with the original "Thundercats." My own memories are pretty hazy, but the show's creators have definitely been using the established "Thundercats" mythology to give the new series more texture and history. It has its own attitude and its own ideas, but there's also a comforting sense that the people in charge love and cherish the source materal. New viewers don't need to know anything about the older incarnation to enjoy it, but those who are familiar with the original show will find cameos of minor characters and other references in abundance. Online discussions of the current episodes frequently bring up old enemies or storylines that fans would like to see return in the new series. That's a vote of confidence if I ever saw one.

At the same time the creators have been doing a fantastic job with original characters. The stand-alone episodes have been my favorites so far, with Lion-O encountering a colony of plant people and getting himself caught up in an extended "Usagi Yojimbo" homage. The new "Thundercats" isn't just updating Third Earth and Thundera, but expanding them. There are intriguing new layers, like the suggestion that the dominance of the Thundercats over the other anthropomorphic animal races may have been the result of past injustices. Nothing too dark or weighty, but it's opening more terrain for the 'Cats to explore.

I like the show's ambition and the approach it's taken so far, so I'm rooting for its success. I'd be much happier with the recent surge in reboots if more of them were like this.
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bad Trailer, No Biscuit

I came across the trailer for the upcoming Glenn Close film "Albert Nobbs" last night, and I watched it, curious to get a glimpse of the performance that some awards prognosticators are predicting might send Close to the Oscars this year. The movie looks decent, but the trailer was awful. It told too much of the story, gave away several of the best moments, and did so with no subtlety or restraint. The tone was utterly lugubrious and maudlin, making the film seem like a broader studio feel-good film instead of a restrained Irish costume drama. A cloying Sinéad O'Connor pop song featured prominently in the closing montage of heartfelt imagery, even enjoying an extra bit of obnoxious marketing push during the credit blocks. Yikes.

It remains to be seen how the year for movies shapes up, but it's been a rotten year for trailers. What's odd is that some of the most promising upcoming features have some of the most dismal promos. The first preview for Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" was so saccharine and melodramatic, it elicited laughter from the audience when I saw it play in theaters. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is getting great early reviews, but has an utterly dull, generic trailer, that makes it look like every other children's fantasy film coming out this year. The same goes for David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method." Usually I can spot a Cronenberg film within seconds, but this time I couldn't see the director anywhere in the featured clips. What the hell is going on?

There have always been bad trailers, and there will always be bad trailers, but the sinking level of quality I've been seeing lately worries me. Marketers have been aggressively favoring familiarity over novelty, and in recent years seem bent on stripping out anything that makes a film look distinctive or original. I've grown to expect this approach to the trailers for mainstream films, but this is the first time I've noticed these tactics creeping into so many prestige pictures that have even a remote chance of being a commercial hit. It's making it more difficult than ever to tell the difference between the films with any real ambition and the usual studio fodder, which is probably the intention. There is a chance that these films really are as bad as their trailers make them out to be, but I highly doubt that all of them are. Over the summer, several films like "X-Men: First Class" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" turned out to be very good, in spite of clumsy, clueless promotional campaigns.

Bad trailers are also galling because many of them are so misleading. By now you've probably heard about that woman in Michigan who is suing the promoters of the movie "Drive," because it wasn't what the trailers represented it to be: a fast, loud, action movie in the vein of the "Fast and Furious" franchise. Instead, "Drive" is better described as a character study, and boasts a slow pace, meditative atmosphere, and a lot of kudos from the European film festivals. The suit is obviously frivolous, but it does reflect the frustration that many viewers feel about the dishonesty of many modern movie trailers. I can just imagine audiences going to see "Albert Nobbs" expecting "The Help," and reacting badly when they get "Remains of the Day" instead. I like both types of movies, but sometimes I'm just not in the mood for one or the other.

Some make excuses that a good film deserves to be seen, and sometimes the only way to get audiences in the door and in the position to give these films a chance is with a little bit of deceit. The whole point of a trailer is to sell a film after all, and you don't sell a film these days on the basis of the elements that are only likely to appeal to a minority of viewers. But how does it make any sense to alienate the most receptive audience in the process? Surely there's a way to make a film like "War Horse" look more accessible without making it seem incompetent, which I'm sorry to say that it does. The trailer is so obviously intended to tug on the heartstrings, it makes "Dolphin Tale" look subtle. I'm going to see "War Horse" anyway because I trust Spielberg, but Dreamworks is not making it easy for me here.

I think I'll be avoiding any more trailers this year. I've had enough. I'm going to put my money where my mouth is, stick to the reviews and recommendations, and avoid getting myself stuck with the wrong expectations, or spoiled, or misled, or manipulated. Until the Superbowl previews next summer's eye candy blockbusters - the only thing Hollywood really knows how to sell - I'm out. I'm done. No more trailers.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Let's "Drive"

When the title of "Drive" appears onscreen in florid magenta font, backed by a synth-heavy 80s soundtrack, a savvy audience member will realize that the film they're about to see has greater ambitions than being your average CGI-laden action movie. Oh, there are chases and wrecks, but they're secondary to the story of a nameless young mechanic (Ryan Gosling) who occasionally drives stunt cars for the movies and moonlights as a getaway driver. He says very little, but cuts a memorable figure in leather driving gloves and a white silk jacket with a gold scorpion stitched on the back. It's an outfit I suspect we'll be seeing duplicated this Halloween, and for many Halloweens to come.

Because this is the role I think Gosling is going to be remembered for. The Driver, as he's listed in the credits, has the makings of an icon. We first see him playing cat-and-mouse with the police in the run-down neighborhoods Los Angeles, a car town if there ever was one, comfortable in the persona of a coolly invincible wheelman who can do anything with the right car. He lives a solitary life, devoid of personal connections and ties to anything but the world of cars and driving. Many of his early scenes are spent in silence, existing only as a lone figure on the screen. And he seems perfectly content to be exploited by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who owns the auto shop that employs the Driver, and has the connections to arrange more dangerous under-the-table jobs.

Then, of course, a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) comes into his life. She lives with her young son a few doors down from the Driver, and sometimes could use a hand with errands. But as soon as the two tentatively connect, Irene's absent husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison. Standard is in trouble, owing the wrong people a bundle in protection money. Then there is a job, that becomes a job-gone-wrong, and the Driver ends up with a price on his head. Graphic, realistic, violence follows. Viewers may recoil at the sight of so much blood and gore, though the shots are brief and you don't actually see as much as you think you do. Director Nicholas Winding Refn, best known for the similarly brutal "Bronson," is not in the habit of using typically bloodless, action-movie violence.

Nor is Ryan Gosling playing your typical action movie hero. "Drive" hinges on Gosling's performance, which consists largely of physical action, or rather as some have noted, inaction. We know next to nothing about the character, not his name, his background, or his motives. There is little to go on but the implacable front he presents to the world, which is well served by Gosling's charisma. However, every so often that perfect facade slips, and that's where Gosling builds the heart of the performance, using the subtlest expressions to reveal the character's inner life. The romance between the Driver and Irene is played out almost entirely in quiet glances. In the action scenes, momentary hesitations and lingering looks hint that he's not as sure of himself as he wants us all to think he is.

The rest of the cast is just as impressive. Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston put their personal stamps on some common genre tropes. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman nearly steal the show as Bernie and Nino, a pair of likeable West Coast mobsters who are utterly ruthless when it comes to taking care of business. Perlman is always great in this kind of part, but Brooks going against type was a great surprise. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks, making a brief appearance as a thief in high heels, also hold their own in smaller, but vital roles. Any of these characters could have easily been caricatures, as they all fit certain types, but everyone gets little moments and little details that make them distinctive.

The same can be said of "Drive" itself. There have been plenty of car films and plenty of these lone wolf heroes. "Drive" references several of them. But the mood that Nicholas Winding Refn summons, with old 80s pop tunes playing over hypnotic driver's POV shots, is unique. Refn has shown again that he not only knows how to create memorable characters like Bronson and the Driver, but how to create the right cinematic environments to bring out their best and worst. By all means, go to the film for Gosling and Mulligan and the fast cars and the jarring violence. But stay for the languid Los Angeles atmosphere and the long, long silences. Stay for the ineffable moments of pure cool.
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Unmerciful "Melancholia"

Apparently Lars von Trier is still depressed. In his latest film, "Melancholia," he literally destroys all life on Earth, by having a mysterious planet come out from behind the sun and smash us all into celestial bits in a fancifully morbid opening sequence. His main character is a picture-perfect bride named Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who self-destructs during her wedding reception, and later seems to gain strength and purpose in her knowledge that the world is facing an imminent demise. You know, after so many films featuring troubled heroines, I've decided Lars von Trier isn't a misogynist at all. He just likes projecting all his personal issues on his tormented heroines. Also, he's got something of a martyr complex.

But back to the subject of depression. After the fireworks of the pre-title sequence, we travel back in time a few months to the wedding reception of Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard), who arrive two hours late, and it just gets worse from there. Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to keep the evening on track despite Justine becoming increasingly distracted, and disappearing for long stretches of time. Their parents, Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), despise each other and make no attempt to hide it. Justine's boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgaard) is only present to try and bully some ad copy out of Justine, with the help of a tagalong trainee, Tim (Brady Corbet). Meanwhile Claire's overbearing husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps vocally complaining about how he ended up footing much of the bill for the event. The wedding planner, played by Udo Kier, is so upset by the bride's delays, he insists on shielding his eyes to avoid looking at Justine entirely.

In short, we have the wedding from hell, a seething mire of toxic relationships and bitter grudges, dressed up all the tasteful finery of an expensive wedding party. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Justine, whose elaborate bridal gown and coiffed hair initially do a wonderful job of making her look joyous and radiant. Then Kirsten Dunst starts smiling just a little too hard, and her dialogue gets more terse, and then she's doing very socially awkward things in that bridal gown that literally made me pause, reorient, and confirm that she was actually doing what I thought she was doing, in a bridal gown. The social satire is cutting and merciless. The cast offers biting, cruel performances, with the exception of an exasperated Udo Kier, delivering comedic grace notes on the savagery. The entire affair is designed to be suffocating and awful, as experienced by Justine, who lashes out and makes the situation even more unbearable. It's not easy to sit through, but von Trier's intentions are clear and his observations are sharp. Every bit of false sentiment or meaningless ceremony is thoroughly mocked or maligned, and no one escapes unscathed.

So it is something of a relief when the second half of the film begins, a few days before the planet Melancholia is due to arrive. The claustrophobic handheld camerawork gives way to moody, scenic panoramas, and the POV shifts to Clair living on a large estate with John and their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Justine is visiting, so depressed by this point that she can barely be coaxed out of bed. Clair worries that Melancholia will collide with Earth, though John and Leo are excited for the event, which John insists will only be a "fly-by." The foreknowledge of impending doom, provided by the film's opening, makes the quieter, more muted interactions of this segment more poignant and impactful. Eventually the tables are turned, and it's Clair's appeals to civility and propriety that are out of place, while Justine's cold nihilism becomes more appropriate and empowering. And it's oddly wonderful that Lars von Trier has managed to construct a situation where being thoroughly, utterly depressed, is the most reasonable state of being.

I liked the second half of "Melancholia" much more than the first half. The imagery is macabre and gorgeous. Snow and hailstones fall from an ashen sky, and the surrounding natural scenery becomes starker and stranger as the end draws near. Von Trier has explored the beauty of negative imagery before, but it's never been so grand scale or ostentatious. And then there's the score, that features dramatic orchestral pieces that reach their climax just as Melancholia reaches Earth. With more breathing room, the performances also become fuller and more complex. No histrionics or graphic self-harm here, but only simpler, and far more potent moments of human contact. Dunst has rightly been receiving a lot attention for her performance, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is also a valuable anchoring presence.

I don't think "Melancholia" is among Lars von Trier's better films, but he's left off the worst of his excesses and made something very watchable and compelling. The mood and tone and style are unique for a cinema apocalypse, that struck me as oddly comforting. Yes, it may be the end of the world, but all things end and it's perfectly natural to feel sad and despondent. It's nice to know that though Lars von Trier may not be feeling any better, at least he's fully embraced being depressed.
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Monday, October 10, 2011

A Slow Burn Season For "Breaking Bad"

The season finale of "Breaking Bad" aired last night. It's been an interesting year, so I'm putting in my spoiler-ific two cents on what went down and what I think is coming up next year, in the show's last sixteen episodes.

This was the first year of "Breaking Bad" I got to follow from week to week as it was being broadcast. Unlike past seasons, this one started out slow, with a lot of very character-centric episodes that didn't advance the plot in very big or flashy ways. Waiting a week between episodes made it feel even slower. However, installments kept building and building on each other, each week bringing a greater sense of inertia toward some unknown endgame. Instead of the hairpin plot twists and left-field surprises of years past, season four was a single long run-up to an explosive finale.

There was a lot of shrewd maneuvering going on in the storytelling department from the start. Walter White spent much of of this year on the sidelines, while the story followed Skyler dealing with the car wash and Ted Beneke, Hank circling Gus's operations, Jesse's apprenticeship with Mike, and Gus waging war against the Mexican cartel. Every time Walt tried to make a move, he was faced with surveillance cameras, Gus's muscle, and his own inadequacies. He made a lot of major missteps, including alienating Jesse. There was a lot going on totally out of Walt's knowledge or control, such as the Beneke situation and the cartel war, that nonetheless had a direct impact on him. And we could see it eating at him, episode after episode. The whole eventful year, in some ways, was about getting Walt to a place of such impotence and desperation, that he would cross the line and carry out the plan we see unfold in the finale.

I'm going to miss Giancarlo Esposito as Gus, who wasn't always the most logically sound villain on television, but has consistently been a character of great presence. In his own way, he was as over-the-top as Tuco or the cousins. Gustavo Fring emerged this year as a cold-blooded creature who could literally sense danger from a hundred paces, yet expertly hid away his dark side under a veneer of unflappable professionalism. His last act on earth, fittingly enough, was adjusting hs tie with half his face blown-off in one of "Breaking Bad's" most graphic and surreal moments. The scenes between Gus and Hector Salamanca were among the highlights of this season, and kudos to Mark Margolis for delivering such a darkly comic performance despite so many physical limitations. The final casualty of the evening, Tyrus, played by Ray Campbell, I wasn't so attached to. I spent most of this year waiting for him to do something interesting, but nothing happened. He's one of the rare "Breaking Bad" characters who didn't have any hidden depths or a noteworthy personality. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

Among the rest of the returning cast, everybody got their moment. Hank and Marie's marital troubles were heartrending, but eased up when Hank started playing detective. Walt Jr. had about as much screen time as his baby sister, barely enough to stay consequential. Saul Goodman, played by the indispensable Bob Odenkirk, was as good as ever, but stayed in his own box. The secondary characters with the best arcs this season numbered three: Jesse, Mike, and Skyler. This was the year Jesse came into his own, recovering from a personal low brought about by last year's shooting, and got some measure of confidence and self-worth back. Ironically, he still ended up being manipulated by Walt, and his enduring loyalty has become a tragic flaw. On the other hand, realizing the betrayal could push Jesse over the edge in the future. Mike, the character I'm looking forward to learning more about next season, successfully managed to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walt, although briefly, and it remains to be seen what he'll do when he gets back from Mexico and finds Gus dead. Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks were great this season, but in a three-way showdown for the Supporting Actor Emmy, I think I'd give it to Giancarlo Esposito.

And then we have Skyler, who had a lot more to do this year, and Anna Gunn made her considerably more sympathetic than in seasons past. Skyler followed Walt's lead in breaking bad and badder, using strongarm tactics and outright fraud to acquire the car wash. Then, after last year's relationship with Ted Beneke came back to threaten her, she inadvertently caused his death and put the family precariously close to bankruptcy again - exactly the sort of shenanigans Walt was pulling in the first two seasons. Does this mean we'll see her cross even more lines next year, when Walt becomes the Scarface figure that the show's creators have been setting him up to be since the show began? Or will she be his downfall? I don't see many major new players being added to the show this late in the game, which means the final Big Bads of "Breaking Bad" are probably going to be Hank and the DEA, because they're the only major opponents who are still in the game. That may finally put Skyler squarely in the middle, with Hank and Marie on one side, and Walt and the kids on the other.

So it's been a good season on all fronts for "Breaking Bad." Seeing the finale, with its quicker pace and moments of black humor (the whole scene with Hector and the DEA was priceless) made me realize how much more psychologically focused and suspenseful the recent episodes have been, and it's not a bad change. The show has been steadily evolving since the first season, and now that it's spent all this time building up the major characters, it's time to see what happens when they finally come in direct opposition with each other. The show's slow burn is far from finished. I wouldn't be surprised if Walter White went down at the hands of Jesse or Skyler, the two people closest to him, who he's done the most damage to. Or is there enough humanity left in Walt that he'd take the bullet for them in the end?

Sixteen more episodes until the end, and it's going to be a long wait until next summer.
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Saturday, October 8, 2011

The October Follow-Up Post

I know it's only been a month since my last follow-up post, where I gave updates on various entertainment news items I'd previously written about, but there's been a lot going on that deserves some timely commentary.

DirecTV's New Bet on Video On Demand - I swear they never learn. The newest chapter in the early video-on-demand (VOD) wars involves Universal offering the new Brett Ratner comedy "Tower Heist" on Comcast's VOD for $60, three weeks after it premieres theatrically. Cinemark Theaters has threatened a boycott, but everyone else seems to be rolling their eyes. Who on earth would want to pay $60 for a VOD movie? If nobody wanted to pay $30 for a film sixty days after its release in the DirecTV experiment, what makes Universal think anyone wants to pay $60 after twenty-one days? To be fair, the star-studded "Tower Heist," which features Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, is on track to be a bigger movie than anything DirecTV was offering, but this venture seems designed to fail. But hey - maybe that's the point. If "Tower Heist" on early VOD proves to be a major failure, maybe it will put a final nail in the coffin of this nutty trend.

Why Does Arrietty Have Two English Dubs? - As some predicted, Disney has given up its rights to theatrically distribute all but the most recent Ghibli films to GKIDS. Disney will retain the DVD and other home entertainment rights, which lends credence to the idea that they might be moving away from future theatrical distribution of the Ghibli films. Also Stateside anime fans are still waiting for "Arrietty" to hit theaters in February. The old joke about Disney dragging their heels in releasing Ghibli films is getting awfully relevant again.

The Playboy Club and H8er were the first new shows of the fall season to be cancelled. Good riddance.

All "Simpsons," All the Time - In an interesting twist, the future of "The Simpsons" was recently in jeopardy because contract negotiations with the cast got contentious again. The show has gotten less profitable over time with declining ratings, forcing FOX to cut costs. In fact, according to the LA Times, ending the show might become the more lucrative option for FOX, because that would trigger the ability for them to renegotiate syndication deals and sell rights to the reruns to new platforms. But for now, "The Simpsons" has been renewed for two more years. And for those of you who are actually still watching the show, this year's "Treehouse of Horror XXII" is scheduled to air on October 30th.

The "Human Centipede II" Ban - The British censors have given "The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" a rating and the go-ahead for public exhibition after the filmmakers trimmed a few minutes of the most graphic material. This is an about-face from their earlier declaration that the film on the whole was so egregiously offensive, that no cuts could be made to render it watchable. You could argue the merits of who won and who lost in this clash, but I'm just glad that the BBFC realized that banning a film based on thematic issues was setting bad precedent. However, that won't save "Centipede" from a flood of bad reviews, many of which charge the film with a far worse crime than being offensive - being boring.

Delicious is Going Down - The beloved social book marking site Delicious was supposed to have been rescued from shutdown by Avos, which bought the site back in April. YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen were supposed to relaunch a new and improved version of the site. Well, the relaunch happened at the end of September, rendering the site unusable. Functions have disappeared, bugs are everywhere, and the user base is in revolt. I hope the guys behind the scenes figure out how to fix things quick.

And Your Host, Betty White - Finally, I commented in the linked article last year that I thought Andy Rooney was looking worn and sounding increasingly out of touch. So I, for one, welcomed his recent departure from the "60 Minutes" roster. It was great to have him as part of the television landscape for so many decades, but I felt Rooney hit his expiration date a few years ago and congratulate him on his retirement. There's been some discussion of who "60 Minutes" might bring on to replace him - apparently Lewis Black turned the job down - but I don't know how I'd feel about someone else taking over the closing segment. It's just too soon.
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