Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Following "The Finder"

I'm not a regular watcher of "Bones," but my significant other is a fan, and has latched on to its new spinoff, "The Finder," which "Bones" aired a backdoor pilot for last year. The shows have absolutely nothing in common, so I don't know if it really counts as a spinoff. Anyway, I've watched the first couple of episodes, of "The Finder," which bills itself as a laid-back, lighthearted, high energy detective procedural set in Florida. I was hoping for another "Burn Notice," but so far I'm getting more of a "Psych" vibe with a warmer weather wardrobe.

Geoff Stults stars as Walter Sherman, a former soldier who is in the business of finding things for other people since an IED left him with oddly beneficial brain damage. His business partner is ex-lawyer Leo Knox (Michael Clarke Duncan), who owns the Ends of the Earth bar, which also serves as their de facto office. Helping them mind the place is Willa Monday (Maddie Hasson), a teenage reprobate who is serving out her probation under Walter and Leo's care. And because she's too young to be a love interest and the situation would be a little skeevy otherwise, Deputy U.S. Marshal Isabel Zambada (Mercedes Masöhn) maintains a constant presence, lending the tacit approval of the local law enforcement to the little gang's adventures, and some extra firepower when necessary.

In other words, we've got a pretty standard case-of-the-week light action show here, following a very, very familiar formula. You've got your zany eccentric, in this case Walter, who solves people's problems in every episode through extraordinary skills that don't stand up to any real scrutiny. Walter is on the cuddly end of the eccentric scale, very personable, very friendly, and very altruistic, but he acts out in some wild and crazy ways. Geoff Stults is a perfectly serviceable lead actor, but I don't buy Walter yet. His traumas are a little too submerged, and every time he does something especially ridiculous, it feels like he's putting on an act for the benefit of the audience. The tics don't feel ingrained into the character, like they do with Dr. House or Adrian Monk.

Fortunately Walter does have some good support from the rest of the cast. Michael Clarke Duncan is as lovable as always, and I'm glad he's found himself a nice, regular television gig after too many years MIA from the movies. I like Maddie Hasson, who is doing her best at playing a really contrived character – Willa is a member of a band of gypsies, though whether Romani or Traveller I'm not clear on yet. The heart of the matter is that she's a thief from a family of thieves, and only staying with Walter and Leo in the hopes that she can figure out how to get into Leo's impregnable safe. Keeping her out of trouble and on the side of angels is a constant struggle. Mercedes Masöhn hasn't had a chance to do much yet, but it's only been three episodes, so I have no reason not to hope for the best.

It's a good thing I like the characters, because the Achilles' heel of "The Finder" is already pretty clear – it's not very smart. When it comes to the actual plotting of the mysteries, it relies on a lot of tricks to make characters sound sharper and better informed than they actually are. Also, it constantly lets the good guys bend the rules and be just shady enough to get what they want without losing the sympathies of the audience. Walter impulsively borrows someone's jet ski for a chase scene. Willa finds plenty of opportunities to use her skills at petty thievery and housebreaking. Isabel scolds them, but is perfectly happy to take the credit for nabbing any bad guys. I automatically found myself turning my brain off at the start of each episode, and that's never a good sign.

That's not to say "The Finder" doesn't have its good points. It already has the right tone and attitude. The banter between Walter and Leo is old hat, but like many old hats, it's comfortable and easy on the ears. I like the chemistry between the actors, who sell so many silly ideas so well. And though I rag on the writers, they do manage to land their share of fun one-liners. If the show maintains the same energy it has in the first episodes, I expect that it'll be good to stick around on the television schedule for a long time to come.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"The Flowers of War" Never Blooms

I saw "The Flowers of War" a while ago, but it finally hit my local multiplex this past weekend, so I thought I'd get some thoughts out. Is it worth your time? Not really. I mean there was obviously a lot of effort that went into making the film a major event – The Flowers of War" is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, stars bona fide Hollywood movie star Christian Bale, and has Zhang Yimou directing – but it's also incredibly heavy-handed, shallow, and tries too hard to please Western audiences in all the wrong ways.

As indicated by the title this is a war film, specifically one set during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, when the Japanese invaded and terrorized what was then the capital city of China. At a Catholic convent, the old priest has died, stranding the dozen young schoolgirls who are boarded there. Their unlikely savior comes in the form of John Miller (Bale), an itinerant mortician who has come to bury the priest, collect his fee, and be on his way as quickly as possible. However, the encroaching Japanese soldiers make that impossible. Miller and the girls are trapped in the church together, along with a group of local prostitutes who force their way in to seek sanctuary. Miller quickly takes up with their leader, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), to the disdain and fascination of one of the schoolgirls, Shujuan (Xinyi Zhang), who narrates the film for us.

Now to make things easier for the Western audience, much of the film is in English. Almost all of Mr. Bale's dialogue, and the dialogue of anyone having a conversation with him is in English, and perfectly passable English at that. The story is also extremely simplified, so that the characters are not so much characters as easily recognizable types. We have not just one hooker with a heart of gold, but a dozen of them. Mr. Miller may talk big about being a rogue and an opportunist, but is there any doubt that he'll be risking his life for the schoolgirls in the end? And speaking of the schoolgirls, none but Shujuan is given any personality, but the film is full of shots of them looking fearful or sad or wretched, milking their victimhood for all its worth. And I haven't even gotten to the heroic Chinese soldiers or the demonized Japanese invaders yet.

I think that the greatest disservice that "The Flowers of War" does to its subject matter is removing pretty much all the historical context for the Rape of Nanking and the gory particulars of what was actually going on there on a wider scale. The major atrocities are alluded to, but always kept tastefully out of frame. The problem with this is that the reality of the time period and the massacre isn't very well established, and it makes the individual actions of the Japanese villains in the film seem too extreme to be believed, even though the truth was that there was far, far worse going on. The film does take pains to give us a sympathetic Japanese Colonel (Atsuro Watabe) who is only following orders, and a Chinese collaborator (Cao Kefan), Shujuan's father, who is only acting out of self-preservation, but they are too much the sum of their traits, devices rather than full characters.

However, what did work in the film were the prostitutes, a lively bunch who are rough-edged, shameless about their profession, and easily the most endearing characters in the movie. They fight with the schoolgirls, tease each other constantly, flirt with Miller, and bring some much-needed humor and vibrancy to the film. They're the real heroines of the story, and I wish "The Flowers of War" had spent more time with them, instead of with the expensive-looking battle scenes with the soldiers, or letting Christian Bale mug endlessly to the camera. Once we get down to the really tense, life-or-death situations in the last third of the film, suddenly the melodrama works, the tone and the scale of the film feel appropriate, and I was enjoying it. But I had to sit through an hour and a half of really mediocre, obvious posturing and platitudes to get there.

There is plenty to like about "The Flowers of War." It's a great looking movie. The cinematography is excellent, the production design is gorgeous, and the story is a very compelling one. But it's also far too long, terribly padded, and it wears its intentions on its sleeve. It's too often clumsy and didactic, operating on the level of fable or allegory instead of proper historical fiction. And some of the directing choices are odd – why do the prostitutes have a song number in the middle of the film? Why are all of Bale's intimate scenes with Ni Ni so badly staged and dialogue-heavy? What's especially puzzling is the price tag of the movie. Sure, it looks great, but this is far from the most impressive Chinese film I've seen, or even the most impressive from Zhang Yimou, who is known for his ostentatious period pieces.

Oh well. "The Flowers of War" was at least an interesting experiment with a few good moments. We'll probably see more like it in the future as Hollywood keeps trying to cozy up to China. Better luck next time.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rated M for Managing Expectations

The upcoming sequel to "The Expendables" is one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year for action fans. Not only is the whole cast of the first movie expected to return, but they'll be joined by more action heavyweights of the 80s, including Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, who only had cameos in the first film, are expected to be more involved in on the action this time. However, rumors started circulating earlier this month that the film was probably going to be rated PG-13. Cue the wails and lamentations.

The most beloved 80s action franchise of yesteryear were mostly R-rated, like the "Rambo," "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard," and "Terminator." However, in recent years they've fallen out of fashion with the studios, which prefer PG-13 films that can attract a larger audience. So the latest installments of "Terminator" and "Die Hard" were rated PG-13, bringing in the money, but also incurring much scorn from the series' fans. No R-rating meant less intense action sequences, less visceral violence, less profanity and sexuality. No one will argue that a PG-13 action film without this kind of content can't be as good as an R-rated one, but that isn't the point. R-ratings promise a different kind of moviegoing experience, and to go from an R-rating to a PG-13 rating can change the fundamental nature of a film.

The whole point of a film like "The Expendables," many would argue, is to see the kind of bloody, crazy, no-holds-barred fighting and shootouts that its headliners made famous in their heyday. Why make a "Die Hard" film where Bruce Willis can't deliver John McClane's most well-known catchphrase, or a "Terminator" where the evil cyborgs aren't turning every human who gets in their way into piles of bloody body parts? An R-rated action film operates much like a horror film. If the scares are too tame to give you a good jolt, then the movie hasn't really done its job, has it?

But honestly? I don't have a problem with "The Expendables 2" being a PG-13 movie. Please put down the pitchforks and let me explain. The first film was rated R, for "strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language," but none of the adult content really mattered to the effectiveness of the film. Most of the profanities were barely intelligible coming from the multi-national, thickly accented cast, and the action scenes was so over-the-top, it bordered on cartoonish. And to be honest, they were pretty tame for an R-rated film. It's easy to see why – many of the actors were seriously past their prime, and not in good enough shape to credibly be getting into these kinds of scraps anymore.

In "The Expendables 2," even more older action heroes will join the fray. I love them all, but Stallone and Schwarzenegger are in their sixties, and Chuck Norris is over seventy. How much carnage can we really expect from them? At what point will the usual larger-than-life action hero antics just look silly with sexagenarians? And not in a good way, like "RED." I think the movie is in danger of becoming a parody of itself if it plays the scenario too straight. The last one came pretty close to the edge a few times, and only really got away with as much as it did because it left most of the real fighting to the youngsters in the cast – Jet Li and Jason Statham.

What made the "The Expendables" noteworthy, in spite of all its flaws, was providing a chance for us to see the amazing cast come together, to give familiar faces like Dolph Lundgren a chance to appear onscreen again. Nostalgia, as much as anything, was what made that movie work. I expect the same thing will hold true for the sequel. I mean, if people went to see "The Expendables" for really envelope-pushing, hardcore action sequences, they probably came away disappointed.

So I'm not ready to write the film off yet, just because it's not going to be what fans had envisioned. I, for one, actually liked the PG-13 "Terminator" and "Die Hard" movies. They weren't great, but they were fun for what they were. "The Expendables 2" is not going to be an orgiastic wallow of guts and glory, but you know what? It's still going to have Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis joining forces against the evil legions of Jean-Claude Van Damme. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Real Brats of "Real Steel"

I’m starting to think that it is impossible for Hollywood to make a movie about giant robots without making all the human characters unlikeable jackasses. About twenty minutes into "Real Steel," the father-son bonding robot boxing movie, I realized that both father Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and son Max (Dakota Goyo) were both going to be unlikeable brats who only knew how to communicate through playground taunting. And everyone they interact with, with the exception of the love interest played by Evangeline Lily, are also unlikeable brats. As a result, what should have been a fun, feel-good family film is more like watching a couple of really badly-behaved, overgrown eight-year olds play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for two hours.

I’m still not sure how the filmmakers managed to screw this up so badly. The plot should have been foolproof. In the future, human boxers have been replaced with robots, and Charlie is a former boxer-turned-robot-wrangler. Faced with too many debts and shrinking opportunities, he decides to accept a bribe from his ex-in-laws to turn over custody of his estranged 11-year-old son Max to their care. Of course, he also has to take the kid for the summer, who is as hostile and suspicious as you might expect. However Max turns out to love robot boxing, and the two eventually bond over the sport and help a forgotten underdog miracle bot named Atom rise to glory. A little father-son reconciliation, some robot fight scenes, yadda yadda. You already know how this movie is supposed to go.

What kills it is the spectacularly crummy attitudes of the characters. Max isn’t just a smart-aleck kid, but an insufferable little twerp. Charlie isn’t just a hustler and careless jerk, which I know the formula demands to some extent, but a short-sighted, self-destructive idiot who is so enormously irresponsible that I doubt anyone in real life would let a child anywhere near him. It was painful to watch an actor as likable and affable as Hugh Jackman playing this lunkhead. The villains are cartoonish and dull. Evangeline Lily is just there to look pretty. And Anthony Mackie, playing one of Charlie’s only remaining friends, is just there to be black. I’m not kidding.

I’ve seen some cynical movies before, but this one really made me cringe. It felt like whoever was doing the scripting was in deep denial about the fact that they were writing a family film that required the characters to deal with icky things like emotion and attachment. And they were so terrified of showing any kind of sentiment, they did away with any charm or humor or wonder that could have been drawn out of this story. You can tell they tried to make the characters edgy and rebellious and non-conformist, but just ended up making them jerks. It’s only when the sports movie formula fully takes over and the film is running on autopilot in the third act, that there’s a grudging attempt to have father and son actually display any attachment to each other. And of course it doesn’t work, because the film has spent the previous two acts trying to convince everyone that these people are too cool for that kind of nonsense.

What really gets me is that the potential for a much better film is right there. The special effects in "Real Steel" are fantastic, and all the fighting robots look great Their brawls are a lot more fun to watch than the overcomplicated set-pieces staged by the Transformers. But just as the humans suffer for lack of attention and development, so do their robots. The "Real Steel" robots are just ordinary machines, armor shells with hardly a whisper of any soul. It’s suggested that Atom might have some awareness, but nothing ever comes of it. The film isn’t really about the bots. As a result, the film feels empty because there’s no emotional heart to the story, no one you really feel like rooting for.

It worries me that we have so many of these movies like "Real Steel" and "Transformers" and the Adam Sandler comedies that are being sold as family entertainment, but feature lead characters who are all deeply resentful, mean-spirited, and honestly pretty awful people. Is this an attempt by the filmmakers to give their desired audiences what they think they want? To try and make these characters more relatable? Is Charlie Kenton really anybody’s idea of a hero? If so, Hollywood and the state of mainstream film just got a lot more depressing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Nominations Are Out!

The 2011 Academy Award nominees are over here. Let's get down to business.

The Best Picture nominations were pretty much what everyone expected, though it was probably close with "The Tree of Life," but there was one nominee that had a lot of people in arms today: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Largely scorned by critics and shut out of almost all the earlier awards races, most awards prognosticators had written this one off. I was hoping "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" might squeak through, but I knew it was a lost cause. From the negative buzz, however, I would have thought that the chances of "Extremely Loud" were much worse. Still, there were those reports from the member screenings back in December, that the film hit home for enough of the people who mattered most – the Academy voters.

No surprises in the Best Director race, but there were in some of the acting categories. Gary Oldman landing his first nomination for Best Actor was far from certain, and I was happy to see his name this morning. Demian Birchir from "A Better Life" was a long shot, but he showed up in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominations, and that's usually one of the major early indicators of support from the acting community. It was a good, underseen performance and I'm happy for him, but this left Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender, and Michael Shannon on the sidelines, along with their films – "J.Edgar," "Shame," and "Take Shelter" were all shut out. There were some grumbles about the omission of Tilda Swinton from the Best Actress category and Albert Brooks from the Best Supporting Actor race, but this wasn't unexpected considering their track records this season.

Usually the Screenplay nominations closely mirror the Best Picture nominations, and any deviations are a good indication of who the runner-ups for the big prize probably were. So it's here that we predictably find "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "Bridesmaids," and "The Ides of March." However, the unexpected appearances of "Margin Call" and Best Foreign Film nominee "A Separation" suggest that these two had more support than most people realized, despite not being very high profile. But when you look at the big categories and who consistently got nominated for what, the front runners are pretty clear: "The Artist," "Midnight in Paris," "Hugo," "The Descendants," and "Moneyball."

In the smaller categories, we find more former Best Picture hopefuls "Drive," "W./E.," and "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2," which are up for Best Sound Editing, Best Costume, and Best Art Direction/Best Makeup/Best Visual Effects respectively. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" failed to secure the most important nominations for Picture and Director, but it grabbed Best Cinematography and Best Editing nods, good enough to boost its total haul to five nominations, more than "The Help" or "Midnight in Paris."

But there were two races in particular with nominees that have left people scratching their heads: Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature. I don't understand why there are only two Best Original Song nominees despite 39 eligible tunes, but the convoluted voting rules and the notoriously capricious voting members of the Academy's Music Branch probably have something to do with it.

Even more surprising, but in a much better way, are the nominees for Best Animated Feature. "Cars 2," "The Adventures of Tintin," and "Winnie the Pooh" were all snubbed in favor of two traditionally animated foreign language films, "A Cat in Paris" from France and "Chico & Rita" from Spain. The latter will almost certainly be the first R-rated nominee in the category. It's a shame the new Pooh isn't up here, but this is an incredibly bold move by the Academy, and may get the category taken more seriously in the future.

Finally, a few personal observations – Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling were the movies' MVPs this year, no question, and I'm not happy that neither one of them managed to secure an acting nomination. And while I'm glad that "The Tree of Life" made the cut, it deserved far more than its three nominations. It had some of the best sound design and visual effects of last year, for starters. And I'd rather see Brad Pitt up for his performance in "Tree of Life" than the middling "Moneyball."

All in all, it has been a very strange year. I'm still boggled that "Hugo" and "The Artist" are the frontrunners. While I liked and appreciated both films, I have a hard time thinking of them as Best Picture winners. Frankly, I wouldn't bet against there being more surprises in store on Oscar night.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Other "Sherlock"

I honestly feel a little bad for Guy Ritchie. For the past few weeks, everyone in my social circles have been buzzing about the second season of the BBC "Sherlock" series, created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Meanwhile, there was hardly a mention of the return of the feature film version of "Sherlock Holmes" directed by Ritchie, featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Dr. Watson. I had practically forgotten about it in the mad end-of-the-year awards season rush.

I liked the first "Sherlock Holmes" released 2009, even though the plotting really wasn't as smart as it wanted us to think it was. I liked the more rough-and-tumble take on Holmes, the pairing of Downey and Law, and the art direction that clearly spared no expense. The sequel, "A Game of Shadows," is more of the same, adding a few new players – a gypsy woman played by original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, and finally Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. Holmes and Moriarty are in direct conflict this time out, with Holmes hellbent on uncovering how the Professor may be orchestrating a coming war.

But first, he has to ruin Watson's bachelor party with an extended fight scene, dress in drag to intercept an ambush on a train, and win over the allegiance of a band of gypsy anarchists. This "Sherlock Holmes" is much more frantically paced and haphazardly pieced together. It's action scene after action scene, occasionally intercut with some good banter between Holmes and Watson, but more often pausing for some really tepid exposition for a very tired plot. I'm sad to say that none of the new characters work very well. Noomi Rapace is saddled with a bad accent and an empty character. Stephen Fry is wasted, with nary a good one-liner to ham. Jared Harris fares the best out of all of them, but his Moriarty is so typical, played so straight, and offers no surprises.

It's a lot easier to see the flaws in these films now that the novelty of Downey's performance has worn off. Everything about his Sherlock is less convincing in "A Game of Shadows," from his accent to his disguises to his behavior. The scale of the story feels off, with the detective racing around Europe, thwarting Moriarty's schemes with artillery and fancy footwork as often as he does with pure deduction. The longer the film went on, the more it felt like I was watching one of the "National Treasure" movies or another sequel to "The DaVinci Code." The scenery was nice and I still love the period recreations, but the action scenes were so generic and there were so very, very many of them.

Alleviating the pain somewhat were the performances of Jude Law as Watson, getting in on more of the funny business this round, and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who nails exactly what the character should have been in the first movie. The fact that the film uses both of them so badly speaks to the dire prospects of this franchise. There are some genuinely interesting ideas and images, such as Sherlock mentally playing out each fight scene in advance, but the story constructed by the filmmakers isn't strong enough to adequately support them.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ending, and past this point I warn of spoilers, for both the feature film and BBC versions of "Sherlock." Both versions decided to end their sophomore efforts by taking a stab at adapting "The Final Solution," the last of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, that sees Holmes and Moriarty plummet to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. And in both versions, Sherlock Holmes survives.

However, the television series doesn't explain how Sherlock escaped imminent death, though it leaves a lot of clues for the audience to puzzle over, and Watson doesn’t know that he survived. This sets up a nice emotional cliffhanger leading into the third series. The film, however, neatly ties up its story by leaving Watson with an obvious sign that Holmes lived, and gives an obvious solution for how he did it.

It's not a bad ending for the kind of film "A Game of Shadows" is, but it leaves the film franchise on bad footing. It feels like the filmmakers have already rushed through their best material. There's nowhere for a third installment to go, unless Moriarty also survived the waterfall or the filmmakers are confident enough to try and top him with an original villain.

The BBC series might be able to pull something like that off but it has far stronger writing and a very solid, self-contained universe that they can draw from independently of the original stories now. If there's a third "Sherlock Holmes" movie, all I expect all we have to look forward to are more pretty sets and explosions.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I’ve Seen Every Episode of "Community"

Since "Community" is still on hiatus (why, NBC, why?!), I’ve spent the past few days catching up on those last few episodes of the first season of that I hadn’t seen, and revisiting many of the others. I thought I’d put down a few quick observations.

Comparing the first season with the second and third, "Community" has changed a lot over time. Initially it was a much more typical sitcom that made full use of the television conventions that it would later mock so mercilessly. This was especially apparent in all the relationships and sexual tension that fueled most of the early storylines. We had two major recurring characters, Professor Slater (Lauren Stamile) and Vaughn (Eric Christian Olsen), who pretty much disappeared after the first season finale despite being important legs in ongoing love triangles. Actually, aside from the largely offscreen Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Jeff (Joel McHale) relationship, romance has been off the table until recently, when Troy (Donald Glover) started to make eyes at Britta.

I prefer some of the first season versions of the characters to their later season counterparts. The big one is Chang (Ken Jeong), whose crazy antics used to have a lot more impact because they were coming from an authority figure. The character didn’t work nearly as well since he became as student in the second season or a security guard in the third. Britta was initially the unattainable hot blonde that spurred Jeff to create the study group in the first place. Her sharp banter and super cool demeanor got broken down over the first season, until she was revealed as the utter spaz we know and love today. However, I think she’s gotten a little too caricatured recently, and wouldn’t mind a return to a more competent, smart-cookie Britta.

On the other hand, Troy and Abed vastly improved from their original selves. In the first few episodes Troy was a former high school football star who was supposed to be a little arrogant and full of himself, but quickly turned into the heart-on-his-sleeve youngster destined to be the hetero life mate of Abed (Danny Pudi), who just got more Abed over time, and thus more awesome. Jeff, Pierce (Chevy Chase), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Annie (Alison Brie) have had less dramatic changes, despite being tested by various plot arcs like Pierce’s descent into evil, Shirley’s pregnancy, and Annie’s bad living situations.

The study group spends far less time going to classes and worrying about schoolwork than they used to, which I think is a shame. One of the things I originally liked about "Community" was that it felt like the characters were really in a college setting, worrying over pretty realistic day-to-day student woes. Once in a while they’d do some crazy paintball episode, but go back to being regular students the next week. Now the balance is tilted more toward the wild parodies and meta episodes than the regular school stories. I’m not even sure which class they’re taking together anymore.

Then again, I think the reason I’ve liked the more down-to-earth first season episodes so much is that they provide a lot of the important background information and grounding for the later, more extreme episodes that I was missing until now. I want to rewatch the later seasons as soon as I can, to be able to catch all the references and character call-backs that I missed the first time around. And though they’ve been more consistent, the first season episodes really didn’t hit the same highs as the later ones - with the exception of the billiards episode and the first paintball episode. At the end of the day, I think Season 2 was better than Season 1, though both had their strengths.

My least favorite episode was the one with Jack Black, because it felt so wrong for "Community" to have stars that big doing guest spots. Luis Guzman being Greendale’s most famous graduate is about the right speed, along with the occasional appearances of John Oliver, Betty White, and Michael K. Williams on the faculty. For such an out-of-the-box show like "Community," it would almost feel more appropriate for guest stars to come by to heckle it.

As for my favorite episodes, I think they deserve their own post, which I’ll write up in a month or two, maybe right before the show comes back from hiatus. And it had better come back soon, because at the rate I’m going, I’m going to exhaust the extras and other supplementary material pretty quickly on these DVD sets. Yes, even the commentaries, which have been great so far.

Keep up the campaign, fellow Greendale Human Beings! Six seasons and a movie!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Funny Thing About "The Descendants"

I’ll admit that “The Descendants” was near the bottom of my “to watch” list until it won the Best Drama Golden Globe last Sunday. There’s nothing about it that immediately stands out, nothing particularly interesting or distinctive about the premise aside from the fact that it takes place in Hawaii. The marketing really didn’t give me much to go on, and I hadn’t seen any of the trailers. I was expecting a pretty typical dysfunctional family drama, hopefully with a decent performance by George Clooney and better production values than the typical indie could afford. Boy did I underestimate this movie.

At the center of "The Descendants" is an awful situation. A woman named Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident, and her husband Matt (George Clooney) has to deal with the fallout, particularly the impact on their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Matt is not a great father. He’s a workaholic lawyer who is in the middle of a major real estate deal to sell off the last remaining undeveloped Hawaiian land that the family has inherited. But as the situation worsens, and certain truths about Elizabeth emerge, Matt is forced to confront a lot of uncomfortable issues he’s avoided for too long.

This is not exactly obvious material for your typical comedy, or even your typical dramedy, which is what "The Descendants" is better categorized as. The themes are dead serious and there are only a few brief scenes that you can point to where the film is obviously trying to be funny. And yet there are so many moments that made me smile, from Robert Forster’s appearance as the pugnacious grandfather to the thick-headedness of Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause),who tags along everywhere for moral support. The film manages to find the right tone that allows it to be uncomfortable and touching and downright funny in just about the right proportions, without ever getting flippant, mushy, or heavy-handed.

Director Alexander Payne, best known for the similarly heartfelt, but unsentimental comedies "Sideways" and "About Schmidt," is firing on all cylinders here. He gets a lot of mileage out of the story’s Hawaiian setting, contrasting the characters’ misery and cynicism with the verdant paradise of their surroundings. The soundtrack heavily features Hawaiian music, which gently brings out the lighter, funnier side of the most awkward situations. And conversely, when the sad moments come, they’re handled delicately, with admirable care and distance. The script by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash is so well written, and the character interactions come across as so true to life, you often won’t notice the obvious artifice of the plot unless you’re looking for it.

The performances are the heart of the film, though, and they’re superb. I will have absolutely no complaints if George Clooney goes home with an Oscar this year for playing Matt King, who is constantly navigating difficult emotional waters and juggling a lot of personal baggage. His is a voyage of tumultuous, uneasy self-discovery, and it’s a very satisfying one to watch. Shailene Woodley also leaves a great impression as his troubled, but tough-as-nails teenage daughter without being too showy or obvious. These two do some of the best onscreen parent-child bonding I’ve seen for a long time, and it goes almost totally unacknowledged through the whole movie. How great is that? And then you have Robert Forster and Nick Krause and Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges, all in smaller parts that aren’t what they seem at first glance. Some of the film’s most poignant and memorable scenes come courtesy of these actors.

So "The Descendants" is a film about loss and grief and a screwed up family that is actually a great watch, very cathartic and life-affirming while not falling into the traps that movies like this too often fall into. It really caught me off guard, though after so much good work by Alexander Payne I really should have caught on to his facility with these types of stories by now. I’m so used to seeing movies about tragedy handled like, well, Greek tragedies, when I suspect that the reality is much closer to what we see in "The Descendants," where the emotions are a lot more messy and complicated.

So thank you Golden Globes, for giving this film the attention it deserves and putting it directly in my sights. I’m glad I saw "The Descendants" sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Keep an Eye on the Calendar

Looks like it's not going to be the year of the fairy-tale themed films after all. It was announced yesterday that Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Killer" has been moved from June, 2012 to March, 2013. This comes on the heels of the news that Paramount pushed "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" back from March, 2012 all the way to January, 2013. That's not exactly a vote of confidence for either film. "Jack" supposedly needs more time for special effects, but it's more likely that the studio is wary of putting it out in the middle of a highly competitive summer season, and thinks that it will probably fare better with more breathing room in spring. "Hansel and Gretel," however, is clearly being dumped in the dead zone of January, which suggests the film is a stinker.

Before a single trailer is released, before a marketing campaign begins, or anyone gives an interview, you can usually predict a lot about a film's fortunes from its release date. The biggest moneymakers are released between May and July in the blockbuster season. Second stringers with smaller prospects pepper August, April, and March. More serious prestige pictures come after Labor Day, with a glut of them crammed into the last weeks of December. A few big crowd-pleasers are saved for the holidays, but watch out for stealth stinkers that get unloaded right afterwards. Currently we're in the middle of January, home to low-budget B-movies, wider rollouts for smaller awards contenders, and the leftover studio projects that nobody has much faith in or knows what to do with. How else to explain why Steven Soderbergh's critically praised, star-studded "Haywire," an action film starring newcomer Gina Carano, is being released now instead of as a blockbuster season primer, later in the spring? Or why George Lucas's period passion project "Red Tails" didn't come out in December, in time for awards consideration?

To be fair, there are some films that will pull in a certain audience no matter when they're scheduled, and the studios know that and act accordingly. Independent films are their own universe. Horror movies, low budget action movies, romantic comedies, and cheaper kids' films can come out in November or February without immediately raising eyebrows. After all, something has to play on President's Day weekend, and there's still a perfectly good chance to reap a profit from the less glamorous release dates. In recent years there have been a lot of solid hits that have come out of the traditionally slower winter months, most notably Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which was released in early March and expected to fizzle quickly, but proceeded to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. Microbudget horror film "The Devil Inside," turned heads recently with an opening weekend of $33 million, the third highest ever for January. Sure, everybody hated it, but it proved there was an audience willing to come out to see that kind of film at that time of the year.

Studios are getting more open minded about scheduling, but that doesn't mean that the biggest, most anticipated films won't always stake out the Memorial Day and July 4th weekends, and that there isn't still a certain stigma attached to the last week of August. So watching where films end up on a studio's release slate, and how they get moved around can tell you a lot about the studio's confidence in a movie. "Wrath of the Titans" was briefly moved up from March 30th to March 23rd, putting it head-to-head with "The Hunger Games." After buzz for "Hunger Games" started to mount, "Titans" went back to March 30th. Now confidence and hype don't translate to quality, especially when you're talking about studio executives trying to maximize profits, but it does give you a good idea of the narrative that they're going to construct to promote and sell the film, and the probable marketing tactics to go along with it. And that's the closest proxy for quality you're ever going to get them to admit.

As we trudge through the quiet movie month of January, the studios have been busy, still finalizing the film calendar for 2012, and strategizing for 2013 and beyond. Most of their maneuvering draws little attention, because release dates are usually worked out years in advance for the bigger movies, and the ones that are released more quickly into theaters aren't on the average moviegoer's radar. But everything hinges on the opening weekend, and it's important to take notice when moves are announced. They might indicate a whole lot more than just the post-production running late.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

So How Was Your Blackout?

Wikipedia, Reddit, and many other popular websites temporarily went down yesterday to protest a pair of bills currently making their way through Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). I won't get into specifics except to say I am vehemently against them. Fighting piracy is good, but breaking the Internet to do it is bad.

Being a frequenter of Reddit, I was aware of the protests well in advance, but very few people in the mainstream were. SOPA and PIPA got very little news coverage before now. Jon Stewart admitted a week ago on "The Daily Show" that he wasn't aware of the controversial legislation and promised to brush up on their history. Last night, he devoted his entire first segment to taking the bills and their congressional supporters to task. It was amazing how quickly everyone else sat up and took notice too. After Wikipedia went down at midnight yesterday, and the wails and lamentations of the general public began, the media began scrambling to provide answers. Many of the sites I like to browse were down, but keeping up with the flood of stories about the blackout and the piracy bills was more than enough to keep me occupied.

Some have suspected that the big media companies, who are pushing for the two piracy bills through the MPAA and the RIAA, may have had more than a little to do with keeping the discussion of the bills out of the spotlight. After yesterday this was no longer possible. The tech companies have been quietly amassing influence for years, but they very rarely get involved in any political fights. The SOPA/PIPA blackout was the biggest coordinated advocacy effort by Internet-based companies that I've ever seen, and it immediately changed the narrative that the bills' backers were trying to control. It was kind of exhilarating to see support for SOPA and PIPA crumble in the face of so many angry voters who were suddenly very aware and interested in what was going on.

And the blackout wasn't even that big in scope. Most of the major Silicon Valley players like Google and Facebook only made symbolic gestures. Google blacked out its logo and sites like Yahoo and Amazon provided front page links to more information. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Google's search engine went offline for a whole day? Traditional polical activities like lobbying or organizing protests could never match up to that. I've long joked that the internet is taking over every aspect of human society, but even after the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it didn't really hit me until now how huge its influence could be on specific pieces of legislation.

They've certainly got Hollywood spooked. You might have missed Deadline reporting yesterday that several studio heads and moguls announced they were withdrawing their financial support for President Obama's reelection campaign because of his position on SOPA/PIPA, which I can't see as much more than a desperate attempt to throw their weight around and prove they're still politically relevant. Earlier on in the debate over the piracy bills, there was some criticism that the tech companies weren't lobbying hard enough or maintaining enough of a presence in Washington to look after their interests. Well, it turns out that they don't really need to. The Internet, after all, is everywhere and reaches everyone.

Does it concern me that so much power is concentrated in the tech industry now? Yes it does. However, the tech companies have a strong interest in making sure that the internet remains free and neutral, and it has been proven time and time again that a free and neutral internet is the great leveler, the medium tends to put power back in the hands of the individuals rather than the interest groups and corporations. I'd rather the people writing the rules and legislation for it be the ones who actually understand it, and wish to promote it. Maybe the tech industry will turn on us after it finishes eviscerating Hollywood, but that doesn't seem to be likely in the foreseeable future.

It's also encouraging to see that the news media, or at least significant parts of it, are willing to side with the technology companies over the entertainment companies, with which they are traditionally associated. There are a lot of big shifts going on here, not just in the political arena, but in everything to do with the future dissemination of content and information. I don't know how this is all going to play out, but I do know that the sleeping giant has awoken, and the political fights over regulating the internet are going to get a lot more interesting from here on out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why “The Firm” Again?

NBC decided to roll out a new legal drama based on the John Grisham novel, “The Firm,” which you might remember was turned into a film with Tom Cruise back in 1993. My first thought was that this was an odd choice of property to be resurrecting. The film is nearly twenty years old, John Grisham peaked in popularity long ago, and don’t we have enough shows about lawyers on the air right now? Well, NBC didn’t think so.

The new series picks up about ten years after the events of the book and film, wherein idealistic lawyer Mitchell McDeere (Josh Lucas) brought down a corrupt law firm and the mobsters who employed them. He starts up a new criminal practice in the Washington DC area, and settles his lovely wife Abby (Molly Parker) and daughter Claire (Natasha Calis) in suburbia. Mitch also employs a sassy secretary, Tammy (Juliette Lewis) and his own ex-con brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) as a private investigator. No points for guessing that the mobsters come back to take their revenge, and Mitch gets himself entangled with a new evil firm, run by Tricia Helfer.

“The Firm” wants to convince audiences that it isn’t your typical legal drama but rather a more action-oriented thriller like the movie was. The trouble is that it clearly doesn’t have the guts for that. So, it wraps its cases of the week in a lot of intrigue with the evil firm, and adds bookend sequences that flash-forward to several months in the future, where Mitch is being chased around by the police because of certain developments with one of his cases that haven’t been revealed to us yet. In other words, it has shamelessly stolen the structure of “Damages,” in order to spice up an ongoing conspiracy story that is probably going to turn out to be pretty pedestrian.

Good characters and performances can make up for these kinds of shortfalls in the writing, and “The Firm” has the benefit of some great work from Josh Lucas, who may actually get you to forget about Tom Cruise in the role, if you haven’t already. Juliette Lewis and Callum Keith Rennie are a lot of fun as his scruffy support crew, and Tricia Helfer is putting her creepy Cylon vibes to good use. The weak link, I’m sorry to say, is Molly Parker, who is so utterly bland as Abby McDeere, she makes me wish Mitch spent more time at the office. What happened to that daring, engaging young woman who nearly seduced Gene Hackman in the movie?

But I digress. As someone who watches a lot of crime procedurals, I appreciate that the weekly cases have all been well-written so far. They’re sensationalist, but they’re not ridiculous, like a lot of the “Law & Order” ones have been lately. The production values have been a notch above the rest, especially for the future storyline, which is essentially one big chase sequence being doled out to us in bite-size chunks. If you like crime procedurals, you could certainly do a lot worse than “The Firm.” However, after two episodes, it hasn’t hooked me. I’m not curious enough about the big mystery to want to know more, and the characters aren’t entertaining or compelling enough for me to want to watch them weekly. I like most of the actors, but they haven’t been given enough yet to really shine in their roles.

Now if “The Firm” were on AMC or TNT I think I’d be more willing to give it a few weeks to find its footing, but the fact that it’s on a network and it’s subject to all the creative constraints of being on a network, make me highly doubtful that “The Firm” will get better in a hurry. It certainly has the potential to be a more interesting legal drama than it is right now, if they center the storylines on the regular characters instead of spending so much time on the cases, but it’s just not going to happen. The show is structured to be a procedural, so any ongoing developments are doomed to progress at an iceberg pace, subordinate to the murder or manslaughter of the week. I just don’t have the patience for that kind of thing anymore when the rewards are so uncertain.

So I wish “The Firm” the best of luck, but it’s not the kind of show that I’m ready to commit to. It has some challenging elements, but on the whole it’s just not daring or challenging enough. I’d rather go and finish “Damages” than watch a knockoff. And though I like procedurals, there are an awful lot of them out there with a lot less baggage to deal with. If “The Firm” sticks around, I might pick it up again later, but only after it proves that there’s something to the show beyond the big budget and the branding.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Have a Comedy Problem

Well, I finally saw "Bridesmaids," and it cemented for me what I've suspected for a while now. I have a serious bias issue when it comes to modern comedies. To put it bluntly, the type of gross-out humor that is very prevalent in most mainstream American comedy films is not to my taste at all. I'm not a fan of raunch, or humiliation, or anything overly crass or crude. I think that resorting to bathroom humor is lazy, dull, and frequently disgusting. I think outrageous isn't synonymous with funny. Sexual hijinks bore me. I laugh more consistently watching television sitcoms than I do at Judd Apatow films.

However, unless a comedy has some extreme elements, the studios really see no reason to put them into theaters, and so will go a lot farther with content in a film than they would anywhere else. I liked most of "Bridesmaids," even though it was a little long, but I also found the constant bathroom humor off-putting. The food poisoning scene was funny, and was actually much more restrained than I thought it would be, but did they have to belabor the point? Is watching talented comedians embarrass themselves like this so central to major comedies now?

I actually saw several other mainstream comedies from last year that I liked, but weren't nearly as high profile or successful as "Bridesmaids." "Crazy, Stupid, Love" was a really solid romantic comedy in a genre that never has enough good ones. "50/50" limited its crassest moments to the character played by Seth Rogen, and I thought it maintained a good balance of sentiment and humor. "Cedar Rapids"? Great. "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil"? Loved it. "Tower Heist"? A glorious guilty pleasure that I will rewatch more times than I will ever admit to.

But when it comes to the aggressively R-rated comedies like "Bridesmaids," I can't take the raunch. It drives me crazy because a lot of these films are aimed directly at my age group of older adults. The women in "Bridesmaids" are all roughly around my age, and I can relate to several of the characters. I just can't stand to watch them being put through the situations that the film puts them through. My favorite sequence was the one where Kristen Wiig's character is trying to get the attention of her love interest, a cop played by Chris O'Dowd from "The IT Crowd," with reckless driving. The gags were pretty old and tame, but they made me laugh.

The problem is, and I know it's a problem, one of the defining hallmarks of modern comedy is pushing these boundaries in ever grosser and more extreme directions. I've become all too aware that I'm missing a lot of great films because of a hang-up with this kind of content. I think my only hope is that if I keep watching enough of it, I'll get desensitized by all the gross-out humor over time, the same way I have with the constant profanity and sexually explicit humor that also characterize these movies. Or I could just stick to the TV edits, but that just feels like admitting defeat.

Anyway, I guess this has all just been a very long and involved explanation for why I don't feel comfortable writing a full review for "Bridesmaids." I honestly think I'm too bothered by some of the content to be able to judge it fairly. I was extremely disappointed because I like Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph from their "Saturday Night Live" stints and I want to support a movie that's being held up as an example of women being funny on the same terms as men. Unfortunately, it happens to be in that corner of contemporary American humor that I despise.

And I know I'm in the minority about this. It's one thing if you don't like a single movie that happens to use raunchy humor badly, but it’s a different thing if you dislike a whole string of them, and have been using it as an excuse to ignore lots and lots of movies I probably should give a chance. Honestly, I wouldn't have given "Bridesmaids" a second glance if it hadn't gotten so much good press and even awards attention recently.

I expect I'll always like the softer, milder comedies like "Midnight in Paris" better than the latest Judd Apatow film, but I really have to learn to take them on their own terms, or else I'm just not being fair.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Another Golden Globes

Well, another Golden Globes ceremony has come and gone. As awards shows go, it wasn't as good as last year, but still a much more entertaining spectacle than any of the recent Oscar or Emmy broadcasts. Ricky Gervais, who swears he's not coming back next year (we'll see) wasn't nearly as acerbic or badly received as the last time, but he was working with a different crowd. Most of the room was prepared for the worst this time, so many presenters had good retorts for him, or were at least much better sports. If Gervais was playing it safe, he didn't show it. He looked like he was having a ball for the whole night, ragging on Johnny Depp, Colin Firth, and NBC.

The awards themselves are easier to sit through because there is a lot less self-important filler. No montages, no musical numbers, no accountants. Aside from Morgan Freeman being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award, trophies were handed out very quickly, one after the other. Bad speeches, bad dresses, and awkward reaction shots were pretty constant all evening, but it felt like they all went by much quicker than usual. The only thing I found really galling was the really heavy-handed bleeping of profanity. We lost whole sentences and jokes instead of just one or two words, and there were some pretty foul mouths in the room.

Well, on to the winners. On the television side, I don't have much to say. I meant to come back to "Homeland" after the first episode but I haven't gotten around to it. Ditto "Downton Abbey," "American Horror Story," "Boss," and "Mildred Pierce." However, it was great to see Idris Elba get some recognition for "Luther," and Peter Dinklage for "Game of Thrones." I have to say that the TV awards have always felt like more of an afterthought at the Globes because you don't see writer or director trophies being handed out. It was hard to take this year's nominees seriously when there were such obvious omissions like "Breaking Bad" in the Best Drama Series category. Also the Globes have always had a weird penchant for freshman shows like "Episodes," and "American Horror Story," which have both been widely panned by the usual critics.

On the movie side, the races look to be much more in tune with the wider Hollywood awards season vibe. George Clooney and Jean Dujardin won Best Actor trophies, and will be battling it out for top spot at the Oscars. Michelle Williams won Best Comedy/Musical Actress, and Meryl Streep took home Best Drama Actress, but there's still a good chance that Viola Davis could be a spoiler at the Oscars. Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer have the supporting awards all but locked up though, and I expect the same will hold true for Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, who were honored for writing and directing respectively.

However the big question of who is going to win the Best Picture Oscar remains a mystery. As many have pointed out, it hasn't been a great year and there haven't been any real standouts films. "The Descendants" won the Best Drama Golden Globe, which was a nice surprise, but there's no guarantee that the win will translate to more momentum in the Oscar race. "The Artist" won Best Comedy/Musical, and seems to be right on track for Oscar glory, but the Academy is far more timid and conservative than the Globes. More accessible crowd pleasers like "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris" are still definitely in the race.

I tend to agree with today's Slate article, that points out that the Globes is sometimes a far better barometer of quality than the Oscars. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association may be unscrupulous, and we know they can be bought, but it does have the benefit of operating outside the system and have proven time and again that they have very different tastes and ideas than Hollywood does. They're far less prone to the regional politicking and legacy picks, and their choices often mirror the critical consensus to maintain what little credibility they have. This year's Best Film winners, "The Descendants" and "The Artist," are definitely critical rather than commercial favorites.

It's going to be very interesting to see what the Oscars are going to do. Will they follow the Globes' lead and elevate films that will be a challenge for audiences, or will they fall back on safer material? The Oscar nominations won't come out until Tuesday, January 24th, and with the race so wide open this year, we'll almost certainly see a few titles in the mix that the Globes snubbed. Will "The Tree of Life" be back on the table? Will "Drive" or "Melancholia" break through?

We only know one thing for certain. With fresh wins for "The Artist" and "The Iron Lady" under his belt, Harvey Weinstein is back, baby!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Matching Up the Acting Greats

Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. In discussions of the acting greats, it always comes back to those two, not just for the quality of their performances, but how they dominated one of the greatest eras of American filmmaking. It is impossible not to discuss New Hollywood without talking about "The Godfather," "The Deer Hunter," "Serpico," "Taxi Driver," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Raging Bull." From the 70s through the early 80s, the debate raged over who was better, more iconic, more skilled, more memorable. And in recent years, when talking about contemporary actors, it has become popular to offer up potential candidates for their successors, the new DeNiro and Pacino.

Five years ago, the favorites were Edward Norton v. Christian Bale. Through a more mainstream lens, you might argue Leonardo DiCaprio v. Matt Damon. More recently, cineastes pit Joseph Gordon-Levitt against Ryan Gosling. At one time or another all these actors have managed to capture the popular zeitgeist. 2011 is being called the year of Ryan Gosling, who turned out performances in "Ides of March," "Drive," and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." 2012 may prove to be Gordon-Levitt's, with appearances due in "Lincoln," "Looper," "Premium Rush," and "The Dark Knight Rises." But why compare Gosling to Gordon-Levitt instead of Michael Fassbender, who had an equally good 2011 with "Jane Eyre," "X-Men: First Class," "Shame," and "A Dangerous Method"? Where do our more reliable leading men like Daniel Day-Lewis, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt fit into the picture?

This is the power of the narrative. The idea of DeNiro v. Pacino is so attractive, so deeply ingrained into movie-lovers' skulls, that we unconsciously search for similar pairs of actors to compare. It's not about the real quality of the actors so much as it is about the fun of creating the match-ups, dreaming up rivalries that only exist in the minds of fans. The guys who get paired up tend to come to prominence around the same time, and share certain superficial similarities. Norton v. Bale got a lot of momentum in 2006, when both were starring in films about turn-of-the-century magicians, and then in 2008, when both were headlining summer superhero titles. People compared their careers, which were characterized by a lot of good work in indies, brief brushes with mainstream success, and colorful reputations. Inevitably someone asked who was better, the new Batman or the new Hulk, and the match up was born. Who could resist?

Gosling and Gordon-Levitt are even better. Both were child actors ("3rd Rock From the Sun," "Young Hercules"), both spent their late teens making indie films about wildly uncomfortable subjects ("Mysterious Skin," "The Believer"), and both have largely resisted the siren call of the Hollywood mainstream, notwithstanding a "G.I. Joe" villain here, and a "The Notebook" love interest there. Most importantly, both seems to be on the verge of making it big in the movies, and that's the most intriguing part. We don't know how the careers of these two are going to turn out, but the potential for greatness seems to be there. Could they be the next Pacino and DeNiro? Could they have a run of performances as great as those two did thirty years ago?

Match ups tend to lose steam or never form at all when actors are past their prime or it becomes clear that they're not going to hit the heights that people were hoping for. Ewan MacGregor v. Jude Law was a popular one in my day, when everyone was waiting to see which of the British newcomers was going to break into the mainstream. Except neither of them really did. Yes, they both became very successful leading men and continue to deliver good, consistent performances year after year, but neither one can open a movie by themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you'd think Johnny Depp v. Robert Downey Jr. would be a big imagined rivalry - two former 90s bad boys who unexpectedly became major box office draws very late in their careers. But no matter how you cut it, they're known quantities. We know what to expect from them.

In this day and age, I doubt we're ever going to see any actors dominate the cinema conversation to the extent that Pacino and DeNiro did again. Current quality cinema is often too extreme or unapproachable for the mainstream to embrace, and though we have a few good directors doing their best to keep the blockbusters watchable, the standards have inevitably gotten lower and lower. Pacino v. DeNiro wasn't just a convergence of two great actors, but a whole slew of other factors that gave them the opportunity to do what they did, and when they did it. We're not going to have another pair like that until the movies themselves get better.

But it's fun to keep speculating. And the rivalry framework is a great conversation starter. Personally, I always liked DeNiro a little better than Pacino. I thought he had more range, more psychological heft. But god, Pacino was a live wire. Spectacular execution, always nailed the delivery.

Dammit, now I have to go watch "Heat" again.

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Favorite Billy Wilder Film

I have seen thirteen films directed by Billy Wilder, plus one that he co-wrote, and it's that one that he co-wrote that I'm tempted to write about today. However, I think too much of the success of "Ninotchka" was really due to its director Ernst Lubitsch, and it doesn't seem right to call it a Billy Wilder film. So Greta Garbo will have to wait her turn. Today, let's talk about Norma Desmond.

"Sunset Boulevard" was made in 1950, roughly fifty years after the advent of commercial cinema and twenty years after the end of the silent era. Hollywood had been long established as the center of the filmmaking world, and countless stars had risen and fallen in its glow. And even then, the town was notorious for having a very short memory. In the opening frames of "Sunset Boulevard," we're led to believe that we'll be watching a film noir about an unfortunate young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (William Holden), but in truth the film is an examination of a particularly dark corner of Hollywood, embodied in the form of a forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

Swanson's performance as Norma is legendary. The exaggerated mannerisms, reminiscent of silent film acting, make her seem larger than life, while also lending an eerie otherworldliness to her presence. Her rage and desperation are displayed in ways that would be outsized for a different character, but not for one whose whole life is shaped by her almost instinctual desire to perform. It was no accident that Billy Wilder and his collaborators sought out real silent film actresses for the role, and settled on Swanson, one of the leading lights of her day. In her hands Norma is a magnificent manifestation of the dark side of show business, a cruel reminder that fame and fortune can be fleeting, and that Hollywood is a dark and empty place when the spotlight moves on to someone else.

If you haven't seen "Sunset Boulevard" in a while, it's easy to forget that Norma isn't the only character in the picture and the grand melodrama of her madness is tempered with a lot of Wilder's best humorous dialogue and wit. Joe Gillis is an incurable snark, who delivers countless zingers against the Hollywood system that must have echoed Wilder's own sentiments. Norma is prone to exotic extravagances like a pet chimp, whose funeral we witness early in the film. There are many striking moments, like the New Year's celebration, where the mood is a strange mixture of camp and tragedy, verging on horror. These are the ones that tend stick in my mind, because they seem to be daring the audience to react, but refuse to tell you how or what to feel. The film can be watched as a pitch-black comedy or a bizarre, bitter tragedy, or both at once.

"Sunset Boulevard" is still startling today for the depth of its cynicism and the darkness of its subject matter. Paramount was doubtful about the commercial prospects of the picture, convinced that no one would want to see such a negative portrayal of Hollywood. Before Billy Wilder, the film industry was not in the habit of encouraging self-examination. And yet "Sunset Boulevard" was a success, and an enduring and influential one at that. I think what helped it connect with audiences was how authentic it felt. Norma Desmond was mostly caricature, but one rooted in a truth that is still rarely acknowledged - silver screen immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. And Hollywood, even at its darkest, is a place of endless fascination for many. Who wouldn't want a chance to peek into the parts we don't normally get to see?

And to the delight of me and my fellow film nuts, everywhere in the "Sunset Boulevard" are nods to and echoes of a Hollywood that most people had forgotten by 1950, from Buster Keaton at Norma's card table to recycled props from the silent "Phantom of the Opera." The most famous reference was of course Max, Norma's faithful servant, played by the once celebrated silent film director Erich von Stroheim, who transitioned to an acting career in the 30s. Von Stroheim even directed Gloria Swanson in a silent film, the unfinished "Queen Kelly," which Norma plays brief clips from for Joe.

So in its own twisted way, "Sunset Boulevard" is a paean to Old Hollywood, much like "The Artist," which is currently playing in the theater across the street. But while "The Artist" is a fairy tale, that finds a way to give its has-been silent actor a second chance, in film noir there are no happy endings, and Billy Wilder surely knew that when he set one in the heart of Hollywood. Thanks to his daring, Norma Desmond is an icon of film, and Gloria Swanson will never be forgotten again.

What I've Seen - Billy Wilder

The Major and the Minor (1942)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Stalag 17 (1953)
Sabrina (1954)
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Love in the Afternoon (1957)
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
The Apartment (1960)
One, Two, Three (1961)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Avanti! (1972)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the Name of the Moon

I can't make fun of the folks who enjoy "Twilight." I just can't. And I can't make fun of the kids who like the Kardashians or Justin Bieber or the latest tween sensation who can't actually sing. When we're young we all become enamored with some godawful pieces of pop culture, only fit for undeveloped minds and future VH1 nostalgia retrospectives. I fell prey to my share of them, just like everyone else. And so today, taking advantage of this whole anonymous blogger thing, I'm going to confess that when I was in high school, I was a fan of a little Japanese cartoon called "Sailor Moon."

Let's get the most embarrassing parts out of the way first. "Sailor Moon" was the first piece of anime I was really exposed to, aside from a few children's movies and a few boy-oriented mecha cartoons. Compared to everything I've seen since, the American dub was pretty dreadful, cutting episodes to pieces, tacking "Sailor Moon Says" morals on the endings, and writing out anything remotely unconventional. They screwed with the characters' ages, turned a male villain into a female one, and never let us see anyone die. Oh, and Sailor Moon was very obviously voiced by a mature woman who did a terrible job of trying to sound like a teenager.

I didn't care. Looking back, I know exactly why I liked "Sailor Moon" - it was because of the visuals. I had never been any kind of a romance fan, and had never wanted much to do with Barbies or ballerinas or the usual girly pink nonsense prevalent in Western media for little girls. However I did like fantasy stories and loved cartoons. What "Sailor Moon" did was to introduce a different kind of visual aesthetic, the shojo manga style that was sexier and bolder with its imagery, and yet still very feminine. I'd never seen anything like it before in a cartoon, especially not at that level of quality. Most of the "Sailor Moon" animation was done on the cheap, but certain sequences, like the henshin, the transformation scenes, got extra attention, and it showed.

It helped that "Sailor Moon" was so obviously targeted at girls, back at a time when few Western cartoons were. I'd largely missed the age of "Jem" and "She-Ra," when there were still some efforts toward gender parity in kids' shows. By the 90s the toy marketers were focused on the boys, who tended to maintain cartoon-watching habits longer than girls did, and were considered easier to program to. It was accepted wisdom that girls would watch boys' cartoons, but boys wouldn't watch girls' cartoons. So "Sailor Moon" stood out immediately, for having a passel of female superheroes save the day on a regular basis. And it wasn't some cheap commercial for a doll or toy line like so many of them were back then, but something made specifically for girls right at the age when they usually stopped watching cartoons. How could I not take notice?

I didn't fall for the show right away though. Despite the eye candy, the stories and the characters didn't appeal to me. I didn't much care for the monster-of-the-week formula or all the emphasis on romance and boyfriends. I thought Sailor Moon was a ditzy airhead and didn't have much patience with her. I'm much fonder of the silly girl now, having realized she was a pretty good caricature of teenage growing pains, and always her own best comic relief. It was only after I saw a mini-marathon of several episodes over the holidays that I realized the series had plot arcs and character development and all kinds of fun stuff, once you got past the bad dubbing and edits. From that point on I was sold. I never broadcast the fact that I was a fan (I was in high school ferpetesake), but I got up early most weekdays to catch "Sailor Moon" at 7AM before school, and I started looking around for similar programs.

It's thanks to "Sailor Moon" that I went through my otaku phase which eventually got me interested in world cinema. I still have very fond feelings toward anime. My favorite to date is "Revolutionary Girl Utena," which is often described as a deconstruction of shojo shows like "Sailor Moon," and depends on knowing a lot of the old tropes and formulas. "Utena" doesn't have transformation scenes as good as the ones in "Sailor Moon" though. Nothing ever really did.

So hang in there, fanboys and fangirls, whatever your media guilty pleasure is. We all need 'em, for different reasons, and not everyone gets the same things out of being a fan. And sometimes, if we're lucky, it can lead to better things.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Moneyball" is No Contender

I readily admit that I'm not the best audience for sports movies. I can appreciate sports, but I'm no enthusiast. So when I heard "Moneyball" described as a sports film for non-sports people, it got my hopes up. "Moneyball" follows a pivotal season with the Oakland Athletics baseball team, and focuses on the managers rather than the players, the backroom business rather than the plays on the field. We begin at the end of the 2001 post-season, where general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a year of rebuilding his team, after losing his best players to more well-funded franchises. Frustrated with Oakland's smaller bankroll and limited chances at a winning season, he hires on a young economist named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who champions the use of an unconventional statistical analysis approach called sabermetrics.

When taking on highly specialized subject matter that the moviegoing audience may not be familiar with, the usual approach is to make the film about the characters rather than the subject at hand. In this case, "Moneyball" becomes a character study of Billy Beane, a one time major league hopeful who has a very personal stake in the game. And that's the biggest trouble that I had with this film. Billy Beane is nowhere near as interesting as the game, and the more the film focused him, the less and less interest I had in it. Brad Pitt's performance, capturing all his personal frustrations and bouts of disillusionment, is good. Unfortunately, not good enough to keep me invested in Beane or to make me forget for a single moment that I was watching Brad Pitt play a very slight variant on the same slightly-roguish good guy that he usually does in his more commercial pictures. Pitt doesn't make much of any effort to become Billy Beane in this film, but rather Beane is portrayed as, well, Brad Pitt.

It's a pity, because I liked the rest of the film, and all the parts dealing directly with baseball and its statistics did hold my interest. I lived in Oakland briefly, and I know the A's and the Coliseum and much of the surrounding Bay Area landscape. The filmmakers got the details right and built up a real underdog image for the A's and Oakland, without being smarmy or falling back on the usual sports film cliches. Trades happen. Cuts happen. Losses are plentiful. The script by Aaron Sorkin is sharp and intelligent, but still very accessible, cutting through all the media glitz and hero-worship immediately to get to the vital negotiations and wrangling over how to build a better baseball team. Director Bennett Miller does great work capturing the atmosphere of the A's clubhouse, management offices, game days, and media coverage. Best of all, he ratchets up the tension to dizzying levels when the film needs it.

And that claim about "Moneyball" being a sports film for non-sports people? It's a pretty apt. For the first half of the film, I wondered whether we were just going to see Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill talk their way through the whole movie together. With Aaron Sorkin dialogue, and the nice rapport between the two actors, this wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing, but I suspect that I wasn't the only viewer who was surprised that a film about baseball had so little baseball in it - the games, the players, or really much of anything beyond numbers and strategy. Billy Beane even refuses to watch the A's play, worried that he'll jinx the team, so we initially only hear how they're doing through second-hand accounts. It's only very, very late in the film that the camera really gets up close and personal with the ball game.

This approach works for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but I couldn't help thinking that there were a lot of lost opportunities, especially with the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the A's manager, Art Howe, but only has two brief scenes and a handful of lines, barely enough to allow him to register. Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop play two of Beane's key picks, and have more narrative emphasis, but hardly more presence or screentime. Even Jonah Hill's character, the memorable Peter Brandt, really only has enough characterization to allow him to operate. The script is a marvel of efficiency with most of the secondary characters, which is why I think it grates so much that one guy gets so much more time and attention.

But as I said, "Moneyball" isn't really about the baseball. It's about Billy Beane. And this is why the film manages to find room for scenes like Beane taking his precocious preteen daughter guitar shopping, and extended flashbacks to his own brief career as a professional ball player, which bloat the film's length to well over two hours and can't help but seem indulgent. I'd have been much happier with the movie if they'd just stuck to the baseball. After watching "Moneyball," I've concluded that the game can be very exciting and entertaining. But Billy Beane, despite the efforts of Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and Bennett Miller, is kind of a bore.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Rental Delay Gamble

Warner Brothers made waves last week when it came out that it had decided to impose a 56-day delay on its DVDs being available for rental, from the date the DVDs go on sale in retail stores, an increase from the existing 28-day delay. Netflix has agreed to these terms, while Redbox and Blockbuster are sticking to the 28-day delay, which means they'll have to buy discs at retail prices. No word yet on whether this means they'll be getting the full retail versions of the discs with all the extras, instead of the typically stripped down versions that the rental chains get now at a discount.

The most obvious reason for the extended wait period is that Warners is trying to save its once-lucrative and now steadily shrinking DVD business. The logic is, if the public is forced to wait an additional month before being able to rent a new film, they'll be more likely to buy a retail copy, or buy a video-on-demand (VOD) rental, which may be emerging as a more lucrative revenue stream. Banking on VOD seems a little premature to me, especially as the pricing model is still being hammered out and so far the numbers are inconclusive as to how profitable VOD really is. However, extending rental delays to try and stem the decline of DVD sales looks pretty futile.

Renting and buying movies are two totally different activities, driven by different impulses. Buyers generally buy movies because they've already seen them and liked them enough to want to own them. DVD purchases have dropped off in recent years as people realize they don't get much replay out of their existing DVD collections. Blind-buying, where you purchase a DVD without already having seen the film, has also grown much rarer outside of children's titles and high end collecting. Economically, it doesn't make any sense - buy a movie you don't like and you run the risk of losing more money than you would with a wasted rental fee and being permanently stuck with the disc taking up space on the shelf. And as the price of rentals has dropped sharply with the cheaper streaming and kiosk options, buying a film at $20 instead of renting it for $2 just isn't a comparable option for most consumers. The few times I've blind-bought DVDs were when they were deeply discounted, months after the initial gap between DVD availability and rental availability had already passed.

Warners seems to be targeting those viewers who like a film enough to rent it for a second watch, but not enough to buy is when it becomes available on DVD. I'm pretty sure the decisionmaking has a lot more to do with price than convenience in those cases, so I doubt extended rental delays are really going to have much impact there. Think of renters as the folks who were iffy about paying to see a film in theaters are likely going to be even iffy-er about picking up a DVD from the local Wal-mart. Renters really don't react much to delays, except to watch whatever else is available in their online rental queues or that matches the price point they want in the local grocery store kiosk. Netflix may be getting hammered lately between the Warners delay and HBO pulling their discounted discs, but the thing the media companies don't seem to grasp is that people are paying for the Netflix service, not the individual titles. As long as there's always something else desirable to watch on Netflix, most consumers really aren't that impatient.

Warners is likely also trying to reverse the shrinking theatrical window, where almost all mainstream films reach DVD within six months of their theatrical release dates. In the past it used to be much longer. When a film disappeared from theaters in the VHS age, there was no guarantee when you'd be able to see it again. Now you can reliably predict that practically every piece of Oscar bait currently playing in a theater near you will be in a Redbox kiosk by the end of July. Warners' plans could be counterproductive for them, because consumers have grown used to this system. Smaller titles that disappear for too long could just end up forgotten, their momentum lost after fading from the public consciousness.

The other worry is that the most impatient segment of media consumers is young, web-savvy, and much more prone to piracy. Once a DVD is available to the public, pristine copies of a movie can be electronically disseminated in the blink of an eye. Warners is pushing its luck by extending the gap between DVD availability and rental availability. There have been several studies showing that low cost services like Netflix and Redbox are helping to combat piracy, while the studio-imposed delays have actually been spurring it.

It's going to be interesting to see if other studios follow suit and how much this is going to impact the rental businesses. Or not. Warners could just be preparing to shoot itself in the foot. Whatever the outcome, it looks like the studios are bound and determined to make the transition to digital a bumpy one. Makes for exciting times for a media junkie. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thru the "Black Mirror"

A few days ago, I stumbled across a clip on Youtube that I thought was a short film, but turned out to be an episode of a recent British science fiction anthology program called "Black Mirror." And without a doubt, it was the most fascinating piece of science fiction that I've seen in a long time, either in a theater or on television.

The episode is titled "15 Million Merits," and presents a vision of a dystopian future where young adults live in windowless dormitories, surrounded perpetually by video screens. They spend every day peddling on exercise bikes to generate energy and earn merits, which are used to pay for food and other necessities, but mostly end up spent on virtual goods. Most daily interactions and transactions are virtual, carried out with virtual world avatars. To help compensate for the endless drudgery, reality shows play around the clock, including a popular variant of what looks like "The X Factor," called "Hot Shot." Beyond synthesized food and identical clothing, tangible possessions are almost nonexistent for the workers, but the elites glimpsed on the entertainment programs seem to live far better lives.

The rat in this maze of video screens and virtual landscapes is Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), a quiet man who has amassed a small fortune in merits, the fifteen million of the title. He falls in love with a newcomer, Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay), after hearing her sing, and decides to pay for her entry fees to the "Hot Shot" competition. And then, because this is dystopian science-fiction, Bing learns how dark and twisted his world really is. "Merits" is a stinging attack on the culture of distraction, targeting reality shows, social networking, and virtual reality. It's "Harrison Bergeron," for the digital age and uses its own best tools against it. Initially I thought that the show must have had an incredible budget, but look close and you realize the sets are actually quite small and limited. It's all the graphic blandishment on the video screens that makes everything look bigger and cooler than it really is.

So much of the effectiveness of "Merits" comes from the production design, making great use of already existing virtual world iconography. The virtual avatars look like the "Mii" characters used in the Wii gaming system, and the hand movements that control them are reminiscent of current motion capture gaming technology, just minus the controllers. Food dispensers have low-resolution graphics with displays that could have could have come from 8-bit video games. The graphics are so well designed, full of all the pop and brightness of Facebook games and iPhone apps, it's hard not to stare and marvel. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that all this dazzling eye candy is a poor substitute for the real world.

The nice effects certainly aren't the only thing to write home about. Daniel Kaluuya's performance as Bing is exceptional, helping to make a story about big ideas very personal and immediate. The writing delivers a lot of good surprises, from a morbid spin on a talent show judges' panel, to the cathartic monologue at the episode's climax, to the final, chilling scene where we learn Bing's fate. I was surprised at how raw and unfiltered the dialogue was, but British television hews to different standards, and I was glad for that here. And at the helm, director Euros Lyn, veteran of many recent "Doctor Who" episodes, expertly juggles a lot of outlandish elements to create a cohesive whole, and brings out all the claustrophobic paranoia and black humor.

I love science fiction, but it is rare to find something as topical, sharp and intelligent as "15 Million Merits." Too often it's all giant robots and laser guns, instead of the social critiques and moral parables that science fiction is so good at, and should be used for more often. The "Black Mirror" anthology specifically singles out recent technological developments for examination and seems keen on really delving into the potential implications of our Internet-fixated society, and illuminating human nature through the fantastic. That makes it closer in spirit to "The Twilight Zone," cited as one of its chief influences, than most of the "Zone" clones I could name.

I have absolutely no idea when "Black Mirror" and "15 Million Merits" is going to make its way to the rest of the globe, if at all, and if there are going to be more episodes beyond the three produced so far. But one thing I'm sure of, is that I want to see more television and more science-fiction like this.

Friday, January 6, 2012

China v. Television

I complain as much as anyone about how too much of current American television stinks, that many channels have been hijacked by cheap reality and talent shows that cater to the lowest common denominator. How I wish we were rid of all the "American Idol" clones and the gosspmongering dating shows and the brainless Kardashians and the cast of "Jersey Shore." But if the government stepped in and mandated that the number of these shows be cut back, I'd be the first to protest.

Because this is exactly what's going on right now in mainland China. The government recently introduced new programming guidelines that reduced the amount of entertainment programming shown on Chinese television by two thirds, down to 38 hours a week from 126. "Lowbrow" reality, talk, and talent shows are the chief targets, being replaced by more news and informational programs. Recent remarks by Chinese president Hu Jintao indicate that the move is part of a new effort by the Chinese government to rein in the power of Western-style entertainment. He recently remarked, "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration."

Now let's be clear on what we're talking about here. Among the shows sustaining the most criticism are "Super Girl," a popular talent program that was yanked from the airwaves back in September for retooling, and the dating show "If You Are the One," profiled in this revealing New York Times article. They seem harmless enough to Western eyes, but the worry is that these programs place too much emphasis on what the Chinese media watchdogs consider to be frivolous activities, can be too honest about certain social issues for comfort, and build up cults of celebrity and influence that are outside the government's ability to control. Remember that this is the same Chinese government that railed against the use of time travel in drama programs, because they often inluded inaccurate or altered portrayals of history, and regularly frowns on fantasy programming for being too escapist. For them, entertainment is a secondary concern to pushing the "socialist core value system."

Against this lot, is is any wonder that Western programming is making such inroads? The secret of America's cultural power isn't much of a secret. We have an entertainment industry that is devoted to one primary objective: to make money. To that end, it does whatever is necessary to draw in viewers and keep them happy, be it appealing to the lowest common denominator or pumping millions into the development of fancier special effects. Hollywood may have its biases, but there is no real ideology being pushed aside from reflecting the tastes of the audience it wants to attract. If American values tend to crop up a lot in our television, it's because it's being programmed to Americans.

We have our own media watchdogs, and our own television regulations and requirements, such as the Children's Television Act that has full service television stations provide a certain number of hours of education and informational programming. There are content standards enforced by the FCC, but it only acts rarely in extreme cases. So the stations and networks and content producers are free to put shows that people want to watch on the air, in order to deliver more eyeballs to the advertisers who pay the bills. Out of this system comes a lot more crud than quality, but let's not sell ourselves short. American television is in the middle of one of its richest periods in history, turning out lots of quality shows like "Mad Men" and "Louie" that rival anything that came out in a movie theater this year.

Now American television shows don't get much play on Chinese television stations, because of strict regulations on foreign content. However, a recent influx of Western formats for shows have allowed Chinese localizations to be made of everything from Disney's "High School Musical" to "Britain's Got Talent." Nowadays this is a common practice, with many American and British shows spawning multiple versions all across the globe. In China, producers get a leg up by working with the framework of previously established hits, learning how to mount big productions on par with what you see on Western television. But even with most of the content of these shows carefully retooled to fit Chinese sensibilities and anything too Western stripped out, the government gets nervous when they become too popular and successful.

China talks up becoming a new media powerhouse, but they only want to do it on their own terms They don't want to give the Chinese people what they want, but to dictate what they should want from the top down. Even if television programming originates in China, from Chinese creators, and becomes a genuine hit with Chinese audiences totally removed from any Western influences, if it doesn't fit into the nation-glorifying, culturally conservative narrative that the Chinese government wants to promote, it's suspect. The whole spiel about Western cultural hegemony is a smokescreen to continue stifling free expression and creativity, a stance that is often counterproductive to the ends that the government claims to want to achieve. They want to build up Chinese media to compete with those who might become more influential that they are, but not at the expense of the state-controlled propaganda machine.

So the Chinese media may be doomed to plod along in a state of perpetual cultural stagnation, forever scolding the Chinese audiences who would rather watch "Idol" knockoffs than yet another highbrow historical drama that toes the party line.

Almost makes you grateful for Western crap television. I'd rather watch "Downton Abbey" over the Kardashians any day, but I do appreciate having the choice.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is the New Irene Adler a Problem?

So the BBC version of "Sherlock" is back, and with it a new take on Irene Adler, the only woman who ever bested Sherlock Holmes in the original stories. Played by Lara Pulver, the new Irene is a professional dominatrix, identifies herself as a lesbian, and is positioned very much as a villain in "A Scandal in Belgravia," the first installment of the newest series. The episode has set off a lot of debate over whether the new Irene is better or worse character than the original one, whether her sexuality has been too fetishized, and whether she's ultimately a strong and admirable female character or another one of the problematic portrayals that should be discouraged. There are spoilers everywhere, should you choose to continue reading. Please watch your step.

The main charge against the "Sherlock" version of Irene is that she has become a love interest and adversary for Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), and loses considerable power and independence because of her portrayal in those roles. She becomes more vulnerable because of her feelings for the detective, ultimately loses the game because he realizes she loves him, and to add insult to injury, he rescues her from certain doom at the end of the episode. She's also apparently in cahoots with Moriarty (Andrew Scott), and takes advice from him on how to handle the Holmes brothers. All of this undercuts the idea that Irene is on equal intellectual footing with Sherlock. Some have taken exception to Irene continuing the widely despised trend of lesbians who are "turned straight" by the love of the male hero. And then there's her profession, which suggests her sexuality rather than her brains are her primary asset.

But when you put her in the context of the rest of the episode, these issues are all mitigated in a number of ways. First, Irene is not the only character who is questioning their sexuality in the story. John Watson (Martin Freeman), who is straight, clearly has a very strong attachment to Sherlock that may go beyond friendship. Gay references have been tossed around since the premiere episode, but here they aren't played for laughs. There's no indication that John or Irene are willing to forgo their current sexual preferences entirely, but Sherlock may be a potential exception for both of them. And then there's Sherlock himself, who is portrayed as asexual, but clearly develops feelings for Irene, feelings that get him in serious trouble. The writers may have softened up Irene with sentiment, but Sherlock gets the same treatment. There are actually scenes of him pining for her. Sherlock Holmes. Pining.

Then there's Irene's job as a dominatrix, which is surely meant to be titillating to the viewers, but it also puts her in a prime position to target one of the major weaknesses of this version of Sherlock Holmes: he clearly doesn't have much experience with romance or sex. Sherlock is initially baffled by her, unable to pick up any of the usual clues he easily gleans from other people. This, more than anything else, is what catches his attention. In place of a traditional courtship, the pair spend most of the episode taking turns outsmarting each other. Irene may not win in the end - as a villain it's just not allowed - but she certainly gets her cerebral blows in. She loses her protection and is forced to go on the run, but not before manipulating Sherlock into helping ruin one of his brother's cleverest plans.

As for Irene being saved from certain doom in the final scenes, this is sheer chauvinistic indulgence - or it would be if Sherlock and John hadn't been saved from Moriarty's clutches by Irene in the opening sequence. We don't know Irene's motives, or if her good timing was simply dumb luck, but Sherlock swooping in at the last minute to rescue her can easily be read as him repaying the favor, and maybe admitting his own feelings in the process. Now, we can talk about the negative Orientalist implications of the certain doom being a menacing terrorist cell that beheads people with big honking scimitars, but that's a post for another time.

In the end, there's lots of material to support the argument that this Irene Adler is a problematic character that enforces certain gender stereotypes. I wish the writers had let her be more self-sufficient and figured out how to express some aspects of her personality differently. However, she's no weakling in the context of the "Sherlock" universe. She gets the better of Sherlock Holmes, both intellectually and emotionally, multiple times in the episode. She gets him to reveal parts of the character we haven't seen before. She continually drives the action, takes the lead, and proves to be a worthy adversary. And yes, she has weaknesses, but all the best characters do. Is the new Irene Adler a good example of an admirable, independent, modern woman? Nope. She's a charismatic miscreant with a penchant for extremes, but then so is this version of Sherlock Holmes.

The newest Irene Adler may not be the best portrayal of the character, but she's a perfectly appropriate one for "Sherlock."