Monday, April 30, 2012

A "Game of Thrones" Update

Caught up on the latest episodes of "Game of Thrones," and since we're now half way through the second season, I thought it was time to take stock of how the show has been doing this year. Mild spoilers ahead.

I have to admit that last night's episode came as something of a relief, since I'd been waiting for the plot to pick up speed since the premiere. The first three episodes felt like extended "table-setting," introducing characters and elements that would become important later on, but the story was only progressing incrementally from week to week. In the second season premiere we met Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) at Dragonstone, along with his major allies Melisandre (Carice von Houten) and Davos (Liam Cunningham). The next week, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), went home to the Iron Islands and the cold welcome of his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) and sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). In week three we finally caught up on what Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) had been up to, and the new women in his life, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie).

More and more locations kept being added to the map in the opening sequence, and while it was clear that the gears and the cogs of the plot were in motion, by my count we were following about nine different stories taking place at once, and this time it was harder to see how the actions of characters in each group were having any effect on each other. It also felt like some of the storylines were being slowed down in order to let the others catch up. How else to explain why the Night's Watch spent so many episodes cooling their heels with a small time operator like Craster (Robert Pugh), or why Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her people were stuck wandering the desert for so long? The naked lady interludes have become so common, "SNL" spoofed them a few weeks ago. It also worried me that some of last season's smartest operators, Cersei (Lena Headey) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), were losing hard-won ground so quickly. Cersei went from being the power behind the throne to almost totally undermined by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) in a couple of weeks.

To the show's credit, all these new additions to the cast have been great, all the characters immediately distinctive and memorable, and often much easier to keep straight than they have been in the past. I especially enjoy Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer, and Gwendoline Christie. Also, I understand why all the extended introductions and all the time spent on maneuvering the characters into proper position are necessary. When the pace really ramps up, which I have been assured by those familiar with the books that it will, there won't be the time to remind the audience of vital little details like who the Tyrells are allied with, and what Theon's motivations are. However, it was no small relief to see some of the major characters and stoylines finally start to converge in the fourth and fifth episodes, even if we are still getting a few new characters, like Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), every week. And I like the interesting pairings of various characters that have resulted, like Arya (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Brienne.

The War of the Five Kings (or is it six?) has been interesting to follow so far, but there hasn't been anything to rival the fireworks of last season. It's time for some of these heavily built-up storylines to start paying off dramatic dividends, and I look forward to that happening. Last night's episode was clearly one of the more plot-driven and expensive ones, designed to give the show a mid-season boost. Every single thread of this massive narrative saw significant advancement, and it felt like some of the characters were finally where they needed to be. Arya and Theon, for instance, now both possess the power and the opportunity to do some serious damage to their enemies, while Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre have made themselves a new foe that they're probably going to regret.

Oh, who am I kidding? Part of the reason that I like "Game of Thrones" so much is because it is unusually complicated for television and it does get frustrating to follow sometimes. Yet it's also wonderfully unpredictable and exciting, in a way that I haven't found any fantasy series to be in ages. I figured out which of the Five Kings would go down first, but right now I have no idea how the rest of the war is going to play out.

And I like it that way.
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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can We Talk About the Justice League?

As the buzz grows and grows for the new Paramount/Disney summer superhero spectacular, "The Avengers," the culmination of an ambitious multi-year, multi-movie game plan that is going to make oodles of money for everyone involved. I can't help thinking about the Justice League. As far as comic book superheroes go, I've always been a DC girl. I grew up with the live action "Batman" and "Superman" movies, and I've followed practically every animated incarnation from "Batman: the Animated Series" up to "Young Justice" and the direct-to-video movies. I'd much rather be seeing a "Justice League" movie premiering in the theaters this summer than an "Avengers" one. Sadly, Warner Brothers has fallen far behind its competitors in exploiting its roster of superheroes. The only character they've managed to build a successful modern film series around is Batman, with "The Dark Knight Rises" due in theaters this July.

The rest of the potential "Justice League" lineup is a mess. After the 2006 "Superman Returns" got a mixed reception, Warners decided to move on with a reboot starring Henry Cavill in 2013. "The Green Lantern" was a highly publicized flop that may have soured the studio on riskier films in the same vein. "Wonder Woman" almost became a television show last year, but didn't make it past the pilot stage. Multiple attempts to give her a movie have also ended in failure. Ditto The Flash, whose announced feature is apparently still stuck in development hell. Various other DC hero-based properties like the Aquaman TV show and the Green Arrow movie "Super Max" never got off the ground, though a proposed Green Arrow TV series called "Arrow" is still in play. Despite a lot of buzz about the subject last year, it look very unlikely that DC will be able to create a set of lead-up films for a "Justice League" movie in the same vein as the ones for "The Avengers" any time soon.

So if I was in charge, I'd take the opposite approach and make the "Justice League" movie first. I mean, there's no point in following someone else's formula, especially when it's clearly not working the way it's supposed to. Some of the Marvel movies were less successful than others, but they didn't have any outright disasters on the level of "Green Lantern" that created such a large setback to the big team-up movie. So if Warners wants to make a cinematic "Justice League," I say they should just go ahead and make one without all the lead-up. Since the new "Superman" is already in production and Batman will be due for a reboot, they could position "Justice League" right after those two and use the film to give fans the Batman v. Superman matchup they've wanted for years, and to introduce all the other members of the League. Then they could use that as the starting point to spin off all the lesser known heroes like The Flash and Martian Manhunter. Marvel may be doing something like this too, having talked about the possibility of individual movies for Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye after "The Avengers."

Back in 2007, George Miller of "Mad Max" fame almost managed to get a "Justice League" with no ties to the rest of the DC superhero films made. Alas, he was thwarted by the writers' strike and concerns about the budget. Mostly unknown actors would have been cast, including D.J. Catrona as Superman and Arnie Hammer as Batman. I was skeptical about the project when I first heard about it, mostly because it felt like Warners wasn't really committed to the idea, and the talent involved just didn't seem up to par. However, looking back now think it was a missed opportunity for them to do something very bold and radically different with the DC comic book universe.

As a fan it has been endlessly frustrating to watch Warners keep stumbling with all of these characters, because I know the potential to equal the franchise glory that Marvel has achieved with "The Avengers" is right there. DC's comic book history is unparalleled, and they were the first to do superhero movies with any kind of vision and faithfulness. On the other hand, Marvel deserves all the success it has won. They've managed to pull off one of the most ambitious cinematic experiments in recent years, and proved all the doubters wrong - me included. If it weren't for Marvel's movies, I don't think DC would have ever even considered making a "Justice League," or even a "Green Lantern."

So hopefully "Avengers" can provoke Warners to keep trying for something bigger. And then someday, somehow, we'll finally get a "Justice League" movie.
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Bleep on "Veep"

HBO's new political comedy "Veep" has a lot of great talent associated with it, including series creator Armando Iannucci, best known for his blistering British satire "The Thick of It," and Julia Louis-Dreyfus headlining as Vice President Selina Meyer. It was also great to see Tony Hale in the cast as Gary, in a not un-Buster-Bluth-like role as one of Meyer's aides, and Anna Chlumsky as Meyer's frequently stressed-out Chief of Staff. "Veep" is certainly in the vein of "The Thick of It," and its follow-up film "In the Loop," following a group of minor government staffers dealing with the day-to-day aggravations of politics and bureaucracy, where everything feels like it could be a matter of life and death, but rarely is. There is an epic rant delivered with copious amounts of swearing over a mistake on a condolence card. A public relations kerfuffle is triggered by a badly worded tweet, and exacerbated by an off-color joke, told when Meyer is forced to improvise a last-minute speech.

There are plenty of good, biting moments in a solid pilot, but something feels a little off. I think the creators of "Veep" put unnecessary limitations on themselves, refusing to identify whether Meyer is a Republican or Democrat, and never showing the president. This removes a lot of opportunity for more pointed, more cutting criticism of the American political system. Here, the idea is that Meyer is the next in line to power, but it's always frustratingly out of her reach. This is nicely embodied in the character of Jonah, (Timothy Simons), the self-important White House liaison who everyone in Meyer's office dislikes and mocks mercilessly. However, Jonah actually has more power than Meyer, as he represents the White House, and can upend her schedule and censor her speeches on a whim. However, this makes everything going on in Meyer's sphere feel less important and consequential. There are no moments of supreme discomfort, as there were in "The Thick of It," when you realize that the vindictive, petty, squabbling government toadies are actually responsible for very big policy decisions.

Instead, "Veep" concerns itself primarily with futility. Meyer is under tremendous scrutiny and immediately accountable for every move she makes, but her role as Vice POTUS affords her little actual clout. Her agenda is pushing for green jobs, but she quickly learns that she has to stay on the right side of Big Plastic, and by proxy Big Oil, to avoid being shunned by Capitol Hill. She's called to fill in for the president at an events, but not allowed to say anything. Her staffers, who also include Director of Communications Mike (Mike Walsh), executive assistant Sue (Sufe Bradshaw), and the newly hired Dan (Reid Scott), are a familiar collection of your usual workplace types, who interact much in the same way as the guys over on "The Office," except with more profanities flying around. Nobody romanticizes civil service, the way "The West Wing" would occasionally, and Meyer is all too aware of the limitations of her job. She hires Dan because he's a ruthless bastard who nobody likes, and she needs one of those on her side.

At this point the cast is still in the process of finding its footing, and the writers still seem to be working out how much they can get away with. It doesn't feel quite fully formed yet, but I can see "Veep" improving considerably over the course of its run, and it's already a very entertaining watch. Julia Louis Dreyfus is excellent, as an ambitious career politician who finds herself surrounded by idiots, and will not hesitate to use them to form a literal human shield around herself. I could watch whole episodes of the other characters simply sitting around and insulting each other with Iannucci and Simon Blackwell's never-ending supply of quips, burns, and takedowns. The show exhibits a good grasp on the current political culture, and it's the little details and smaller observations that get the biggest laughs. However, I think it's going to take a few more weeks to see what shape "Veep" ultimately settles into. I was hoping for more cynical, more timely, and more critical material, but that may not be on the agenda.

And that may not be a bad thing. Iannucci and his crew have already done "The Thick of It" and "In the Loop." This time around, they're taking a different approach to a different political system, and making a different kind of show, something sadder and more humiliating. And I want to see where they're going with this.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Notes on Higher Frame Rates

I hate motion interpolation. Though different companies market it under different names, you'll know it as the technology that allows your television to create a smoother picture by inserting extra frames into your media, extrapolated from the existing footage. Once, at a friend's house, we were watching "Mamma Mia!" and the changes were so distracting, I simply could not enjoy the movie until I had gotten ahold of the remote control and figured out how to fix the settings so that the movie looked like a movie again, instead of manipulated to look like a daytime soap opera. I've regularly found myself in electronics stores, standing in front of the new televisions, fascinated by how alien and unpalatable familiar movies like "Despicable Me" became after being subjected to the conversion. Animated films looked especially wrong, the added motion often undoing much of the careful timing and performance of the animation. In short, I've learned to be suspicious when I hear the argument that more frames per second is a always good thing.

Does this mean I'll have a bad reaction to all films shot in higher frame rates than the traditional 24 frames-per-second (fps)? Films subjected to motion interpolation look so wretched in part because they weren't meant to be watched in higher frame rates. By contrasts, I think sports games, particularly hockey, and other television programming shot in 48 or 60 fps look perfectly fine. But then, they don't look properly cinematic to me. There's something about 24 fps that signals a film experience, something that no amount of logic can quite help me to overcome. And so I'm deeply worried about the plans of Peter Jackson's upcoming "The Hobbit," the first film shot for and expected to be shown widely in 48 fps. Ten minutes of the footage were screened earlier this week at the CinemaCon trade show, to mixed response. Many viewers gave it high marks, but others had familiar complaints, saying that the movie didn't look like a movie and it was difficult to adjust to the visuals. I've seen a few queries as to whether a 24 fps version will be made available for less adventurous viewers.

Now, this could just mean that higher frame rate films are something that viewers will need to get used to gradually. There's plenty to like about higher frame rates in theory. It allows for a better clarity and brightness of picture, removing motion blur and lessening the "weightless" look of CGI images. This reportedly leads to more immersive, more lifelike visuals. And a director like Peter Jackson, who is aware of the audience's trepidation, will certainly take steps to help compensate for the unfamiliar visuals. Still, I expect that the higher frame rates are going to be a tough sell. There hasn't been a technological leap like this, that literally changes the way that audiences will watch films, in several decades. As many cineastes are mourning the impending death of 35 mm physical film, which created the 24 fps standard in the first place, I wonder if I'm going to look back nostalgically on the days when films ran at 24 fps instead of 48 fps, or 60 fps, if directors like Jackson and James Cameron have their way.

I'm no Luddite, and I'm perfectly willing to give the 48 fps "The Hobbit" a chance when it reaches theaters in December. I'm willing to put aside my biases and past experience, grit my teeth through the feelings of cinematic wrongness, and spend a few hours trying to let my brain get rewired by Peter Jackson's best efforts. However, I can already predict that there are some film fans who will have no such patience, who will want nothing to do with the film. As with every big new technological shift, there are the purists who will simply reject the change. And for all we know, higher frame rates could end up being a gimmick, something that never catches on for good. After all, 70 mm film came and went. Multiple projection is a rarity. 3D already went through one boom and bust, and there's no guarantee that it'll be sticking around for good this time around. And let's not talk about hologram technology.

Still, the history of movies has always been a search for the next big things, the next new way to make a better spectacle. This could very well be the next big one, like color and sound and widescreen. I don't think there's been any projection-related technical development in my lifetime that has been quite as exciting and potentially revolutionary as this. I still have my doubts about higher frame rate movies, but I admit I'm also very curious and excited about the possibilities too.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Piling on Rex Reed

Last "The Cabin in the Woods" post, I promise, but I have to talk about the movie a little bit to talk about the latest target of the internet's derision, The New York Observer's veteran movie critic, Rex Reed. Reed is being pilloried from all directions this week for his review of "The Cabin in the Woods," which he vehemently panned. This might have gone unremarked upon, except that Reed's review was full of spoilers, and to many people's amusement and incredulity, a lot of those spoilers were wrong. In fact, most of his understanding of the plot was faulty, as the piece was full of errors that suggest Reed not only didn't grasp what was going on, but may not have been paying much attention to the movie.

This was not just a bad review, but an incompetent one. What's worse, Reed also took the time to lob a few choice insults at what he perceived to be "The Cabin in the Woods'" intended audience of "electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2." Yikes. To some extent I'm sure that Reed intended to be provocative, or even goading. But I don't think he anticipated the extent of the reaction to his review. Cue the gleeful online pummeling, the accusations that Reed is too old, too feeble-minded, and too out of touch for his job. Cue the mocking reaction pieces, the indignant dissections of everything Reed got wrong in his review, and a couple of well-meaning open letters, expressing more muted dismay. And good grief, it's been ridiculous to watch.

Yes, Rex Reed's review was a blunder and a bad one, but the reaction to it has been absurdly overblown. I've seen countless critics fail to grasp countless other movies, mostly on the artsy and erudite end of the scale. I've seen rants and railings against pretentious hacks and the fawning sycophants who enable their fatuousness. Last year, Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life" was subject to plenty of dismissive and hostile reviews, but the reviewers weren't attacked for their lack of comprehension or insight. Countless critics, many of whom I respect, seemed to be knocked for a loop by Tomas Alfredson's unorthodox approach to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and decided it was terrible. Many made errors trying to describe the labyrinthine plot, or missed certain crucial information entirely. I'm not naming names, but few suffered any adverse consequences.

I don't see Rex Reed's take on "Cabin in the Woods" as any more egregious. The big difference here is that "Cabin" is aimed at a geekier, more populist, more tech-savvy crowd, and Reed is an easy target. He's 73 years old and part of the old guard print establishment, a career critic since the 60s who has consistently refused to change with the times. Moreover, he has a colorful history of controversies and bad behavior, and he comes off as an arrogant, combative blowhard more often than not. But sometimes that's what you want in a movie critic, someone who will go to the mattresses to champion or bury a film, who isn't afraid of being the only one in the room to express a dissenting opinion. And with 93% of the critics delivering positive notices to "The Cabin in the Woods," that sure looks like the case here. Armond White, our usual iconoclast, seems to be MIA, leaving the contrarians awfully few in numbers. I know most of the Reed's detractors are going after him for the inaccuracies in his piece rather than the negative marks, but the unpopularity of his opinion sure does help paint a bulls-eye on his chest. Do you think Rex Reed would've garnered this much hateful attention if he'd included that line about the film's nonexistent vampires in a positive review?

Again, I don't agree with Reed's analysis of "The Cabin in the Woods," and I find his slap-dash fact-checking unprofessional and troubling. But I'm also sympathetic to his point of view. I know I'm far less likely to remember the details of movies I disliked than the movies I liked, and I've muddled plot points in summaries. There are certain genres of film I'm not predisposed to enjoy, and I've cast aspersions on those who do enjoy them. I've bitten off more than I could chew and I've gotten carried away and written some really idiotic things on this blog and elsewhere. I try to be self-aware about this, but sometimes I'll have a bad day and slip up. And it's no surprise that sometimes the professionals have bad days too.
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Monday, April 23, 2012

"The Cabin in the Woods" (With Spoilers)

Okay, kids, you want to see a movie where a group of unsuspecting victims get killed? First we'll start with the attractive young people you've seen tortured and murdered in a thousand other horror movies. Then we'll move on to the slaughter of an organization full of arrogant puppetmasters using their own tools of destruction against them. Then we'll just kill everybody! And really, that's about the most honest ending to a slasher film I think there could possibly be, fulfilling the audience's bloodlust beyond the point of absurdity.

The fact that the film's creators, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, so glibly throw this in the audience's faces is one of the reasons why I think so many gore-hungry viewers have come away from the film so upset. Not only is the movie's initial premise subverted from the opening frames of the film, it keeps being subverted as the stakes change and more details emerge. It refuses to follow the rules of an old-school slasher movie. Then it refuses to follow the rules of a "torture porn" scenario that features more institutional, bureaucratized horrors. Finally, when everything is revealed to be rooted in the ancient patterns of ritual sacrifice, it doesn't play along with that either. Nobody heroically sacrifices themselves or finds a substitute at the last second. The heroes choose to let the world end, using logic that is just as silly as anything else in the movie, but which makes perfect sense in context.

And along the way, we're treated to all manner of horror satire and deconstruction, from the five chosen victims needing to be drugged and manipulated to fit the archetypes required by the sacrifice, to Bradley Whitford gunning down monsters like a pro, shortly before being killed by the very merman he always wanted to see in action. The filmmakers show that they're perfectly capable of following the standard formula and improving on it, creating five perfectly sympathetic, smart, interesting kids who don't actually fit the usual horror clichés. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and Holden (Jesse Williams) could both be either the Athlete or Scholar. And it's hinted that there may not be all that much difference between Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Jules (Anna Hutchinson), who get the Whore and Virgin labels slapped on them, either. And I think that's why the film actually works as a straightforward narrative, on its own terms, in addition to being a great piece of metacriticism of the horror genre.

And I do so adore the metacriticism. All the snarky, inside-baseball scenes with Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) were fantastic. The moment the two of them showed up on screen, kvetching over a childproofed kitchen, the movie had me. I've always loved that Whedon and Goddard tend to humanize their villains, in this case turning the sinister, faceless puppetmasters behind the mechanisms of death, into familiar office drones, complete with interdepartmental rivalries and a hapless intern named Ronald (Tom Lenk). It also creates such obvious, unapologetic geek fodder, with the white board full of monsters, and a cellar full of junk, just waiting to be cross-indexed by enterprising fans. The humor is so well-observed, so black, and so merciless, it's difficult to compare "Cabin in the Woods" to other satires like "Sean of the Dead," "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil," and "Scream," which were more celebratory of the films they skewered. There's much more malevolence toward the horror genre in "Cabin in the Woods," which can get downright gleeful about turning the audience's expectations against them.

The film is far from perfect. I liked Fran Kranz in "Dollhouse," but as Marty the stoner, he goes a little too far over the top too often. Sigourney Weaver's Director is not set up well at all. Obvious plot holes abound, like why the people in charge of the facility would leave an important control room unguarded, or make it so easy to access a big, honking, "purge system" button. And is there really a chemical that can make someone change his mind on cue? But that kind of loose logic also yields great moments like the phone call with Mordecai (Tim de Zarn), and everything involving Marty's telescoping travel mug bong. So what, if no one bothers to explain how Marty managed to escape detection and pretend he was dead? Why waste the time on exposition when there are more quips to be had?

Clearly not everyone will appreciate "Cabin in the Woods." You need a pretty sick sense of humor to enjoy some of the atrocities the movie depicts, and you need to be pretty genre-savvy to appreciate the layers of commentary and reference. Happily, I meet both requirements, and the movie worked for me in the best way. I'm already pretty sure that "Cabin in the Woods" will turn out to be one of my favorites of the whole year.
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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Who Should Watch "The Cabin in the Woods"?

I debated with myself how I should review "The Cabin in the Woods," because there's no way to give it a full review without giving away everything that makes it special. So, I've decided to write two posts, a more analytical one with all the spoilers and one without spoilers, simply trying to convince you to give the movie a chance. This is the latter one, and I do urge you to see "Cabin in the Woods" as soon as you can. It's the best damn genre film I've seen in ages, the film it felt like I was waiting for all of last year. For maximum impact, please avoid the trailers, which give away at least two major things they shouldn't. All you really need to know going into "Cabin in the Woods" is that it is a new variation on that classic, done-to-death horror movie premise: five college students go off into the woods for a little R&R, and horrible, violent things happen to them.

Except, well, that's not really enough information. "Cabin in the Woods" got a great reception from critics when it was released last week, but the audience response was poor. Cinemascore surveys showed that "Cabin in the Woods" only got a "C" grade from opening night moviegoers, and female viewers were especially unhappy with it, awarding a "D+." "Cabin in the Woods" sure looks and sounds like a horror film, and its marketing did a great job of attracting horror fans, but I don't know if it's right to call "Cabin in the Woods" a horror film at all. It offers a lot of thrills, but it's not especially scary. And the story goes so far outside the conventions of a regular horror movie I can understand why many unwary viewers reacted badly to it. The writing is much smarter, meaner, and more cynical than most, and is not going to give people what they expect.

So who is the movie for, exactly? I've seen many reviewers gush that "Cabin in the Woods" should play best to ardent horror geeks. Actually, I think it'll play better to the smartasses and the skeptics, to the viewers who can't help but notice that the same tropes and clichés keep coming up in movie after movie. It's for those cinephiles who ask too many questions, who have meta discussions and play the "what if" game with familiar slasher scenarios. It's for the people who watch and enjoy horror – and with the level of violence here, a good tolerance for gore is a must – but who understand how silly and derivative much of the genre has become. No surprise that "Cabin in the Woods" was directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, veterans of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a show that loved subverting horror movie conventions whenever it could.

I think the trouble is that "Cabin in the Woods" looks like the kind of movie that the "Buffy" crowd wouldn't appreciate, like something much more rote and familiar than it actually is. However, it's hard to talk about the elements that would appeal to the crowd that doesn't usually go to this brand of horror movie without giving away the best surprises. "Cabin in the Woods" is much more of a genre cross-over than anything else, but I don't even want to say which genres it crosses with, because I suspect that would be saying too much. The marketing has had a tough time walking the tightrope between too much information and too little.

As you can guess, all the secrecy and spoiler dodging is what got me into the theater to see this. It seems like everyone who saw and enjoyed "Cabin in the Woods" wants to talk about it, wants to take it apart and marvel at how the pieces fit together. I feel there has been a significant amount of overpraise, because the movie has its flaws. Some of the performances are rough, there are plot holes everywhere, and it can be a little too clever for its own good. But for the most part, I was having too much fun to notice. Fans of Joss Whedon should be especially happy, as several actors from his other projects make appearances.

A full review should be up in a day or two to discuss the actual movie more in depth. And in the meantime, I have a lot of online discussion to catch up on and articles to read. This is one of the first films in a long time I feel justified in going full fangirl over.
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Friday, April 20, 2012

FOX Kids and "Escaflowne"

Ready for a little anime history lesson? This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the FOX network, which will be airing a special this Sunday to remind us of all the good times, and their best shows like "The X-Files" and "24" and "Arrested Development." However, one corner of FOX's television history I'm sure they're going to ignore is what happened to FOX Kids, which had the top rated children's programming in the country for most of the 1990s, before it and most network children's television was scrapped or farmed out in the early 2000s. And there's no chance that they'll acknowledge what remains the worst thing I ever saw them put on television: the FOX Kids edit of the Bandai anime series "A Vision of Escaflowne."

First, some context. Anime series have been acquired and edited for American cartoon viewers for decades. However, starting in the mid-90s, we had a significant boom. "Pokemon" got huge, and then the Cartoon Network started Toonami in 1997, their afternoon action block that started bringing in the anime titles that skewed a little older and little more risky than the shows that ran on the networks. The emerging young otaku population, which was starting to get their anime unedited and unfiltered through smaller distributors and the internet, made the Toonami block a hit. In the year 2000, they attracted a lot of attention with the success of shows like "Gundam Wing" and "Tenchi Muyo." The big networks, namely Kids' WB and FOX Kids, got interested. This resulted in a brief arms race as the different channels went after popular anime series. That fall, Kids' WB nabbed "Cardcaptor Sakura," renamed "Cardcaptors," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" Fox Kids had "Monster Rancher," "Flint the Time Detective," and "A Vision of Escaflowne," a fantasy series Toonami had previously expressed interest in.

It became very obvious very quickly that FOX had no idea what they were doing with "A Vision of Escaflowne," retitled "Escaflowne." The original version was an adventure serial made for older children and teenagers. Its protagonists were a girl, Hitomi, and a boy, Van, both about fourteen years old. The story was mostly told from Hitomi's point of view, a girl from Earth mysteriously swept away to Van's world, the fantastic planet Gaea. FOX wanted an action show that would appeal to its target demographic of 6-12 year old boys, and edited "Escaflowne" to fit. They deleted the entire first episode, deemed too slow, and too focused on Hitomi, opting to insert parts of it into later episodes as flashbacks to fill in any story gaps. Poor Hitomi, like Sakura in "Cardcaptors" the same year, was heavily de-emphasized in favor of the male lead. All the romantic storylines were cut or minimized. Episodes were edited for time and inappropriate content, but also to speed up slower scenes, to provide more blatant exposition, and to make the action sequences more prominent.

Imagine "Game of Thrones," edited for the time and content constraints of network television. Now imagine that it's edited so that the child characters in the ensemble are now positioned as the lead characters. Now imagine that it's also edited to appeal to the sensibilities of teenage "Twilight" fans. You get my drift. "Escaflowne," ironically, didn't have all that much objectionable content. There wasn't nearly the amount of violence as something like "Gundam Wing." However, the show had mature elements like an ongoing war, missing and illegitimate children, arranged marriages, and lot of the story revolved around romantic relationships. "Escaflowne" was a terrible fit for FOX Kids from day one, and the going theory at the time was that the show had been acquired by the network solely to spite its competitors.

Existing fans were already bracing for the worst when the promotional material started being released, but nobody was really prepared for how bad FOX's "Escaflowne" would turn out to be, or the unusual strength of the backlash. In the end, only ten episodes of "Escaflowne" aired on FOX Kids before it was cancelled and replaced with "NASCAR Racers." The entire run aired in Canada on YTV, where it came to light that the series had been shortened to 23 episodes from the original 26, due to the extensive cuts. So much material was removed, that several episodes ran short, and had to be supplemented by adding scenes from the next episode. This resulted in a string of installments that were actually the back half of one episode grafted to the first half of the next. This played havoc on the show's existing story structure. And by removing all the slower-moving incidental and character building scenes, and relentlessly focusing on the action and spectacle, the result was a severely simplified and dumbed down "Escaflowne" that was practically unwatchable.

There had been badly localized anime before, but the notoriety of this particular adaptation was fueled by a couple of other contributing factors. One was access. This was one of the first cases where you had a significant number of fans who were already familiar with the original anime and understood how severe the changes were. Bandai, through the AnimeVillage label, had already released the entire series with English subtitles on VHS tapes in 1998. I had rented my way through the whole set the summer before the English language version premiered. Also, as the FOX edit was being broadcast, one of the story editors who had worked on it, using the pseudonym "TVGuy", was posting about the adaptation process to one of the Usenet anime groups. He was very forthcoming, and clearly very frustrated by the situation, detailing a constant struggle behind the scenes to keep the edits from being worse than they already were. He attracted a lot of debate and discussion that otherwise might not have happened.

TVGuy not only provided an insider POV, but he also confirmed the existence of a lot of the lousy network practices that had only been suspected up to that point. For instance, acquired programs had their existing scores replaced by music composed in-house, to make the editing easier. This meant that "Escaflowne's" highly praised orchestral score, composed by Yoko Kanno, was replaced in many places by a new techno-heavy one. Kanno's score would have been replaced entirely, but Bandai fought to keep it. However, the surviving pieces, rearranged and credited as "additional music," didn't mesh particularly well with the new themes. And thanks to a network rule that no cartoon was allowed to have silence for more than 90 seconds, the new "Escaflowne" was terribly overscored. All the quieter moments were remixed to add music, changing the tone and atmosphere considerably.

"Escaflowne" got a happy ending, though. The original Japanese series was already a worldwide hit, and when the unedited version was released on DVD later in 2001, it sold well. The kids who saw "Escaflowne" on FOX and were curious about it could easily get a hold of the originals, which was rare in those days. As for FOX Kids, they were part of the Fox Family acquisition by ABC, and ceased to exist after 2002. The FOX version of "Escaflowne" also had a home video release, but it was quickly cancelled after only four volumes.

Oh, and there was an "Escaflowne" movie, released in Japan in 2000. It had a limited run in 2002 in the US, and aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in 2005, with no apparent edits.
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Favorite Orson Welles Movie

Of course I considered "Citizen Kane." You can't talk about Orson Welles without talking about the 1941 landmark of American cinema that he created, the one that has been continually lauded to the point where the director and movie are practically synonymous. However, Welles went on after that early success to make films for another forty years, often in difficult circumstances, and leaving many incomplete and abandoned projects in his wake. Many of these were Shakespeare adaptations like the gorgeously staged "Othello," or scintillating film noir like "Touch of Evil," but later in his career he started making more experimental films that were a clear digression from the rest of his body of work. The turning point was his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Trial."

Josef K (Anthony Perkins), is a young man who lives in an unnamed state, informed one morning that he is under arrest for a crime that no one will reveal. He is taken into custody, and enters a labyrinthine world of courts and agencies and endless bureaucracy that it is impossible to fight or escape from. All attempts to navigate or circumvent the incoherent judicial process are thwarted. His accusers remain faceless and his judges remain secret. The advocate handling his case, Hastler (Orson Welles) is no help. Conspiracy and paranoia dog our hero at every turn, and his encounters with others caught in the same system imply that there's no way out for any of them, no matter what role they play. Though the struggle to find justice seems increasingly futile, Josef K. resists to the end.

I've never managed to see a very good print of "The Trial," probably because it has become public domain and was never one of Orson Welles' more popular films. However, I find the visuals arresting. It's clear immediately that the circumstances of the production were not ideal, as many settings and environments have a very rough, almost improvised quality about them while others are painstakingly composed. Apparently the money for sets ran out early, but the ones that actually got built are stunning. To portray the nightmare bureaucracy, Welles includes several shots of endless rows of desks and shelves and corridors that stretch out seemingly into infinity, toward a distant vanishing point on the horizon. Ominous buildings from all over Europe were conscripted to stand in for the courts and offices of the nameless authorities.

As Josef K descends deeper into the bowels of the system, everything becomes more abstract, but no less oppressive. The atmosphere goes beyond Kafkaesque, bringing the film noir elements to the verge of horror. After a time, the film stops following any kind of traditional narrative, but becomes a series of increasingly bizarre, disorienting episodes. Josef K is waylaid or diverted from where he wants to go multiple times, and many events unfold according to a sinister dream logic, recalling some of Ingmar Bergman's more disturbing psychological dramas.

My favorite sequence is the meeting with the artist Titorelli (William Chappell), who lives in a shoddy apartment, where a gang of menacing little girls are forever peering at him through the cracks in the walls, pestering and giggling at him. The journey to a from this little corner of hell is a twisting labyrinth of cramped passageways, full of grasping shadows that would delight any fan of German Expressionism. In Welles' other films you often find a few brief moments of down-the-rabbit-hole surrealism such as the funhouse scenes in "The Lady From Shanghai," but "The Trial" feels like the culmination of all those moments, where Welles' more experimental side was finally given free reign.

I don't want to forget the performances, as the cast is terrific and includes Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, and Romy Schneider in minor roles. Anthony Perkins's Josef K is affable and sympathetic, but though he gets the vast majority of the screen time, he doesn't have much to do except to stand in for the audience and occasionally try to reason with those who will not be reasoned with. The actors in smaller parts, like Chappell and Welles, do a better job of asserting more personality, turning many of their appearances into darkly comic vignettes.

Others have tried to tackle Kafka's work over the years. Terry Gilliam gave us "Brazil," Steven Soderbergh made "Kafka," and Michale Haneke tried his hand at "The Castle," but Orson Welles' "The Trial" was the best of them. He may have be hailed as a genius for his work in the 40s, but as far as I'm concerned he was just as brilliant all through his long career, even after his popularity waned and his resources dwindled. He kept experimenting, kept pushing boundaries, kept testing the medium, and it was the audience that couldn't keep up. "The Trial" was not well received when it was released in the 60s, though Welles famously defended it as "the best film I have ever made."

As far as I'm concerned, he was right
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What I've Seen - Orson Welles

Citizen Kane (1941)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Stranger (1946)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952)
Touch of Evil (1958)
The Trial (1962)
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
F is for Fake (1973)
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why Not Make a Show About That Job?

"Another cop show"? came the outraged utterance from my significant other, having stumbled across the recently premiered "NYC 22." Clearly, modern television's penchant for crime dramas is getting out of hand. As I remarked a while back, it seems like every new series I've latched on to this season is some variant on a police or detective procedural. With many lawyer shows getting more case-of-the-week and doctor shows growing scarcer after a string of high-profile flops, I think it's time to look at some other professions for ideas for new television dramas. I mean, if the reality shows can find the drama in everything from logging to running a pawn shop, there's no reason why we couldn't dramatize a few jobs that aren't related to solving a new murder or disappearance 22 times a season. Here are some professions I'd like to see more of on television:

Teachers - Yes, I remember "Boston Public," but it's been a while. Most school-based shows revolve around the students, including the currently airing "Community" and "Glee." Moreover, most of them are comedies, presenting idealized, sanitized institutions. I think we are sorely in need of another serious take on life in the public education system, more in the vein of recent documentaries like "Waiting for Superman." I've seen so many crime dramas feature cases with troubled kids, I think it's about time we saw some of those stories from a different perspective, a little closer to home.

Journalists - It has been far too long since the days of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Journalism is in an interesting state of flux these days with the transition to new media eliminating many of the traditional newspaper reporting jobs. At the same time, so much emphasis goes to the presenters and pundits, that no one seems to pay much attention to the actual fact-gathering going on behind the scenes. Or in an alarming number of cases, the lack thereof. As self-cannibalizing as the media is, there hasn't been much self-examination of how the journalism landscape has been changing and how that affects the news we consume.

Accountants - The actual job of accounting is pretty dull, but being responsible for vast sums of money is certainly not. Accounting firms are right up there with law firms and financial firms in playing a big role in the economic fortunes of the rich and powerful, and they have been party to some of the biggest economy-melting scandals in recent years. Accountants are often portrayed as fairly inconsequential players, which has always struck me as odd considering the kind of chaos that can result if their work goes awry. So for a different perspective on the business world, maybe it's time to follow the money.

IT Workers - Every modern action show seems to have an IT guy or gal on staff who doubles as comic relief and exposition generator, but these days the computer programmers and technicians are increasingly making the world go round as the internet has spread its influence into every imaginable sphere of human existence. I see no reason why techies couldn't sustain their own adventures, fighting hackers, viruses, bugs, and hardware failures. Or there's always the online vigilante antics of groups like Anonymous and Lulz-Sec, for more morally ambiguous stories.

Lobbyists - I don't think that much of the American public is aware of exactly what a lobbyist does or how much influence they hold in the political system. Most shows dealing with politics like to focus on the politicians, but so much of the game is happening in a bigger sphere of non-profits, think tanks, special interest groups, consultants, aides, and of course the lobbyists. I'd like to see more of that world. A good model would be Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking," which argued the lobbyist was a modern incarnation of the salesman - a man who could talk you into buying anything.

Religious Leaders - Religion-centric shows have almost entirely disappeared in the past few years. The trouble is that most of the programs that actually deal directly with religion tend to be schmaltzy and old fashioned. The more ambitious ones that try to take a different approach are inevitable found to be controversial and suspicious. However, religion has changed along with everything else in the modern age, creating a lot of big questions that have gone unexplored. As religion is still a major part of the American culture, I think it's about time it got more serious attention from Hollywood.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

First Round With "Girls"

Last week I wrote up a review of Lena Dunham's debut feature film Tiny Furniture, which I found frustrating and unappealing. I could see a lot of promise, but it wasn't very well realized and had a lot of affectations that rubbed me the wrong way. So when I heard that Dunham had landed her own HBO series, with a production credit from Judd Apatow, I was worried we were going to get more of the same. At first glance, "Girls" and "Tiny Furniture" do have a lot in common. Both star Lena Dunham playing a post-collegiate twenty-something living in New York, trying to figure out what to do with herself. Both offer unusually frank depictions of young, single women, with a good dose of realistic nudity, sex, language, and recreational drug use. However, "Girls" is a vast improvement in every possible sense.

First, Dunham ditches the mumblecore production values and dingy visual sense for something much more polished and easy on the eyes. The mostly amateur actors have been replaced by mostly professional ones. The writing has also become much more focused and to-the-point. I particularly appreciate that the characters, though still wrapped up in their own problems, are altogether more lovable and self-aware. This is most noticeable with Dunham's lead character, Hannah Horvath, a twenty-four year-old unpaid intern and would-be writer. She has big, if rather hazy aspirations, evidenced by her opium fueled declaration that she may be "the voice of a generation." However, there's significantly less of the outsized self-pity and petulance of the more resentful, difficult Aura from "Tiny Furniture." It helps that Hannah has problems that are very concrete and immediate from the get-go. Her visiting parents (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) are cutting off their financial support, and no protestations that she needs more time "to be who I am" will move them to reconsider. And as New York City is not a cheap place to live, reality quickly sets in - Hannah needs a job.

Fortunately she has the emotional support of her best friend and roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) and the newly transplanted Jessa (Jemima Kirke, also from the "Tiny Furniture" cast), a world traveler and free spirit. It's immediately evident that Marnie is the meanest and most sensible of the bunch while Jessa is prone to sounding sophisticated and acting flighty. The fourth member of the show's regular quartet will be Jessa's cousin Shoshanna (Zoisa Mamet), who only appears briefly in the pilot to gush over Jessa's worldliness and offer comparisons to "Sex and the City." Oh yes, "Girls" is very aware of "Sex and the City," and the similarities between them. And then it goes and pushes the boundaries ever-so-much further than "Sex and the City" ever managed to. First there's Hannah's amusingly awful and explicit sexual episode with her scuzzy boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), and then there are the multiple scenes of the girls having conversations in the bathroom while fully or partially naked. It's not the casual nudity, but the snarky intimacy between the girls that stands out here, a rarity in media of any kind. I'm looking forward to seeing how these friendships are going to develop over successive weeks.

What surprised me the most about "Girls," however, was how funny I found it, after sitting through "Tiny Furniture" stone-faced. Both of Hannah's meetings with her parents are hilarious. The sex scene is embarrassing, but also agreeably ridiculous and humanizing. Dunham's observational, incidental humor is a better fit for episodic television than a full-length feature, and the lighter tone heightens all the self-mockery and absurdity that didn't quite come through in "Tiny Furniture." What was bitter and cynical in the film goes down a lot easier with a more mainstream sensibility behind it. And though Hannah may be an entitled brat, her immaturity pings as more universal this time around, and she's much easier to root for.

I am a little disappointed that Dunham is sticking to such familiar territory with "Girls," but this was clearly the right project for her. She's listed as creator, executive producer, writer, director, and lead actress of "Girls," and she's showing major improvements on all fronts. If she can keep up the level of quality in the pilot through the whole season, I think Lena Dunham stands a good chance of becoming a major creative force to be reckoned with. As far as I'm concerned, she's already a voice of her generation. Not the voice, but one I'll be happy to have around.
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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Uncanny "Tintin"

I never read the "Tintin" comics, but I certainly know them by reputation. You can't do much reading about comics without stumbling across reference after reference to the beloved Belgian boys' adventure series that began in the late 1920s, and saw it's young reporter hero, Tintin, solving mysteries and having adventures in all sorts of exotic lands, with his faithful dog Snowy by his side. Sadly, I expect the biggest stumbling block between American audiences and the "Tintin" movie will end up being the age of the property. Between "The Adventures of Tintin" and "John Carter," it seems that technology has finally caught up to the point where the adventures of many beloved older characters can finally be brought to the big screen without compromise. But now they face a different dilemma - have their stories become too outdated and unfamiliar to attract the current generation of moviegoers? I didn't have many apprehensions about "Tintin," but I'm a grown woman who has very fond memories of Indiana Jones and the Scrooge McDuck comics and other tales of colonialist-era derring-do.

Then again, there's the head-turning level of talent that contributed to the film. Steven Spielberg directed, and his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams all lent their talents to "Tintin." The screenplay is credited to Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, who deliver a rousing, old fashioned adventure that sends Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Snowy after a model ship that may lead to a sunken treasure. They're up against a sinister villain named Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who has a hidden agenda, but fortunately Tintin has the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) on his side. And I was happy to see that "Tintin" was a notch more adult than the usual American animated film. Haddock's alcoholism is sometimes played for laughs, but sometimes addressed completely seriously. Also, though we don't see a drop of blood on screen, many of the gun battles and fight scenes get pretty intense.

The visuals, however, present another challenge. It makes sense that a "Tintin" adaptation should be animated, due to the globetrotting and some of the more outlandish comic-book elements. However, I question the decision to go with full motion-capture CGI, the technique commonly used in the Robert Zemeckis productions like "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol." Here, all the CGI is handled by Peter Jackson's special effects company, WETA Digital, and it's a considerable improvement on Zemeckis films. It's only in the odd frame that a character will have a dead-eyed look, or tread too close to the "Uncanny Valley" where the more realistic a character looks, the more unreal he comes across. Yet the "illusion of life" still isn't quite on par with what you see in more traditional forms of animation. The movie is certainly gorgeous to look at, a combination of almost photorealistic environments and caricatured human characters. Unfortunately, it also comes across as a mishmash of styles, ranging from a cartoonish Snowy to human beings who can look very realistic in certain lights. More than once, I found myself pulled out of the movie, noticing places where the visuals just didn't match up right.

One character who looks a little too real is Tintin himself, who doesn't have nearly the range of expressions as the more exaggerated Haddock and Sakharine. As someone who is unfamiliar with Tintin, the brave young adventurer left me a little cold. I don't know if it was the relative stiffness of the character animation (if it should be called that), his bland demeanor, Jamie Bell's performance, or that I had so little by way of introduction to him, but I found it difficult to stay invested in what Tintin was doing. However, I found I liked the film better as Haddock took a more active role in the second and third acts. Andy Serkis is unrecognizable, which is, I suppose, the great talent of Andy Serkis. He's as wonderful as he always is in these motion capture roles, which adds more evidence to the argument that you really need actors with a certain skill set for motion capture. Most recent films to use the technique have fallen short, picking celebrities over more appropriate talent.

"Tintin" did convince me of one thing, which is that Steven Spielberg and animation are made for each other. There are a couple of great action sequences here that look more "Indiana Jones" than anything in the last "Indiana Jones" movie, and would have been almost impossible to realize in live action. Spielberg uses the medium to its fullest, constructing dizzying shots that travel through multiple decks of a ship, or switch among several characters' POVs as Tintin and Haddock chase the crooks on a borrowed motorcycle. This is the best straightforward action movie I've seen from the Spielberg camp in a long time, and it's a wonderful return to this spirit of his summer spectaculars of the 80s and 90s.

So while "Tintin" may have some major flaws, it's a lot of fun too. When the story hits its stride, it's a wonderful ride. And though I may nitpick about technique and aesthetics, in the end the movie won me over. I look forward to more "Tintin" to come.
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Top Ten "X-Files" Episodes

I enjoy a rare geeky distinction among geeks. Back in the fall of 1993, I was one of the few people who actually watched the first episode of "The X-Files" as it originally premiered, with the special pre-show disclaimer screen and everything. Through junior high and high school, though I had other shows on my plate, "The X-Files" came first. I tuned in every Friday or Sunday night for years, and loved it as only a socially inept geek girl could. And I stuck with it much, much longer than a should have, all the way up to the end of the eighth season, when it seemed that Mulder and Scully would be replaced for good by far less interesting leads. Now, a decade later, I expect that some kind of reboot or spinoff is only a matter of time. "The X-Files" was one of Fox's biggest TV properties, and it would be a good fit with the recent resurgence of supernatural-themed movies and television shows. But before that happens, here's a look at my top ten favorite episodes, unranked, in chronological order. Please note I was never much one for the "mythology" stories, so these are all stand-alone cases.

"Eve" - Two of "the X-Files'" most intriguing early monsters were a pair of identical girls, discovered on opposite sides of the country. They meet thanks to the FBI's investigation into the strange circumstances around their foster fathers' deaths, and Mulder and Scully soon discover the girls may be part of a secret cloning project - with a history of turning out psychotic homicidal maniacs. Lots of little touches, from Mulder and Scully being mistaken for the girls' parents, to the superb work by guest star Harriet Sansome Harris make this a memorable, creepy early outing.

"Darkness Falls" - With a classic horror movie scenario, this was one of the first episodes that really scared me. Investigating disappearances in the Oregon woods, Mulder and Scully have to contend with swarm of lethal, tiny, swarming insects that only attack when it's dark. Stranded far from civilization with a group of hostile, frightened locals, the situation gets worse with each successive night. The show did a couple of these extreme survival episodes like "Ice" and "Firewalker," but "Darkness Falls" was by far the most thrilling and effective of them.

"Humbug" - You may remember this one as the episode with the circus freaks. There is so much to love here, from Mulder and Scully unearthing a small town's secrets (and potatoes), encounters with a big ensemble of colorful characters, including suspects played by Michael J. Anderson and Vincent Schiavelli, and the circus folks getting the last word on the subject of freakishness. This was one of the first largely comedic "X-Files" episodes, which I always held a special affection for, and you can expect several more of them to appear on this list.

"Soft Light" - Horror can come from anything, even something as simple as your own shadow. This episode has one of the weakest premises, but such strong execution, that it manages to summon up some real paranoid chills. It also features another great performance from a guest actor, this time Tony Shalhoub, a few years before "Monk." Other favorites in this vein include "Mind's Eye" and "Roland," for the work of Lili Taylor and Željko Ivanek respectively, but it's "Soft Light" that had the most impact on me. I still remember the creepiness of some of the images to this day.

"Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" - Speaking great guest stars, here we have Peter Boyle as Clyde Bruckman, an unassuming insurance salesman who can tell you how everyone is going to die. The tragi-comic tale of his involvement in a murder investigation is one of the most touching episodes of "The X-Files," a meditation on death, depression, and how knowing the future is definitely not all it's cracked up to be. Peter Boyle won an Emmy for playing Clyde Bruckman and Darin Morgan won an Emmy for writing him. And they were both very well deserved.

"Jose Chung's From Outer Space" - We go from tragi-comic to out and out comic, with the second of Darin Morgan's great contributions to "The X-Files." In one of the most free-form and self-mocking episodes of the series, a writer named Jose Chung gathers information for a new book based on one of Mulder and Scully's cases, interviewing witnesses to a possible alien encounter who have wildly different interpretations of what happened. Part satire and part "Rashomon," this is "The X-Files" having fun with its pop culture image in the best way.

"Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" - The show's great roster of minor characters has mostly been missing from this list so far. This episode gives us a peek into the (speculated?) dirty doings of the show's signature villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man. And we find out that though he is a thoroughly despicable human being, he nurses his own small aspirations and his own private dreams just like anyone else. One of my favorite moments in the whole series is the ending of this one, culminating in a searing, bitter monologue that starts with, "Life is like a box of chocolates."

"The Post-Modern Prometheus" - More of a modern-day Frankenstein story than a Promethean one, told with B-movie horror, comic book, and daytime talk show flourishes. In a small rural community, Mulder and Scully discover that someone has been dabbling in genetic experimentation, and a "monster" named the Great Mutato may be lurking. However, this is a monster unlike any they've met before – he's a Cher fan, for one thing. From the black-and-white cinematography to the fairy tale ending, this was an unusual experiment for the show that paid off big.

"Triangle"– Probably best remembered for Mulder somehow getting himself stuck on a passenger ship in the Bermuda Triangle and sent back in time to when the ship was being hijacked by Nazis during World War II. However, I think of it as the episode with the amazing long take of Scully extracting secret data from the FBI building, narrowly avoiding detection by Kersh and Spender, and finally getting away with the help of the Lone Gunmen in their microbus. "Triangle" was one of a string of ambitious post-movie episodes that cemented the sixth season as one of the show's best.

"The Unnatural" – And finally, we have a nostalgic baseball fable about a remarkable friendship between two minor league players, from different worlds. And I mean that literally. It's also about the famous 1947 Roswell crash and racial segregation in the 1940s, but the focus is friendship and baseball. Thus, "The Unnatural" is one of the most feel-good hours of television that "The X-files" ever produced. And with its Southern-infused music, tongue-in-cheek humor, and touch of the miraculous, this was the show proving again that it could tell a very wide range of supernatural tales.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

China's Getting Animated

My experience with Chinese produced animated films is quite limited. I've seen exactly two features, both screened at the 2004 Anime Expo in Anaheim. One was "Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective," following the comic adventures of the manwha character Old Master Q. The other was "The Butterfly Lovers," a period fable with character designs that looked like they'd been lifted wholesale from "Mulan." Both were pretty awful and derivative, but there was clearly a lot of ambition behind them. In China's never-ending quest for greater cultural relevance, they've long recognized that animation can be an important medium. The most profitable category of American films in the last decade has been its animated children's films, which bring in staggering revenue at the worldwide box office. Anime from neighboring Japan is more of an acquired taste, but viewed and adored by fans from all over the globe. Most importantly, Western and Japanese animation does very well in China, and the Chinese are itching to break into the market themselves. Last year, a massive new animation studio was announced by the Chinese authorities, being built for the explicit purpose of competing with Western toons.

Historically, there have been some influential Chinese animated films, like "Princess Iron Fan" (1941) and "Havoc in Heaven" (1961), from the Wan brothers. Unfortunately the political climate in China made all filmmaking difficult for decades, and animated films have been rarities. This has put Chinese animation far, far behind other countries. There have been some gains in recent years, with reports of interesting films coming out of Hong Kong and Shanghai, but these have been very low profile. So, the latest tactic has been to recruit help from bigger players. The "Kung Fu Panda" movies have been hugely popular in China, and it's no surprise that Dreamworks Animation announced a joint venture with China Media Capital to form Oriental Dreamworks back in February. They'll be producing family friendly live action and animated content geared toward Chinese audiences. Dreamworks Animation had a rough 2011, losing over 40% of its market value after films like "Puss in Boots" flopped, so this is a good opportunity for them. Then on Tuesday, per Deadline, the Walt Disney Company announced it had "entered a partnership with the culture ministry and Chinese internet giant Tencent to develop the country’s animation business." And as a bonus, a new Shanghai Disneyland has just been approved for construction.

This could end up playing out in a couple of ways. Chinese animation hopefuls would do well to remember what happened in South Korea when it opened dozens of animation studios in the 80s and 90s and the United States and Japan farmed out large amounts of labor-intensive animation work to them. Any kid who watched cartoons in that era should remember the prominent lists of Korean names at the end of every episode. It's become a running joke that many popular American cartoons like "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" depend on Korean animators, toiling over endless drawings, often in substandard working conditions. And it's rare that you see Korean talent making any major contributions to the writing, planning, direction, or design of the Western projects they work on. But hasn't all of this helped South Korean produced animation? Not really. Like in China, major South Korean animated projects have been few and far between, and they haven't gained much international attention. However, of the few titles I've seen like 2003's "Oseam" and "Sky Blue," the Koreans have the potential to do much bigger things, and they'rein a better position than the Chinese are on the creative front.

That's the biggest problem I see with Chinese animation. I think they're going to make sure they have far more opportunities to turn out animation that reflects their own sensibilities, and working closely with the major American studios will certainly help them to avoid becoming simply another cheap outsourcing destination. I definitely see the Chinese benefiting on the technological side. However, that's only one part of what makes modern animated cartoons so successful. Originality, creativity and innovation are going to be the biggest stumbling blocks. China may have lots of eager young animators, but the rigidity and the formalism of their learning system, plus the the heavy cultural politics, plus the constant concerns about censorship and staying on message do not add up to a good atmosphere for creating silly, loveable cartoons like "Kung Fu Panda." The Chinese don't need Disney and Dreamworks to help them figure out how to make their CGI look better. They need them to explain the value of absurdity and the business of caricature and that first and foremost a cartoon needs to be entertaining and tell a good story.

I'd love to see them succeed. I really would. Another thriving Asian animation center would be wonderful to have. However, at the same time I don't relish another propaganda-driven arm of the current mainland Chinese film industry, turning out the cookie-cutter morality tales their government likes so much. And frankly, they'd all be a bust commercially. Animated films have to cater to a very tough audience: small children. The kids will pick silly, fun, wild, and crazy over ideologically pure any day. And at the end of the day, even in China, I'm willing to bet the adults will too.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Preview for the Teaser for the Trailer

It seems that movie marketing has taken an interesting turn in these last few months. The Rian Johnson science fiction thriller "Looper" is coming out in September and a trailer for it was released this week. To promote the trailer, a teaser for the trailer - not the film itself, but the trailer - was released a few days earlier. It follows in the footsteps of other films like "Prometheus," "Breaking Dawn Part 2" and "Total Recall" that used similar previewing tactics. I'd throw in the Superbowl commercials for films like "The Avengers" and "John Carter," which had longer, expanded versions online, making the broadcast versions essentially expensive promos for more substantive promos.

This new trend is not without precedent. Ever since trailers started becoming newsworthy in and of themselves, often enjoying exclusive premieres on television or with certain theatrical releases, the studios have teased the promos themselves with a few seconds of footage here, or a flash of a logo there. Last year's MTV Video Music Awards brought us our first glimpse of the "Hunger Games," which only ran 45 seconds and featured a brief single shot of Katniss in motion. That didn't keep MTV from previewing the preview in advance with a few miserly frames of the footage. The new "trailer trailers" are just formalizing the existing marketing tactic. However, I think it's telling that all the movies that have employed them this year are the ones that have been breathlessly feeding hype machines for months. I swear Rian Johnson hasn't passed up a chance to sell "Looper" to the fanboy crowd in the last year.

Not that I blame him. As we saw with "John Carter," the marketing campaigns for many of these movies are more important to their financial success than ever. Everything film has to be an event, and so marketing campaigns have become more elaborate and marketers have to keep coming up with more things for the reporters and movie bloggers and the anxious fans to talk about. These days it's not rare to see reporting on posters, promotional stills and clips, TV spots, tie-in merchandise, and even fan-made items. The teasers and trailers are the centerpieces of the campaign, often highly anticipated in their own right. It makes sense that the studios would want to take advantage of this, drawing more attention by building up that anticipation. And the best way to do this, of course, is to give viewers a glimpse of what they're waiting for.

There's a downside, of course, as there is with all overkill marketing. Too much hype and information can wreck the actual moviegoing experience. I've yet to see a frame of "Looper," but thanks to stumbling across multiple write-ups about the movie, I feel I already know too much about the plot. And if the advertising for a film is poor, like it was for "John Carter," the pervasiveness of the previews can do more harm than good. I also worry about the big marketing campaigns taking up so much of their creative talents' time and attention. I'd rather Joss Whedon be working on his next film rather than shilling "The Avengers" for the next few weeks. And then there's the growing divide between films that can afford this kind of marathon promotion and the ones that can't.

I've been moving away from watching all but the earliest teasers for a film. I find it much too easy to get engulfed in the hysteria of a promotional campaign, and some movies are put in the awkward position of trying to live up to hype and expectations that are far too big for them. I'm worried about "Prometheus," which is one of the most buzzed about upcoming summer films thanks to a pair of excellent trailers, but the degree of dissection and speculation about the content of the various promotional materials, spurred on by the information-hungry internet, makes me wonder if some of the film's most ardent early supporters are setting themselves up for a fall.

Of course, in some cases the marketing is better than the movie it's selling, and the promos turn out to be the high point of the whole experience. Last year's "Sucker Punch" and "Cowboys & Aliens" had some great, promising trailers and came out complete duds. So why not place more emphasis on the only parts of those films that were actually entertaining - the trailers? More money is spent promoting some of these movies than actually making them, so it makes sense that the marketing itself should become the main event. If Hollywood is having trouble selling movies these days, at least it can sell the hype.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Your 2012 Summer Movies

Summer movie season is right around the corner. Ever wish you had a plain, simple schedule of the upcoming movies that just told you what was coming out and when? With maybe with a little more information about the titles you haven't heard much about yet? See below. And please note the limited releases haven't been fully scheduled for July and August yet.

May

The Avengers (May 4) - Superheroes.
Dark Shadows (May 11) - The 70s, vampires, and Johnny Depp.
The Dictator (May 16) - Sacha Baron Cohen trying to make us forget about "Bruno."
Battleship (May 18) - Based on the Hasbro board game, except this has aliens and Liam Neeson.
What to Expect When You're Expecting (May 18) - Pregnancy dramedy. Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez lead the ensemble.
Chernobyl Diaries (May 25) - The latest found footage horror movie from some of the guys who brought you "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious."
Men in Black 3 (May 25) - Ten years since the last one, and four years since Will Smith was in a movie.

Limited Release Highlights

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (May 4) - A gang of British retirees, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Smith, decide to spend their retirement in India in a hotel run by Dev Patel.
Where Do We Go Now? (May 11) - About a Lebanese village where the women conspire to keep the men from learning about the country's civil unrest.
The Intouchables (May 25) - Hit French comedy-drama about a quadriplegic and his immigrant live-in attendant.
Moonrise Kingdom (May 25) - Wes Anderson's latest. If you don't know who Wes Anderson is, there's still time to go find out.

June

Snow White & the Huntsman (June 1) - This is the one with Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as the Queen.
Piranha 3DD (June 1) - Horror movie with bitey fish.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (June 8) - No comment
Prometheus (June 8) - Ridley Scott returns to the "Alien" universe.
Rock of Ages (June 15) - Based on a recent Broadway musical. Tom Cruise plays an 80s rock star.
That's My Boy (June 15) - Formerly "I Hate You Dad." The Adam Sandler saga continues, now with more Andy Samberg.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (June 22) - Directed by the guy who did "Wanted."
Brave (June 22) - Formerly "The Bear and the Bow." Let's see what PIXAR's idea of girl power looks like.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22) - Dark romantic comedy with Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley and the apocalypse.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 29) - No comment, except we're seeing a lot of Channing Tatum this year.
Magic Mike (June 29) - Steven Soderbergh comedy about male strippers. Also stars Channing Tatum.
People Like Us (June 29) - Formerly "Welcome to People" - The screenwriting team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are trying their hand at a domestic drama with Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, and Elizabeth Banks.

Limited Release Highlights

Safety Not Guaranteed (June 8) - Time travel indie with a little romance. Based on this internet meme.
Lola Versus (June 8) - Greta Gerwig romantic comedy about a woman who is dumped only weeks before her wedding.
To Rome with Love (June 22) - Formerly "The Bop Decameron" and "Nero Fiddled." In short, a Woody Allen goes to Rome.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (June 27) - The big winner at Sundance this year, about a community in the Louisiana wilderness about to collide with encroaching modernity.
Take This Waltz (June 29) - Sarah Polley directed drama starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a couple in a troubled marriage.

July

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3) - Superhero reboot.
Savages (July 6) - Crime thriller directed by Oliver Stone, with two drug dealers vs. a Mexican cartel.
Ice Age: Continental Drift (July 13) - This is the fourth one, in case you were keeping count.
Ted (July 13) - Seth "Family Guy" McFarlane's feature debut. It's about a vulgar teddy bear who comes to life.
The Dark Knight Rises (July 20) - Last Batman movie until the reboot.
The Marriage Counselor (July 27) - Tyler Perry movie.
Neighborhood Watch (July 27) - Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn action comedy. There may be a title change in its future in light of recent events.
Step Up Revolution (July 27) - Fourth "Step Up" dance movie.

Limited

Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D (July 5) - Concert movie/documentary.

August

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (August 3) - The third "Wimpy Kid" movie.
The Bourne Legacy (August 3) - Jeremy Renner takes over as leading man for "Bourne" number four.
Total Recall (August 3) - Science fiction action reboot with Colin Farrell.
The Campaign (August 10) - Formerly "Dog Fight." Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis political comedy.
Great Hope Springs (August 10) - Comedy where Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones land Steve Carell as their marriage counselor.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (August 15) - Disney's very delayed family film about a magic kid adopted by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton.
The Expendables 2 (August 17) - More muscles, more explosions.
ParaNorman (August 17) - Laika Studio's stop-motion animation follow-up to "Coraline."
Sparkle (August 17) - Sure to be billed as the final Whitney Houston film, but it's really a coming of age story about a young singer.
The Apparition (August 24) - Haunted house horror movie.
Hit and Run (August 24) - Formerly "Outrun." Romantic action comedy with Kristen Bell and Bradley Cooper.
Premium Rush (August 24) - Bike messenger action thriller starring Joseph Gordon Levitt.
7500 (August 31) - Horror movie from director Takashi Shimizu, who brought you the "Grudge" movies.
Lawless (August 31) - Formerly "The Wettest Country in the World." John Hillcoat prohibition drama with Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy,
The Possession (August 31) - And one more horror movie.

Limited

2 Days in New York (August 10) - Julie Delpy comedy about a woman's visiting French relatives in New York. A sequel to "2 Days in Paris."

Happy watching.
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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Scrutinizing "Tiny Furniture"

With Lena Dunham's new television show "Girls" in the news, I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about her feature film "Tiny Furniture," one of the most buzzed about 2010 releases among the artsy crowd. I was tying myself in knots of anticipation to see it because I'd heard such wonderful things, and the idea of a young female American filmmaker making such a splash with her debut film was an incredibly appealing prospect. Unfortunately I couldn't find a way to see it until Criterion released "Tiny Furniture" on home media in December of 2011, and put it on Netflix shortly thereafter, which is where I finally got ahold of it. And after all that, I didn't like it.

As with all hyped up movies of this kind, first I wondered if there was something I was missing. Was there some context I needed to put the story in perspective, some sort of referential or satirical aspect of the film that wasn't registering in my consciousness? I'd read enough about the film that I knew what I should be paying attention to. I could see that the film was timely, dealing with the tribulations of a post-collegiate boomeranger, Aura (played by Dunham herself) who moves back in with her photographer mother Siri (Dunham's real mother, Laure Simmons) and overachiever teenage sister Nadine (Dunham's real sister, Grace Dunham). I could see how it was innovative, utilizing digital video and amateur actors. I could see how it was daring, with Lena Dunham putting her very ordinary, non-movie-star self in the spotlight, and including frank depictions of unflattering behavior and explicit, awkward sexual encounters. As more than one critic has pointed out, you don't see women with Dunham's body type doing the things she does here on film very often. The tiny feminist in me was also very happy to see the depiction of multiple relationships between Aura and other women - her mother, her sister, and friends Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) and Frankie (Merritt Wever).

And good grief, it was tedious. I haven't been having the greatest track record with coming-of-age stories recently, and "Tiny Furniture" came off as yet another self-obsessed, navel-gazing portrait of overgrown youth in directionless existential crisis. Maybe I'm too close to the subject matter, as I spent way too much of my twenties stuck in this phase, but much of the film was painful to watch, and not in a good way. Aura is an extremely trying protagonist, a young woman who is clearly intelligent but stubbornly obtuse about her tenuous living situation. Perhaps this is the fault of her home life, as her mother is a successful artist who has never had a job in her life. Perhaps this is the due to the influence of her friends, most of them similarly disconnected and living on high-minded aspirations. The brightest prospect among them is a burgeoning Youtube star. Whatever the reasons, Aura is extremely difficult to sympathize with. She self-aggrandizes and self-pities constantly, lashes out in childish ways, and is perpetually exasperated that life isn't going as easily for her as she wants it to.

Okay, so watching the movie is a slog, but lots of great movies aren't easy to watch. Surely I can appreciate the bravery of the director for serving up versions of herself and her immediate family, and subjecting them all to the gawking and potential disdain of her audience. Surely I noticed how well Dunham captures the particular patter and mannerisms of that certain breed of New York Gen Y-er in her writing, or how "Tiny Furniture" follows the spirit of the mumblecore movement if not its specific requirements. Yes to all of these things, but the end result still left me unmoved. The movie reeks of authenticity, from the do-it-yourself design aesthetics to Aura's volatile wardrobe, but only rarely does it work up the momentum to offer any good insights into her life. There are few nice scenes between Aura and her mother that I liked, but otherwise I couldn't connect with Aura's journey of self-discovery and disillusionment. It's a very candid one, certainly, but lacking the necessary focus to make it compelling.

I would like to see more from Lena Dunham, because she's clearly talented and has a strong, distinct point of view. However, I'm wary of any more exercises in autobiographical self-flagellation. A little is fine, but this is serious oversharing. And quite honestly, she's just not all that interesting as a subject of scrutiny.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

Down on "Jump Street"

Previously on the Miss Media Junkie blog, I declared I was ready to bust my nostalgia goggles and try to give the new "21 Jump Street" reboot a fair shake. Now I've finally seen movie film, and I find myself in the unique position of being a fan of the old "21 Jump Street" television show who can tell you exactly how the two versions match up. The new movie is a fun buddy action caper barely resembles the old FOX television show. The film is a comedy. The series, despite some humorous episodes, was not. It was a perfectly ordinary police procedural aimed at teenagers, featuring a group of attractive young officers going under cover in different high schools and colleges every week.

The movie, on the other hand, is really about two guys and their partnership – Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), who went to high school together but don't become friends until they meet again years later in police academy. Schmidt is the chubby nerd with confidence issues. Jenko is the handsome jock, who isn’t very sharp. Both fit nicely into the mold of the immature male comedy hero who never really got over high school. A goof up gets Schmidt and Jenko transferred to the revived Jump Street program, where Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) sends them back to high school for their first assignment, to uncover the source of a new designer drug. This time, things are a little different for both of them.

There's no way to compare the past and present versions of "21 Jump Street" without acknowledging that in the twenty years the show has been off the air, the high school experience has changed drastically. And likewise, Schmidt and Jenko are stunned to discover that in the mere seven years that have passed since they left high school, the pecking order has changed, and the social rules are different. Schmidt ends up one of the cool kids, while Jenko discovers, to his horror, that he's classed with the nerds. It's only the first of many role reversals and clever tweaks of the high school formula that the writers deliver. I would like to take this moment to apologize for prematurely denigrating the writing skills of Jonah Hill, who is credited for story alongside screenwriter Michael Bacall. The pop-culture savvy script is hysterical, and the movie's biggest asset.

"21 Jump Street" riffs on modern teen comedies as much as it does on buddy cop stories, so it treats excessive partying, drinking, and drugs in a much more casual way that its straight-laced progenitor. One highlight is an extended sequence where Schmidt and Jenko are blitzed out of their minds and running amok around the school. Sex is referenced casually, and there are a couple of graphic moments played for laughs. Profanity is plentiful. Practically the only thing the film and TV show share is a penchant for over-the-top action sequences, which were a staple of the Stephen J. Cannell action shows. In the movie, Schmidt and Jenko get their share of chases and shootouts, though theirs are much, much funnier.

But what really impressed me about the movie, was how well Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum worked together, and how strong their dunderhead characters are. I haven't liked either of these actors in anything else, but here they show off solid comedic chops and have a real rapport. They had me significantly invested in the ups and downs of Schmidt and Jenko's partnership, which form the backbone of the movie and is the one thing that everyone takes completely seriously in the midst all the silliness. Similar partnerships in the original "21 Jump Street" were a big part of why I liked that show so much as a teenager. It was a nice touch that Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as the McQuaid brothers, the same aliases that Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) and Doug Penhall (Peter Deluise) used back in the old days.

A long story short, this has been a good learning experience. There's at least one of these reboots or remakes that I write off every year that turns out to be great. This has been the best surprise so far. I can't say this is the best "21 Jump Street" reboot I could have hoped for, but it is the best comedic buddy movie I've seen in a long while, and the best teen comedy spoof. Heck, I think it's the best all-around R-rated comedy I've seen in a very long while.
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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good Grief, "God Bless America"

The premise of "God Bless America" makes for a great trailer. A sad sack middle aged man named Frank (Joel Murray) discovers that he has terminal cancer, he's been fired from his job, and he has nothing to live for. Moreover, he's plagued by the inescapable dregs of the American media, in the form of braying political pundits, soulless talent competitions, and entitled teenage princesses who melt down when their parents buy them the wrong car. The last one inspires Frank to take a road trip and put the offending brat out of everyone's misery with a bullet to the head. Soon he's on a cross-country rampage with a spunky teenage girl cohort named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), gunning down every hatemonger they can find, with America's favorite nationally televised singing competition in their sights for a final showdown.

Sounds pretty fun, doesn't it? Well, yes and no. While the film delivers a little catharsis with every new kill – I especially enjoyed Frank and Roxy picking off rude theatergoers and running over homophobic protesters – the joy is fleeting. Frank is not some righteous crusader, but a deeply sad and misanthropic individual with a very skewed worldview. He's zeroed in on one thing that he believes is wrong with the world, and it's the meanness and selfishness of everything being broadcast on television and the radio. He sees it poisoning the behavior of everyone around him, from his awful neighbors to his own spoiled daughter. And pretty soon it becomes apparent that the point of "God Bless America" is not the violence or the mayhem, but giving writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait a platform to rant about the state of American popular culture.

Frank gets multiple monologues that are painfully didactic and unoriginal. He rails against "American Idol." He disabuses Roxy of the notion that all adult men are attracted to teenage girls. He pleads for a return to civility and decency, using over the top violence to get people to listen to him. Frank is a sympathetic figure, but also a terrible hypocrite, and the plot indulges him shamelessly, ensuring that he gets away with a staggering number of major crimes. Roxy's even worse. She has an endless list of people she'd like to wipe off the face of the earth for fairly minor faults. The anarchic look of glee on her face when she contemplates murdering everyone who has committed a pop culture sin is pretty disturbing. And her impassioned, out-of-nowhere declaration of her love for the music of Alice Cooper makes it pretty damn obvious that she was written with the sensibilities of a middle-aged man.

The film would have had more impact if it sent up these two, revealing the inherent flaws in their approach to the world, or maybe having them caught up in the very media circus that they despise. Instead, they end up playing out all the odd couple clichés of an older man on an unexpected road trip with a runaway teenage girl. And I'm sorry to say that they don't do them very well. Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr try their best, but it was never clear how they'd developed any kind of meaningful connection, or why the audience would have any reason to care about what happened to them. At times the contrivances around the two border on the ridiculous. Roxy tells a very obvious lie to get Frank to take her with him on the killing spree, and her presence at the finale makes no sense.

I admire Goldthwait for getting a film like this made, and agree with many of the sentiments behind it. However, I frequently see discussions online that contain all the same complaints, all the same fantasies of doing away with the Rush Limbaughs and the Fred Phelps and the "American Idols" of the world, along with those who empower them. They usually end the same way, with everyone agreeing that the status quo sucks, and affirming each other's wishful thinking. And that's what "God Bless America" is in the end – a stack of complaints about the way the world is going, trying to provoke its audience into self-awareness and outrage, but not really adding anything new to the conversation. And it doesn't hit hard enough to leave much of a lasting impression, the satire dulled by an overwhelming lack sense of sadness and futility. What's the point of Frank continuing his rampage if the movie itself acknowledges that all killing the hatemongers won't change a thing in the end?

"God Bless America" may be an attack on the American media, but its pandering and its sensationalism smack of the worst of the same media's excesses.
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