Friday, August 31, 2012

My Top Ten Modern "Doctor Who" Episodes

The last of the time lords is due to return to our television screens tomorrow, in the seventh series since "Doctor Who" was resurrected. So here's a list of my top ten favorite episodes from the modern era of "Doctor Who," in chronological order. Please note I am going to totally cheat and include two-parters in the same entries, but spoilers will be kept to a minimum.

"The End of the World" - The first episode where we really got to see the scope of the new show's ambitions. After a fairly low-key introduction to The Doctor and his new companion, Rose, on Earth, "The End of the World" takes them millions of years into the future, introduces all manner of alien lifeforms, and plays with special effects galore. This episode really sets the tone for all the high concept science fiction to come and gave a good introduction to the Doctor's philosophy and murky origins. It also has one of my favorite villains in the show, the twisted "last human," Cassandra.

"The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" - Did someone order an omnisexual time-hopping con-man from the 51st century? Yes, the "Empty Child" was the first appearance of Captain Jack Harkness, one of the most delightful additions to the "Doctor Who" universe. It's also one of the best "Who" stories, featuring creepy, gas mask-faced creatures who threaten London during the Blitz. The show can be a little fast and loose with its science fiction concepts sometimes, but this one was beautifully set up and earned its unusual resolution. And as the title of the second half promises, we do get to see the Doctor dance.

"The Girl in the Fireplace" - A typical relationship between the Doctor and one of his beloved companions, compressed into the space of a single episode. The Doctor meets and connects with a lovely young woman in 18th century France under strange circumstances, but can only interact with her sporadically at different points in her life while trying to solve a mystery that somehow involves her, hundreds of years in the future. It's a lovely, poignant story that really gets to the heart of the Doctor's character, and echoes his interactions with Amy Pond several seasons later.

"Blink" - The Weeping Angels would show up again in later episodes, but they were never so scary as they were in their first outing, menacing a young woman named Sally Sparrow, played by a young Carey Mulligan. "Blink" is one of the "Doctor-lite" episodes where the Doctor and his companions are barely involved at all, in order to provide more breathing room in the production schedule. However "Blink" is so brilliantly conceived, and does such a marvelous job of juggling its wibbly-wobbly time-wimey ideas, the episode has become one of the undisputed classics of the new series.

"Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" - Probably my favorite episodes overall, because it's about all the ways that the Doctor, in spite of his noble nature, is not a human being. We start with a "what if" scenario - what if the Doctor really was an ordinary man, specifically a schoolteacher named John Smith in the early years of the 20th century? And he falls in love? I especially appreciate the way it's told from the viewpoint of Martha Jones, one of the most shortchanged of the modern companions, who has to take on a very different role in order to help him during the adventure.

"Midnight" - Some of the most impressive hours of "Doctor Who" are the simplest. "Midnight" takes place largely on a single set, providing a mystery with high stakes for the Doctor, and doesn't give him much help to solve it. An alien creature possesses one of the passengers aboard a transport and the Doctor has to figure out how to communicate with it and discover what its intentions are. No rubber suits and no special effects are used. Rather, the intense performances by David Tennant and guest star Lesley Sharp create one of the most menacing villains the show has ever featured.

"The Waters of Mars" - For most of the hour this is a good science fiction spin on a classic haunted house mystery, set on a small human colony on Mars. The ending has significant implications for the Doctor, however, setting up the finale of the David Tennant era. This is a pointed look at a side of the Doctor that the show rarely showed us, the darker, arrogant part of his personality with all its terrible implications. I wish they could have delved more deeply into this, but "Doctor Who" simply isn't that kind of show, and Tennant and the Tenth Doctor would say their goodbyes two episodes later.

"Vincent and the Doctor" - Historical figures rarely come across very well in "Doctor Who" episodes, probably because the Doctor keeps showing them up. Then you have Vincent van Gogh in "Vincent and the Doctor," a troubled genius who was never appreciated in his own time. When Amy and the Doctor go visit him, and try to bring some happiness into his life, the results are unexpected and poignant. Van Gogh is portrayed honestly, and his problems are fully acknowledged. Art lovers should also enjoy the little touches to the sets and scenery, designed to mirror elements of Van Gogh's paintings.

"The Doctor's Wife" - Okay, yes, I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman, who wrote this episode. However, the reason I love this one is because it was the story where I felt that Matt Smith really came into his own as the Eleventh Doctor at last. "The Doctor's Wife" is chiefly concerned with one of the most important and most overlooked relationships on the show - the one between the Doctor and the TARDIS, who briefly becomes a real girl and is able to talk to her "thief" for the first time. Shippers may talk up the companions as the Doctor's love interests, but his hearts will really belong to only one girl.

"The Girl Who Waited" - A showcase for Amy and Rory, a "Doctor-lite" story where a quick retreat and a miscalculation results in Rory having to choose between two versions of Amy - the version he knows and one who waited decades to be rescued after being left behind by the TARDIS. It's one of those high concept, highly emotional installments that could have gone poorly if the actors weren't really giving it their all. Amy and Rory have often been the highlight of the Eleventh Doctor series, and I'm really going to miss them when they bow out this year.

Happy watching!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Favorite Jacques Tati Movie

When I'm picking the directors for these spotlight posts, I go by a pretty simple rule. I have to have seen at least ten films or half of a director's filmography in order for them to qualify. Jacques Tati only made six films, two shorts, and provided the screenplay for another film completed long after his death. I've seen four of the full length films, but I've been hesitant about writing this post without tracking down the last two, most obscure ones. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that being a completist was very unlikely to change my final pick.

I knew absolutely nothing about Jacques Tati when I brought home "Mon Oncle" from the local library, a title I chose simply because it was a Criterion film, and I was in that phase where I was watching films from the collection pretty much at random. I knew it was French and that it was a comedy, but having recently subjected myself to some of the more esoteric French New Wave films, I figured "Mon Oncle," having been produced in roughly the same time frame, would probably be another of those self-mocking intellectual exercises that Godard was so fond of. And then I watched the film, and saw the opening sight gags with the parade of dogs, all the credits written out on signboards, and the film's title scrawled as graffiti on the side of an old building. The main theme was a jaunty little piano tune that I still find myself humming once in a while. And I realized I had stumbled across something wonderful.

Jacques Tati himself plays the "oncle" of the title, Monsieur Hulot, a bumbling, shabby comic figure who does odd jobs, lives in a ramshackle old apartment building, and has a variety of eccentricities. Hulot had been introduced a few years earlier in "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday," vacationing at a seaside resort, merrily getting himself into several comic scrapes, and poking fun at his fellow vacationers. In "Mon Oncle" his place in the world comes into sharper focus. We meet Hulot's young nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt), who lives in a modern home that resembles a gray slab of concrete, fitted with all manner of modern gadgetry, furniture more concerned with design than functionality, and a dreadfully geometric garden. Gérard's snooty parents despair of the boy preferring to spend time with his rough-edged uncle, and try to help better Hulot, getting him a job at a modern facility and introducing him to better people. Of course, their plans go terribly awry.

Encroaching modernity is the enemy in "Mon Oncle," from the mechanization to the architecture to the mindset of favoring efficiency over comfort and common sense. The satire is merciless, but executed with a delightful lightness and whimsy. Like the Tramp in "Modern Times," Hulot is a lone figure constantly at odds with the nonsensical aspects of modern life, inadvertently causing chaos by failing to keep up with or simply ignoring the march of progress. Tati's work is very much in the tradition of the great silent comedians, and relies heavily on pantomime routines and elaborate sight gags. Getting to Hulot's apartment requires weaving through multiple staricases leading all over the building. When a machine malfunctions at the factory, the plastic tubing it produces comes out looking like a string of sausages. My favorite running gag is the awful fish-shaped fountain in front of Gérard's house, that only gets turned on for special visitors, and becomes more of an aggravation every time it's used.

However, Tati is also quite different from his predecessors. He knew how to use sound and color to wonderful effect, playing up the garish visuals of Gérard's home, and heightening sound effects to punctuate the action onscreen. Every time the fish fountain goes on, the sound of gurgling water drowns out everything else. Tati's timing and pacing is also quite different. The pace is never slow, but the gags tend to build over time, and many of the setups can be quite complicated. Some elements like the stray dogs and the awful garden recur multiple times before you get to any kind of punchline.

These gags would get even more elaborate in Tati's subsequent film, "Playtime," which was bigger and more ambitious in every regard. Many critics think it's Tati's best work for its conceptual daring, but I prefer "Mon Oncle" because Monsieur Hulot is a more interesting and sympathetic figure when interacting with his relatives. I also think the messages are more on point. You can see the clear divide between the old world of simple pleasures and the new one, a very cold and complicated place that is full of contradictions.

"Mon Oncle" was the second best blind library pick I ever made. I'll talk about the best one next month.

What I've Seen - Jacques Tati

Jour de Fête (1949)
Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953)
Mon Oncle (1958)
Playtime (1967)
Trafic (1971)


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

We're Getting a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV Series!

Several big announcements involving new television series this evening. Eddie Murphy and "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan are trying to get a new "Beverly Hills Cop" off the ground as an hourlong procedural. "The Descent" director Neil Marshall is prepping "Black Sails," a prequel series to "Treasure Island" for Starz.

However, the big one is the news that the rumored Marvel universe television series may be about to become a reality. ABC has ordered a pilot for "S.H.I.E.L.D.," an action adventure show based on that secret agency we saw featured heavily in this summer's "The Avengers." Even better, Joss Whedon's going to co-write and maybe direct the pilot. His brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen will be also be co-writing, and probably doing the bulk of the heavy lifting if "S.H.I.E.L.D." goes to series. No complaints from me, as those two were also a big part of "Dollhouse" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."

For those fans who were worried that Joss Whedon had quit television for good after "Dollhouse," this is great news. What's not so great news is that "S.H.I.E.L.D." is going to be an ABC series, because it's Disney. While ABC has a few geeky series to their credit, they're very, very family friendly, and I don't know if they're going to be a good fit for the kind of cult-attracting, mythology-heavy, nerdbait television shows that Whedon and his cohorts like to construct. Whedon made no secret of his clashes with FOX on "Dollhouse," and I don't think I was alone in assuming that if Whedon returned to television, it would probably be with a cable series where he could retain more creative control, and where smaller, niche audiences wouldn't be so much of a problem. The networks may be experimenting with limited series and other format changes, but this hasn't made much of a difference in the content quality.

Then again, I think something set in the Marvel universe has a good chance of attracting audiences beyond the "Buffy" and "Firefly" crowd, especially since, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, "The Avengers" is now the third highest grossing film of all time. And if "S.H.I.E.L.D." is going to be maintaining continuity with the other Marvel universe movies that are coming down the pipe, the synergy levels are going to be off the charts. I'm sure that "S.H.I.E.L.D." is going to maintain a good amount of narrative distance from the big storylines in the films, so we're not looking at a situation like the Ron Howard plans for "The Dark Tower," with its multiple interlocking movies and shows. And I highly doubt we're going to get more than a cameo from anyone who actually appeared in "The Avengers. Still, the possibility of references and crossovers is very exciting for a Marvel fan to think about.

And with Whedon involved, even peripherally, there's a very good chance that this is going come off better than your usual low rent spinoff series. After all, Whedon figured out how to resurrect "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" as a television series, "Firefly" as a movie, and is continuing both of them and "Angel" as comics. If there's anyone who can handle transitions from medium to medium, it's him. The best thing about "S.H.I.E.L.D." right now is that it's obvious not going to try and be an "Avengers" series. It's not going to be a superhero show with all the baggage from the movies, but a spy procedural that happens to take place in the same universe. That means a whole new cast of characters, new concepts, and a lot more room for creative maneuvering.

On the flip side, more time in the Marvel universe means less time for Joss Whedon to pursue his own projects like "Cabin in the Woods" and the "Dr. Horrible" sequel. I would much rather see a new series from Whedon based on one of his own ideas instead of something based on pre-existing material that is going to inevitably be subject to all kinds of constraints enforced by Disney and Marvel. Then again, Whedon might just take a producing or consulting role after the pilot, the way most big Hollywood directors do when they get involved with TV shows these days. Martin Scorsese only directed the "Boardwalk Empire" pilot, and Bryan Singer didn't stick around for more than two episodes of "House."

Of course, this is all premature speculation. Promising as it sounds, "S.H.I.E.L.D." may not get past the pilot stage. Even if the pilot comes out well, the price tag may be too high for a full series, or any number of things could happen that could quash the project. A pilot being ordered now means that the earliest we would see a series would be in the fall of 2013, and a lot can happen in a year.

Still, I can't help but feel excited about the possibilities.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Summer 2012 in Review

So, how was your summer? Hollywood's coming off a very slow weekend, where not a single new release made it into the top five, and numbers were so low that an anti-Obama doc elbowed its way onto the chart. In spite of a bad May and a bad August, the studios did see a decent profit, and the money's still rolling in from overseas, but considering how promising the summer slate looked at the beginning of the season, this has been a pretty disappointing few months.

Oh, the most highly anticipated films did great business, just like people expected. "Avengers" is now the third highest grossing film of all time. Most of the other franchise sequels were also profitable, but mostly did a little worse than their previous installments, including "The Dark Knight Rises," "Expendables 2," "Ice Age: Continental Drift," "MIB 3," and, "The Bourne Legacy." We found out that even though "Amazing Spider-man" was supposed to be a reboot of the Spider-man series, it performed like a sequel instead, proving once and for all that it was too soon for a new Spidey series.

Outright bombs include "Rock of Ages," "Dark Shadows," the "Total Recall" reboot, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," and perhaps most embarrassing, the "Battleship" movie. This summer also saw the outright failure of an Adam Sandler comedy for the first time in recent memory. "That's My Boy," featuring Sandler and Andy Samberg, only made back half of its budget, perhaps signaling a reversal of fortune for the king of idiot comedies. You can also add "The Watch," and Sasha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" to the pile of comedies that overspent and didn't connect with audiences.

Bright spots were mostly smaller films like "Magic Mike," "The Campaign," and "Ted," that found traction amid all the action spectaculars, plus the usually dependable animated kids' genre, with "Brave" and "Madagascar 3." Others squeaked by, like "Snow White and the Hunstman" and "Prometheus." They only barely covered their budgets with domestic receipts, but they were well received enough that they're both being prepped for sequels. As always, there have been a few sleeper arthouse hits for more mature audiences, including "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Hope Springs," and "Moonrise Kingdom."

But let's get down to the real issue here. This summer, for all the hyped up marketing and for all the reappearances of all these familiar box-office champs like Batman and Spider-man and Bourne, was pretty boring. There was really only one must-see film that captured the popular zeitgeist and everybody turned out to see, which was "The Avengers." Maybe the fortunes of "The Dark Knight Rises" were affected by the Aurora shooting, but I don't think it would have matched up to the performance of "The Dark Knight" in any case. And "Spider-man" wasn't really "Spider-man," but a new version that no one was really excited about. And though Jason Bourne gets namechecked quite a bit in "The Bourne Legacy," Jeremy Renner was the leading man instead of Matt Damon.

I've never been so struck by franchise fatigue. It felt like every movie I saw was trying to set things up for sequels, like "Bourne" and "Prometheus," or trying to live up to earlier successes like "Total Recall" and "MIB 3." I think this was also the summer that overmarketing was finally recognized as a widespread problem by the mainstream media. The ridiculous amount of preview footage released for "The Amazing Spider-man" became as big a news item as the film itself. It became an oft repeated story that fans would work themselves up into a frenzy in anticipation of one of these films, and come away disappointed when it failed to reach those impossible expectations.

I haven't had a chance to see nearly as many of the summer films of 2012 as I'd like, but there aren't many that I thought were worth the trip to the theater. "Brave," "Prometheus," and "Magic Mike" were my favorites, simply because they had a different vibe than anything else, and they could stand on their own as singular movies, even if "Prometheus" was clearly referencing the original "Alien" every five minutes. However, I don't think there were any films that could be an awards contender when Oscar season rolls around, and there's usually one or two of these that emerge from the studios every summer, like "The Help" or "Inception," or "District 9."

The summer of 2012 wasn't the disaster that the summer of 2011 was. You'll see no doomsday write-ups about disappearing audiences or the end of the theatrical distribution model. However, it wasn't a very good summer either. Too many of the films were familiar and formulaic, and the audiences weren't very enthusiastic. Hollywood made money, but I don't think it left a very good impression.

Fortunately, there's always next year.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"John Carter" and "The Hunger Games"

I've finally seen "The Hunger Games," and came away pretty impressed by it. I don't think that it's a great film by any measure, but it has some very good ideas, and is an interesting departure from most of the other major studio franchise stuff we've been seeing lately. So as a point of comparison, I think I should also talk a bit about "John Carter," one of Disney's most recent attempts to find a new blockbuster franchise that came out around the same time as "Hunger Games." The two couldn't be more different in their material or their filmmaking sensibilities.

First you have "John Carter," which is an old fashioned boys' adventure story that is designed to be epic spectacle. The title character, a former Confederate soldier played by Taylor Kitsch, gets to run around Mars doing battle with hundreds of digital creatures, foil dastardly plots, save the noble heroine from getting married to the villain, and then wed the lady himself. The story is messy, full of wild concepts that are barely explained, and people with very silly names. It fits the pattern of pretty much all the other recent Disney adventure movies, from "Prince of Persia" to multiple "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, to "TRON Legacy." Lots of chases and battles, not much characterization for the leads, a stale romance, and a happy ending, of course. "John Carter" is a bit stronger than the others because it feels much more committed to its concepts. If they're going to give us spectacle, then it's going to be a grand spectacle. So the world of Barsoom is much better conceived, designed, and executed than any of the others. There are multiple characters with major speaking roles who are totally CGI creations. The digital environments look better than anything in the "Star Wars" prequels. You can clearly see where all the money went, and it was well spent. The technical wizardry goes a long way in making up for the muddled plot and mixed performances. If you stop trying to make sense of the story, "John Carter" is a pretty fun, if terribly shallow popcorn movie.

And then we have "The Hunger Games," about a yearly Battle Royale competition put on by the rulers of a corrupt future dystopia. The young participants, culled from an oppressed populace with much pomp and circumstance, are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of their tyrants. We follow the fortunes of two contenders, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who come from the same poor district. The competition is brutal, but fairly bloodless and non-explicit, which may disappoint some action fans. However, "The Hunger Games" is much better at exploring the ins and outs of other strategies that Katniss and Peeta employ to help them win what is essentially a reality show. They have to find ways to make themselves more sympathetic and interesting to the audience, because popularity gives them concrete advantages in the competition, like medicine and food. The attitude of the film toward media is very cynical, and we spend a significant amount of time behind the scenes, watching the game controllers manipulating many of the outcomes from a control room. The Games are also clearly a tool of the ruling government, designed to sow fear and maintain control, functions that Katniss finds ways to challenge. There is a lot of interesting thematic stuff going on here that I wish the filmmakers had explored a little more in depth.

What really struck me was the gritty realism of the film. There's a lot of handheld camera work, a lot of subdued lighting, and nearly all the scenes during the Games are shot in natural environments. There's heavy use of special effects, including CGI creatures, but "Hunger Games" maintains a roughness and a verisimilitude that is a total break from the polished fantasy worlds of "John Carter" and "Harry Potter." It looks more like one of the "Bourne" films, and the early scenes in District 12 could have come straight out of "Winter's Bone." Even the score reflects this, a collaboration between James Newton Howard and T-Bone Burnett that incorporates a good amount of folk music. I was doubtful of the choice of Gary Ross as director, since his filmography didn't contain much that pointed to him being a good fit for this series, but his choices were very bold, and he succeeded in making "The Hunger Games" distinctive and different from any other current run of fantasy films aimed at a younger crowd.

On the other hand, it's a pretty uneven movie. Jennifer Lawrence's performance is fantastic, and the film benefits from spending most of its time following her. However, several of the minor characters are pretty flat, the Games themselves unfold in a very rote and predictable fashion, and a couple of the most emotional moments don't come off well at all. There's also a sense that the filmmakers were holding themselves back as far as the content, because of who the film is aimed at, which undercuts a lot of the impact. And there's so much left unexplained and unremarked upon. One of the most intriguing parts of the film was the audience POV becoming one and the same with the audience of the Hunger Games broadcast in the movie, so some of Katniss and Peeta's conversations and actions that we see may actually be staged or exaggerated, but we never find out to what extent. The ending is awfully abrupt, and if I didn't know there was a sequel coming, I would have felt much less satisfied with the whole film.

"John Carter," on the other hand, had a strong and solid ending, and though I'd love to see a sequel, it stands perfectly well as a singular story. I think it's a real shame that its release was so bungled, because "John Carter" features a lot of gorgeous work by talented artists, and I think many blockbuster lovers would have fun with it if they gave it a chance. However, it's not the special effects groundbreaker that it was promised to be, and frankly it comes off as pretty lightweight next to the grim sophistication of "The Hunger Games." Looking at these two movies side by side, you can see the divide between the old school of fantasy film, the "Star Wars" style adventure epic, and a darker, sharper fable that feels much more relevant and timely for the kids of today. As much as I enjoyed "John Carter," there's no mystery why "The Hunger Games" left it in the dust.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Don't Like Skyler White Either

So I'm enjoying the current season of "Breaking Bad," and you can expect a review post in a few weeks, after it wraps up. However, I'd like to take a minute to comment on the ongoing debate over Skyler White, played by Anna Gunn, who has been a controversial figure for the last few seasons. For those of you who are unfamiliar with "Breaking Bad," Skyler is the wife of the show's central anti-hero figure, Walter White, who was kept in the dark about her husband's activities until the third season. Her finding out about his meth cooking operations resulted in a contentious separation, an ill-considered affair, a shaky reconciliation, and Skyler becoming more and more complicit in Walt's crimes. She's also the link, by way of her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), to DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Marie's husband and one of the show's major antagonists.

A certain segment of the fandom does not like Skyler, and is very vocal about it, often disparaging her and occasionally using some unfortunate misogynist language to do it. These fans have been rightly called out for their bad behavior by other "Breaking Bad" fans, and there have been ongoing discussions over whether being unsympathetic to Skyler might be indicative of a deeper problem with women in general, or if fans might be too overzealous in defending the character of Walter White, who has gone from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to cold-blooded drug kingpin and killer over the course of five seasons. The debate has intensified this year as the balance of power between Walt and Skyler has shifted dramatically, favoring Walt, and Skyler has pretty much become a hostage in her own home, terrified of her husband.

I know which side of this debate I'm supposed to be on, but here's the thing - I don't like Skyler White either. I'm sympathetic to her problems, and I certainly haven't been rooting for Walt for a long time. However, from the beginning I've found Skyler abrasive, dismissive, sanctimonious, and boring. She has a difficult personality, and the show hasn't often shown her good side. I'm pretty sure that's by design. Skyler was supposed to be a major source of aggravation for Walt in the early seasons, and then an antagonist for the duration of the separation storyline. It wasn't until last year, when Skyler was firmly on Walt's side at last, that we got to see her being smart and resourceful on a regular basis. And it's only been very recently, as Walt has gotten more and more corrupt, that Skyler has been shown in a better light by comparison.

There have been some great pieces discussing Skyler as a common type of female character in anti-hero dramas, who are set up to be vilified because they're always stuck being the killjoy and the spoilsport. Skyler's been moved away from that role, but I think the damage was already done. It's no wonder that some viewers have had trouble letting go of the image of Skyler as the clueless, busybody housewife, because that's what "Breaking Bad" introduced her as, what the show needed her to be originally. For most of the series, she hasn't been a very well-written character. She's still the least fleshed out member of the main cast compared to Jesse (Aaron Paul), Mike (Jonathan Banks), and even Hank. She doesn't get to be funny, like Marie or the twitchy newbie, Lydia (Laura Fraser). We rarely even get to see her being maternal to her kids.

And I feel bad about saying this, but I don't find Anna Gunn to be a particularly strong actress. She's had some great moments, but she always comes off as very stiff and bland to me. The blow-up between Walt and Skyler in "Fifty-One," for instance, was a good, intense sequence and the kind of material that I wish we got more of. I couldn't help comparing it to the "Whitecaps" episode of "The Sopranos" that I saw recently, where Tony and Carmela Soprano's marriage combusts in really spectacular fashion. The Sopranos' fight is much better than the Whites' not only because of the level of the performances, but because portrayal of Walt and Skyler's marriage in "Breaking Bad" doesn't have anything close to the same depth or nuance of Carmela and Tony's in "The Sopranos." It's one of the show's weak points that it has often neglected what should be one of its most important relationships.

Maybe this will change in these last few episodes. "Breaking Bad" has always been an extremely male-centric series, and the show has invested way more time and attention in Walt's partnership with Jesse, but as the danger moves closer to home, Skyler might come to the forefront. It has been a very good season for her so far, and I'm curious where the show is going with her current storyline. I don't like Skyler White, but that doesn't mean I'm not invested in what's going to happen to her or that I don't enjoy what she adds to the show. After all, I don't much like Walter White either.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My "Adventure Time" Problem

There are so many reasons to love Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time." It's a traditionally animated cartoon series that takes place in a free-form, abstract fantasy world called The Land of Ooo. It operates by kid logic, so mountains can be alive and have feelings, your best friend can be a dog that changes sizes at will, and there are lots of different princesses who are mostly really cool, except for the Lumpy Space Princess, who is kind of a drag. The animation is old school, and I mean rubber-hose limbs, Looney Toons cartoon physics, squash-and-stretch old school. Character designs are simple, but have the energy and spirit of children's drawings. Our heroes, Finn the human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the dog (John DiMaggio), mainly concern themselves with having awesome adventures, but often find themselves getting into difficult moral conundrums that require creative thinking to resolve. The stories are smartly written, bursting with weird and wonderful ideas, and it's no wonder "Adventure Time" has attracted such a passionate fanbase.

Over the past few weeks I've watched several episodes at random to familiarize myself with the show, along with a lot of clips. I liked them all, more or less, but there was only one episode where everything really clicked for me, and I found myself really getting attached to the characters. And wouldn't you know it, that was the infamous "Fionna and Cake" episode, where the characters appear as gender-swapped versions of themselves for that single episode only. Now Finn's a perfectly fine hero kid, but the second I laid eyes on Fionna, the kind of rough-and-tumble girl they used to call a tomboy who was "all about swords," I wanted to see more of her. Her design appealed to me – Fionna is pretty much just Finn with a shock of blonde hair and a hippier torso. This means she's refreshingly free of traditionally feminine visual indicators, even the ones people don't really think about like clothing and choice of weapons. And she gets to come to the rescue of the prince that she might kinda have a crush on, voiced by Neil Patrick Harris. And do battle with the evil Ice Queen who is always trapping people in blocks of ice. And, in the end, Fionna decides for herself that she's not really interested in dating anybody just yet and would prefer to remain focused on adventuring. Alas, in the closing moments it's revealed that the whole episode has been fanfiction written by Finn's regular enemy, the Ice King (Tom Kenny).

So now I'm stuck, a newly minted fan of a version of "Adventure Time" that really doesn't really exist aside from one very special episode, and the promise of another sometime in the nonspecific future. The only way to get more of Fionna and Cake is to delve into fandom content, which is always a tricky prospect, especially for kids' shows. Then again, Fionna and Cake only exist in the first place because one of the artists on the show, Natasha Allegri, posted a bunch of unofficial drawings and comics featuring the pair on her Tumblr. The reaction was so positive, that the "Adventure Time" creators decided to incorporate them into the show itself, which makes it one of those incredibly rare times when something fan-created became part of actual canon. Many, many "Adventure Time" fans have embraced Fionna and Cake, so there's no lack of interest in their further adventures. I've seen plenty of fanart featuring Fionna around, along with abundant cosplay photos. And it just brings up again that Cartoon Network has been pretty bad about putting out shows with female protagonists in recent years, even though they've been called out on this so many times.

But back to "Adventure Time." The more episodes I watched, the more apparent it became that it really was only that one Fionna and Cake episode that I had connected with. Watching Finn and Jake on their adventures is okay, but I'd much rather be watching their girl (and cat) versions, and I can never quite make myself put those feelings aside. I do appreciate everything that "Adventure Time" has managed to accomplish, but I just can't seem to enjoy it on its own terms now. This is a very odd relationship to have with a cartoon, and I'm not sure how to fix this. I'm not sure that I can fix this.

This has been one of my weirder adventures in media, but I guess that's kind of appropriate in this case.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Spend the Weekend With "Bernie"

I've seen the words satire and mockumentary applied to Richard Linklater's latest film, "Bernie," but I'm not sure that's quite appropriate. At no point did I ever get the sense that Linklater was poking fun at any of the characters. If he was, he was doing it so gently that I completely missed the barbs. Rather, "Bernie" is more of a love letter to a small town called Carthage in the Eastern part of Texas, whose inhabitants find themselves in the middle of a bizarre and intriguing murder mystery. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who works at the town mortuary, is so good natured and helpful to others, that everybody loves him. He strikes up a friendship with a rich widow named Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) after the death of her husband. Marge is mean and miserable, the polar opposite of Bernie, but she takes a liking to him and they become inseparable. Then the relationship goes sour and Marge ends up shot multiple times and stuffed in a freezer. However, when Bernie is caught red-handed and confesses to the deed, nobody in Carthage wants to blame him for it.

Events reenacted by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson are supplemented by interviews with the real inhabitants of Carthage, mostly elderly, who knew the actual people involved. These interviews are not delineated from the fiction in any way, and only the end credits verify that they aren't actors. It feels like a mockumentary, but then the interviews are totally sincere, and though many parts of the film seem like they've been invented or exaggerated to play up the local color, after reading a few articles about the production, it turns out that "Bernie" hews awfully close to the truth. The blending of the fact and fiction is fascinating. The participation by the Carthage residents lends more legitimacy to the reenactments we see onscreen, and saves Linklater the trouble of trying to dramatize the most unbelievable part of the whole story - the reactions of the locals to the murder. On the flip side, the reenactments illustrate the stories from the interviews in a manner that documentary footage wouldn't be able to provide.

Jack Black's performance as Bernie is excellent. It might have come off as comedic in another context, but Black makes Bernie so loveable and so self-assured in his eccentricities, while still retaining a few important ambiguities, that you can't really laugh at him. It's immediately apparent why everyone likes him so much, because Bernie thrives on socializing and is very good at taking care of people and helping them to feel better about themselves. Black and Linklater do a good job of extrapolating what went so wrong between Bernie and Marge without ever picking a side. The Carthage residents might be convinced of Bernie's innocence, or at least that there were significant extenuating circumstances, but the filmmakers use the reenactments to introduce several moments of doubt without being too obvious about it. Sure, the DA's tactics were pretty underhanded, but wasn't he justified considering the circumstances? In "Bernie," prejudice is a two-way street.

I really appreciated how the film portrayed Carthage, which is one of those small Middle American towns that seems to run on gossip. Linklater doesn't hesitate to put the area's considerable charms and its strong-minded, plainspoken community members on display. He clearly has a great affection for the place and its culture and its quirks. Tagging along with Bernie on his rounds gives up scenes set at the local community theater, the church, shops, restaurants, and various events. There are many mysteries in "Bernie," and one is working out why the lovely town of Carthage rallied so strongly behind a confessed murderer. The answer lies in the relationships Bernie formed with his supporters, and the way he was perceived by those who knew him - or thought they knew him. You see so many films that are set in particular places, and draw from them, but don't say much about them. The story of "Bernie," however, is really all about Carthage.

This is my favorite film of the year so far, one that really surprised me. I'm not as familiar with Richard Linklater's filmography as I probably should be, but I can't think of anything he's done that's similar to "Bernie" in theme or in tone or approach or anything else. The movie comes off as an experiment in some ways, but it's a very rewarding one. And I'm so glad to see Jack Black in a role that he could really bring something to, one that I honestly can't imagine anyone else playing. I hope "Bernie" doesn't get buried, and more people get to see it. This is easily the most original and delightful true-crime movie I've seen in years.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Myth of the Indie Career Boost

Shia LaBeouf has given up big Hollywood pictures, or so he claims, having landed himself a part in Lars von Trier's "The Nymphomaniac." The only thing we know about the film so far is that the sex scenes will be real instead of simulated. LaBeouf is taking the separation pretty seriously, it seems. I wish him the best of luck, having kept an eye on the guy's career since his "Even Steven" days, but I hope he understands the risks. Plenty of young stars have decided to take a detour away from mainstream films in search of indie credibility, never to be heard from again.

Some successful Hollywood actors start out in the mainstream and never leave it. Some come from theater or stand-up or television. A few are shipped in from overseas. However, there may be no bigger way to make a splash than by delivering a really knockout performance in some tiny no-budget film nobody saw coming. Under-the-radar child actors suddenly emerging from independent films as the next hot leading actor or actress has actually turned into a bit of a cliché. Everybody knows the success stories. Ryan Gosling went from "Mickey Mouse Club" member to eye-catching roles in "The Believer" and "Half Nelson," nabbed an Academy Award nomination, and now he's one of the most sought-after leading men in Hollywood. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a prominent child star all through the 90s, but people didn't really start paying attention to him until after he quit Hollywood teen fodder for challenging films like "Mysterious Skin" and "Brick." And then we have Michelle Williams, who spent years playing second fiddle to Katie Holmes on "Dawson's Creek." Ten years and three Academy Award nominations later, she's built a sterling reputation for playing difficult roles in independent dramas. More recently, Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen shot to fame thanks to "Winter's Bone," and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" respectively.

So when young actors who have largely made their names based on less substantive fluff start looking for options to beef up their acting chops, they almost always head for the world of independent cinema. Shia LaBeouf will find himself in good company. Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart both had films premiere at the Cannes Film festival this year. Then again, those two have actually been making indie films for years without getting much attention for them. And you rarely hear anything about the actors who never quite managed to engineer those career jump starts that indie film work was supposed to give them. Macaulay Culkin's has done a string of smaller films, angling for a comeback, but never got anywhere. Then there was the disastrous "Hounddog," that was supposed to help transition Dakota Fanning from a child star to grown-up roles, but only managed to stir up a public outcry because of the controversial content. She's been doing better since, but hasn't received nearly as much attention for her indie roles as her mainstream ones. More recently, Miley Cyrus's "LOL" was a notorious bust, only released in theaters because it was contractually required to be. And then there's Haley Joel Osment, who keeps toiling away in increasing obscurity.

The thing about independent films is that they offer a great opportunity to do substantive work, because there's such a wealth of interesting projects and far more creative freedom. A budding talent who has never had the chance to really stretch their acting muscles will find better roles and better options. On the other hand, someone without much talent or skill will find themselves facing a steep learning curve. Former child actors have it especially rough because many of them have to essentially start over again from the beginning, figuring out how to deal with more mature roles and changing self-images. There's also the little matter of reduced visibility, as the vast majority of independent films don't get much attention, and many never find distribution. Even the ones that are released in theaters get only a fraction of the marketing and viewers that studio films get, and audiences tend to be more discerning. A famous name helps, but only up to a point, because it really is the acting that matters. So, independent films can be a great learning experience for some, but terrible for others, especially if they choose the wrong projects and the wrong parts, which can wreak havoc on previously squeaky clean, picture-perfect public personas A little edge goes a long way.

For an actor like Matthew McConaughey, who is in the middle of a career renaissance thanks to a string of good roles in small films, turning to the indies was a great way to reinvent himself. Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, never should have gone within a hundred miles of them. Television would have been a better route for her, which generally requires less - well, you don't have to be able to act to be on television these days. I am interested in how well Shia LaBeouf is going to do, though, because I really have no idea whether he really can act or not. I haven't seen anything particularly impressive out of him so far. He has a lot of promise, like Robert Patitnson, but maybe these guys just haven't had the right opportunities yet. Maybe they just haven't been in the right kinds of films.

What the indies are for these guys is more like a proving ground, and it's a rough one. But if Shia LaBeouf's career can survive Lars Von Trier, he'll probably be able to survive anything.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Creepy, Campy "Jekyll"

Steven Moffat is known for a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes and contributing to the resurrection of "Doctor Who." He also put his mark on another classic character in 2007, in "Jekyll," which is a modern day version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." The original Dr. Jekyll existed in this universe, but any connections to our protagonist, Dr. Tom Jackman (James Nesbitt), are initially a mystery. We first find Jackman hiring on Katherine Reimer (Michelle Ryan), to be a personal assistant and go-between for the anxious Jackman and his alter-ego, who eventually picks the name Hyde. The two share the same body, Hyde surfacing for previously agreed-upon intervals when Jackman falls asleep, though "unscheduled changes" happen with some frequency. Hyde is violent, lustful, in possession of superior strength and a mean sense of humor, and has little self-control. He resents the fact that "Daddy" keeps him on a short leash, and is continually testing boundaries. Jackman, meanwhile, does everything possible to maintain control, and keep Hyde from discovering that Jackman is married to Claire (Gina Bellman), and has two young sons.

"Jekyll" is a genre romp, easily filling up its six hour-long installments with all manner of conspiracy theories, plot twists, family secrets, and some murder and mayhem too. For the first few hours, Hyde is the main antagonist, but soon the operatives of a biotech firm called Klein and Utterson, who want to exploit Jackman's transformations, reveal themselves to be an equally formidable threat. The writing is very entertaining and the individual episodes are beautifully structured, but there are plot holes and convenient explanations everywhere, and the pacing toward the end gets a little too frantic. Also, though the first few episodes feel like your usual crime thriller with some paranormal touches, by the end we're definitely in anything-goes "Doctor Who" territory, which may not be to the taste of some viewers. Personally, I liked the increasing levels of camp and conspiracy, especially the little humorous touches and the wonderfully old-school ending. Though the production has all the modern bells and whistles, Moffat indulges plenty of the old genre conventions, and never takes himself too seriously. As a sign of the times, he includes a pair of private detectives who are also a lesbian couple, Miranda (Meera Syal) and Min (Fenella Woolgar), who provide occasional exposition and comic relief.

Performances are strong all around, but it's James Nesbitt who does the most to make "Jekyll" such a great watch. His double performance as Jackman and Hyde is full of surprises. Hyde is over-the-top monstrous, and legitimately scary at times because he's so unpredictable and we know he's capable of so much depravity. On the other hand, he's a great big kid whose enjoyment of all the nastiness he purveys can be infectious. Meanwhile Jackman is more complicated and compelling, not the nicest or most reasonable man, but his actions become understandable in light of how much he has to lose and the lengths required to keep Hyde in check. Over six episodes, we get to see their relationships with each other and those around them develop, sometimes in unexpected ways. And they complement each other wonderfully. Jackman keeps everything mostly grounded in reality, while Hyde's appearances help to keep the story from becoming too glum and serious, though his antics can border on silly. At one point he finds his way into a lion exhibit at the zoo, and has himself a good primordial scream to signal his arrival.

A few minor odds and ends did detract from the series a little for me. Paterson Joseph plays an American operative of Klein and Utterson's, who is such an extreme caricature that he strains credibility. The directors occasionally try some of these stylized, blurry, handheld shots that don't work at all, though the rest of the cinematography is pretty solid. Also, Michelle Ryan is the female lead in the first few episodes, and then we switch to Gina Bellman as the lead for the remainder. Both actresses are very good, but I found Ryan's character was seriously shortchanged. It felt like they ran out of space for her subplot, which is understandable considering the time constraints, but leaves her an awkwardly extraneous presence in the last few episodes.

All in all, the series is a lot of fun, a quick watch, and makes great use of its premise. If you're looking for something more sedate and Victorian, "Jekyll" is probably not for you. If you're in the mood for something pulpy with a lot of black humor, give it a shot. I don't think it's among the best things Stephen Moffat has ever produced, but it succeeds in doing what it set out to do, which was to reinvent and pay homage to an old classic that turns out to have a lot of life left in it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Missmediajunkie vs. "The Lorax"

This isn't a proper and objective review of the recent adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax," because, frankly, it does not deserve one. I tried to give the new "Lorax" the benefit of the doubt. I really did. I'm not very attached to the original story and don't have any nostalgic feelings about the book or the cartoon version from the 70s. I was expecting to sit through an hour and a half of brightly colored Seussian nonsense and spectacle, employed in the service of retelling a very old and familiar tale. The spectacle is all I got.

From the very beginning when I heard that "The Lorax" was being made by Illumination Entertainment, creators of "Despicable Me" and "Horton Hears a Who," I knew that they were taking a risk. So far, their films have been fun, but totally weightless fluff. "The Lorax," on the other hand, is a story about something quite serious. It has very clear moral and social messages to impart, messages that had to be treated respectfully, or else the story would not work. To be fair, Illumination's "Lorax" does present many pro-conservation, pro-environment, anti-corporate, and anti-consumerist ideas and arguments. However, they are imparted very glibly and gently, perhaps too gently. Sure, we've all sat through awful pro-environment cartoons before, the ones that hit you over the head with the worst case scenarios that could result from pollution and deforestation, but at least they were wholeheartedly behind their messages.

"The Lorax," by contrast, comes across as much more flippant about its raison d'être. Part of this is the fault of all the story padding, which was necessary to turn a 45 page children's picture book into an 86 minute film. In the original, a nameless little boy living in a polluted wasteland visits the Once-ler, whose face we never see, to learn how his home came to such an awful state. The Once-ler tells the story of how he destroyed the once abundant surrounding forest to enrich himself, despite many warnings from a creature called The Lorax. In the movie version, the little boy is now named Ted (Zac Efron), and a huge portion of the film is taken up with his crush on a pretty girl, his life in a town where all the greenery is artificial, and the machinations of a new villain, O'Hare (Rob Riggle), an unscrupulous businessman who sells clean air.

Once we finally get to the Once-ler (Ed Helms), his story has been significantly altered and expanded too. The Once-ler is made into a sympathetic character, a young entrepreneur in the flashbacks, who at first befriends the Lorax (Danny DeVito) and all the woodland animals. It's only after a lot of invented hijinks and slapstick that the Once-ler lets his ambitions get away from him and destroys the forest. The actual destruction is drastically de-emphasized, and most of it happens over the course of a single song number. The events that took up most of the original "Lorax" add up to about five minutes of the movie. Meanwhile, we have multiple subplots, chase sequences, songs, and Betty White playing Ted's dotty old grandmother, that have been added to keep the movie light and entertaining. And all these pleasant little distractions end up completely smothering everything about "The Lorax" that made the story a classic.

The movie goes to great lengths to remove or lessen the impact of anything that could be seen as upsetting or controversial, and ends up seriously undercutting itself. The forest is destroyed, but it happens quickly, and the film barely gives us any time to feel sad about the poor animals being displaced. The Once-ler is completely neutered as a villain, and O'Hare is far more silly than threatening. The Lorax, who was originally a lone voice of reason against the nightmare forces of industrialization run amok, comes across as more of a pestering orange grump, since the fight for the forest is so brief and the Once-ler is merely misguided, man, rather than a real meanie in need of reform. And the bad consequences of deforestation? Ted's plastic hometown seems perfectly happy despite having to pay for fresh air. Heck, Ted only goes looking for the Once-ler in the first place because his girlfriend wants to see a real tree.

"The Lorax" that Dr. Seuss wrote is a morality tale, perfectly simple and straightforward and easy for children to understand. The movie is a compromised, bloated, unwieldy thing that pays lip-service to the book, but doesn't understand it. Sure, you could make a good "Lorax" movie with songs and jokes and pretty colors, but without seriously addressing the concerns that were at the heart of the story, all you have is soulless fluff. And I'm afraid that's what the movie is. It's a terrible missed opportunity for Imagination Entertainment, and a disappointing waste of great material.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Bourne" Again?

I've only seen the "Bourne" movies about once or twice apiece, and long ago enough that I figured I could go into "The Bourne Legacy" and pretend that I was watching a totally unrelated action thriller. No such luck. "Legacy" is absolutely determined to establish that it is part of the "Bourne" series, from the familiar opening shot of our hero floating prone in the water, to closing out with Moby's "Extreme Ways." You might also find the plot, which involves a supersoldier on the run from his handlers with a sympathetic female ally in tow to be pretty familiar. It's not that "Legacy" doesn't introduce its own variations, some of which are very entertaining, but the heavy reliance on the formula is so noticeable, it's hard to enjoy the film purely on its own merits.

The events of "Bourne Legacy" take place about simultaneously with "Bourne Ultimatum," the previous Bourne film, and it helps to be familiar with how that one played out. In addition to numerous references, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, and Scott Glenn all turn in cameos as characters who appeared earlier in the series. However, they stay out of the way of the new baddies played by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach. When the Treadstone Project that created Bourne appears to be in danger of exposure, the CIA brings in Col. Eric Byer (Norton) and Adm. Mark Turso (Keach) to do damage control. This includes scuttling Operation Outcome, referred to as "The Program," where supersoldiers like Jason Bourne have been created through maintaining a specific drug regimen. One of the participants is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who narrowly escapes termination when the cover-up operations begin. Running low on the medication that keeps him physically and mentally enhanced, he seeks out one of the scientists who does research for the Program, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz).

I really like Jeremy Renner, in many ways more than I liked Matt Damon in this series. He comes across as more ordinary, more relatable. One element I'm glad the filmmakers didn't try to repeat was the amnesia angle. Aaron Cross knows exactly who he is from the beginning, and though there we don't get too much of his backstory, there's enough for Renner to make Cross memorable and compelling on his own terms. He's not Jason Bourne and never trying to be, though he borrows a few moves. Similarly, Rachel Weisz does wonders with a shallow character who has to spout a lot of terrible technobabble and keep getting plucked out of harm's way at the last second. Dr. Shearing easily could have been a disaster with the wrong actress, but Weisz ensures she's a believable human being, or at least mostly plausible. The pair have decent chemistry together, and I found myself genuinely rooting for their survival through the murky cat-and-mouse games of the first half of "Legacy."

And then the pace picked up, and then we were back in a Bourne movie. Remember Bourne movies? The shakeycam chase scenes through picturesque foreign cities? The lightning-fast hand-to-hand combat? The bad guys shouting at each other over the phone and looking really intently at computer screens? Or what about the scary foreign agent that the CIA sends after our heroes? Last time it was Karl Urban as the Russian badass in "The Bourne Supremacy." This time we get Louis Ozawa Changchien deployed out of Singapore, who I don't think even has any lines, but he's really good at looking mean and intimidating. It makes sense that the director of "Supremacy," Tony Gilroy, is back for this installment. Meanwhile, Edward Norton's stuck in his call center being all villainous from afar. He and Aaron Cross don't actually come face-to-face except in one flashback, which means - you guessed it - they're setting up for more sequels.

I was sorely tempted to make some snarky remarks about how "Legacy" is really a stealth reboot of the "Bourne" series, because that's really what it is when you get away from all the marketing copy. On the other hand, it's not a bad one. It's a passable action movie that introduces a couple of strong characters who I would be willing to come back to the theater to see again. There were some nice details, like seeing the analysts and techies marshaling different resources to conduct the manhunt, and people on the phone constantly being put on hold, which I really appreciated seeing. The fun of "Bourne" was always in the smart moments of realism mixed in with the escapist fantasy.

"Legacy" has set up the franchise to go to more interesting places, and I hope Aaron Cross gets to diverge a bit more from the formula the next time out. Or else, I wouldn’t get too attached to the lovely Dr. Shearing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Adventures in Reddit

A little over a year ago, I was introduced to the news aggregator site Reddit, and it has slowly but surely become the website that has taken over most of my browsing time on the Internet. Oh, it looks harmless enough at first, with its no-frills design and alien logos. All the content is user-submitted or linked to with the appropriate crediting, each item displayed in an order determined by "upvotes" and "downvotes" from Redditors. The high prevalence of cute animal pictures and image memes mixed in with the hard news make it seem like they would get old quickly. Then you discover the comments, where the users share insights and can have incredibly involved conversations, also displayed according to "upvotes" and "downvotes," so that the most interesting and relevant comments rise to the top. Click on a funny picture of a swan, and the comments might provide a dozen more funny swan pictures and stories, bird experts explaining the behavior being pictured, and a raging debate over local ordinances related to waterfowl.

It's the users that make Reddit such a fascinating timesink. Some of the best features, like the "AskReddit" posts where people can solicit advice or share stories, and the "AMA," short for "Ask me Anything" posts where users bombard scheduled celebrities and other mortals of distinction in no-holds-barred Q&As, are totally driven by user participation. I have literally spent hours on single "AskReddit" posts, reading dozens of personal stories shared in response to innocuous questions like, "What's the worst date you ever had?" and "What's the best practical joke you ever pulled off?" There are so many Redditors from all over the world, there's a high chance that somebody will have a new and interesting take on even the moldiest old subject, and those are the responses that tend to be upvoted to the top. Because everyone's using a pseudonym and there's no censoring except by other users, the stories are often refreshingly raw and unfiltered.

Occasionally all this collective Reddit power can be directed to altruistic purposes like raising money and political activism - see the anti-PIPA/SOPA campaigns. When major catastrophes happen, like the Aurora shootings, local Redditors will often be able to provide information and updates faster than traditional news sources - which can be viewed as both a positive or a negative. The system isn't perfect, and there have been plenty of hoaxes and fraudsters in the mix, but it's also encouraging how many of them get caught. The Reddit system has proved incredibly versatile and adaptable to a variety of different situations. In addition to the main Reddit site, there are thousands of "subreddits" devoted to specific topics like technology, cute animal pictures, the NBC sitcom "Community," and UC Berkely students. And of course, you have the attention-getters like the atheist, marijuana-enthusiast, and NC-17 rated subreddits. You can also customize your Reddit account to only view content from particular subreddits, so Redditors' experiences with the site can be radically different.

Alas, this is where Reddit stumbles a bit for a movie nut like me. The subreddit populations are self-selected, and though there is a sizable and active Movie subreddit, the participants are largely teenage and twenty-something males who really, really love Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, and are always asking for movie recommendations, trying to figure out what movie the cool trailer they saw on Youtube was for, and waxing nostalgic about the 90s. This is fine, but it really limits the kind of conversations you can have. The more erudite and crusty movie fans tend to hang out in the TrueFilm subreddit, which is very slowly building up a pretty good community, but it's going to take time before it can match up to pace of the traditional movie forums that I like to frequent. I still hang out in both subreddits an awful lot though, because they both have lots of potential, and occasionally they'll come through for me. I've also had some luck with subreddits for individual TV shows.

My biggest problem with Reddit right now is really just time management. Lately I spend way too much time on the site, to the point where I'm checking it multiple times a day for new content. I comment a fair amount too, and can get a little too invested in which contributions are getting the most responses and upvotes. I got into an argument with someone yesterday about movie release date scheduling, of all things. What can I say? What makes Reddit work is the user participation, so if you're not participating, you're not getting the full experience of being a Redditor.

And finally, FYI, the really cool trailer you saw was probably for "The Raid: Redemption," "God Bless America," or "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil." They are all out on DVD now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Project Runway" and Product Placement

I was catching up on this season of Project Runway on Lifetime's website, and couldn't help marveling that the network, which is pay cable, would allow one of their most popular shows to be streamed online for free. Most other cable networks, with the exception of Comedy Central, are extremely protective of their new content. You don't see current season episodes of shows like "Burn Notice" or "Breaking Bad" on Hulu Plus. One of the reasons I've fallen so far behind on "Top Chef," is because Bravo doesn't make it easy to watch them online. So I felt pretty good about Lifetime, until I was about halfway through last week's episode and I remembered what was offsetting any lost revenue - the product placement.

"Project Runway" is probably the perfect product placement show. Sure, there are some sponsors that are shoehorned into episodes with a notable lack of tact - the Lexus challenge where the designers were required to use the color of one of the new models in their designs was pretty ham handed - but others are so deeply ingrained into the format of the show itself, it's hard to imagine "Runway" without them. Any "Runway" fan will tell you that the workrooms are located at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and the one season when they tried to move shop to a new location was not a good one. The designers stay in the Atlas apartments for the duration of the competition. They get their fabric from Mood, home of a shop dog named Swatch. They sketch designs on HP tablets and use Brother sewing machines. The accessory wall has been stocked by various companies, including Bluefly and Piperlime. This season it's Lord and Taylor. And then there's the hairstyling segment of every show, where just before the models are sent out to the runway, they get a quick consultation from stylists wielding Garnier products, never mentioning prior sponsor Tresemme.

Challenges are often built around major retailers trying to appeal to different kinds of customers, or celebrities preparing for specific events. Then you have the judges. Michael Kors is a big designer with his own stores. Nina Garcia is an editor of Marie Claire magazine. Even Tim Gunn, who started out as a teacher and dean at Parsons, went and joined Liz Claiborne a few seasons back, and is always introduced as their man now. Everybody's selling something, and there's nothing wrong with that in this context. The fashion industry is all about marketing yourself, making your name into a recognizable brand that will fuel the sales of your products. So in an environment that is naturally obsessed with branding, the high amount of product placement is actually very appropriate. The producers have been good about picking their partnerships, and ensuring that while the promotions are obvious, they're also pretty well integrated. I mean, if you're going to have a whole challenge based on making clothing out of candy, why not get the candy from Dylan's Candy Bar in Times Square? On the other hand, they're not always successful. Again, the Lexus challenge.

I know all the arguments against product placement, that it's more insidious and blurs the boundaries between content and marketing in unwanted ways, but honestly I prefer advertising like this to the more intrusive commercials and the screen-obliterating pop-ups that are the blight of many network and cable programs. Especially in the reality shows, it feels odd when you don't see branded products everywhere, because brands are everywhere in real life. Blurring out logos actually draws more attention in some cases than if they were left alone. However, product placement has to be handled carefully, especially for the scripted shows. For every charming visit to a period Howard Johnson's in "Mad Men," or the Subway sandwiches that became a running joke on "Chuck," there are the more poorly considered ones. For instance, the infamous "Modern Family" iPad debacle, which read like too-obvious product placement even though Apple didn't actually pay to have anything promoted. Or Peter Parker's use of the Bing search engine in this summer's "Amazing Spider-man" movie, which was mocked from all sides.

There is a not-so-subtle art to this, and it'll be interesting to see how strategies and campaigns develop as more and more product placement is introduced into our content to make up for the waning effectiveness of more traditional forms of marketing. There is definitely a danger of some shows turning into extended commercials, but then, this is not a new problem. Keep in mind that television shows specifically created to shill products have been around for ages, and in the past they were often much less subtle about it than anything we see today. Look up the old "Mr. and Mrs. TV Show" episode of "I Love Lucy," for an eye-opening spoof, if you have the chance.

For now, the aggressive product placement on "Project Runway" isn't hurting the show much. Sure, some of the constant repetition of brands is annoying, but it's much less annoying than the high volume commercials for related products I used to have to sit through. And they don't interfere with the most dramatic moments of the competition - the judging, the eliminations, and the meltdowns. If the price of getting the show free online is more emphasis on all this product placement, so far I think it's been a good tradeoff.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

800 Words on the Aurora Shootings

It's been a couple weeks since the Aurora shootings, and I think it's okay now to add my two cents. I don't want to talk about the tragedy itself in any detail, because I'm not qualified in any way for that. Instead, I want to try to sort out some thoughts and ponder the question that's been on my mind since I heard about what happened in Aurora - what does it mean?

Looking at the response to the tragedy, very little it seems. Security was briefly beefed up at theaters, but I don't think that's going to last. There was some discussion of gun control policies and mental health access, but most of the pieces I saw were cynical op/eds, predicting that nothing would actually change. There were also a few thoughtful ones about the terrible nature of the media coverage, and I generally agree with the theory that mass shootings are all about attention seeking, and no good can come of the media furor around the gunman involved. I got a look at a few minutes of the local news coverage of the shootings, where a hyperbolic reporter made reference to the fact that they were going to follow the story for days, weeks, and perhaps months and years to come. I stopped watching after that.

What about the impact on the movies themselves? Well, it was interesting to see how Hollywood responded. The "Gangster Squad" trailer was pulled, and the film itself delayed to January so that a potentially offending scene could be excised. Warner Brothers cancelled premieres and press, donated money, and did everything in their power to show their sensitivity to the victims, short of pulling "The Dark Knight Rises" from theaters. Box office tallies of the opening weekend of were not officially reported, a symbolic gesture since most of the usual bean counters got the estimates out to us anyway. The assumption is that the shooting played a part in the opening weekend grosses of "The Dark Knight Rises" falling below initial estimates, but nobody can say for sure. It's still a monster hit around the world, so any financial impact was limited.

The shooting in Aurora was a terrible tragedy, and in the immediate aftermath there were specters of all kinds of horrible fears, about movie theaters suddenly being less safe, about these highly anticipated blockbuster film premieres being a magnet for attention-seeking maniacs, about our whole film culture suddenly somehow being complicit. But after a few weeks and with the benefit of some distance, the more it feels like this was just another random act of violence perpetrated by a highly disturbed individual. It could have happened in a post office, a school, or any other public place where a crowd of people had gathered. I don't want to suggest that these mass killings are not deeply shocking and awful every times that they happen, and perhaps indicators of some deeper systemic problems, but they happen for reasons that are usually extremely personal and limited to the particular perpetrator involved.

So the shooting, in spite of the shooter's apparent obsession with Batman, has nothing to do with the movies. It reflects absolutely nothing about the Batman franchise, or superhero films, or onscreen violence or anything else you want to try and tie it to. The urge to do do, however, is a strong one. We want to find an easy explanation and we want the shooting to mean something. And it's too easy to speculate and draw conclusions that there really are no bases for. As much as we want them, there aren't ever going to be simple answers in cases like this. I've seen a couple of people try to blame the content, and predictably there's some yahoo trying to sue Warners for releasing the film, but it can't possibly stick. The shooter hadn't even seen the film, remember.

And related to that, it's very tempting to want to use the tragedy as a bludgeon for the moral or political issue of your choice. I caught myself wanting to tell off someone online for being enthusiastic about the Bobcat Goldthwait comedy "God Bless America" because it contains a scene where there's a shooting in a movie theater that's played for laughs. After Aurora, how could you champion a movie like that? But of course, that movie came out months ago and has nothing to do with Aurora. In light of recent events it was insensitive and unfunny, maybe, but that didn't somehow make the movie bad. "God Bless America" was rotten all by itself.

I'm glad that "Gangster Squad" was moved, because it is in very poor taste to evoke the shooting so close in time, even if the scheduling of the film was a coincidence. I think the film's fortunes have probably been irreparably damaged though. And I was relieved that "The Dark Knight Rises" had very little content in it that could be connected with what happened that would give any conspiracy theorists more ammunition.

It feels small and petty to feel protective of the films in this situation, but I am a media junkie after all, and the media is what I obsess over. I really enjoy Nolan's Batman films, and no matter how they're regarded in the future, it's sad that they're always going to be associated with this tragedy.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Top Ten Comic Book Films

Note that the title of this post is not the top ten superhero films. In fact, I'll be leaving out the superheroes almost entirely, in order to focus on some of the more oddball, lesser known movies people might not have realized were based on comics. I also leave out the movies based on newspaper comic strip characters like the "Charlie Brown" movies and "The Addams Family." Here goes nothing:

A History of Violence - I wasn't keen on the film until I heard that David Cronenberg was directing and Viggo Mortensen was playing the lead. Few people realized that this smart, dark thriller about a seemingly average family man with a shady past was based on a 1997 graphic novel. Critics praised it for its unusually realistic portrayal of sex and violence, including shots of the unpleasant aftermath of fight scenes and gun play. It's a very adult film, both in content and in approach, though reportedly considerably toned down from the original comic.

Akira - Many find the animated "Akira" film to be incoherent, and fans of the manga frequently suggest that if you want to know the real story of the famous Capsules motorcycle gang of Neo-Tokyo, you're better off reading Katsuhiro Otomo's multi-volume epic. I love the film version though, for being one of the creepiest, most visceral, most abundantly R-rated animated films ever made. The epic, horrific finale sequence alone makes this an anime classic. In fact, the film made such an impact and was so notorious in the 90s, for a lot of people it was anime, for good or bad.

American Splendor - Harvey Pekar candidly charted his unpredictable life and brushes with fame through a series of independent comics. The film adaptation, displaying a refreshing self-awareness and sense of fun, takes the unusual step of occasionally having the real Harvey and his wife Joyce appear in and comment on the dramatization of their lives, where Harvey is played by Paul Giamatti and Joyce by Hope Davis. The story, despite the fourth wall breaking, is about ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives, and it's wonderfully touching and strange.

Ghost World - I was tempted to include the Terry Zeigoff documentary about Robert Crumb on this list, but I'll have to settle for his adaptation of Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World," the tale of two cynical teenage girls. One of them, Enid (Thora Birch), becomes friends with a middle-aged man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), which has unexpected consequences for both them both. "Ghost World" has no ghosts, but it is one of the better films about teenage alienation. It is especially recommend for too-smart girls of a certain age, like me when I first saw it.

Men in Black - I love "Men in Black." I love its silliness, its bizarreness, and its refusal to treat the human race as anything special. Nope, we're just another species in a galaxy that is overflowing with strange alien life forms. Planet Earth is in danger of destruction with alarming regularity, so thank goodness for the Men in Black organization. And thank goodness for Will Smith in his prime, landing every joke as he played off the wonderfully deadpan Tommy Lee Jones. And director Barry Sonnenfeld, for bringing the the visual spectacle and the satirical atmosphere.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - The beloved anime director Hayao Miyazaki also wrote and drew manga. His most substantial work was "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," which became a celebrated 1984 animated film. Based on the first two volumes, "Nausicaa" is a post-apocalyptic adventure story with thoughtful environmental and anti-war messages. It was made just prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli, but has almost all the hallmarks of their productions, including gorgeous traditional animation, a strong heroine, and memorable creatures.

Oldboy - Yep, this was based on a manga too, though only loosely. Park Chan-woo took the bare bones of the story and characters, and created a far more violent and shocking tale of a man imprisoned for years for reasons unknown, who is then unleashed upon the world. It is the centerpiece of Park's Vengeance Trilogy, has become a cult favorite. Hollywood has been trying to remake it for some time now without success. It's hard to imagine that any mainstream director would be able to keep the taboo plot twists and jarring violence of the original intact.

Persepolis - Marjane Sartrapi wrote the original "Persepolis" graphic novels based on her own experiences, growing up during the Iranian Revolution, and her rough adjustment to living in the West. So it was fitting that she directed the animated version herself, with Vincent Paronnaud. As a result, the film is extremely faithful to its comic source. "Persepolis" is in black and white, traditionally animated, and very frank about religious and sexual matters to the point where the film has become the subject of controversy and censorship in Muslim countries.

Road to Perdition - Originally a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, the film version directed by Sam Mendes is probably best remembered for its spectacular cinematography by Conrad Hall. Set during the Great Depression, it follows the journey of a father and his young son. The father, played by Tom Hanks, is an enforcer for the mob. His boss, played by Paul Newman in one of his final roles, has divided loyalties and perhaps cannot be trusted. "Road to Perdition" was a popular and critical success, but a few of the comic's fans were still upset about a slightly altered ending.

V for Vendetta - Yes, I'm well aware of the muddled ideology of the film that severely waters down the entire point of the Alan Moore graphic novel. But good grief, I enjoy the hell out of it nonetheless. I love the visuals, especially the wonderful use of the Guy Fawkes masks. I love so many individual sequences like Valerie's letter and the domino scene. I also think it has one of Natalie Portman's best performances, as Evey Hammond transforming from frightened victim to revolutionary. Yes, it's flawed and compromised, but it's also frequently an intriguing and entertaining piece of work.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Turns Twenty

Has it really been twenty years since "Batman: The Animated Series" premiered? Good grief, it's true. Time for a little nostalgia, boys and girls.

"Batman: The Animated Series" premiered on FOX Kids back on September 6, 1992, when I was young enough to still be genuinely frightened by some of the episodes. Before this, I only knew Batman from the campy 60s series with all the Bat puns, and a few glimpses of the Tim Burton's "Batman" movies that I wouldn't watch until I was older. It was my first introduction to characters like Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Bane, Killer Croc, Ra's Al Ghul, Clayface, and Two-Face. And it was, I suppose, my first real exposure to the noir genre, through the wrenching tragic tales of villains like Harvey Dent and Mr. Freeze. Throughout the 90s I kept telling myself that I had to stop watching cartoons and grow up, but how was I supposed to give up a show that was telling me such dark and interesting stories, that it hardly seemed like a cartoon at all? I was glued to the television set every weekday at 4:30PM for years.

For most Batman fans of my generation, I think this is the version we're the most familiar with, and it's fitting that the show borrows from so many different sources in the Batman mythos and distills them down to their essence. Oh sure, the Penguin is clearly modeled after the Danny DeVito Penguin from "Batman Returns," but Batman himself has shades of every version that came before him, from the goofy Silver-Age Bat to the grim, Frank Miller Dark Knight of the 80s. It certainly had its own point of view as well, highlighting aspects of the character that others had not. This Batman was a detective first and a bruiser second, and his psychological wounds were far closer to the surface than I'd seen before. It was the psychoanalytical approach to many characters that I found the most interesting, and some of my favorite episodes were the various villain origin stories that traced how mental illnesses and personality problems became full-blown supervillainy.

There were plenty of bad and boring episodes. I own the first two box sets of the show, and on the last rewatch I was surprised at how many misfires I found. Everyone remembers "Heart of Ice" and "Harley and Ivy," but there was a "Moon of the Wolf" or a "I've Got Batman in My Basement" for each of the good ones. The animation ranged from the outstanding to the painfully mediocre, and one of the overseas animation studios that worked on the series was actually fired for not being able to perform up to standard. However, I'm still impressed by the show's ambition, particularly in the early going when they would do almost totally straight crime stories like "POV" and "Paging the Crime Doctor." I used to groan every time "Appointment in Crime Alley" aired during the initial broadcasts, because it was one of the least flashy stories and it seemed like they reran it so often, but now the episode is one of my favorites.

"Batman" became an important touchstone for all the action shows that followed. Many fans point to the series as the origin point of a new breed of serious American animation for grown-ups, though I think that claim is a little oversold. "Batman" was the beginning of the DC Animated Universe, which would include "Superman: the Animated Series," "Justice League," "Batman Beyond," and a handful of movie spin-offs. It would also influence series as wide-ranging as "Spawn," "Gargoyles," and "The Big O." However, the animated "Batman" was never really embraced by the mainstream. FOX tried airing it on prime time for a few months, but it couldn't hold on to adult viewers. It was the kids who grew up with it who still cherish it the most strongly, who it really had an impact on, far more than the Burton movies ultimately.

Subsequent shows, even the ones with the same creative team involved, never quite matched up to the 1992 "Batman" series. I chalk it up to none of the successors ever having anything quite as distinctive and visually appealing as the "Dark Deco" style, and that the period setting was largely dropped. The later Batman cartoons took place in the modern day, instead of that stylized 1940s midnight world that gave the show so much texture and atmosphere. I was disappointed that "Superman" actually took less from the style of the Fleischer "Superman" cartoons than "Batman" did.

In the end it's the little things pop out in my memory. Victor Fries and his snow globe. The Mark Hamill Joker laugh. Shirley Walker's glorious orchestral themes. The sheer terror at watching the robot sentry stalk Barbara Gordon in "Heart of Steel." Harley Quinn on holiday. Alfred flying the Batwing. Nerding out every time we got a Riddler episode, because he was my favorite villain from the old live-action series. Spotting the giant penny in the Batcave. The spectacular finale of the first Clayface story.

Happy 20th, "Batman: The Animated Series." To borrow the popular fannish turn of phrase, it'll always be my "Batman."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I Saw "Magic Mike"

"Magic Mike" is a male stripper movie. Just think about that for a minute. This is not a movie where the stripping is played for laughs. And it's not a movie about amateur wannabes, like "The Full Monty." This is film that is intimately concerned with the business and lifestyle of professional male exotic dancing, and presents an open invitation to ogle the masculine form for 110 minutes. To my knowledge, we've never had something like this before at the multiplex, at least nothing this high profile with so much marquee talent. In addition to Channing Tatum as the title character, we also have up-and-comers Alex Pettyfer and Matt Bomer, with a big assist by Matthew McConaughey, who nearly steals the whole show. There is no question that the film is aimed at women, not only because of the blatant objectification of the men, but because when you get down to brass tacks, "Magic Mike" is a traditional romantic melodrama.

Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) dreams of starting his own custom furniture business, and juggles a variety of different jobs and businesses to raise the money. This includes stripping at a Tampa night spot, under the stage name Magic Mike, in a show run by his friend Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). At one of his day jobs, Mike comes upon a down-on-his-luck youngster named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), befriends him, and soon Adam is also taking the stage as The Kid. Adam's older sister Brooke (Cody Horn) isn't thrilled with her brother's new profession or with Mike, but they slowly become more friendly. Mike promises to look out for The Kid, but the lifestyle is starting to wear on him. Dallas is planning to move the show to Miami, and Mike's usual partner in sexual misadventures, Joanna (Olivia Munn), isn't interested in being anything more. And all too soon, the Kid lands them both in serious trouble.

Let's get the warnings out of the way first. "Magic Mike" shows a lot of skin, both male and female, but it stops short of full frontal nudity. There's some sex, but not graphic sex, plus some drug use, mild drunkenness, occasional brawling, and profanity in abundance. There are a few topless women in the mix with impressive assets, but the focus remains firmly on the male cast, who have equally impressive assets. I saw nothing that an open-minded male viewer would be too uncomfortable with, but your mileage will certainly vary. The male stripteases were never portrayed as demeaning, but as fun and empowering, with a lot of side benefits. The seedier side of the business, though alluded to, is mostly kept offscreen. Instead, the trouble comes from getting too comfortable with a crowd that seems to be having an endless party, and getting mixed up with easy money, bad influences, and forgetting about the consequences.

The one name to keep in mind here is not any of the sexy leading men, but the guy behind the camera: Steven Sodebergh. Yes, it's the king of indie cinema who is responsible for "Magic Mike," and who ensures that it's more than just campy, weightless fluff, like "Burlesque" or "Showgirls." We get to see plenty of the strip show (and what a strip show!) but audiences might be surprised at the amount of time Soderbergh takes to introduce the characters, establish that they're average, everyday people, and chart the course of their relationships. These relationships are played absolutely straight, grounding all the excess of Mike's hard partying social life and the over-the-top nature of his antics on stage. "Magic Mike" isn't nearly as ambitious or expansive as something like "Boogie Nights," but it does take itself fairly seriously. The plot isn't just there to fill in time between the setpiece, and some of Soderbergh's typically gorgeous, intimate shots should turn the head of any pretentious cinema geek.

Tatum's perfectly cast as the lead, and of course he is - the film is based on his own stint as a stripper, and the character is perfectly tailored toward his own strengths as an actor and a dancer. He's phenomenal on the stage, and not bad at all when he's off it. I've heard a few complaints about Cody Horn as his "uptight" love interest, but she stuck me a s a very canny choice. Horn has a different energy than anyone else onscreen, and she 's a great match for Tatum, actually making him come across as more charismatic and articulate. Then there's Matthew McConaughey, who takes the role of emcee and carnival barker and just runs with it. He has more personality than everyone else in the cast put together, nails every line delivery, and when it's finally his turn to go out on stage, you wonder why he ever left.

"Magic Mike" is a great time and a pretty decent movie too. I'm impressed with the way that it tackled the unlikely subject matter, and tackled it so wholeheartedly, without resorting to any of the usual clichés. I wouldn't be surprised if "Magic Mike" inspires a new subgenre, the male stripper rom-com. Alas, without Soderbergh, it'll probably be more beefcake than beef from here on out. Not that there's anything wrong with beefcake. Nothing wrong at all.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Korra" Season Wrap-Up

I'm very behind on television posts. I know the first season of "The Legend of Korra" ended a while ago, but I just finished off the first season. Need to put down a few thoughts here. Spoilers ahead!

First, I'm a little disappointed that that new series doesn't quite operate independently from the previous series. You definitely don't get the full impact of the show unless you've watched "Avatar: the Last Airbender," and you're familiar with the old characters like Katara and Iroh, and you already understand concepts like the Avatar State. "Korra" is very plot-driven, and there often isn't time for the character development that the first series was so good at. So the creators wind up relying on a lot of ideas and relationships that were previously established. This makes "Korra" very much a sequel series that plays best to a slightly older audience that is familiar with the "Avatar" universe already.

This is not to say that "Korra" isn't a perfectly good watch. I think it's better than the first year of "Avatar" by a pretty wide margin, and it gets through much more complicated material more quickly. By the finale it's juggling a bigger cast of regular characters, including Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin and his family, Lin Beifong, and the various animal sidekicks. I don't think that the villains are nearly as compelling as Zuko and Iroh, but Amon and Tarrlok certainly have their moments. The season's big conflict with Korra battling the Equalist movement was ambitious and intriguing, and it certainly did its job as an action series with a fast pace and lots of inventive combat. The animation and the soundtrack were superb throughout.

Where I think the show faltered a bit was with the characterization. The show moved way too fast in the romance department, before we really got to know the kids. I think the show really could have used a few episodes that centered on specific characters to get a little deeper into their backgrounds and their personal growth. Korra had several, but Mako and Bolin were definitely a shortchanged. The ad copy made a point of telling us that it was almost unheard of for siblings to have different bending powers, but nobody brings it up in the actual show. There are a few mentions of how the boys had a rough time growing up on the streets, but that's never expanded on either. Asami and her father, who are fairly minor characters, end up with a better arc than they do.

And then we have the appearance of General Iroh right before the big finale episodes. He's got Zuko's voice actor and is the namesake of one of the best characters from the first show, so he's surely someone important. If you didn't know any of this, the General is an odd blank, a new ally who wastes no time in getting in on the action, but he's more of a symbol of outside forces that haven't been dealt with yet, than anything else. On the other hand, there are characters who do get fleshed out nicely despite limited screen time - Lin Beifong, Tenzin, Pema and the kids, Tarrlok, and in a roundabout way Amon too. I was surprised at how well the characters were used, and there were a few good plot twists that I didn't see coming. Heck, nobody got the truth about Amon right!

And of course there's Korra. I've liked the character since the beginning, but her development's not as satisfying to follow as Aang's was. She's still the same brash, spirited, can-do young Avatar-in-training that she's always been. She's made some friends, fallen in love, and had to overcome some tough opponents and situations, but has she really grown or changed? Maybe. It's not so clear, because the show juggles so much, and Korra's spiritual awakening has been on the back burner for most of the season. And depending on how you interpret the ending of the last episode, her struggle isn't nearly as epic or arduous as Aang's. Then again, Korra is older, her story is very different, and the show itself is working with a different format and constraints.

"Korra" has set itself up very well for a second season, and a third if we're lucky. I may be hard on the show, but I'm very grateful for it. I love the "Avatar" mythology, the wonderful worldbuilding, the kickass characters, and I count myself lucky for the opportunity to spend more time in this universe. I think "Korra" could be better, but it's pretty damn spectacular already, and I can't wait for next year.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why I'm Paying $20 for a 40 Minute Movie

Maybe it was too early to be anticipating the 2013 movie slate, especially considering how many 2012 movies have been delayed, but I had my heart set on seeing one particular film as soon as I heard about it: "Frank or Francis," the Charlie Kaufman scripted musical satire of the entertainment industry, that would have starred Jack Black, Kate Winslet, Steve Carell and many more. The assumption was that it would be shooting early in 2012, and be released some time in 2013. Now the project has fallen apart. While "Frank or Francis" isn't dead, there's no telling when it will ever be made, if at all. Kaufman is one of my favorite modern filmmakers and I was bitterly disappointed about the delay. It was my own fault, and I should have known better, but it's already been such a long wait since Kaufman's last major film, "Synecdoche, New York," the one that was responsible for my brief existential crisis back in the summer of 2009.

And then I heard about "Anomalisa," an animated short film that Kaufman has scripted for Starburns Industries Inc, a stop-motion animation outfit that's probably best known for their work on the "Community" Christmas special. Among the executive producers are recently ousted "Community" creator Dan Harmon, and Starburns himself, Dino Stamatopoulos. It's being funded through a Kickstarter campaign, which raised their minimum goal in eight days, but is still accepting pledges for funds through the beginning of September. I kicked in my $20, an amount that will get me a digital download of the finished film when it becomes available. Higher amounts net contributors fancier goodies, including signed scripts, DVDs, Blu-Rays, set visits, props, invitations to attend the premiere, and more. It's been estimated that "Anomalisa" will be finished sometime next May, which means the world will get at least 40 minutes of Kaufman-related media in 2013.

Okay, so I'm not really paying $20 to see "Anomalisa." I'm sure that once the short has been finished and distributed through the usual channels that I'll be able to find a way to see it for much less than that. However, I am contributing to the very existence of this piece of media, and that's a very new and empowering thing. After "Frank or Francis" went off the rails, and Harmon departed from "Community," it felt good to be able to do something for them, to signal that even if they were getting battered by Hollywood, they still had us plebes. If Anomalisa were a regular movie, being released by one of the studios, I don't know that I'd pay to see it in theaters, honestly. But since its very existence depends on those revenues, I find that I'm very willing to pay for my ticket well in advance, and with a healthy premium too. In fact, there are a lot of movies I'd pay extra to see exist, instead of having to choose from the endless flow of mainstream-approved sequels and remakes that Hollywood has been churning out.

Crowdfunding is a really fascinating new funding model, because it gives fans the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is at last and support their favorite artists with concrete contributions, not just cheerleading and fanart tributes. At the time of writing, over three thousand people have contributed to "Anomalisa," about half of them in the $20 tier with me. Sure, none of us have very deep pockets, but it adds up. And we've enjoyed a remarkably well-run campaign. The people in charge have responded to requests for different incentives, adding contribution tiers for Blu-Rays and digital downloads. They've answered questions, provided updates, and Harmon and Stamatopoulos appeared in a thank you video that went up on the site a few days ago. Right now it's only smaller productions that are being funded this way, and the amounts raised are miniscule next to the budgets of the usual Hollywood studio productions. Still, the $280K that "Anomalisa" has raised so far is no small amount of money in the right hands.

I wish the campaign were for the production of "Frank or Francis," for which I would happily increase my contribution by a considerable amount, but I think a film of that scope and size being funded through Kickstarter is a long way off. The potential is there, though, and I'm hopeful that this will become a viable alternative for certain kinds of risky, low-budget films and other media to get themselves funded. Hollywood has been getting more and more risk-averse, so I like that it's becoming easier for the general public to take up the slack. The mechanism is imperfect, and it's definitely not for everyone, but we're getting there. I may have had to remove "Frank or Francis" from my 2013 to-watch list, but now I get to add "Anomalisa."