Friday, September 28, 2012

Here's to "Damsels in Distress"

I think I finally get Whit Stillman. During one of my Criterion binges of yore, I stumbled across his first film, "Metropolis," which has nothing to do with Fritz Lang's, and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Here were a group of young people who talked like dictionaries, going to various parties where they never did anything that looked like fun, dabbling in relationships, and having many, many long-winded and impenetrable conversations. Intimidated, I carefully ignored anything else he did for about ten years, which coincided with Stillman's own thirteen-year hiatus between his last film and his latest, "Damsels in Distress." This one I liked. I liked it a lot.

New freshman Lily (Analeigh Tipton) comes to the lovely Seven Oaks college, and is quickly adopted by a trio of older girls: Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). The trio aspire to be do-gooders, so they mind the campus suicide prevention center with a box of donuts, lead therapy groups where tap-dancing is the primary form of treatment, and crusade against the boorishness of certain campus traditions held dear by the school's male population. Violet is the ringleader, who dates a pleasant lunk named Frank (Ryan Metcalf). Lily, meanwhile, attracts the attention of two potential romantic partners: fast-talking Charlie (Adam Brody), and a European grad student, Xavier (Hugo Becker). Neither of them are quite what they seem.

It took a while for me to pick up on what Stillman was doing in "Damsels in Distress." This is college life through the lens of fantasy and nostalgia, existing in a world where a trio of the most earnestly preppie girls who ever lived are courted by potential beaus through civilized discourse, and believe that changing the world may just require a few scented soaps and starting a new international dance craze. At first I thought their overly formal and polite modes of conversation were anachronistic, but they weren't. Rather, all the dialogue is stylized to be overly literate and precise, even coming from less articulate characters like Frank. The rules of engagement between the sexes have been severely desexualized, though sex is certainly still in the picture. Under these conditions, the girls deal with typical, modern relationship troubles and interpersonal tensions. They talk and act like they're above the problems of the characters in every other college picture ever made, but they're not. In short, Stillman satirizes the hell out of the very East Coast intellectual milieu that he's best known for exploring.

And the nice thing is that he does it so very gently, without malice or snideness. Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actresses, is absolutely delightful as the ludicrous, self-important Violet. Here is a classic queen bee and utter snob, who is so sweetly sincere and so naïve in her convictions, I found it very hard to dislike her. In spite of all her affected superiority and practiced nonchalance, she falls victim to all the same pitfalls she warns Lily against. Sometimes Violet teeters on the edge of being too naïve to stand up to scrutiny, but Gerwig sells it with all she's got.

Alas, the other three actresses simply can't compete. I could hardly remember anything about Carrie MacLemore as Heather an hour after I finished the movie. Analeigh Tipton is bright and sympathetic, but seems to struggle to hit the comic notes in her material. Megalyn Echikunwoke is sadly underused as the hostile Rose, a transplanted Londoner who takes great pleasure in labeling every unworthy male a "playboy operator." While we're on the subject, the male half of the cast holds their own against the ladies, but are a little difficult to distinguish visually and none of them really stand out performance-wise either.

I think this is because Stillman's dialogue so dominates the picture. The visual style is interesting, with its period details and occasional graphic puns, but Stillman gives the bulk of his attention to the rapid fire, densely droll dialogue, from Violet taking Lily a tour of the campus and explaining the philosophy of her group, to the various relationships being built up and dissected, to several characters self-analyzing themselves when they hit rough patches. And like with Stillman's "Metropolis," occasionally I got lost. However, I found enough of the voluminous verbiage funny or clever or simply prodigious enough that it held my attention.

Moreover, there's an ease and a lightness to the picture that I appreciated. It doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as the characters take themselves, and even includes what can legitimately described as flights of fancy. Whit Stillman is clearly an acquired taste. I can easily see your stereotypical average filmgoer, used to a diet of Adam Sandler comedies, walking away from this with glazed eyes, mumbling vague threats against hipsters. However, if you know girls like Violet, or if you've ever been a Lily, "Damsels in Distress" may be the film for you.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Vegas" and "Last Resort"

CBS's new period crime drama "Vegas" premiered Tuesday night and ABC's submarine adventure series "Last Resort" premieres tonight. I've seen both pilots now, so let's have a look.

"Vegas" is immediately eye-catching because of the high-profile cast and beautifully recreated 1960s setting. Dennis Quaid stars as Ralph Lamb, the new sheriff in town who would like nothing more than to run his ranch in peace, but Vegas needs a law man, and there's no one better for the job. It's fun to watch Quaid get into fistfights, rough up a gang of bikers and their lawyer, and play the kind of super-masculine cowboy hero that you don't see much anymore. With the help of his newly deputized brother Jack (Jason O'Mara) and Assistant DA Katherine O'Connell (Carrie-Anne Moss), Lamb quickly establishes himself as a major force to be reckoned with. This is not a welcome development for Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis), a volatile Chicago mobster who has come to Vegas to make a name for himself, and has a few initial skirmishes with Sheriff Lamb during in the hour. Clearly we can expect more in the weeks to come.

Out of all the networks pilots this year, "Vegas" looks the best. It's got the dusty open desert, the glitzy interiors, and shimmering views of the vintage Strip, complete with all the old casinos that fell victim to the wrecking ball. It looks like a show that should be on HBO, Showtime, or AMC, but the big question is, does it match up in quality? Despite the involvement of the mobster Savino, "Vegas" strikes me as more of a Western. Lamb is a no-nonsense, punch first and ask questions later kind of sheriff and gets several hero shots astride a horse, wielding firearms, and intimidating suspects. A lot of emphasis is placed on his background as a rancher, a man of the vanishing frontier. Not a very nuanced character, to say the least, but this is just a first impression. The real test for "Vegas" is going to be what happens next week and the week after as we chart the progress of Lamb and Savino and see if there is any complexity under these familiar exteriors. And I certainly hope that Carrie-Anne Moss gets more to do than just show up looking lovely in a different outfit for every scene. "Vegas" could easily settle for being yet another CBS crime procedural, and I'm sure it would be a very good one, but it has the potential to be a lot more with this kind of talent involved.

"Last Resort," on the other hand, left me kind of baffled. I enjoyed the first half where the crew of a nuclear submarine, led by Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and XO Lt. Commander Sam Kendall (Scott Speedman) are ordered to fire on Pakistan and start a war through questionable channels. Their refusal results in the sub being marked as rogue by the US government, which has possibly been compromised by some kind of internal struggle. Then Chaplin decides that their best course of action is to take over an island with a NATO communications outpost and declares that he'll hold it until the crew can figure out what happened and how to clear their names. Other players include navigator Lt. Shepard (Daisy Betts), her father Admiral Shepard (Bruce Davison), who will be their contact in Washington, Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser), a weapons manufacturing lobbyist, Sophie Girard (Camille de Pazzis) with NATO, and finally suspicious islanders Julian (Sahr Ngaujah) and Tani (Dichen Lachmann).

The trouble is that the first episode tries to do too much. It introduces over a dozen major characters at a breakneck pace, so nobody gets much time to make an impression besides Captain Chaplin and Lt. Shepard. The reams of plot crammed in here could have easily filled twice the amount of time allotted for it, especially toward the end as the crew of the sub take over the outpost, deal with a potential mutiny, and make their intentions known to the rest of the world. I found the depiction of life aboard the sub very strong, so it was a disappointment to realize that "Last Resort" was probably going to be spending the majority of its time on a tropical island well above water. The more I think about it, the more "Last Resort" looks like "Lost," which had its big series mysteries, but spent a great deal of time on the interpersonal conflicts of all these stranded souls who had been thrown together by fate. So while the show is billing itself as an epic adventure with the big submarine and all, the scenery's not going to change much from week to week. The pilot really should have spent more time in getting us invested in the characters, because that's clearly where the bulk of any interesting drama will come from.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

First Impressions of "The Master"

How do you categorize the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, "The Master"? First, it's a period film that takes place in the late 1940s and early 50s, and our protagonist, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor recently returned from WWII. He falls under the influence of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Master of the title, who is forming a cult around himself based on past life therapy, intense self-help tactics, and other quackery. This certainly makes the film one of the handful of recent psychological thrillers about cults ike "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "The Sound of My Voice." The central concern is with the struggle of the alcoholic Freddie to better himself, so it also fits the patterns of an addiction narrative. Finally, the curious relationship of Freddie and Dodd is not of master and protégé, as I had gone in expecting, but a far more primal connection that leads me to conclude that "The Master" can also be considered a very unusual boy-and-his-dog story, with Freddie as the problem dog.

Before we get any further in, there are some preliminary matters that need to be addressed. As you've probably heard, there are some clear similarities between Dodd's ideology, called "The Cause," and Scientology. Naturally, Dodd is reminiscent of scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as well. However, "The Master" is not meant to be some thinly-disguised takedown of Scientology, and works perfectly well if you think of the Cause as simply a generic cult, so I won't discuss the connections any further. Also, though highly acclaimed I doubt that "The Master" is going to gain much traction with the general moviegoing public because of the very adult and mainstream-unfriendly content. Freddie Quell is an alcoholic and has problems controlling his temper, but also lacks control over sexual impulses, which Anderson chooses to portray with very graphic and disturbing visuals. There is nothing particularly aberrant or distasteful here, but still the way that Anderson uses these elements makes an unusually strong impact that I'm sure many viewers will find unpleasant to experience.

There are already a slew of critics and film lovers who are trying to make "The Master" fit various interpretations and connect to larger themes, but I found it to be a pretty simple narrative at its core. Freddie is a miserable human being suffering from multiple traumas and personal defects who literally stumbles into Dodd's inner circle one night. Dodd is intrigued by Freddie's venal, unstable nature and befriends him with the intent to reform and better him. Freddie travels with Dodd and his extended family, including wife Peggy (Amy Adams), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), and son Val (Jesse Plemmons) as they move from place to place, spreading the word about the Cause. Some of Dodd's techniques are helpful, but as Freddie grows closer to the members of the Cause, the more he also finds reason to doubt. Ultimately, he has to make the choice to be a follower or to strike out on his own uncertain path, to accept the constraints of the cult or to give up the only meaningful relationship in his sad, sorry life.

The primary joys of "The Master" are the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a notable assist by Amy Adams. Phoenix gets the most to work with here, bringing out the demons of Freddie Quell, a scarred, twisted figure who often seems to physically stagger under the weight of his unhappiness. Phoenix's usually handsome face is haggard and grimacing, and he has the habit of talking only from one side of his mouth. He is frequently referred to as animalistic, and far more comfortable taking direct action than those around him. As Dodd verbally pokes and prods at his psyche, Freddie returns physical blows. Then you have Dodd, the self-styled intellectual who Hoffman gives a great charm and magnetism. He is introduced as the polar opposite of Freddie, a successful family man and author who has all the answers, and seems to be charting his own path toward greatness. However, his vices and faults are gradually revealed to be the same as Freddie's, and maybe that's why he likes the young man so much. Watching the two interact is fascinating, and clearly far more important to Anderson's narrative than any of the particulars involving the cult.

But just what is Anderson trying to say with "The Master"? These are two men from entirely different worlds who discover that they cannot change for each other and cannot compromise their own natures, and yet they are connected and benefit from their association with each other, albeit briefly. What are Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd meant to represent, if they represent anything? Are they two parts of a whole? Two extremes unable to find a happy medium? Are they each other's worst enemies in disguise? Are they each other's greatest temptations? Or are they each other's missed chances at salvation? Anderson deliberately leaves it ambiguous, but recurring motifs present clues. Maybe I've been watching too much Antonioni lately, but I found the various environments the characters travel through to be a good indicator of their mental states. Freddie and Dodd first meet at sea, and repeated shots of a boat's wake pattern occur throughout the film. The ocean is traditionally a metaphor for the mind, with its murky depths and mercurial moods. Later we find them in the greenery of suburbia, the immensity of the desert, and finally an icy institution on a distant shore.

And what about the character of Peggy? Amy Adams doesn't have nearly the amount of dialogue as either of the male leads, but her constant presence and the immediate weight of her few major scenes make her a key player. Here is a young woman, heavily pregnant during most of her appearances, whose temperament is not that of a passive follower in the cult, but that of an unusually clear-eyed partner and defender of Dodd. Where is she on the continuum of rationality and instinct that define the two men, or is she meant to be something else entirely? At times Peggy seems to be more extreme in her devotion to the Cause than her husband, so is she the real Master in this scenario? Or do she and Dodd share the position, acting as surrogate parental figures to Freddie as they try to civilize and socialize him? There's something very deliberate about the portrayal of the women in the film that I can't quite put my finger on, but I think it may have to do with the fact that none of them are passive or victimized figures, while Freddie is frequently shown to be subjugated by his intense sexual neuroses.

It's always hard to judge the quality of movies like this because of their opacity. Technically, "The Master" is very impressive, particularly the sinister, exacting cinematography matched up to a soundtrack full of discordant notes and period schmaltz. I thought the scripting was a little weak in some places compared to Anderson's previous work, but the performances are so good that they make up for it in spades. I don't think that "The Master" is quite on the same level as "There Will Be Blood," because it's a much less cohesive vision, but I get the feeling that the more I dig into the film, the more rewarding it'll turn out to be. It certainly kept my attention for the whole of the two-and-a-half hour running time, and I expect I'll be seeing it again soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An All Female "Expendables"?

When I first heard that an all-female "The Expendables" project was being shopped around, I didn't pay much attention. It seemed like such a flimsy gimmick. We haven't had more than a couple of actresses who could rightly be called action stars. And if we were suddenly nostalgic about them, wouldn't it make more sense to put them in one of the actual "Expendables" sequels instead of corralling them off in their own film? Now that I think about it, I find I am a little miffed that no major female names found their way into "The Expendables II."

Well, now the news has come out that Gina Carano's gotten herself officially attached to this project, even though it has yet to land a script or director, so there's a greater chance of this one really happening. Mentally, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea, and thinking about potential lineups. The obvious names under consideration would include Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, and Uma Thurman. Then there's Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, and Pam Grier. Maybe Brigette Nielson, Grace Jones, and Kathleen Turner. A couple of former Bond girls are also possibilities. Current action stars Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale, like Carano, seem too young to be nostalgic, but then "The Expendables" has Jason Statham in their roster, along with oddballs like Terry Crews and Randy Couture. However, including them wouldn't change the fact that if you were committed to following the template of "The Expendables," you would be trying to make an action film with a lot of actresses in their fifties and sixties.

You see the problem here? We've had plenty of movies about older male action stars getting together for one last job or one last mission, but there is no equivalent for the ladies. With very rare exceptions, you don't see a lot of older women running around with guns and swords trying to kill each other in the movies. Heck, the last really physical face-off between two older women I can think of was the sorceress duel between Patricia Hayes and Jean Marsh in "Willow." After a woman hits a certain age, they're put on the sidelines in action films. They're M. They're Pam Landry. They're somebody's mother. If they get into any kind of serious fight, it's often played for laughs. Older women can star in thrillers and crime dramas, which appeal to older audiences, but in a pure action film that's all about muscles and bullets and explosions? The young male demographic that goes to the "Expendables" movies might have a difficult time accepting this concept, even if you threw in a couple of younger, more typically attractive leads. Right now the older female action heroine simply doesn't exist, and I'm skeptical that the people behind this new project are ambitious enough to invent a new genre for it.

It's not that I think the idea is a bad one. I would love to see some of these actresses tearing up the screen again in any capacity. I loved it when Quentin Tarantino brought Pam Grier back for "Jackie Brown," and when Helen Mirren got to use the big guns in "RED." However, I just don't see a "female Expendables" happening without some major alterations to the formula the producers want to follow. That's probably why they cast Gina Carano first. My guess is that most of the headliners that are being courted for this project are going to be significantly younger than the cast of "The Expendables," and probably not strictly action stars either. The older women will probably be limited to cameos and they'll get someone with a little more prestige to play the villain. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this winds up being billed simply as an multiple-heroine action film and they ditch the "Expendables" connection entirely. Actually, I'm not convinced that all this referencing of "The Expendables" isn't just a marketing thing, and the filmmakers really have no intention of seeking out older actresses at all.

Anyway, focusing the spotlight on a female action team is already enough of a gimmick and enough of a challenge, considering the last major entry in this little sub-genre was Zack Snyder's unfortunate "Sucker Punch." I can't imagine this one could possibly turn out worse, especially with Gina Carano involved. Despite my mixed feelings on "Haywire," I like her and I'm all for more action films with women taking the lead. There are never enough of them. And there's no reason this couldn't be a perfectly decent ensemble film with the right people involved. So I'm choosing to remain optimistic, but there's no way this is going to be the all-female version of "The Expendables." For that you'd need a female Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, which we don't have.

If Hollywood really gets cracking, though, maybe that movie will be possible in, oh, thirty years or so.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Thoughts on the 2012 Emmys

I decided not to liveblog last night's ceremony, though at certain points I wish I had, because there were some really slow points this year. It is not nearly as much fun watching award shows when you haven't watched any of shows that win the awards. "Modern Family" continues to be on that giant list of shows that I'm interested in, but isn't a priority. Meanwhile, I watched the first episode of "Homeland" a while back and was so unimpressed with it, I didn't even bother writing a review. Apparently it got better, because the show nabbed several of the major awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, leaving the contenders that I had been following this year, "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and "Game of Thrones" in the dust, along with "Downton Abbey." I really can't complain, because I haven't seen enough of "Homeland" to have a decent basis of comparison, and I'm not in a hurry to remedy this. However, I'm highly incredulous since "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" both had incredibly strong seasons. Maybe they cancelled each other out.

The "Homeland" wins at least made this year less predictable. There were still some winners that had me rolling my eyes, like "The Amazing Race" winning for Outstanding Reality Program and all the supporting acting awards in the comedy categories going to "Modern Family" cast members again. However, Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up a statuette for "Veep," and performed a great bit with Amy Poehler during her acceptance speech that echoed last year's impromptu beauty pageant in the category, and Louis C.K. won for writing on "Louie" and for his stand-up special later on in the evening. I have no idea how John Cryer walked away with Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, but who can begrudge the man after what he and "Two and a Half Men" have been through lately? And then there were the repeat performers that you couldn't really argue with, like "The Daily Show" nabbing its tenth trophy in a row. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon tackling Jon Stewart as he tried to make his way onstage to collect was a high point of the evening.

Easily the most awkward stretch was the Movies and Miniseries categories, where I don't think anybody had really seen the nominees, and trophies were being handed out to actors we knew better from their films, like Julianne Moore and Kevin Costner. I was momentarily mortified that Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba both showed up to lose the Outstanding Lead Actor trophy to Costner. Didn't anyone tell them that "Sherlock" and "Luther" were only in the mix to shore up the faltering number of domestic long form programs, and there was no way in hell an import would win anything against American-made products like "Game Change" and "Hatfields & McCoys"? This ain't the Golden Globes. Also, the shuffling of different categories around with the Creative Arts Emmys was very noticeable this year. We had the Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special winner announced, but not the Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series winners, which always has the bit with the long lists of writers from various late night programs. I always looked forward to their finding new ways to picture all the nominees (As chimps! As politicians!) but this year it was not to be.

The presentation itself was fine. Kimmel was a decent host, if not particularly memorable. The opening sequence was weird, but a good kind of weird. Even though I'm not sure what bits like the Tracy Morgan fake-out were supposed to accomplish, none of the scripted sketches or comedic moments elicited any cringing. However, I wish they wouldn't front-load them in the Comedy section so much, especially as some of the categories later in the evening could have really used their energy. Also, I wish they had saved Josh Groban for the actual In Memoriam segment instead of the fake In Memoriam devoted to Kimmel. This year I think the audience was ordered not to clap until the very end, which was a good idea in theory, but the segment felt weirdly muted as a result. Still, the presenters were lively, the winners were mostly articulate, and the cameos were appropriate. The Q&A format for the writing and directing nominees worked great, and I hope they keep it the next time around.

There's always room for improvement though. Maybe John Hodgman's announcing turn was too heady, but whoever wrote this year's stuff was just awful. Why do we care where the winners were born? Also, I was severely irked by some of the montage segments, particularly for the Drama category. They decided to highlight specific shows this year, but only had room for a handful - so of course they used up two slots with clips from "Once Upon a Time," and "NCIS" instead of, oh, "Justified" and "Treme." This may seem like a small thing, but the montages are really the only place where less high-profile shows get any recognition at all during the evening, and there are so many, many good ones out there now, it's very obvious and aggravating when they pander to more popular tastes.

But there's always next year.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Taking Stock of the Blog

I've written this blog now for about two and a half years, so I thought it was a good time to take a look at the state of things. Why now? Well, if my blog was a business venture or a career path, I'd be thinking long and hard about the three year rule right now, which says that if you've made a go at doing something for three years, be it writing or photography or teaching, and you aren't making any progress or headway toward your goals, then it's probably a good idea to quit before you waste any more precious time. The thing is, this blog is not a business venture and entertainment writing is not my career. Miss Media Junkie is a hobby, something I do in order to keep my writing skills sharpened and to provide an outlet for the media-obsessed fangirl part of me that refuses to go away.

Also, I think that I have made some progress. In the beginning I wasn't sure what I really expected this blog to be. I liked writing movie reviews, but didn't have the funds to keep up with everything at the box office, and didn't want to be devoted entirely to older films. I liked writing about television, but didn't feel that I knew enough about that world to cover shows in much depth. I could have just kept an online film/television diary the way that I'd seen other people do, but then where would I put the meta analysis pieces that I occasionally found myself typing out on discussion forums, or simply on a whim? If I were writing to gain regular readers or to rack up page hits, the first thing anybody would tell me is to pick one thing and focus on it instead of bouncing around among all these different topics. Alas, my attention span simply would not stand for that, so I wound up writing about everything, and I'm pretty happy with the current mix. This month is leaning heavier toward TV content because of all the new series premieres, but it'll be holiday crunch time for the film world soon enough.

Keeping this blog going has really cemented for me how much I enjoy writing, even when I've completely run out of ideas and I'm typing up a piece I know is terrible. Stephen King famously responded to the question, "Why do you write horror?" with "Why do you assume I have a choice?" I can sympathize, because I feel like I've been writing as Miss Media Junkie since I was a kid. Long before the internet, I used to write my own episode guides for my favorite cartoons, I made endless, elaborate lists of favorite movies, and I was a voracious reader of anything entertainment related - and I don't mean the celebrity gossip pages. At one point in the early 90s I distinctly remember wanting to be LA Times critic Howard Rosenberg when I grew up. Before blogging I tried various other outlets and learned to write about many other things, but I always found myself getting sucked back into the entertainment world again. If I didn't have Miss Media Junkie, I'd probably be spending a lot more time in various TV and movie forums terrorizing the locals, well, more than I already am.

There's still a lot that I want to do with this blog. I haven't managed to gain much of a regular readership or become a part of the larger media blogging community, the way I was hoping for. I think that would require significantly changing my tactics and doing more self-promotion, which I'm not good at. It would require socializing and networking, which I'm also not good at. I've taken stabs at some social networking, making myself available on Twitter, Bloggers, and occasionally putting links to a few pieces up on Reddit, but I'm loathe to do too much. Part of me is very wary of attracting more attention because I don't think I'm equipped to handle very much of it. On the other hand, I readily admit that I check my stats every day and I'm always happy to see a bump in traffic, even when I know that bump is just the adbots doing their thing.

Whatever I decide in the future, there's no way I'm going to stop blogging in February when I hit my three year anniversary. I enjoy the writing and the researching and the whole experience of blogging too much. Even if nobody is reading my stuff, I don't consider myself a failure in the least. There's another of bit of sage advice that says that if you ever want to be truly good at something, you need to put in ten thousand hours (or ten years) of practice at it. That means I still have quite a ways to go.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Trek to "Zabriskie Point"

Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," was a notorious flop and critically reviled when it was released in 1970. It has since been rediscovered and reevaluated, and is now hailed by some as a great motion picture, while still dismissed by others. Where do I stand on the film? Well, to start with, I've never been particularly warm toward Antonioni. I've seen all his major films, and find him to be a bore. I learned to stop looking for satisfying plots and character developments, but to focus on environment, on emotional states, and on atmosphere. This got easier as I moved from his earlier films to the later ones as the scope of his films got bigger and their criticisms of modern life and culture more pointed.

Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin play a pair of restless young American students. Mark is persecuted by the police, and steals a small airplane on a whim. Daria works as a part-time secretary, and is supposed to be driving to meet her boss at a new real estate development. They intersect in the California desert at Zabriskie Point, fall in love, and travel together for a short time before diverging again. Because this is an Antonioni film, the characters are not as important as their environments. Mark is from Los Angeles, which is portrayed as being full of racial strife and violence. It is smothered in advertisements, which Antonioni pieces together into a collage of cacophonous inanity. The desert, the source of many of the film's most striking images, often dwarfs the actors. For the famous scene where Mark and Daria make love in the dunes, Antonioni brought in members of the experimental acting troupe, The Open Theater, to simulate other lascivious couples appearing alongside them in the dust, until the camera pulls back to show the landscape dotted with intertwined forms. My favorite sequence was the finale where Daria fantasizes about the real estate development being blown to smithereens, the fancy houses and all the modern appliances being obliterated in turn.

A major criticism of the film is how obvious and clumsy it is, how it panders to the counter-culture, but is so simplistic in its ideas. "Zabriskie Point" was the first and only Antonioni film to have been made in the United States, and was assumed by some at the time to be a hostile critique of American lifestyles and attitudes by a pretentious European outsider. It didn't help that "Zabriskie Point" is one of the more immediately comprehensible Antonioni films, and could easily be read as a blunt fable about American radicalism and rebellion. Monica Vitti wandering around in "Red Desert" was abstract enough to be interpreted in all kinds of different ways, but it was a little hard to miss the police brutality, race relations, and psychedelic imagery of "Zabriskie Point." My guess is that Antonioni didn't mean to be nearly as literal or political as his critics thought he was being, and was simply using what he saw to be distinctly American elements to construct a different kind of environment from those in his previous films. Unfortunately this didn't work, possibly because he was using non-actors as his leads who displayed no signs of psychological depth whatsoever, or possibly because he just didn't have as good a grasp of American culture as he thought he did.

Whatever you feel about what Antonioni was trying to say or how he said it, there is no denying that the technique is impeccable. The cinematography by Alfio Contini is gorgeous, from the first shots of students' faces at a contentious meeting to the final, golden sunset. The soundtrack is full of familiar names including Roy Orbison, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, The Youngbloods, and the finale is set to a Pink Floyd track. There are individual sequences here are that come off beautifully, especially the ones set in the endless expanse of the open desert. The more you view "Zabriskie Point" as a pure art film, the better it comes off, and I think having some distance from the 1970s has certainly helped. I also liked its sense of humor, which doesn't get talked about very often. Mark gives his name as "Karl Marx" in jail, which is typed out as "Carl Marx" by the officer on duty. Later, he and Daria paint genitalia and slogans on the stolen plane in wild colors.

I would not call "Zabriskie Point" some kind of misunderstood masterpiece, but it certainly has plenty of cinematic value. Antonioni was in over his head, but that doesn't mean that he failed in his efforts entirely. I found myself transfixed by the shots of exploding bookshelves and television sets, the debris raining down in hypnotic slow motion. Was it shallow and obvious? Oh yes. Could I have sat there watching it all day? Oh yes. While certainly not the best film Anotnioni ever made, I suspect that "Zabriskie Point" may be the most inadvertently entertaining.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The "Gangnam Style" Moment

My first exposure to Korean rapper PSY's infectious "Gangnam Style" was the viral video that featured someone's mother gamely dancing along to the tune at the encouragement of her more enthusiastic son. Not really understanding what all the fuss was about, and briefly mistaken that this might have something to do with the old Japanese "Gundam" anime shows, I watched the "Gangnam Style" music video, which was amusing enough. PSY, dressed in a variety of colorful suits, cavorts his way through parts of Seoul's posh Gangnam neighborhood, doing his now famous horse-riding dance. Even without the various news articles that have pointed it out, I got that the song was supposed to be satirical, poking fun at the high class lifestyle. However, I don't think that's what most of the video's fans have gotten out of it.

Nope, the secret of the success of "Gangnam Style" is all too clear. Funny foreign guy doing a funny, highly imitable dance, to a catchy song with a couple of easy-to-repeat lines for non-Koreans to latch on to: "Oppa Gangnam Style" and "Heyyyy sexy lady!" And then there were all the other parody videos, including the one with the lifeguards with the really grouchy bosses. And then PSY went to New York and started making the rounds on television last week, stopping by Ellen DeGeneres's daytime talk show where he demonstrated for Britney Spears how to "dance cheesy," "The Today Show" to perform in their outdoor concert series, the MTV VMAs to banter on the red carpet, and finally over the weekend he popped up in the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live," where Bobby Moynihan played him in a "Gangnam Style" sketch. After catching up on all these different appearances via Youtube, I haven't been able to get the song out of my head, which I admit gets a lot catchier with repetition.

My brain started grasping for antecedents. I had a flashback to 1996 and the rise of the Macarena. I still have no idea what those two Spanish gentlemen were singing about, but I still know all the moves to the dance that went with it. Watching PSY conducting interviews with the American press in very good, but not native English, somehow brought on visions of Borat, a heightened impersonation of a foreigner rather than the real thing. Of course PSY is an entertainer and his outsized persona is an act, but could there be any doubt that his novelty has more to do with his perceived foreignness than his talent? As an Asian-American who has rarely spotted an East-Asian face among American rockers and rappers, my feelings are mixed to say the least. Halloween is coming up, and I'm not sure whether to be gratified or terrified that a flood of PSY impersonators is sure to be taking to the streets this year.

I've watched the rise of K-pop among non-Korean listeners over the past couple of years, and while I wasn't convinced any of those cute sugar-sweet girl groups would make a dent in the States, I thought it was a positive trend, signaling the further globalization of the mainstream culture. Connected to this was also the very brief American awareness of Rain, a massively popular singer and entertainer in Korea, who appeared in "Speed Racer" and "Ninja Assassin" for the Wachowski siblings, but wasn't the breakout star some were hoping for. PSY doesn't have any ties to those trends at all, so his rise to global fame is something else entirely, a totally spontaneous phenomenon driven by the power of Youtube. PSY is known, but not a big name idol in his native Korea, and certainly not someone who was expected to make a splash like this.

But why am I being such a killjoy? So what if a more ungainly, unconventional entertainer managed to steal away the spotlight from all those skinny, overly made-up K-pop kids? So what if the first major Asian singer on the American scene in ages got here with a few gimmicks, and some parts of his message got lost in translation? Incoherence is in these days, and PSY fits right in with the Lady Gagas and the Nicki Minajs. Furthermore, he has gotten a Korean language song major airplay on American radio stations, which I don't think has ever happened before. He may end up being a one-hit wonder, like the foreign singers who have come before him, but those two Spanish gentlemen made millions from "Macarena," and are undeniably part of the 90s zeitgeist. And now PSY and "Gungnam Style" are indisputably part of 2012's.

And who knows? Maybe the exposure of American ears to a few Korean lyrics will help inch open the door to more Asian language artists down the line somewhere, and more Asian faces in popular music overall.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Go On" and "The New Normal"

I watched two episodes each of NBC's new Tuesday night comedies, "Go On" and "The New Normal," which premiered a few weeks ago. Both are single camera shows, have some promising characters in them, and display a lot of potential to do more interesting things.

First up, "Go On," the latest attempt to put Matthew Perry back on television. It's clear why NBC keeps trying, because Perry's slightly caustic everyman schtick still works, and he does a great job of distracting from the weaker parts of the show. Perry plays a radio sportscaster named Ryan King, whose wife has just died in an accident. His boss Steven (John Cho) orders him to go to counseling, and Ryan ends up in a support group for people going through major life changes headed by Lauren (Laura Bernanti), whose touchy-feely methods Ryan can't help but clash with.

I've heard some comparisons of "Go On" to "Community," with Perry in the Jeff Winger role, but right now the assorted, multicultural members of the support group are far broader and more caricatured than the Greendale study group. There's a tough lesbian lawyer (Julie White), a blind, elderly African-American man (Bill Cobbs), a plump girl getting over the loss of her cat (Sarah Baker), an Asian brown-noser (Suzy Nakamura), a middle aged woman who only speaks Spanish (Tonita Castro), and Mr. K (Brett Gellman), a the too-obvious weirdo. More subtle characters like Danny (Seth Morris), who is dealing with his wife's infidelity, and Owen (Tyler James Williams), a reticent younger guy, whose brother is in a coma, haven't made much of an impression yet.

I expect that most of these characters will settle down eventually as we learn more about them, but it's going to be a real balancing act to keep the show from being too sarcastic or too cloying. The first two episodes were pleasant and watchable with some clever ideas, but it was hard to get a grasp of how the ensemble is shaping up since we're still getting to know the players and how they relate to each other. I think that once the show stops leaning so heavily on Matthew Perry and explores how some of the other characters interact with each other, it'll be in a better place. However, a lot of the second episode was devoted to Ryan's assistant Carrie (Allison Miller), who I'm guessing is his second major potential love interest after Lauren, so this may take longer than expected. It's really wait and see for now with "Go On."

"The New Normal" is much stronger from the outset. A gay couple, level-headed doctor David (Justin Bartha), and raging fashionista Bryan (Andrew Rannells) have decided to have a baby together. They hire a young mother named Goldie (Georgia King), recently broken up with a cheating louse of a husband, Clay (Jayson Blair), to be their baby's surrogate. Goldie and her adorable little daughter Shania (Bebe Wood) find themselves becoming part of a new family unit with David and Bryan. However, Goldie's grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin) is horrified by Goldie's unconventional new choices and is determined to get her back together with Clay, or at least away from the influence of her new employers.

You can tell Ryan Murphy of "Glee" is behind "The New Normal," because David is clearly a grown up Kurt Hummel, and Jane is an older and more obviously bigoted Sue Sylvester. However, the dynamics are very different, particularly without the school setting or the musical numbers, and it is fascinating to get such a different perspective on pregnancy and parenting when there are two fathers in the mix and a woman who is carrying the baby purely for monetary reasons. The show establishes its major relationships very quickly and very efficiently, giving us plenty of reasons to root for David and Bryan to become new parents, and for Goldie and Shania to get their fresh start.

I expected Ellen Barkin to be the highlight of the cast, and she's great, but Andrew Rannells and Georgia King are growing on me very quickly. I was worried that Rannells was playing up Bryan as too much of a gay stereotype, but he's consistently funny and he's being used well so far. Various conservative and religious groups are not happy with "The New Normal" for its supposed immorality, but the irony is that the show is more family oriented than anything else I've seen this year. There's constant talk of getting ready for new responsibilities with the baby, forging new family ties, and even David and Bryan's attempt to go clubbing ends in a renewed commitment to happy domesticity.

The best part is that the show is very open-ended and could go in a lot of different directions once the baby is born. A few additions to the cast, and this could easily morph into something bigger and more complex like "Modern Family." But I'm getting ahead of things. So far so good, and of the new sitcoms I've seen so far, this is the best of the lot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Goodbye to the Nostalgia Critic

It had been a while since I've written about comedian Doug Walker and his web series, "The Nostalgia Critic," where he reviews older movies and television shows aimed at the children of the 80s and 90s. I admire the collection of talent that he and his partners have put together through their production company, Channel Awesome, and the variety of super low-budget programming that they've created for the That Guy With the Glasses website, mostly other media review shows. Once a year, they get all the various contributors together and make an anniversary special, usually a feature-length spoof. This year they did an eight-part web series called "To Boldly Flee," tacking science-fiction films and shows. And in the last installment (spoilers ahead, though the news is everywhere), the character of the Nostalgia Critic was killed off. The next day, Walker posted a video clarifying that he was indeed ending "The Nostalgia Critic" as a weekly show to move on to other, more ambitious projects.

And good for him. There were some signs over the last year that "The Nostalgia Critic" concept was facing a dead end. The show started on Youtube back in 2007, and there have been over 200 episodes produced since. Walker was clearly starting to hit the bottom of the barrel for nostalgic material to review. He pulled a few wild stunts like reviewing every single Disney animated feature during the month of December and gave in to fan requests to review more recent bad media like the live action "Scooby Doo" movie. Before "To Boldly Flee" was released, he appeared in a long string of crossovers with other reviewers on the site. I think Walker could have easily kept the show going for another year or two by changing up some of his criteria, but I'm glad he stopped now before he ran it into the ground completely. Still, it's a pretty gutsy move considering that "The Nostalgia Critic" is far and away the most popular show on the Channel Awesome roster, and brings in the most revenue.

When I first stumbled across the show, I liked Walker enough to keep coming back week after week, but I didn't think there could be enough interest to sustain the efforts of more than one or two of these amateur critics reviewing bad movies and video games. But what did I know? After four years in operation, That Guy With the Glasses and its affiliate sites currently feature over fifty different contributors who tackle everything from comic books to Doctor Who episodes to obscure beverages. Walker's easily the most talented of the bunch, but I also like Lindsay Ellis's "Nostalgia Chick," a "Nostalgia Critic" spinoff that has evolved into something more complex and interesting, and Kyle Kallgren's "Brows Held High," devoted to the dregs of pretentious art house cinema. Walker has also developed a couple of other characters who host their own shows like "Bum Reviews" and "Video Game Confessions," though they aren't nearly as successful or popular as "The Nostalgia Critic." Then again, they've never had nearly the amount of time or attention from Walker.

The rise of Channel Awesome has been fascinating to watch unfold because it is one of the first, rare examples of a group of entertainers who have built a niche for themselves through the internet and attracted a loyal audience completely apart from the traditional models. Similar online talent like video game guru James Rolfe have occasionally partnered with bigger commercial outfits, but Walker has avoided Hollywood completely, supported by a mix of ad revenue and donations. I don't think they even advertise the sites at all, aside from the occasional talent appearances at anime conventions. Walker's stuff is still heavily dependent on Hollywood output because so much of it is commentary on existing media, but there's never a sense that he's beholden to any of the usual media corporate overlords, which is great. He can be as profane and weird and creative as he likes without worrying about stepping on too many toes.

As traditional media has been in the midst of endless upheavals recently, with the doomsayers predicting all sorts of terrible things, it's nice to remember that web-based "new media," is out there. It's not a really viable alternative for most of your entertainment needs yet, but it is making in an impact, especially among the internet-savvy younger audiences. And it's been around long enough now for a guy like Doug Walker to have made a modest success of himself and want to strike out and do new things. So I'll be rooting for his success, not that I think he really needs it. Walker's built up quite a reputation, and I'm sure most of his fans will stick around to see what he comes up with next.

Monday, September 17, 2012

About the New Fall TV Season

I've already reviewed a couple of the television pilots for the new network television fall season and you can expect reviews of a few more before the month is up. However, I'll be honest. There's not a lot this year that I see myself getting very excited about. I've been watching less and less network television in general since I cut the cord, and I find myself more interested in the return of shows like "Person of Interest" and "Community," and catching up on others that I've missed, than sorting through the latest crop of new hopefuls. However, there are a couple of titles that I'm keeping an eye on.

"666 Park Avenue" - ABC's newest supernatural series about a young couple who take up residence in a too-good-to-be-true apartment building that may be owned by agents of the devil. Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams will be headlining as the show's baddies. I'm hoping for more of a toothy fantasy anthology show here and less of a prime time soap, but my guess is that it's probably going to follow in the footsteps of their previous hit, "Once Upon a Time," which is a little of both. However, this one's in the 10PM hour, so it'll probably at least be a little darker and sexier.

"Last Resort" - One of the most interesting concepts of the year: a US nuclear submarine refuses to follow orders to fire on its intended target and is declared a rogue vessel. The crew set up base on a nearby island and declare themselves a sovereign nation until they can figure out who betrayed them. The cast is full of familiar names including Scott Speedman, Robert Patrick, Dichen Lachman, with Andrew Braugher as the captain of the boat. Even if the rest of the series is a wash, the pilot looks like it's going to be pretty spectacular. "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan is responsible for this one, which is a good sign.

"Arrow" - Warner Bros, having had no luck bringing the superhero Green Arrow to the big screen, will try him out on television in "Arrow." Oliver Queen, played by Stephen Amell, is a billionaire business man by day and a crime fighter by night. The good news is that the show's creators are toning down the superhero elements and going with something more down-to-earth. The bad news is that those creators are Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who were behind the less than stellar "No Ordinary Family." The CW's genre shows can be very hit or miss, but I've always liked Green Arrow, so I want to give "Arrow" a chance.

"Elementary" - I've already reviewed the pilot over here. The concept is none too original, but the talent is right, the approach is sound, and there's every indication that this could be a solid performer for NBC. I like Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson, I like that they seem to be going with a platonic friendship angle for now, even though I doubt that's going to last if the show survives more than two seasons. Still, I see no reason why the popular culture doesn't have room for yet another "Sherlock Holmes" adaptation, especially one as self-assured as this.

"Vegas" - At first glance this 60s era cops and mobsters series seems to be a leftover from last year, which saw several similar period dramas try their luck at landing a network audience. However, "Vegas" has the benefit of veteran filmmakers James Mangold and Nicholas Pileggi in the mix, along with actors Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jason O'Mara back for another round after "Terra Nova" and the American version of "Life on Mars." Maybe he'll have better luck in a supporting role, as Quaid will be taking the lead as the Nevada sheriff clashing with a newly transplanted Chicago mobster, played by Chiklis.

And finally we come to the comedies, which I can never tell anything about from their synopses and always take me a while to warm up to anyway . I make no promises as to which of these I'm actually going to watch and review, but on my radar are NBC's "Go On" with Matthew Perry and "The New Normal" from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy. Over on ABC, "The Neighbors" looks like it's trying very hard to be "3rd Rock from the Sun," in reverse, and then there's the extremely timely "How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life)." Also, the "Will & Grace" creators are back with "Partners," which is all about the bromance between a gay guy and a straight guy who both find themselves in new relationships.

In addition, I've already said my piece about Revolution and The Mindy Project, neither of which I expect I'll be revisiting.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Let's Go "Beyond the Black Rainbow"

Since I saw the trailer for "Beyond the Black Rainbow," a trippy Canadian science-fiction thriller directed by Panos Cosmatos, it's been high on my "to see" list. More than the psychedelic visuals or the wonderfully strange dystopian plot, it was the soundtrack and sound design, heavy on thrumming synthesizer instrumentals, that caught my attention. It perfectly captured this wonderfully sinister mood I associate with science-fiction films of the late 70s and early 80s like "THX 1138," "TRON," and "Altered States."

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" deliberately evokes these films and others, setting its story in the year 1983. The first thing we see is a delightfully kitschy promotional video introduced by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), founder of the Arboria Institute, a commune promising a new-age path to psychic and spiritual enlightenment. Then we meet Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), who runs the Institute, in reality a cold, sterile place cut off from the rest of the world. A beautiful young girl named Elena (Eva Allen) is being held captive there, under constant surveillance. She has mysterious mental powers that Nyle uses heavy sedation and a strange glowing device to keep in check. He delights in tormenting Elena in daily sessions, obsessing over her development to a disturbing extent. However, Elena's powers are growing stronger and more dangerous while Nyle is quickly losing control of himself.

There is only a very, very basic story holding together what is essentially a mood piece. I think it's fair to say "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is very much like "Drive," except with a mad scientist and even less dialogue. Long hypnotic shots show off a production design heavily influenced by "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its rigid, severe geometric decor and retro color palette. There are a couple of really impressive sets, but others reflect the low budget of the production. This is clearly meant to be an homage to not only the science-fiction of the 70s, but the filmmaking techniques of the day. So we see the use of a lot of practical effects and older film tricks like superimpositions and double exposures to convey the volatile emotional and mental states of the characters. Dr. Nyle's surreal self-discovery sequence late in the film recalls "2001" travelling beyond the solar system in its use of bizarre abstract imagery. Meanwhile, the aural side of the film is an old school analog wonder, lending depth and dimension to simple visuals, giving a sense of strangeness and intensity to even the most innocuous objects.

Deciphering the film's myriad metaphors and untangling its obtuse narrative doesn't matter nearly as much as enjoying the rare atmosphere of paranoia and possibility that it manages to create and sustain. There are multiple, prolonged shots where almost nothing is happening onscreen, but the tension builds and builds, until the film is practically pulsating with menace. Unseen forces figure heavily into the story, driving Nyle's madness and Elena's need to escape her captors. There are many elements that are never explained at all, like the Arboria Institute's imposing, helmeted sentries that are unleashed to subdue Elena. Who are they? What are they? And where did Elena come from? The esoteric pronouncements of Dr. Arboria and Dr. Nyle's taunts provide some hints, suggesting something deeper, grander, and madder at the heart of the Arboria Institute that can never be fully understood by mere, untranscendant mortals.

Or perhaps not. Where "Beyond the Black Rainbow" falls apart completely is in the final ten minutes, when suddenly it becomes a very different picture and tries to give the audience a very concrete, conventional ending. This does not work at all. Suddenly the scintillating mood is gone, and the film concludes with something straight out of a bad horror movie. Up until those last ten minutes, however, "Black Rainbow" is a really interesting mix of experimental art film, drug trip, dystopian thriller, and Cronenbergian psychological science-fiction. I especially enjoyed the skin-crawling performance of Michael Rogers, who is both creepy and campy in all the right ways. Surprisingly, this seems to be his biggest film role to date.

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is obviously not for everybody. I'm sure many viewers who will be put off by its alienated outlook, extreme stylization, and the slow pace, but I think it should also have great appeal for genre fans of a certain age, or really anyone looking for something a little weird and out of the ordinary. It just screams future cult film. This is Panos Cosmatos's first feature, and I'm interested to see what he does next, and if he can move beyond this particular style and sensibility. Given the lushness and immersiveness of what he accomplished with only a little more than a million dollars, you have to wonder what he could do with a bigger budget and a real script.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A September Follow-up Post

Hello! If you don't know the drill by now, what follows are links to previous blog posts I've written, along with updates and further thoughts that I wanted to put down, but I didn't feel warranted an entire new post by themselves. Lots of television and superhero related stuff this time. Here we go.

Can We Talk About the Justice League? - After the success of "The Avengers," there's been a lot of chatter about an upcoming "Justice League" film that would skip the individual introductory films and just go straight into a big team adventure. Will Beall was hired for scripting duties, release dates have been rumored, and Ben Affleck was offered the chance to direct, which he declined. The most interesting wrinkle here is that it Warners is going to fast track this movie, they're not going to wait for a Batman reboot, opting instead to introduce the new version of the character in the "Justice League." Also, it's not clear if the film will have any direct connection to "Green Lantern" or the upcoming Zack Snyder "Superman."

Where Are the Female Directors? In Television! - Alas, only one Emmy nominee to add to the list this year, Lena Dunham for "Girls" in the Direction for a Comedy Series category. Good luck Lena!

Keeping Up the Theatrical Habit and The New Dominant Media - As we're slogging through the post-summer doldrums, financial analysts keep charting further declines in the fortunes of the movie studios. This past weekend, theaters had the lowest attendance numbers in over a decade, and there appears to be no relief in sight. There has been another round of studio soul-searching as a result. Gavin Polone wrote this great piece about the comparative quality of current television and the movies, detailing the dysfunctional movie development process that that favors unoriginal concepts and franchise properties. This is the reason why it feels like you've seen everything playing at your local multiplex already.

My Second Annual Holiday Wishlist - I've been pretty happy so far. "Akira" has been put on the back burner at Warners. "Twilight" is giving way to "The Hunger Games." Nobody spoiled anything too important about "The Dark Knight Rises" or "The Avenger" for me, and Josh Larsen is doing a pretty good job so far at filling the shoes of Matty Robinson on the Filmspotting podcast. On the other hand, that last "Doctor Who" Christmas special was only so-so and the fourth season of "Community" remains a giant question mark.

A "Munsters" Reboot? Really? - Bryan Fuller's "Munsters" reboot is now "Mockingbird Lane," starring Portia de Rossi and Jerry O'Conell as Lily and Herman, with Eddie Izzard as Grandpa. A four minute trailer for the pilot was shown at Comic-Con over the summer. There was some talk of the series being a prequel focusing on the courtship of Lily and Herman in their younger days, but the current version has newcomers Mason Grant and Charity Wakefield in the roles of Eddie and Marilyn, so it looks to be a pretty straightforward update of the original series.

Evil Queen Ascendant - After seeing all of their movies, I wasn't too impressed with most of the villainesses I discussed. Julia Roberts in "Mirror, Mirror" was pretty mediocre. Charlize Theron's role as Meredith Vickers in "Prometheus" showed some potential, but it was completely squandered. Her nasty evil queen in "Show White and the Huntsman" was much more fun, but the movie was pretty blah. As for Catwoman, I have no complaints about the Anne Hathaway performance, but I wasn't all that enamored with her either. To date, my favorite villainess of the year is Marge Nugent from "Bernie," played by Shirley MacLaine.

Thundercats" Ho! - After twenty-six episodes on the Cartoon Network, it does not appear likely that the new "Thundercats" reboot is going to get a chance to come back and finish its story, which ended on a cliffhanger. The ratings sank after the premiere, and the show's creators are starting to scatter to other projects. It's a real shame, because I've recently caught up with some of the later episodes, and the quality of the animation and the worldbuilding and character development stayed pretty stellar throughout the whole run. The worst part is that this will probably discourage studios from doing similarly ambitious shows in the future. Oh well. At least I've still got "Korra."

I Gotta Talk About "Wonder Woman" - Finally, last week Vulture reported that the CW is going to try and crack the "Wonder Woman" reboot after David E. Kelley's version went down in flames last year. It's currently only in the earliest scripting stages, with the working title "Amazon," and will likely be an origin story skewing to a much younger audience than the last one. Note that there's also supposed to be a "Wonder Woman" feature film in development, which might complicate things.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

My Favorite R.W. Fassbinder Film

An elderly German cleaning woman named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) ducks into a local club frequented by Moroccan immigrants to get out of the rain. Encouraged by his joking friends, a thirty-something laborer named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) dances with her, and walks her home at the end of the night. The two form a friendship which becomes something much deeper, and Ali moves into Emi's home. When the landlord objects, the pair decide to get married. This is the beginning of one of the most unusual and touching love stories I've ever found in film. It remains my favorite thing that New German Cinema auteur Rainier Werner Fassbinder ever did in his prolific and intense career.

Much has been made of the ties between "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" and Douglas Sirk's social dramas "All that Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life," which explored the relationship between an older woman and a younger man, and the friendship between a white mother and a black mother respectively. Fassbinder's film starts with the same premise as "All That Heaven Allows," but then pushes into very different territory, showing the relationship of Emmi and Ali at different stages, putting them in different situations and circumstances. We find them not only dealing with condemnation from friends and relatives, but are the source of many prejudices and problems themselves. They spend as much more time dealing with common relationship troubles as with the more obvious social stresses. Fassbinder is also much more cynical about their prospects, and "Ali" concludes in a far more uncertain place than the Sirk dramas, but is also a much more satisfying watch.

"Ali" was filmed during a two-week break that Fassbinder had between two other films, not an unusual feat for him, and this is reflected in the crudeness of the production. As with much of his work, it appears he had no budget to speak of. There are only a few sets, dressed very simply and starkly. There's not much camera movement, and occasionally it's hard to shake the feeling that we're watching a filmed play. However, the lack of technical sophistication serves to underscore the realism and daring of Fassbinder's approach to the material. He was a director who always pushed at boundaries in startling ways, making films about unconventional relationships, social outcasts, the unfortunate and the ignored. "Ali" is not just about an older woman and a younger man of different classes falling in love, but the extreme case of a gray-haired, grandmotherly widow paired with a well-muscled, bearded, virile foreigner in the prime of his life. Visually, the two are comically mismatched, making the connection between them all the more poignant and touching.

Fassbinder's actors do not look like actors, but real middle and lower class Germans, making the film reverberate on a more personal level. Emmi and Ali converse in simple terms and are not as worldly as the beautiful stars in Hollywood melodramas. Ali's German is poor, the subtitles reflect many grammatical errors. Their decision to be together seems so easy and matter-of-fact between the two of them, and it's only when Emmi delivers the new to her family, and they react badly, that she realizes how naive she's been about making Ali a part of her life. She faces scorn not from well-dressed, picture perfect suburbanites, but from her fellow cleaning ladies and a brood of very imperfect adult children. I marveled at how suitably wormy and unpleasant the young man playing Emmi's son-in-law looked, only to discover later that the director had cast himself in the part!

On my initial watch, I found it very startling that "Ali" features nudity and a sex scene between Ali and another woman. It is nothing particularly graphic or inappropriate, but I was fascinated by how direct and unflinching Fassbinder was in showing sexuality. Here was another facet of the story that it made perfect sense to include, but that mainstream filmmakers never would have dared to portray so bluntly. "Ali" tells such a small, personal story, but Fassbinder finds so much new territory to explore. Like his protagonists, the film can be difficult, but it is never predictable.

I went on to other Fassbinder films and his other tales of strange love. I'm very fond of "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" and his miniseries "Berlin Alexanderplatz." "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" remains my favorite though, not only because it is the perfect example of his unique filmmaking sensibilities, but because it genuinely moved me. I felt deeply for Emmi and Ali and wanted them to find a happy ending together that Fassbinder was not the sort to provide. that's why "Ali" still sticks with me, and why I love it far more than the films that inspired it.

What I've Seen - R.W. Fassbinder

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
World on a Wire (1973)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Fox and His Friends (1975)
In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Lola (1981)
Veronika Voss (1982)


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is "Cloud Atlas" Racefail?

I was hoping to write this post after seeing "Cloud Atlas" and getting some more information about the controversy, but there's already been some significant discussion going on, so I thought I'd better at least get some preliminary thoughts in.

"Cloud Atlas," the highly anticipated new film from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer contains multiple interlocking stories where the same actors play different characters in each story. Settings include a dystopian future Korea, 1930s Belgium, modern day California, and a far distant future inhabited by the remnants of a once technologically advanced society. The cast includes a mix of Caucasian and non-Caucasian actors, including Halle Berry and Korean actress Doona Bae. Several of the characters' ethnicities have been specifically been changed from what they were in the original David Mitchell novel, to accommodate the actors, but there are also multiple cases where the actors use prosthetics and makeup to affect different ethnicities for their different roles in each story. So we've got Berry and Bae made up to look like European noblewomen in one segment, Jim Sturgess with epicanthic folds in the Korean segment, and Hugh Grant covered in tribal war paint to play a cannibal in yet another.

In a perfect world, the artistic decision of the filmmakers to do this wouldn't be a problem. Reincarnation is clearly a big theme in "Cloud Atlas," and in theory it's a perfectly legitimate choice to want to have the same actors recurring as different characters in the different stories as they progress through time. However, we've got a lot of cultural baggage to deal with any time someone of one ethnicity plays someone of another ethnicity. Changing a character's ethnicity to allow a particular actor to portray them can be problematic enough, especially when whitewashing removes opportunities for non-Caucasian actors to take the spotlight. However, using makeup to change an actor's appearance enough to allow them to play a different ethnicity simply isn't done anymore. Blackface, brownface, and yellowface are absolutely not okay 99% of the time because it's insensitive, inaccurate, and extremely difficult to do well. The last time someone got away with it in a major film was when Ben Stiller put Robert Downey Jr. in blackface in "Tropic Thunder" to poke fun at cultural appropriation.

I want to emphasize again that I haven't seen "Cloud Atlas." However, from the trailers that have been released and from the stills that have been circulating online, there are certainly some problematic spots here. The Caucasian actors playing Asian characters look very off, and the non-Caucasian actors in whiteface (oh yes, there's a term for that too) are incredibly distracting. The only reason this works at all is because the filmmakers are being consistent about their approach. Every major member of the cast goes through several drastic changes in appearance and everybody winds up playing someone of a different color, ethnicity, or race at some point. However, this doesn't mean that all the tricky appropriation and representational issues aren't still there and they don't need to be addressed. If this is one of those incredibly rare times when actors playing different ethnicities is appropriate, it needs to be recognized as the exception rather than the rule.

I'm less concerned about the use of the brownface and the whiteface in the actual movie than I am with how some of the actors and filmmakers are going to try and sell it, and how certain members of the press and the critical community are going to try to spin in. I worry that they'll defend the practice of using makeup and prosthetics to play another ethnicity by appealing to artistic integrity and freedom of expression, while ignoring the very real sensitivities that put them out of use in the first place. If I were doing press for the film, I'd emphasize at every opportunity that the context of the film's narrative and the uniqueness of the story are what make the practice appropriate in this one, very special instance. Defending it in broader terms than that is guaranteed to create more controversy.

At this point, I'm not sure if "Cloud Atlas" deserves defending yet. Maybe there are more problems with the race-swapping that aren't apparent, or some particularly egregious examples of caricature or other racial insensitivity in the film. The Hugh Grant cannibal certainly doesn't look very promising. However, I think I've got a good sense of what the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are trying to do here, and I have to salute their ambition. Whether they managed to pull it off, however, is another matter entirely. I'll see the film in a couple of weeks and if I find I have anything more to say about the matter, or if the controversy gets more interesting, I'll write up another post. Otherwise, I'll just save it for the review.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dreamworks Animation Gets Ambitious

A few days ago, Dreamworks Animation revealed their schedule for an ambitious slate of movies to be distributed by new partner 20th Century Fox, twelve titles in the next three and a half years. To put that into perspective, Dreamworks has only released eighteen CGI features in total since 1998, including a few odd Aardman and PDI titles. PIXAR has only done thirteen since they started in 1995. The full list is below.

The Croods (March 22, 2013)
Turbo (July 19, 2013)
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Nov. 1, 2013)
Me and My Shadow (March 14, 2014)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June 20, 2014)
Happy Smekday! (Nov. 26, 2014)
The Penguins of Madagascar (March 27, 2015)
Trolls (working title, June 5, 2015)
B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations (Nov. 6, 2015)
Mumbai Musical (working title, Dec. 19, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 18, 2016)

There are only four sequels in the mix, which is a relief, though I guess "The Penguins of Madagascar" is more of a spinoff, especially since there's that Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name currently airing. "How to Train Your Dragon" is definitely being positioned as the studio's next major franchise, with the next two sequels scheduled in prime summer territory. "Kung Fu Panda 3," on the other hand, wasn't announced until earlier this year, and will be the first project of Oriental DreamWorks, the new Shanghai based studio. In a similar vein, the Mumbai musical formerly known as "The Monkeys of Bollywood" is going to be spearheaded by Dreamworks' production studios in Bangalore, which opened shop in 2008. Add the stateside campuses in Glendale and Redwood City, California, and Dreamworks is certainly building up the infrastructure it's going to need to handle all these different films.

As always, the big concern is that by ramping up the quantity of features, the overall quality is going to go down. I'm also a little worried about the amount of animation that 20th Century Fox is going to be handling. They also have their own animation studio, Blue Sky, that does the "Ice Age" movies and has "Epic" coming out next spring, though Blue Sky only releases about one movie a year. Animated films are notoriously complicated and require years to complete. The idea that Dreamworks Animation could be delivering four different films in one year, at this stage in the studio's development, is kind of mind-boggling. Disney has only managed numbers like that once or twice, and that was when they were partnering with multiple studios like PIXAR that were working mostly independently. It's a big gamble for Dreamworks to bank on their being able to get the Indian and Chinese units up to speed fast enough to meet some of these deadlines. From the state of "Puss in Boots," which was the first big project of the Bangalore studio, they still have a ways to go. I'm going to be very, very surprised if we don't see a few of these dates moved back or even a project or two dropped along the way.

It's always difficult to tell when you haven't seen any of the footage yet, but I'm the most excited about some of the non-sequel projects. "Me and My Shadow," will be a combination of CGI and hand-drawn animation, and feature a shadow taking control of the boring human he's attached to. "Happy Smekday!" is an adaptation of a children's book by Adam Rex, and is about a Christmastime alien invasion. And though it can't possibly be the film that I want it to be, I am very curious about what Dreamworks is going to do with "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," based on the old Jay Ward cartoons. On the other hand there are some oddball projects on the list like "Trolls," which is based on the kitschy troll doll toys with the rainbow hair that I thought had gone out with the 90s. Also, it's a little disappointing not to see any mention of projects like "Interworld" "Captain Underpants," and "Truckers," which we know Dreamworks has the rights to. Guillermo Del Toro is namechecked in the latest press release, but there's no sign of the horror story "Alma," which he's supposed to be working on the development of.

Still, it's going to be a couple of very interesting years for Dreamworks, and we'll see if they can pull this off without cannibalizing themselves or getting too squeezed by an increasingly competitive feature animation industry. We're at the point where we're regularly seeing about ten to twelve major American animated features every year, and if Dreamworks' strategy is a success, we may see even more. The Weinstein Company has already beefed up their acquisition slate and will be releasing four animated films next year.

It's a good time to be an animation fan. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Night of the Living Cancellation

While we're fast approaching the new television season, so let's take a minute to note the passing of all the cancelled shows that are no longer with us. I've got to say that one of the things I've liked best about following the development process in the media news this year is that I've become much better able to keep track of which shows have been cancelled and which are still around. You'd think this would be easy. Your favorite series gets replaced by a different show and there aren't any commercials telling you that it's been moved to somewhere else on the schedule so it's gone, right? Oh, if it were only that easy.

When I was younger, and I watched a lot of weird little genre shows that never made it past one season, it used to drive me up the wall that I couldn't figure out whether shows I followed had been officially cancelled or not. They would get yanked from the prime time schedule only to reappear in the midseason or during the summer months. A couple swapped networks or ended up on cable. Nine times out of ten, once a show disappeared form its original time slot it was finished, but there were always those odd exceptions to the rule that made me hope every time that somebody would figure out a way to save my latest favorite, doomed show.

Even now, it can be difficult to declare a series permanently expired. DirecTV is running "Damages" and gave "Friday Night Lights" its final season. "Terra Nova" and "The Killing" were briefly considered for pickups by Netflix a few months ago, and they're bringing back "Arrested Development" sometime next year. Many last minute reprieves can be sudden, as they were for "Sliders" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which were both saved by jumping to cable. On the other hand, you may remember the critically lauded Aaron Sorkin series "Sports Night," which was supposed to make a similar move after floundering for two seasons on ABC. They even wrote the transition into the show, but it didn't work out in the end.

Cartoons are always difficult to make calls on, because they can be shelved indefinitely and then revived without too much trouble. "Futurama" and "Family Guy" went away for years, and then came back. "The Venture Bros" has been AWOL from Adult Swim for over two years, but there's a new season in the works. I'm pretty sure that "Generator Rex" and the new "Thundercats" series are both dead, but it's hard to say for sure since Cartoon Network has a habit of rebooting its properties every couple of years. Then there are the reality shows. "Fear Factor" is back after a five year hiatus. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" stopped its original prime time run in 2002, but returned briefly in 2004 and 2009, and the syndicated daytime edition has been going strong for a decade now.

Ironically, I'm much less frustrated with these kinds of maneuverings now, because it's a lot easier to stay on top of the latest information about what's coming and going and whether anybody has a straight answer about the prospects of the shows on the brink of cancellation. A lot of times, the answer is no. When a show is in limbo, the people who are actually involved in the production often know as little as the fans. When there are contentious negotiations or complex deals in the mix, often the decisionmakers themselves don't know how things are going to play out. It's been getting even less predictable recently because small audiences aren't automatically a bad thing, and there are so many new forms of distribution popping up, including cable companies and web services. Who knows what the TV landscape is going to look like in a few years as the audience continues to migrate.

Also, the internet has proven time and time again that any series with a significant fanbase can keep a cult favorite alive for years. "Firefly" is more popular now than it was when people were campaigning to save it from the FOX Network's fickle programmers a decade ago. Though it never found its way back to television, it was revived briefly as a film and a continuing run of comics. And if you're willing to brave the wilds of fandom, you'll find fans of every conceivable property still carrying a torch. I stumbled across an enclave of "Due South" fans the other day. You remember, the 90s police procedural with the mountie with the pet wolf? These days you can cancel a television show, but you can't stop the signal.

And after all, if we didn't have cancellations, we wouldn't have new shows every year to make a fuss over, would we?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

But What Do *You* Watch Next?

I never run out of movies to watch, and I've always reacted to the question of what to watch next with a little incredulity? What to watch? Go look at the theater listings! Go watch some trailers! Hit up Netflix or Hulu and browse around a little! However, the question keeps coming up over and over, usually from people who aren't movie buffs. And it really begs the question how I ended up with a current 2012 "to watch" list of over 70 films (and I've seen forty-three others already).

The short answer is that I know what to watch because I've got a massive interest in films so I read about them and collect information about them all the time. I also know my own tastes extremely well and I know a lot about different kinds of films and how I tend to react to them. Oh, and I read reviews by critics. Moreover, I've read and listed to enough of them that I know who I like and who I trust. Most normal, average people who want to go to the movies or rent something once in a while do not do any of these things. Even the people who like movies a lot only tend to like certain kinds of films or certain actors or genres. Very few people are willing to put in the time to research all of their options before sitting down with a movie. Usually, it's easiest to just go with the time-honored shortcut of watching what they've heard someone else has enjoyed.

So there's an endless search for recommendations, and for better ways to deliver them. Netflix famously had their $1 million challenge to come up with an algorithm to improve its recommendation system. There was a winner, but the algorithms that won were never implemented, due to their shifting business model. Apparently recommendations for renting DVDs and recommendations for streaming movies were different enough to render the new improvements unusable. I've never found many issues with their system myself, but there's clearly still some dissatisfaction with it, as there have been several sites and regular columns in various publications springing up, specifically to offer suggestions for what to watch next on Netflix Instant.

And getting away from Netflix, there are all kinds of different recommendation engines including Jinni, Taste Kid, and Criticker. I've poked around on these sites, but they don't really provide the kind of in-depth information that I like having, and the databases are fairly limited. I'm the type that tends to ignore the automatic Netflix suggestions and go searching for specific titles instead. However, they're a great starting point for more casual viewers, and the way that they categorize and rate movies against each other for compatibility to a particular user is fascinating.

On Jinni, you could search for an action movie or a comedy or a drama if you wanted to stick to basics, or you could drill down into sub-categories like Heroic Mission or Offbeat. Or simply type in the title of something you like, and you'll get a cluster of similar films. "The Princess Bride" leads to the "Shrek" movies, "Stardust," "Ladyhawke," and "Tangled." Criticker asks for rankings of various films to get an idea of your preferences before giving its recommendations based on its Taste Compatibility Index. Other sites tailor themselves to different audiences and some, like Tastekid, will also include other media recommendations like books and games along with movies.

90% of these systems are about bringing unfamiliar titles to the attention of the people who might enjoy them. It still takes some work to filter out the dreck and evaluate for appropriateness, but it beats aimless browsing through endless titles. And with the libraries of some online catalogs continuously expanding, suddenly we have access to more titles than we ever have before, and with far greater convenience. Figuring out how to navigate and drill through these massive collections is a necessity, and the more tools there are to help users do it, the better.

There's plenty of room for improvement though. I have yet to find any of these recommendation sites or services that match the ease and personalization plain old person to person recommendations. I've mentioned before that I always have trouble finding suitable films for my parents to watch, and no search algorithm or system I've found yet has been able to offer much help. I'm sure somebody will get it right someday though. There seems to be another one of these rating sites popping up every day. And then everyone else can have an endless "to watch" list waiting for them like me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Elementary" and "Revolution"

Some quick thoughts on pilots for two new shows that will be premiering later this month, NBC's "Revolution" and CBS's "Elementary."

Let's deal with the bad news first. "Revolution," the new post-apocalyptic adventure show that takes place fifteen years after all electricity stops functioning, is this year's "Terra Nova." Created by Eric Kripke and produced by J.J. Abrams, it imagines society falling apart, and the survivors ruled over by an evil militia. Those who are lucky live in peaceful agrarian villages, like Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee), his teenage son Danny (Graham Rogers), and daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) who is in her early twenties. The arrival of the villainous Captain Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) and his men one day leaves Ben dead, Danny captured, and Charlie on a dangerous road to Chicago to find her uncle Miles (Billy Burke).

The only two characters that are remotely interesting in the pilot are Aaron (Zak Orth), a former Google employee who serves as good-natured comic relief, and Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips), Ben's doctor girlfriend who invites herself along on the trip to find Miles. Have you noticed the female love interests are always doctors in shows like this? "Revolution" is one cliché after another. Charlie has a rebellious attitude and spouts a lot of ideals, but she's pretty useless. I think her pushy naïveté would have worked better if she was cast about a decade younger. Of course they give her a love interest, Nate (J.D. Pardo), who is temporarily on the wrong side. Miles drowns his sorrow in drink until Charlie shows up on his doorstep with a reason for him to reclaim his inner badass. I was looking forward to Giancarlo Esposito's involvement, but his evil Captain Neville is a few degrees too evil, and the real big bad is someone else. To top it all off, the premise of a future without electricity gets completely subverted when we find out that the whole point of the series is going to be to find a way to turn the electricity back on.

I think I've been spoiled by recent cable series with their high production values, because "Revolution" looks pretty lackluster. The pilot was directed by Jon Favreau, but the budget limitations are very obvious in spite of some flashy special effects and scenic destruction. And then there are the content limitations that come with being a network television production, which means "Revolution" never gets nearly as dark or intense as this kind of material really needs. After "The Walking Dead" and so many other apocalypse themed media properties lately, this one feels very derivative and underwhelming. It's certainly more competent and more promising than "Terra Nova." The later parts of the episode involving Graham Rogers were decent, probably they didn't come across like they were trying too hard to impress. However, "Revolution" is already telegraphing far too many familiar plot arcs that I have no interest in following.

"Elementary" is CBS's modern day version of "Sherlock Holmes" that is a completely different animal from "Sherlock," the BBC's modern day version of Sherlock Holmes. "Elementary" is a crime procedural, and the irony is that despite Holmes being the progenitor of so many crime solving eccentric detectives that appear in these shows, like Patrick Jane in "The Mentalist," and Dr. Lightman on "Lie to Me," "Elementary" feels derivative of them, rather than the other way around. The new Sherlock Holmes, played by Jonny Lee Miller, is a former consultant to Scotland Yard, currently residing in New York City after a stint in rehab. The performance is decent. Miller's borderline manic, often inconsiderate Sherlock Holmes is a little softer and more vulnerable than either the Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch takes, though it borrows bits from both.

The biggest departure is the show's other lead. Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon carrying some emotional scars who is hired by Holmes' unseen father to help with the transition from rehab back to normal life. However, this immediately sets up "Elementary" to follow in the footsteps of couple-based detective shows like "Bones" and "Castle." Fortunately, "Elementary" doesn't appear to be going in that direction. Though there's clearly going to be a lot of focus on the developing relationship between Holmes and Watson, it's not clear at all that this relationship is going to be a romantic one. Lucy Liu is a good match for Jonny Lee Miller because she underplays so much, but can sell the big moments, especially when she's dressing him down. I like the rapport that the two actors are building and I expect it to get even better as the show goes on.

Otherwise, I don't think there's anything particularly distinctive or interesting about "Elementary." The crimes and the crime solving are pretty typical of any other crime procedural on the air right now. The New York setting is so familiar, I wouldn't have batted an eye if they turned a corner and came across a few "Law & Order" alumni. Holmes piecing together elaborate fact patterns from tiny, disparate clues is something we've seen many, many times before and "Elementary" doesn't really offer any new twists on them the way that "Sherlock" did. However, familiarity doesn't necessarily mean tedium. The execution of the show is very good, and the actors are strong and add a lot to the mix. The show is not breaking any new ground, but it's clearly not trying to. If you're generally a fan of these kinds of slick hour-long whodunits, you'll probably be perfectly satisfied with "Elementary."

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tales From Development Hell

I used to be a much more voracious reader when I was younger, especially of genre material, so I became intimately acquainted with the Young Adult, or YA category of books that you usually read in junior high, and which is currently Hollywood's favorite place to turn to in search of new film franchises. After the success of "Harry Potter," "Twilight," and "Hunger Games," it seems like every YA novel of any popularity is under consideration for the feature treatment. However, a word of warning to young fans: the vast majority of the projects that are announced will never make it to the big screen, and will stay stuck in development hell. I've spent years tracking potential films based on various books that I liked as a kid or teenager, that ultimately amounted to very little. A few related cases below.

"Maniac Magee" - I learned about this one in the Disney Adventures magazine, of all places, way back in the early 90s when I was just hitting junior high and not supposed to be reading Disney Adventures magazine. The promise of a "Maniac" movie came with a cute little anecdote about how cute little child actor Elijah Wood had read the Newberry Award winning book and liked it so much, he offered to play the role of Maniac if Disney would make a movie version. Disney and Paramount did buy the rights, but never moved forward with the movie. However, I took the announcement face at face value and expected to see "Maniac Magee" in theaters in a year or so, and was already plotting ways to get the parents to take me to see it. For a couple of years afterwards, I was genuinely puzzled that it didn't emerge, and Elijah Wood kept showing up in other movies. Nickelodeon eventually made a television movie version of "Maniac Magee" in 2003, long after I had grown out of the target audience and stopped caring.

"The Sandman" - Right around the time the Internet became a real movie fan resource was also around the time I was in high school reading Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic book series and loving it. There was all kinds of chatter about an impending film version online, including full scripts that people were passing around the links to. This was really the first time I could track and follow the development of films as they were going on, so I was on top of every news item and every rumor about "The Sandman" movie. It never got out of the script stage, which was something it never quite occurred to me could happen. Surely if Warner Brothers was paying all these different writers, including Roger Avary, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, to turn out all these different drafts, that meant they were fully intending to make the movie, right? Several of the scripts and descriptions of scripts remain online, but "The Sandman" is still stuck in development hell. Last I heard, Eric Kripke tried to turn it into a television show a few years back.

"The Last Unicorn" - After the success of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, there was a brief period when everyone thought that fantasy movies were making a comeback. One shiny new project that turned some heads was Continent Films' proposed adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's fantasy novel, "The Last Unicorn." You might be familiar with the 1982 animated feature, but this was going to be a live action production with all the trimmings. There were some clear warning signs that the would-be filmmakers were promising things they couldn't deliver, but I got caught up in the excitement anyway. They had an official website! And they had a script and a director and all these actors attached! Well, it turned out the involvement of all the talent was wishful thinking, and all the big and even not-so-big names were scrubbed from the website after a redesign in 2006. And it turns out the Continent Films has never actually produced anything. All they have are the rights to make a "Last Unicorn" movie, which thankfully will expire in 2014. Then hopefully someone else can take a real shot at it.

"The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" - I was so sure this one was going to happen, and maybe it still might if we're lucky. Danny Devito is writing and directing the film, based on Avi's gripping maritime adventure novel I adored as a kid. Back in 2008 DeVito had a cast in place, featuring Saoirse Ronan, Pierce Brosnan, and Morgan Freeman, he had backers lined up, and he was spotted scouting for locations out on Lake Erie. But now one of his backers has sued him, Ronan's no longer attached, and the production has been moved to Ireland where it is supposed to start shooting next year. That said, there's still no news of who's replacing Ronan, there's no fixed start date, and we're coming up on ten years since Danny DeVito last directed a feature film. This has all the earmarks of a passion project gone terribly wrong. I'm still rooting for it, but I'm not going to be excited about "Charlotte Doyle" again until I see a real release date scheduled.

"The House of Stairs" - William Sleator was one of my favorite authors in junior high, because he wrote YA science fiction novels that were a little darker and headier than average. I always wondered why nobody ever tried to adapt his books, since they're right in the vein of what Hollywood has been hot for lately. And then yesterday I stumbled over an announcement from last November. My favorite of Sleator's works, "The House of Stairs," is supposed to be the inaugural film of the newly formed Canadian outfit, Zest Productions. They've hired a competent writer to tackle the script and director Martin Villeneuve, whose first film opens in October, is attached. However, Villenueve's next film is supposed to be whale tale "Aquarica," and there hasn't been a peep about the state of "House of Stairs" since the original announcement.

Oh boy. Here we go again.