Sunday, December 30, 2012

…Too Much, Let Me Sum Up

2012 is almost over, and for my last post of the year, I'm going to recap some of the highlights of my year in blogging and the some of the highs and lows in movies and television that I've written about.

First, there was a trio of posts that attracted more attention than anything else I wrote this year. Please note that I had to disqualify a couple of content-light posts that were targeted by bots and a review of "We Need to Talk About Kevin," that was only grabbing hits because people were misremembering the title. In third place, My Top 10 Episodes of "Community." It's been a rough year for the NBC sitcom, but it has a lot of loyal fans out there. In second, Piling on Rex Reed, evaluating the backlash against film critic Rex Reed after the publication of his embarrassing, error-filled dismissal of "Cabin in the Woods" back in April. However, the clear winner this year was How to Fix the MPAA Ratings System, where I laid out a couple of broad suggestions for how to improve the problematic American film rating system, using comparisons to systems in other countries.

However, I should note that none of the hit totals for these posts comes remotely close to the traffic still being generated by my Guys Like "My Little Pony," and That's Okay post from last year. I don’t understand the fascination, honestly, but if people are still getting something out of it, I'm not one to complain.

To date, there are still around fifty films on my "to watch" list, mostly foreign and independent films. Also, I haven't been making it out to the theaters these past few weeks as much as I'd have liked – I haven't even seen "The Hobbit" yet. However, from what I've seen so far, my favorite films of the year so far are Lincoln, The Master, "Amour," Cabin in the Woods, The Life of Pi, Bernie, Pitch Perfect, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Damsels in Distress, and "Your Sister's Sister." Though I'm a little behind on recent movies at the moment, I've been able to go out to theaters more regularly than I have in a long time, as often as once a week during some months.

2012 has been a strong year for movies, and the upcoming awards season is going to be very exciting and probably infuriating. However, the most pleasant surprise I had this year was Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, which was not only better than the first two "Madagascar" movies, but DreamWorks Animation's best feature since "How to Train Your Dragon." On the other side of the coin, all I wanted out of "Premium Rush" was a fun, silly action movie, but what I got was a downright incompetent mess that made a pair of my favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon, look like a pair of twits. And then there was Dark Shadows, the result of Tim Burton's latest collaboration with Johnny Depp. It was a film of so many good intentions and such terrible, terrible results. Fortunately, "Frankenweenie" showed enough of Burton's old spark to suggest he's not totally done for as a director.

Television this year was an odd experience, because there's so little that I'm watching live anymore, and I'm at least a season behind on many shows I fully intend to watch eventually. I didn't make much of an effort to stay current with the television of 2012 aside from reviewing the new pilots. The returning shows that I did keep up with and enjoyed included Mad Men, Community, Breaking Bad, Doctor Who, and Alphas. At the top of the list of promising newcomers I'll be watching once they hit DVD are HBO's Girls and Veep. As for disappointments, I have to say that the second season of Game of Thrones was well below expectations, and really labored under the strain of its multiple storylines and ever-expanding cast. However, easily the worst television I watched this year was NBC's Coverage of the London Olympics, which was so aggravating that I don't know if I'll bother watching any of the future games while NBC has the rights to them.

Finally, I leave you with some of my favorite analysis posts that I wrote this year. These weren't the most popular or the most topical pieces, but they were the ones that I thought came out the best, and that I enjoyed researching and putting together the most.

China v. Television
Where Are the Female Directors? In Television!
Trailers! Trailers! The Vintage Edition
The Death of Internet Authorship
Where in Hollywood's History Are We?
Playing the Top Ten Game
To Ray Bradbury
Tales From Development Hell
Filing Off the Serial Numbers
Measuring up Music Videos

Thanks for reading. See you next year.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Apocalypse Continues

So the world didn't end last week on Mayan Apocalypse day, but that doesn't mean that doomsday isn't still coming soon to a theater near you. In 2013 we can look forward to two comedies about the end of the world, Edgar Wright's "The World's End" with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and "This is the End," which has a gaggle of celebrities, including Seth Rogen and James Franco, playing themselves facing the end of days. And then there's the endless stream of post-apocalyptic science fiction action movies lined up, with such cheerful titles as "After Earth" and "Oblivion." There's no consensus on how the world is going to end, but there seems to be no doubt that we're all marching steadily toward the abyss.

Now this isn't the first time we've had had predictions of an apocalypse, and it's not the first time the impending doom has been co-opted as a marketing gimmick by Hollywood. Nuclear holocausts were all the rage during the Cold War era, giving us a few classics like "Dr. Strangelove" and "Planet of the Apes." Renewed anticipation of the Rapture spawned a cottage industry of Christian-themed disaster stories, including the "Left Behind" series. Back at the end of the '90s, there were several films, mostly action and horror, which used the coming of the new millennium as a handy plot point when they couldn't come up with anything more clever. Arnold Schwarzenegger even had a throwdown with the Devil for the occasion. And then there was also that remake of "The Omen" that only seemed to exist so that it could be released on the auspicious date of June 6th, 2006. The fact that nothing particularly interesting actually happened on12/31/99 or 06/06/06 didn't phase anyone. We just moved right on to the next theoretical deadline.

The potential 2012 apocalypse has definitely been one of the biggest in recent memory though. Theories about the end of the Mayan calendar have been brewing for a very long time, and have gotten quite hyped up in the popular culture over the years. Roland Emmerich's disaster pic "2012," released in 2009, is the most obvious one to take advantage of this. And then there was 2007's "I Am Legend," set in a 2012 where a plague had killed off most of the human population. 2012 itself gave us the romantic comedy, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World." Even art house fixture Lars von Trier got in on the action and obliterated planet Earth in 2011's "Melancholia." And of course there have been all the SyFy made-for TV spectaculars and cheap direct-to video B-movie thrillers, along with all the gleefully portentous apocalypse specials on the Discovery Channel. The National Geographic Channel has even been profiling paranoid true believers in "Doomsday Preppers," currently in its second season.

Dusting off the armchair psychologist, I want to point out that the apocalypse mania probably isn't all due to marketing efforts. Our media mirrors the psyche of the audience that consumes it, and the continued fixation on the destruction of humankind and/or the planet Earth points to a growing unease about the state of civilization as we know it. 2012 was a rough year, with a lot of things for the American populace to worry about, including the state of the environment, the "fiscal cliff," a contentious election, and an economy that's still shaky a best. I suspect a lot of people have idly wondered if it might be better to just blow up the whole mess and start civilization over. Many have theorized that the recent prevalence of apocalypse-themed fiction, including the very popular zombie apocalypse sub-genre, is tied into this vein of fatalism. I mean, how else to explain the success of NBC's deeply mediocre apocalypse adventure serial, "Revolution"? 2012 may be over, and it's not clear which date the loonies will latch onto next, but until we get out of this cultural funk, apocalypse media isn't going anywhere.

Of all the upcoming apocalypse films and shows, it's the comedies that I'm looking forward to the most because they seem the most self-aware and the most likely to do something interesting with the concept. After all the gloom and doom of movies like "The Road" and "The Turin Horse," it'll be nice to get some laughs out of these disaster scenarios for once. Apocalypse narratives have become a full-blown genre over the last decade or so, and they're past due for a good riffing. Probably the best part of Mayan Apocalypse day was getting the new teaser trailer for "This is the End," which promises the destruction of Los Angeles and irreverence in abundance.

However, I don't really have an issue with apocalypse films and shows sticking around in pop culture for a while longer. They're often contrived as hell, but they're very rarely boring.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The List Season

I hear a lot of complaints about the "best of" year end critics' lists, how they're so reductive and they're so repetitive, and how everyone just ends up reinforcing each other's choices. There's a lot of validity to these arguments, but I love year end lists and often I depend on them for recommendations. There hasn't been a single year where I haven't come away from perusing the major and not-so-major critics' lists of the best movies or television shows without having dozens of new titles to add to my personal "to watch" lists. I always hear the same complaints every year around this time about how recent movies have been underwhelming, and there aren't as many good films as there were in years past. And every year, the critics' lists put my fears to rest, because of the sheer scope and volume and variety of different titles.

The professional critics are the most informed members of the media establishment, because it's their job to see and evaluate everything. I try to keep up with all the reviews and the festival reports during the year, but there are always titles that slip through the cracks. The year end lists are a handy aggregation of every critic's biggest recommendations, and a great way to suss out what I've overlooked. I get a huge number of foreign, independent, and documentary titles to look out for, especially the ones that haven't been very high profile. Sure, people are buzzing about "Amour," "Holy Motors," and "Rust and Bone," as possible foreign contenders in the Oscar race this year, but then you have titles like Ann Hui's "A Simple Life," that popped up on Roger Ebert's list today, and Kleber Mendonça Filo's "Neighboring Sounds," a Brazilian drama that appeared on A.O. Scott's. I didn't know either film existed before yesterday. "Bully" and "Searching for Sugar Man" have been the most talked about documentaries, but I'm more excited about tracking down "Detropia," "The Gatekeepers," and "How to Survive a Plague."

Sure, lots of these lists do largely look the same. According to Metacritic, which aggregates many critics' lists and keeps track of how many mentions each films gets, the most popular films of the year among the critical set are "The Master," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Moonrise Kingdom," and "Lincoln," which is not unexpected. However, you're not likely to see many lists that look exactly alike, and there's such a wide range of pictures that make appearances. Crowd-pleasing genre films like "Cabin in the Woods" and "The Raid: Redemption" show up on several lists apiece right alongside obscurities like "Dark Horse" and "Compliance." "Ted" is sitting pretty in the #2 spot of Peter Bradshaw's list, sandwiched right between "The Master" and "Amour." I didn't think much of "The Dark Knight Rises," "Premium Rush," or "Cosmopolis," none of which got a particularly strong reception, but I've seen them on individual lists too, because somebody out there loved them enough to save them a spot.

I tend to trust lists like this more than review aggregators or award wins, because the choices are very personal to a particular reviewer, and the limitation to ten or fifteen or twenty entries means they have to weigh all these different films against each other and weed out the mediocrity. Though they got roughly the same percentage of positive reviews, it's telling that a grand total of nobody put "Hitchcock" on any of these lists, but more than a few found room for "Cloud Atlas." And while every reviewer paid lip service to PIXAR's "Brave," when it came down to it, "Frankenweenie" and "Wreck-It Ralph" emerged as the best regarded mainstream toons of the year. I say mainstream, because there are a pair of independent animated features, Chris Sullivan's "Consuming Spirits" and Don Hertzfeldt's "It's Such a Beautiful Day," that have been picking up a lot of critical buzz despite tiny theatrical runs that didn't even qualify them for the Oscars.

As usual, my own best of the year list won't be ready until next October because I'll be busy tracking down many of these titles. Most people are getting down to the last handful of theatrical releases and ready to call it quits on 2012, but my current "to watch" list still has roughly fifty entries and I don't think I'm done adding to it yet. How could I write an honest list worth a damn without first getting a look at intriguing films like "Chicken With Plums" or "Berberian Sound Studio" or "War Witch"? "Holy Motors" has been such a divisive film, I feel I really should have an opinion on it. After all, at this point last year, I'd only seen six of the films that ultimately ended up on my 2011 Top Ten list. (And more on that in a day or two)

So it may be the end of the year, but for me 2012 movies are just getting started.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Venturing Into "Oklahoma!"

I have a love hate relationship with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical films. On the one hand, I have great affection for some of their later work, which I was familiar with as a child, especially "Sound of Music" and "Cinderella." On the other hand, some of their older, more ambitious titles like "Carousel" and "South Pacific" have left me cold. I appreciate that they were very forward-looking for their time, often tackling themes of race relations and class tensions. Problematic as it was in some respects, I strongly respect and appreciate "Flower Drum Song," a groundbreaking film about the Asian-American experience. The trouble is that many of these stories have aged very badly, often relying on caricatures that are so outdated that they seem alien to the modern viewer. So I wasn't looking forward to "Oklahoma!" the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration for stage that premiered in 1943, and was adapted to screen in 1955. The film was a huge success and it seems like everyone of my parents' generation can sing a few bars of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'" But does it hold up in 2012?

For the first hour of "Oklahoma!" it didn't seem likely. A cowboy named Curly (Gordon McRae) courts pretty Laurey (Shirley Jones). Laurey and her Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood) own a small farm and ranch, under the care of a hired man, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Curly and Laurey are clearly in love and meant to be together, but both are stubborn young hotheads, and a minor tiff prompts Laurey to agree to go to the local dance with Jud. This proves to be a grave mistake, as Jud is possessive of Laurey, jealous of Curly, and easily riled. Curly and Laurey's adolescent teasing and flouncing, coupled with a farcical subplot involving the love triangle of comic characters Will Parker (Gene Nelson), Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), and Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert), make the opening of "Oklahoma!" a real slog. Most of the characters are so broad, and so simplistic, it's difficult to take them seriously. The stylized Midwest patter doesn't help matters, often more distracting than charming. A solo by the goofy Ado Annie is particularly hard to sit through. "Oklahoma!" is famous for having ushered in a new era of psychological complexity and dramatic heft in musicals, but precious little of that is evident until the end of the first act.

The turning point is a ballet dream sequence, where Laurey dreams of Curly and Jud fighting over her affections and the possible consequences. Suddenly the full scope of the orchestral score is unleashed, and the pioneering 70 mm format is used to its full potential as dancers fill the screen. "Oklahoma!" opens with beautiful scenic shots of Curly riding through a cornfield, but most of the action and the song numbers are fairly static and contained. Director Fred Zinneman is better known for stately Westerns and dramas, including "From Here to Eternity" and "High Noon," and his composition is fairly intimate. Aside from the ballet, the dance and crowd sequences are choreographed with realism and restraint, far more so than we would see in the later widescreen musicals. So it's only the rare frame that utilizes the widescreen format in a noticeable manner. However, this is appropriate for "Oklahoma!" which does manage to become a compelling drama in the second act as Laurey and Curly become more serious in their romantic intentions. The conflict is simple and straightforward, with a clear villain in Jud and only minor hints of social messages in the tensions between the cowboys and farmers. However, it's a satisfying and entertaining spectacle in a way that next few Rodgers and Hammerstein films were not.

I think the reason "Oklahoma!" works while the subsequent, more ambitious "Carousel" falls flat, is that there's a much better balance between the humorous and dramatic portions of the film. "Carousel" and "Oklahoma!" share the same leads, Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones. Bright-eyed and energetic, they're far more suited to playing the lighthearted roles of Curly and Laurey than the doomed couple in "Carousel." "Oklahoma!" has its share of intensity and the handsome young lovers reveal they do have some depth in the face of adversity, but the movie is never so serious that it gives up the farce completely. When Jud and Curly begin to clash in earnest, it becomes a relief to have a scene or two of Ado Annie and her hapless beaus at regular intervals. By the end of the film, I really warmed up to them. The songs are catchy and fun, primarily used to set the mood instead of moving the action along, so they rarely feel intrusive. It's not hard to imagine the film without the songs, but the tone of the film would be very different.

"Oklahoma!" has many of the elements that I dislike in the early Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, including maudlin nostalgia and a tendency to play up the quaintness of certain regional characteristics. However, in the larger picture these are minor complaints. "Oklahoma!" is a little self-important at times, but it is very much a crowd-pleasing feel-good picture. With its considerable length and the amount of time it takes for the plot to kick into gear, this is not a film I expect to revisit any time soon. However, "Oklahoma!" remains very watchable and well-made, and makes a decent introduction to the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre.

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Favorite "Christmas Carol" Adaptation

No director-of-the-month post this time, kids. Instead, to celebrate the holiday season, I thought I'd write up a post for my favorite version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The story has been adapted to film countless times, but my favorite is not one of the more well-regarded ones. In fact, it got very mixed reviews and Siskel and Ebert famously panned it. And yet, it was the first version of the "Christmas Carol" story that I knew, and I still find it impossible to evaluate with much objectivity because I love the darn thing so much. I'm talking about the 1983 Disney short, "Mickey's Christmas Carol," which arrived in theaters paired with a rerelease of "The Rescuers," and subsequently aired as a television special on various networks for many years.

"Mickey's Christmas Carol" holds an important place in Disney animation history. The studio was in the middle of a bumpy transition to the modern era, and trying to recapture some of the glory of its past. At the time of release, Mickey Mouse had been absent from the big screen for thirty years, and "Christmas Carol" often feels like a tribute to golden age of Disney shorts. It features all the classic characters like Goofy, as a ghostly, bumbling Marley, Mickey and Minnie heading the adorable Cratchit household, and Daisy Duck in the most substantial role she ever had, as Scrooge's lost love Isabelle. And for the real Disney geeks, there are dozens of more obscure characters in smaller parts and filling in the backgrounds, including Jiminy Cricket, Willie the Giant, Mr. Toad, Mole and Ratty, and a gaggle of animal extras from "Robin Hood." I always get emotional when Donald Duck shows up though, as this was the final appearance of Clarence Nash in the role, who had been the voice behind the duck since 1934.

The real star of the show was Scrooge McDuck, though, who had originated in Carl Barks' comics, and had only made a few minor appearances in the shorts and on television. Voiced by Alan Young, this was always my favorite version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Though I've come to appreciate the work of Alastair Sim and Albert Finney, Scrooge was not Scrooge without a beak and tail feathers. I love the way he gets all giddy while counting his money, his reactions to the arrivals of the different Ghosts, and the final, loony change of heart on Christmas morning. The story's fantasy sequences never worked better, as there are things that you can do with a cartoon duck that simply can't be done with a human being, even if it's a CGI Jim Carrey. And surely no version of Scrooge ever got better dialogue or funnier gags. Scrooge McDuck would go on to appear in "Duck Tales" a few years later, but there's no doubt it was "Christmas Carol" that made him a headliner.

The biggest criticism of Disney's take on Dickens was that it truncated the story and added so many distracting set pieces, the narrative became practically incoherent. Compare "Mickey's Christmas Carol" to "The Muppet Christmas Carol" feature, which was actually very faithful to the original Dickens in spite of the added song numbers and puppet frogs. However, as a very small child I do remember getting all the main points of the "Christmas Carol" from the Mickey version, particularly Scrooge's redemption. My first encounters with the live action versions were much more confusing, and their ghosts were a little too intense for me. Mickey's Christmas Carol" had scary parts, particularly Pete showing up in the cemetery as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but on the whole it was much easier for a six-year-old to take. And when I was old enough to appreciate the grown-up versions, I was surprised at how little Disney had left out.

"Mickey's Christmas Carol" was the only Christmas special I looked forward to every year. Oh, Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch were all very well, but there was something about "Christmas Carol" that was just a little more special. Maybe it was the feature quality animation, the charming score, or just the presentation. The opening credits sequence with those gorgeous character sketches on yellowed paper always stuck with me. And examining those credits reveals several members of the Disney Renaissance generation getting their feet wet, including Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Mark Dindal, Randy Cartwright, Don Hahn, Eric Larson, and John Lasseter. Sadly "Mickey's Christmas Carol" has quietly departed from network television, and only shows up now and then in edited form on ABC Family.

However, Disney did release a letterboxed version of the short with one of the Mickey Mouse shorts collections a few years ago. I saw it recently, and I'm happy to report that it's still as lovely and as funny and as sweet as it ever was. And I still enjoy it as much as I did when I was six. That's my idea of a classic.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"The Wire" Year Two

Spoilers ahead for the first and second seasons of "The Wire."

Watching the series is going faster than I expected, probably because I'm enjoying it so much. Season Two is an easier watch than Season One, even though in many ways it has to start over from the beginning, introducing us to a new set of characters involved in crime and corruption, and the unseen social forces behind them that contribute to this. It also continues to follow most of the characters from the police and the Barksdale organization from Season One, and sets up future conflicts in subsequent seasons.

Season Two is about the Baltimore docks, home to the International Brotherhood of Stevedores union. Work is scarce and growing scarcer, so union treasurer Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) has been working with a group of Greek smugglers to move drugs and contraband, and spreading the money around for political leverage. His nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber) and son Ziggy (James Ransone) are major POV characters, who start to do extra jobs on the side for warehouse owner Spiros Vondopoulos (Paul Ben-Victor) and his mysterious boss, known only as "The Greek" (Bill Raymond). The big case of the season is the discovery of thirteen dead Jane Does suffocated to death in one of the shipping containers by Port Authority officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan). A separate Jane Doe is discovered by McNulty who appears to be connected to the others. Finally, police Major Valcheck (Al Brown) gets into a petty feud with Frank Sobotka and puts together a detail to investigate him. All three investigations eventually become a single, complicated case.

As a kid I was always frustrated by television shows that insisted on returning everything to an established status quo at the end of every episode, so it was hard to ignore the way that the second season of "The Wire" spends so much time reuniting all the major members of the team that brought down Avon Barksdale in Season One, even though several of those members, including Daniels and McNulty, are on the verge of quitting the police entirely. Moreover, the establishment of the major crimes unit headed by Lt. Daniels seems to be an awfully big contrivance to keep them all together. It really undermines the sense of uncertainty and institutional dysfunction of Season One. However, I do appreciate that Daniels and McNulty get ahead by using the flaws of the system to their own advantage, and their motives are less than pure. McNulty gets Homicide on the hook for the Jane Does as revenge for his demotion by Rawls (John Doman). Prez is Valcheck's son-in-law, and it's ultimately nepotism and Valcheck's outsized sense of entitlement that gets Daniels involved and the ball rolling. Still, it all seems a little too convenient and expected.

And then they kill off D'Angelo Barksdale. This was a major shock, as D'Angelo was one of my favorite characters from Season One, and I expected that "The Wire" would continue to chart his growth and disillusionment through the rest of its run. Now it's Omar and Stringer Bell who are being maneuvered into the lead positions of the local drug trade storyline, which stays firmly in the background for most of the year, but is quietly building up to something bigger to come. Rival kingpin Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew) and Bodie Broadus (J.D. Williams) become more prominent, along with a new character, assassin Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts), who may be the most caricatured, almost cartoonish figure in the show so far. I haven't decided one way or the other about him yet, but seeing him clash with Omar is a lot of fun. Otherwise, Stringer and Avon's troubles trying to run the operation with Avon in prison are rarely very compelling. I expect all the slow character-building will pay off next season though.

I didn't find the characters from the docks nearly as interesting as the Barksdale gang members. The trouble is that none of them are particularly smart and you don't get the sense that they're trapped in their lives the way that the drug dealers in the courtyard were. Frank Sabotka, who has such altruistic intentions, is awfully sympathetic though. Chris Bauer's performance is fantastic, embodying a working class man with very deep loyalties and convictions, grappling with the unintended consequences of dealing with the wrong people. He's a perfect tragic figure, whose fairly mild aspirations end up costing him everything. Unfortunately, nobody else around him operates at the same level. Ziggy and Nick are a pretty dull set of lunkheads, even if Ziggy is occasionally a very creative and whimsical lunkhead. The Greeks don't make much of an impression.

All in all, Season Two feels slighter than Season One. Sabotka and The Greek aren't nearly as formidable as Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. The fight to get the case solved doesn't seem nearly as arduous. It's easy to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. Still, the season definitely has its moments. The "the dead girls in a can" crime is shocking, not so much for the crime itself, but for the way all the different agencies keep trying to pass responsibility off on one another, and how the girls are ultimately used as political and bureaucratic leverage by various characters. It becomes clearer than ever that McNulty is not necessarily a good guy, displaying self-destructive tendencies that are probably going to get him killed. And Omar's appearance in court, tying up loose ends from one of last year's murders, is one for the ages.

Onward to Season Three.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Pitch Perfect"? Yup

"Pitch Perfect" is the most fun I've had at the movies all year and the best girl power movie I've seen in ages. I wasn't expecting much, as I figured from the a capella singing competition angle that this was going to be similar territory to "Glee." I picked the wrong network comedy as a point of comparison. In fact, "Pitch Perfect" was scripted by "30 Rock" veteran Kay Cannon, and shares that show's razor sharp comedic sensibilities and pop-culture verve.

Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) reluctantly begins her freshman year at Barden University. She wants to go to Los Angeles and start producing music, but her father insists she give the college experience a real try. This involves participating in at least one extracurricular, so Beca joins up with the Barden Bellas, the school's all-female a capella group. The Bellas suffered a horrific loss at the finals of the national competition the year prior, and the group's rigid leader, Audrey (Anna Camp), is determined to redeem herself by clawing her way back to the top. Alas, Audrey and her co-leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) are stuck with a motley crew of newcomers including urban-outfitted Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), extremely soft-spoken Lily (Hana Mae Lee), well-endowed Stacie (Alexis Knapp), and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson). Beca clashes with Audrey immediately by suggesting more contemporary music choices and wardrobes. She also gets friendly with Jesse (Skylar Austin), a member of the Bellas' all-male rivals, the Treblemakers, lead by the uncouth, but musically gifted Bumper (Adam DeVine).

"Pitch Perfect" has a premise that is as old as the hills that are alive with the sound of music. Beca has to bond with the other girls and lead them to victory by rejecting convention and embracing a new and daring approach to a capella. There will be multiple rounds of tense competition, and it's only after the girls have sunk to their lowest point that they'll be able to find the inspiration to power ahead to victory. The nice thing about "Pitch Perfect" is how fully fleshed out and self-aware the writing is. Sure, the plot is old, but that doesn't mean it can't still be a lot of fun. There are lively musical numbers in the film, and they're great, but it's the comedy that's the biggest selling point. It's Audrey demanding a practice regimen that includes cardio, the thinly-veiled disdain between competition commentators played by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, and the endless, ridiculous a capella puns. You get a little raunch and a little gross-out humor and a little irony, but not so much that they call attention to themselves. This isn't "Bridesmaids" and it's certainly not "Juno," though you can see the influences of both.

Best of all are the characters and the performances. I've been waiting for Anna Kendrick to get a headlining role in something where I could really cheer for her, and this is it. However, she and everyone else in the cast are constantly upstaged by Rebel Wilson as the boisterous Fat Amy, who explains to Audrey and Chloe that she calls herself Fat Amy so that "twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back." Not everyone gets much screen time, and there are an awful lot of old chiches in the mix, but they're all so well used. The token black girl's ethnicity is never mentioned once, but the question of whether she's a lesbian becomes a running joke. The soft-spoken Asian girl is so quiet you can't hear her, but when you do catch a few words, you realize everything coming out of her mouth is outrageous. It's only a little bit of subversion, but it helps enliven all the usual plot complications needed to get us to the big finale number and the happy ending.

Speaking of the a capella numbers, they're very easy on the ears and the big production numbers are a blast to watch. According to the press notes, everyone did their own singing, so you shouldn't go into this expecting technical perfection, but the enthusiasm and the creativity make up for a lot. "Pitch Perfect" was a pretty low budget production, and there's a lot of corner trimming in general. For instance, Carnegie Hall is namechecked several times as the site of the finals, but we don't get so much as a single New York City exterior shot. However, I think that's also part of the film's charm. It has a few stars who are on their way up, but none of them are too big yet that they overwhelm the production. The whole thing feels a little last minute and thrown-together, but that injects a spontaneity and authenticity that proves invaluable.

“Pitch Perfect” could have so easily been rote and tired and glossy and dull, but sometimes the old formula works when a movie really commits to every piece of that formula – and isn’t afraid to add vomit jokes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Measuring up Music Videos

One region of the media landscape I've never made any headway with whatsoever is popular music. The only time I ever tried to keep up was back in college, when I'd watch the VH1 Top 20 countdowns while I did my laundry. I developed a fondness for the music videos even if I often found the music inexplicable. I never made much of an effort to really explore the medium, but last night I stumbled across a TIME magazine list of the best music videos of the last 30 years. I had a great time getting acquainted with videos like Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," and Talking Heads' "Once in Lifetime," which was recently heard in the first "Wreck-it-Ralph" trailer. I've never needed any convincing that music videos were an art form, and some of my favorite directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have done some of their best work in videos.

However, when I sat down to write about music videos for this blog, I found myself facing a basic question. Are music videos a form of film or television? How should they be categorized? Well, the modern music video as we know it gained popularity with the rise of MTV in the early 1980s. There's a reason why the TIME list only goes back thirty years. However, music videos also have many film antecedents, going back all the way to the beginnings of the sound era. "Song film" shorts were popular once the sound era came around, and much of the structure and style of music videos came straight from early film musicals like the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night." There were also promotional clips and "inserts" consisting of filmed segments for specific songs that the record companies made in the 60s and 70s, some for film and some for television. You could argue that music videos have mostly been watched on television and have made their most significant advances in that format. However, it's quickly becoming the case that most music videos are watched on the internet, which also happens to remove some of the length and content restrictions of television. The record companies embraced the internet far more quickly than the studios once they became aware that they could reach a much larger potential audience online. I wonder if the transition might result in a further evolution in the music video form.

Maybe music videos should be in their own category, unconnected to any particular media platform, like video art installations or virtual theme park rides. The television and film establishments haven't been very good about recognizing the form. Aside from the MTV Video Music Awards, few major media institutions recognize the merits of the music video. You'll find no category for them at the Oscars or the Emmys. Music videos have slowly started receiving more attention from film historians in recent years, since several major directors have gotten their start in videos. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Film Archive back in 2009, the first music video to receive that honor. The New York Museum of Modern Art added two Mark Romanek videos, Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and Madonna's "Bedtime Story," to their permanent collection. Also, I found the "The Beastie Boys Video Anthology" occupying a spot in the Criterion Collection, officially spine #100.

There's no denying that music videos should be considered a form of advertising, and there's still some disagreement in the music industry as to whether they should be primarily treated as advertisements for the bands they feature, or whether they qualify as content. Music videos clearly still have a major marketing effect on specific songs, like PSY's "Gangnam Style," for instance. In many cases this has a negative effect on the videos since their function as advertisement can often mean content that skews very commercial. On the other hand, music videos are also far more likely to feature experimental filmmaking techniques and unique stylistic conceits that wouldn't be acceptable in mainstream feature films. A recent trend has been interactivity, in videos like Arcade Fire's "Wilderness Downtown," that can be customized. They also follow a different set of content rules, with major artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga cultivating reputations for controversial music videos with boundary-pushing content.

I don't think it's possible to categorize music videos as solely a product of film or television, or the internet, which is why I ended up using the tags for all of them. It's nice to think of them as a meeting point of all three, though I think if I had to pick one it would be the short film. Shorts were always more experimental, more free-form, and more open to new ideas. Music videos fit those criteria perfectly. Moreover, they're really the only short form media that still have any impact on the popular culture anymore.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Top Ten "Buffy" Episodes

Because it's the kind of day where I need a little "Buffy" to cheer me up, here are my ten favorite episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," listed in chronological order. As usual, I'll be cheating and counting two-parters as single entries. And spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!

Halloween - One of my favorite comedic installments, where the gang falls victim to a spell that turns them into whatever Halloween costume they happen to be wearing. Willow ends up a ghost, Buffy is stuck as a ditzy Southern belle, and Xander goes one-man-army on us. It's a shame that he villain of the week, Ethan Rayne, never developed into anything more interesting despite his connections with Giles, because he shows a lot of potential here.

Surprise and Innocence - The second season two-parter where Buffy finally gets intimate with Angel, and Angel loses his soul, turning into the monstrous Angelus. This was the big turning point in the Buffy and Angel romance that kept it from being the kind of maudlin high school girl's fantasy that we got in the "Twilight" franchise. Angelus also makes for an awfully fun villain, and I count him as one of the series' most satisfying Big Bads.

Becoming - Another big two-parter that ended the second season with Buffy and Angelus's big showdown. The MVP here was Spike, though, the sarcastic vampire baddie whose resentments toward Angelus and distaste for apocalypses make him an ally of convenience to the Scooby Gang. With loads of payoff for all the arcs in a very eventful season, these weren't the show's best episodes, but they're the ones I think of first when someone mentions "Buffy."

The Wish - Of all the worst-cast-scenario episodes I've ever seen, this is probably my favorite. You have a truly nightmarish version of Sunnyvale, twisted versions of all the main characters, including a jaw-droppingly sexualized Willow, and the show even goes so far as to kill our regular universe POV character, Cordelia, halfway through the episode. And yet the good guys still prove to be the good guys at heart, and prevail in the end.

The Zeppo - Xander saves the day while the rest of the gang are distracted by yet another impending apocalypse. The episode and Nicolas Brendan's performance in it are so good, it actually sparked a small fan campaign to get Brendan cast as Spider-man in the Sam Raimi films. Loaded with humor, culminating in a great one-night-stand sequence with then-newbie character Faith, "The Zeppo" is the ultimate Xander episode.

Graduation Day - Another season finale two-parter, and one of the most significant in the show's run. These were two of the three episodes delayed due to the Columbine shootings, and the fans did not react well, resorting to bootlegging the broadcast from the Canadians, with Joss Whedon's blessing. After all, we'd waited three years to see the Scooby Gang say goodbye to their high school days, and Sunnydale High blown to smithereens.

Hush - The Gentlemen were probably the scariest villains that the show ever came up with. The floating, the grimaces, and those minions flopping about in their straitjackets - all of it was such wonderful nightmare fuel. A good chunk of the normally dialogue-heavy show is completely without dialogue, resulting in Giles having to use a projector and transparencies to deliver his usual exposition, and Buffy left to fight without her quips.

Fool for Love - The Spike episode that finally shows us his history with Slayers and brings about a definitive end to the drawn-out arc where he couldn't harm humans due to that inhibitor chip implanted by the Initiative. There's loads of good character development here, and the flashback scenes are a lot of fun, particularly Spike's origin story and his falling out with Drusilla. I'm not sure I buy his relationship with Buffy, but at least the lead-in to it is great.

The Body - The later seasons of "Buffy" were much less consistent than the early ones, but it could occasionally still come up with moments of brilliance. One of these was the death of Joyce Summers, which was not totally unexpected but still arrived with uncomfortable suddenness. "Buffy" had killed off many characters before, but this was the death with the biggest impact, and handled in the most realistic and heartbreaking fashion.

Normal Again - I know, I know. The sixth season episode everyone loves is "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode. However, my favorite was the one that took the opposite approach, questioning every unrealistic element of the series by introducing us to an alternate universe where Sunnydale is only the figment of a mentally disturbed Buffy's imagination. Though the concept came up a little short, this is still one of the show's bravest hours.

Honorable mentions go to "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," "School Hard," "What's My Line," "Lover's Walk," "Doppelgangland," (best Willow episode), "Restless," "Hell's Bells," and "Chosen."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best 2012 Film Memorial

As the annual "Best of" lists and the trailer supercuts are getting passed around online, there's one internet video that caught my attention yesterday and now refuses to let go: the TCM tributee to all the actors and filmmakers who passed away during 2012. TCM has been making these tributes for several years now, and they're always wonderfully tasteful and classy and aimed at those of us who know and love the classics. So while more famous names like Whitney Houston and Davey Jones do make appearances, the final, lingering shots at the very end are of producer Richard D. Zaunck, and beloved actor Ernest Borgnine, who began his acting career in the 50s. I don't exactly look forward to these videos every year, since they leave such bittersweet feelings, but I've always appreciated them, and now more than ever.

I've been growing disenchanted with the "In Memoriam" segments that have become something of a staple of all the major awards shows. I like the sentiment behind them, and the chance to see Hollywood acknowledge its past and history, but the execution lately leaves a lot ot be desired. A popular singer will be trotted out to croon something appropriately somber. The stage will clear and the lights will dim. And then, inevitably, you get the same old scroll of famous names and flattering portraits, but few contextual clips to show you what they actually contributed to the movies. There used to be many complaints about the inclusion of applause from the audience being in very poor taste, until they took the applause away, and the segments became infinitely more tedious and awkward. They always feel rushed because of the time constraints of the awards ceremonies, yet also tend to feel interminable because there are always more unfamiliar names than familiar ones in the mix. Too many just feel forced and perfunctory.

What "TCM Remembers" does that's so effective, is to pair up the usual portraits and clips of these filmmakers with original footage, usually some nostalgic landscapes and nature shots, helping to break up the listed names and to help convey a properly reflective mood. This year, those shots centered around an abandoned drive-in theater, which we see slowly, miraculously come back to life over the course of the leisurely paced, nearly six-minute tribute. The projectors turn on by themselves as night falls, the film strips whizzing away, and the movie images are projected at both the screens and up into the expanse of the starry night sky. It quietly positions film as a means of brief resurrection for these beloved talents, while commenting on the transience of film itself. It also provides a strong reminder that the movie business is in a state of transition, and physical film and the art of projection are slowly but surely disappearing as digital is becoming the new standard. In a sense, the passing of these film greats coincides with the passing of this whole era of film.

The finale section was particularly effective for me, because I grew up with the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas movies of the 70s and 80s. At first I didn't know why we were seeing shots of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," and "Return of the Jedi." And then came the portraits of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, swordmaster Bob Anderson, and special effects guru Carlo Rambaldi, who designed E.T. Richard D. Zaunck produced "Jaws," of course. And it sunk in exactly how much of an influence these artists had on my movie-loving childhood. Though the instrumental provided by French alt-rock band M83 is very nice, suddenly in my head all I could hear was a John Williams score.

This is what I look for in these memorial tributes, and why I still instinctively want to watch every terrible variant of them in every terrible awards show. It's that split-second recognition and connection that the really strong ones manage to evoke, that I find invaluable in helping me to appreciate someone whose death I might have heard about offhand, and never really registered. Sure, I knew that Alex Karras passed, but it completely escaped by attention that Mongo from "Blazing Saddles" was gone with him. Just that one shot in the TCM video was enough to remind me. The film medium is great like that.

Now I will end this post per the usual traditional when one discusses these kinds of tributes - by pointing out the people who got left out: David Kelly, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Eiko Ishioka, and Jerry Nelson, to name a few. Of course, there have to be limits to the length of these videos, and everybody ends up leaving out somebody. It's inevitable. However, TCM has consistently been much better than most in this regard, and for that I'm grateful.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Two Internet Activism Docs

A pair of interesting documentaries on the subject in internet activism popped up on various streaming services recently: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" and "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists." I enjoyed both for different reasons, but one is clearly superior to the other by a wide margin.

First, "We Are Legion," which is a documentary about the recent activities of the hacker group known as Anonymous. I've done some basic reading up on the activities of Anonymous, and the documentary does a decent job of fleshing out events I was already familiar with, like their origins on the 4chan boards and the campaign against Scientology. It was nice to see some of the faces behind the screen names, and some of the interviews were illuminating. If you're not familiar with Anonymous, the first section of the film gives a nice little primer on what they're all about and provide details on some of their greatest hits.

However, where things get a little more slippery is after Anonymous attracts the attention of the authorities, and people start getting arrested. "We Are Legion" puts itself firmly on the side of the Anonymous members, glorifying their exploits and trying to justify their actions. It is particularly one-sided in how it looks at some of the Anonymous members who have been outed and unmasked, painting them as persecuted activists. The documentary also touches far too briefly on the emergence of LulzSec, a splinter group of Anonymous that embarked on a destructive hacking campaign in 2011 and 2012.

By taking the stance that it does, "We Are Legion" avoids asking the most interesting questions about Anonymous's brand of internet activism, dubbed "hacktivism" here. What's the distinction between a hacktivist and a criminal hacker who just causes chaos for fun? The group's rise in popularity and visibility seems like an accident, and maybe the group's altruistic streak will prove to have only been temporary. And if the young, photogenic kids who the filmmakers interviewed aren't to blame for the group's crimes, then who should be? Anonymous is purportedly a leaderless collective, after all. The lack of criticism doesn't sit right, especially since I've seen far more balanced, in-depth coverage of Anonymous's activities from other sources.

I think that's why the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, comes off as a far more satisfying documentary subject. Here is a man who is operating entirely out in the open, who is committing his audacious protests against a repressive government in the view of the entire world. Ai Weiwei is known as a contemporary conceptual artist, but he clearly fits the profile of an internet activist, as he has learned to harness the power of the internet to aid him in many of his projects, and his work is often highly politically charged. Unlike Anonymous, there's no shirking of responsibility or hiding behind screen names. His fame actually protects him in many cases, making it more difficult for the authorities to target and suppress him.

"Never Sorry" often feels like a cat-and-mouse game between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese government. The artist provokes through his art, and the government retaliates. The stakes are high. We watch as these incidents escalate, particularly after the creation of an installation commenting on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Filming becomes a challenge for the documentary crew, with access more and more limited until Ai Weiwei 's blog is shut down and the man himself detained. At the same time, the documentary maintains a strong focus on the creation of Ai Weiwei's art. Significant portions of the film are devoted to observing the development of some of his most famous exhibits, including the celebrated sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern.

It would have been easy to paint their subject as a saint, but in profiling Ai Weiwei, the filmmakers don't neglect the less savory parts of his character. The man is immensely likable, but pains are taken to ensure that he remains a human being in the eyes of the audience. And ultimately, his eccentricities, his hypocrisies, and his moments of weakness just make his creativity and his bravery all the more remarkable. The documentary makes a strong case for Ai Weiwei being one of the most important artists working today, whose fame could not have been possible without the internet.

Last year I wrote about a group of documentaries where the subjects played with identity and reality, including "Catfish," where Internet anonymity and infamy were used for nefarious purposes. "We Are Legion" and "Never Sorry," feel like the flip side, where we see the potentially positive effects of these same forces. What's particularly interesting is that both of these stories are still very much ongoing. Anonymous is still active, and Ai Weiwei is still working, having recently released his own "Gangnam Style" parody.

Does this mean there's the possibility of sequels to these docs? I sure hope so.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Trailers! Trailers! Summer 2013

It's December again, so that means another round of teasers and trailers for next year's would-be summer blockbusters have been deployed. Since it's been a while since I've had a proper trailer post, I'm putting down thoughts on everything relevant since the beginning of November. There are some interesting titles in the works, and the trailer releases have been so haphazard, you might have missed some of them. So, this is a good chance to catch up. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Iron Man 3 - Spends the bulk of its time establishing the grim threat of the new villain, the Mandarin, who will be played by Ben Kingsley. This one isn't nearly as much fun as the teasers for "Iron Man 2," which were all about Tony Stark's ego. No cutting quips or backup dancers to lighten the mood this time around. The message here is that the time for fun and games is over. However, we do get some intriguing glimpses of new suits, new powers, and lots of creative destruction. And does the ending ping as a Frankenstein reference to anybody else?

Star Trek: Into Darkness - Why do we have to wait so long for the third series of "Sherlock"? Because the actors keep running off to do movie projects like the "Hobbit" movies and "Star Trek." Benedict Cumberbatch is revealed here as a potentially familiar villain, and it's still going to be a few frustrating months until we figure out exactly which villain he's supposed to be playing, or maybe it's just a red herring and the bad guy is somebody totally new. Personally, I'm just happy to see the "Star Trek" cast reunited and the Enterprise ready for another round of boldly goings.

After Earth – Could this movie be M. Night Shyamalan's resurrection? After the infamous "Last Airbender," he's got nowhere to go but up. His new science fiction film, "After Earth," stars the increasingly scarce Will Smith and his son Jaden. People may complain about the nepotism, but I really enjoyed Jaden in the "Karate Kid" remake. The "After Earth" trailer promises an abundance of action in what looks like a fun father-son survival adventure flick. Let's just hope the little twist at the end of the preview is the biggest twist that Shyalaman has planned for us.

Man of Steel – The new trailer is all about making Superman's origin story feel as epic as possible, laying on the hero shots and the choral music pretty thick. What interests me most is the focus on Superman's moral quandaries and relationship with his adopted father. We also get our first glimpses of many of the other major players, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Michael Shannon as General Zod. I'm really hoping that Zack Snyder can turn out something that lives up to the promises that these trailers are making. Everything looks right so far, and I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Pacific Rim - The marketing team behind Guillermo Del Toro's "Pacific Rim" have been hard at work these past few weeks, putting out a countdown website, several viral clips, shiny preview images, and blueprints of some of the mecha armor that will be featured in the film. Looks like lots of sci-fi imagery to drool over. However, when you get down to it, "Pacific Rim" is a monster movie, being made by one of our best monster movie directors. The teaser doesn't show a lot, but it shows enough to assure me that this is definitely Del Toro's work, and worth anticipating.

The Lone Ranger - Disney's newest attempt at launching another big action franchise has Gore Verbinski directing and Johnny Depp playing a major role, so it looks like "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the Old West. No surprise there. The teaser was selling the spectacle pretty hard, so I'm glad to see the full trailer giving us a good look at the Lone Ranger and Tonto interacting. The funny bits with the horse didn't hurt anything either. I think this one could go either way, but for now I'm just glad that Johnny Depp's Tonto getup looks marginally less ridiculous in context. Marginally.

Now You See Me - Now this looks like a lot of fun. Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine are headlining a new heist film with the twist that the bank vault is robbed while the perpetrators are performing in a magic act on the other side of the globe. I can't help feeling that "Now You See Me" is cribbing heavily from "The Prestige," with Michael Caine's involvement and Morgan Freeman's narration about magic acts. However, this looks a lot slicker, and more action-oriented, and it's not taking itself seriously at all. And not in a bad way.

Epic - Sony Animation's next big feature recently released a second trailer, which is very similar to the first. We get a few seconds of gorgeous visuals, introducing us to the miniature world of the Leaf Men. And then we meet the characters up close, and it becomes obvious very quickly that this is going to be like all the other Sony Animation films, full of quippy animal sidekicks and loads of slapstick. Between this and Dreamworks' upcoming "Turbo," it looks like we're going to get a lot of snail-related humor in next year's kids' movies. I think I'll stick with Monsters University.

World War Z - And finally, we come to the zombie movie that nobody seems to want. The teaser revealed that massive liberties have been taken with the source material, notably the introduction of swarming zombies. Fans are not happy that this appears to be a prequel to the events of the book, focusing on the initial outbreak of the zombie apocalypse instead of the more complicated aftermath. The movie could still be decent, but at the same time it's taking an awfully familiar approach - especially compared to another 2013 zombie film with a fantastic trailer: Warm Bodies.

Happy watching!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My "Anna Karenina" Headache

Joe Wright, the director of "Atonement" and "Hannah," has proven to be a reliable talent, especially with period films. Tom Stoppard is a playwright of rare esteem, who co-authored "Shakespeare in Love" among other classics. And then there's Keira Knightley, whose acting chops I've occasionally found reason to question, but she's delivered some good performances, including the title role of "The Duchess," which was about an adulterous noblewoman going against the social rules of her day and age. I'm not sure which of these three is to blame for the unfortunate state of the latest cinematic adaptation of "Anna Karenina," its director, its writer, or its leading lady. I suspect all three are partially responsible.

The first hour of the film is fine, if a little frantic. For those of you who don't remember your Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, played by Knightley, is married to Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a rising figure in the Russian government with whom she has a young son. Anna travels to Moscow to help smooth over the aftermath of an affair involving Anna's brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). During Anna's visit, Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) rejects the affections of one suitor, Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), in favor of the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Unfortunately for Kitty, Vronsky and Anna become involved in a love affair that ultimately results in Anna's downfall in Russian society. Running parallel is the story of Levin's continued courtship of Kitty and his evolving understanding of his place in Russia's future.

"Anna Karenina" has extremely ambitious visuals. Much of the main action plays out on a literal stage, with shifting backdrops and props denoting changes in location. A character may ascend into the catwalks above the curtain, dressed to look like the docks, or drop beneath the stage into the trap room, which stands in for the slums. In one long take, we watch as an accounting office is transformed into a restaurant, the extras swapping visors for waiters' uniforms, dancing into position as the scenery changes. Musicians briefly invade the set before disappearing backstage again. It's all very beautifully choreographed, and the theater being a metaphor for Russian society is an apt one, but it's a conceit that gets tired very quickly. Fortunately, whenever the action moves away from the cities, Wright sets his scenes in the real world, with an emphasis on nature and farming life.

Now all the stagecraft and spectacle is fun up to a point, and I found that the introductory scenes played well. The trouble comes when Anna and Count Vronsky become involved, and their romance becomes the driving force of the rest of the film. This is where everything falls apart. Keira Knightley is clearly doing her best, and Anna Karenina was always a difficult character, but I don't think I've ever seen a more unsympathetic take on the tragic heroine. She gets no help from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who comes off as pale and weaselly more than anything else. Jude Law fares much better as the wronged party, and creates some real tension when he and Anna clash. However, Knightley ends up alone onscreen for too many endless scenes, and it's simply too much for her. I don't think she does a bad job, but there's something terribly off-putting about her work in this film. At several points she struck me as miscast, a little too stiff to convey the consuming passion that drives Anna Karenina to ignore all instincts of self-preservation.

Then again, it doesn't help that Anna's descent is severely truncated, and her emotional state is too often unclear. Stoppard's script does a fine job with Karenin's arc and Levin's arc, but when it comes to Anna, it falls short. There's not enough time spent establishing her reasons for jealousy and doubt, and her later actions appear mercurial and mean-spirited. I understand the reason for shortening this section, because it would have been a long slog the way Wright presented these events. All that spectacular stagecraft mostly disappears in the last act, where it could have been a real help to liven things up. I was disappointed when I realized that Wright wasn't going to extend the theater metaphor to Anna's isolation and madness, choosing instead to play things completely straight, and falling victim to the tedium he was trying so hard to avoid. Instead of building to the famous climax, the movie just sort of meanders there. Maybe if Wright had stronger lead actors this approach wouldn't have seemed so underwhelming, but Knightley and Taylor-Johnson needed all the help they could get.

The rest of the cast boasts some formidable talents. Olivia Williams, Emily Mortimer, and Ruth Wilson appear in smaller roles. Alicia Vikander is a relative newcomer, but proves herself to be someone worth keeping an eye on. Jude Law gives the best performance, but I think my favorite is Matthew Macfadyen as the jovial Stiva, a valuable source of comic relief whenever he appears. Some may point to the inclusion of the Levin section as being too much of a distraction from the main story, but Domhnall Gleeson is very good at being depressed without being dull, and I ultimately found his subplot far more satisfying than watching Anna and Vronsky's labored love affair. Even cutting out all the poiltics and the religion, the filmmakers managed to get Levin right.

So it continues to confound me how they managed to get Anna Karenina so very wrong.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Sleepers of December

Something interesting has been going on at the box office lately. Between Thanksgiving and now, we've had the rare situation where not a single new film has opened that has managed to crack the top five. This means two weeks where the newcomers, including "Killing Them Softly," and "Playing for Keeps" have failed to make a dent, which has given some of the slower Thanksgiving releases some room to grow. The biggest sleeper hit of the season so far has been Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." It has consistently held third place for almost a solid month, and it's about to cross the $100 million threshold domestically. However, two other films have gotten the most benefit from the lighter competition: Dreamworks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians" and 20th Century Fox's "Life of Pi."

"Guardians" and "Pi" opened in fourth and fifth place respectively on Thanksgiving weekend with a little over $30 million apiece. This was considered a triumph for "Pi," a risky $120 million prestige picture, and a disaster for "Guardians," which cost $145 million and had been expected to bring in a first weekend amount closer to $50 million. However, in the following weeks, both films started creeping up in the standings, suffering much smaller dropoffs than the two big blockbusters at the top of the chart, "Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2" and "Skyfall." "Life of Pi" remained in fifth place in its next two weekends, but during the week it was third or fourth place. This past Tuesday, it pulled ahead of "Twilight" and "Lincoln" to come in second. "Rise of the Guardians" saw the opposite happen. It held steady fifth place rankings during the week, but it moved up to a third place weekend at the beginning of December, and then up to second place last weekend.

The press has largely written off both films as flops, but currently both "Guardians" and "Pi" have each made slightly over $63 million each domestically, and they've displayed enough holding power that they're expected to hang around in theaters for several more weeks, pushing those totals higher. In a more competitive season like summer, with big films coming out every week, this wouldn't have been possible, but December traditionally has some lulls that give these slow-burners a chance. "Guardians" is the only Christmas-themed movie in sight, and there's been a dearth of kids' films this season. "Pi" has racked up enough buzz that it looks like it's going to be in contention for some major awards at Oscar time, which could push its profile higher and attract more attention. Neither film is expected to hit $100 million in the end, but they might get close. They'll still both be bombs, but if they're lucky, they can avoid being major embarrassments.

The foreign numbers ought to help there. Currently "Rise of the Guardians" and "Life of Pi" are first and second at the worldwide box office, and have made $90 million and $100 million apiece so far. It's small potatoes compared to the numbers that the big franchises were doing earlier in the month, but good enough that total grosses should cover both films' budgets. "Life of Pi" was always expected to play better internationally, which is why FOX wasn't that concerned about the domestic receipts. It's been doing particularly well in Asia. "Rise of the Guardians," however, was a little trickier to gauge. It's a holiday themed film, and those don't always translate very well overseas - see "Hop" and "Arthur Christmas," for example. Instead, "Guardians" is doing very well globally, and it's a mystery why it failed to connect in the U.S. I wasn't thrilled with "Guardians," but I found it more appealing than a lot of the CGI kids' films that have outperformed it.

2012 has been quite a year for bombs, including "John Carter," "Cloud Atlas," and "Battleship." However, it's also been a good year for sleepers, including "Magic Mike," "Argo," and "Flight." "Rise of the Guardians" and "Life of Pi" look like they might end up fitting both categories. They cost too much to make a profit, but they're doing well enough that you can't really dismiss them as total failures either. They don't fit into the usual analyst models for box office performance, which emphasizes first week returns above all else. However, I think the sleepers and slow-burn pictures might become more prevalent, as studio slates are shrinking and we're starting to see the number of films being made each year decrease. This is giving the smaller and overlooked films more of a chance to make an impact.

Of course there are always going to be the gigantic behemoths like "The Hobbit," which is expected to dominate this weekend. But you have to have films in third and fourth and fifth place, and the ones that can hang in there for a couple of weeks and attract an audience, deserve some attention too.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"The Wire," Year One

Some minor spoilers, but I'll try to keep them to a minimum.

Maybe it shouldn't have surprised me, but I find "The Wire" to be a considerably easier watch than "The Sopranos." Sure, the legalese and the policework is more difficult to follow, it's harder to keep track of the various players, and I found it significantly harder to penetrate the culture of West Side Baltimore than the New Jersey wiseguys. When you get down to it, though, the basic mechanisms are identical. Just swap out the comares for shorties, and the lifted merchandise for drugs, and it's the same old game. The difference with "The Wire" is that there is no charismatic central anti-hero figure. Sure, Stringer Bell has a lot of similarities to Tony Soprano, but the show's not about him. "The Wire" is about the system.

The individual characters in "The Wire" may not be a deftly drawn or as compelling as the ones in "The Sopranos," but I find them much easier to relate to and sympathize with. Detective McNulty is a typical hothead, with the same family problems and libido problems that we see in a lot of similar characters. However, he's not the typical hero figure and gets about the same amount of screen time as a half dozen other members of the large ensemble. It's really the story that drives the show, the day to day ins and outs of the investigation. McNulty becomes sympathetic because the harder he and Lt. Daniels and Detectives Greggs and Freamon push, the more resistance they meet with from their superiors. Every step forward requires the joint efforts of multiple actors, and the balancing of personal interests and political concerns from every corner. With the odds stacked so high against them, it's difficult not to root for the investigators.

It's the same for the characters who are members of Avon Barksdale's drug operations. The drug trade is portrayed as its own institution, with its own problematic rules and internal politics. Omar, the show's wild card who has no particular allegiance to either side, calls it "the game." One scene in particular caught my attention toward the end of the season, when an attorney is consulting with the leadership of the organization, laying out the requirements for a plea deal, calculating how many of their associates are going to have to go to prison and for how long, and who will have to be paid off to ensure their cooperation. The police are entangled in their institutions out of choice, but it's worse for the low level drug dealers and enforcers because these kids don't appear to have any alternatives. Every attempt to extricate themselves just leads to disaster. The drug trade is insidious, but most of the individual participants within it seem to have so little control of their circumstances, it's hard not to care about them too.

The first season of "The Wire" stands on its own very well by using this macroscopic approach, and limiting the story to a single investigation. Though it bucks the conventions of a typical police procedural, creator David Simon, veteran of many cop shows, knows those conventions well enough to use them to his advantage. So we get minor characters like Herc and Carver, who provide a lot of comic relief, but are not limited to being comic relief characters. So we get subplots like Bubbles' doomed attempt to get clean, which gives us a glimpse of the situation from the POV of the junkies being exploited by Barksdale's gang. Then there's poor Homicide Detective Santangelo, who gets caught up in department politics and ends up a pawn between McNulty and their supervisor, Landsman. It's not a big part, but it's one that is wonderfully emblematic of the intricacy and complexity of "The Wire," which shows us again and again how the systems function based on the decisions of the individuals within it, where all the myriad stress points and opportunities for corruption can occur.

"The Wire" may be one of the densest shows I've ever watched, far more challenging than something like "Game of Thrones." The approach to the subject matter is so comprehensive and so uncompromising, it's a little intimidating at first. However, the show does an exceptional job of getting viewers to feel for the plight of crooked cops and drug dealers, for humanizing the people who rarely receive this kind of time and attention anywhere else on television. And then there's the fact that the season has a definitive ending, unlike most police procedurals that deliberately leave the door open for more. Here the investigation concludes, the special unit disperses, and the perpetrators go to jail to do their time. The big problems remain unsolved and there's not much victory to go around. For most, it's back to business as usual. It's a rare finale that leaves the audiences with finality, but with few reassurances.

So where does the show go in Season Two?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Big Bang” Backlash?

I first noticed the bitter comments on the AV Club reviews of “Community.” In every episode talkback, there are always a handful of complaints about how “The Big Bang Theory” has so much repetitive humor, that its multi-camera format is pandering, and that it feels too derivative of earlier sitcoms. And this makes sense coming from fans of “Community,” a riskier series that “Big Bang” regularly trounces in the ratings every Thursday at 8PM. And after the shenanigans over at NBC, we can expect further trouncings to come in a few months.

Then there’s the vitriol over on Reddit, where the young and the nerdy regularly go on spectacular rants about how the “Big Bang” characters are not real nerds at all, but a collection of stereotypical tropes that only approximate nerdhood, and invite the non-nerdy to mock and belittle them. Attempts to explain that all sitcom creatures are exaggerations don’t do much to convince them that the show’s creators meant no offense. Of course this is Reddit, which tends to prefer the niche to the mainstream, and often looks with some suspicion on the shows that do a little too well in the ratings. “Two and a Half Men” is another frequent target of their scorn.

And then I stumbled across this recent UGO article on the reasons why real geeks hate “The Big Bang Theory.” Some of them are clearly wrong, like the assertions that all the female members of the cast were treated like sex objects. With the recent prominence of female nerds Bernadette and Amy, that clearly isn’t true. There are also more generic complaints like the overuse of Sheldon, the laugh track, and the sense that the writers are running out of ideas – all common problems with most long-running sitcoms. However, a few of the listed reasons do seem to get at the heart of the matter: endless pop culture references, getting pop culture references wrong, the existence of better shows, and that “Big Bang” isn’t a good reflection of actual geek culture.

Now, as I’ve noted before, “The Big Bang Theory” was one of the first mainstream shows to have featured nerds as the lead characters with much success. Penny may be the audience surrogate, but she’s become more of a token normal in most episodes. Compared to how nerds were portrayed in the past on similar comedies, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj are a major step forward. They dress like normal people! They have healthy relationships with the opposite sex! They don’t all follow the same template of nerdiness! But after six seasons, the novelty’s worn off, and there are other, more realistic nerds on television, like Troy and Abed from “Community.” “The Big Bang Theory” does a great job of making the characters accessible and interesting to non-nerd viewers, helping the ratings immeasurably, but maybe they’re a little too accessible.

I should mention that I’ve started watching the show again, since “Community” is stuck on hiatus until the midseason, and CBS is being reasonable about making recent episodes available online. It’s been nice catching up with the characters, and I still find I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” very much. However, this is clearly a sitcom designed for casual viewing by a broad audience, and has more in common with “Friends” that it does with a show that’s really aimed at geeks, like “Futurama.” “Big Bang” is about nerds, but it’s not really made for nerds, who tend to prefer more cerebral, more challenging fare. And with that in mind, it must be frustrating as hell that “The Big Bang Theory” is so much more popular and has won so many more accolades than the nerd-favored niche shows.

This, I think, explains the prevalence of Sheldon bashing. Personally, I like Sheldon. He strikes me as a less erudite, more immature version of Niles Crane from “Frasier.” However, I agree that the overexposure has been doing him no favors. If Sheldon weren’t popular, but some secondary character on a critically-acclaimed FX sitcom, who only had a few lines per episode, he would probably be much more fondly regarded by the Reddit set. However, when everybody and your grandma likes Sheldon, repeats “Bazinga!” like it’s the funniest thing they ever heard, and gets the wrongheaded idea that all nerds are like the nerds on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon becomes a perfect target for the resulting ire.

I don’t think there’s much the show’s creators can do to fix this, and I’m not sure they’d want to, considering the runaway success of “The Big Bang Theory.” The geeks and nerds who disdain the show, however, deserve our understanding and sympathy. It’s hard finding yourself represented in the media by someone who you don’t like. My mother still rolls her eyes every time someone mentions Connie Chung. However, “Big Bang” isn’t the only show about nerds out there, and “Big Bang” is already inspiring imitators. If we’re lucky Sheldon may pave the way for better TV nerds to come.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Few Words on Extras

I made a decision to stop investing in physical media a while ago, and I never made any attempt at transitioning from DVDs to Blu-Ray discs. I don't have any kind of Blu-Ray player, and when I rent movies, it's always the DVD versions. One of the major consequences of this decision, along with a greater switch to consuming digital media, has been that I've completely fallen out of the habit of watching the studio-produced extras.

I used to love DVD extras, and would spend hours listening to commentaries, studying the featurettes, and guffawing at the blooper reels. They often ran longer than the films themselves. However, at some point several studios decided to strip the extras from the rental versions of their discs, in order to encourage viewers to buy the full versions. This never made much sense to me, as it actually removed a major motivator for me to rent a film I'd already seen for another viewing. Soon after that, the bulk of the better extras became Blu-Ray only features to encourage the switch from DVDs to the more expensive Blu-Ray discs. For instance, I was irritated to learn that "Ratatouille," one of the last DVDs I purchased, had a standard version that was so light on extras compared to the one for the previous PIXAR feature, "The Incredibles." Meanwhile, there was a Blu-Ray edition with a directors' commentary, making-of featurettes, and extra deleted scenes. These days, I've simply stopped paying much attention to the differences in releases, having stopped watching extras almost completely.

This doesn't mean I've stopped consuming supplementary materials though. Far from it. While I don't have access to the most desired official extras like bloopers, deleted scenes, and commentary tracks, there's plenty of information about the production of a film available through interviews, press reports, and especially marketing materials. Marketing campaigns have massively expanded in recent years, to the point where they're overlapping with the kind of material you expect to see as extras. Since I'm so wary of spoilers, I often avoid the marketing completely, and only circle back to look at what they offer after seeing the film. "The Hobbit" has its production blog videos, and just released the entire soundtrack of the film online. "Life of Pi" released several short "making-of" featurettes as part of its awards campaign, in order to highlight its technical achievements. And then there's Rian Johnson, who released a free director's commentary track for "Looper," meant to be listened to in conjunction with a theatrical screening of the movie, in order to encourage repeat viewings. I didn't hear much difference between that track and any regular director's commentary, but I'm certainly not complaining.

Keep in mind that these are only the official, studio-produced supplements. Once you go looking for them, there's no end to the ancillary material you can find online for a popular film. Director Q&A's have been everywhere lately because of the awards race, Comic-Con always brings tons of panels, and general media coverage frequently provides behind-the-scenes footage. There's also the inescapable reality that if there's anything really of substance in a deleted scene, it's going to be reported on, blogged about, analyzed, and dissected to death. The home media releases of "Prometheus" ruffled feathers earlier this year because many of the hotly anticipated deleted scenes were only available on certain releases. The content stayed exclusive, but the discussion of them sure didn't. For a few weeks, it seemed like every film blog was devoting articles to those deleted scenes, arguing about which ones should have been kept in the film, and how they might have helped to improve the difficult narrative. Even without seeing the actual clips, there was no longer any mystery as to what they depicted.

I guess this has been a very roundabout way of saying that while the studios like hyping up extras as a reason to buy Blu-rays, and to stick with traditional media instead of streaming services, it's not really working. I know a couple of film geeks who do care passionately about having access to these extras and will plunk down a few more bucks for them, but they're a pretty niche bunch. While I like seeing how the sausage is made, and I'm still hoping to see digital versions of extras eventually, they've never been necessary to my enjoyment of any film. Therefore, the incentive they provide has always been pretty limited. I think that's why we've been seeing more of the overlap with the marketing materials lately, as home media sales have dropped and the studios are trying to make the best use of their resources.

I don't think we'll be seeing the end of the extras any time soon though, not as long as people still find blooper reels funny and fans are curious about deleted and alternate scenes. However, it's worth remembering that they're not much to talk about without the films they supplement. Extras, after all, are just extras.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Introducing "Ruby Sparks"

Ruby Sparks is a dream girl. She's not some perfect feminine ideal, but instead the kind of kooky twenty-something cutie, played by Zoe Kazan, who would appeal to a sensitive young man like Calvin (Paul Dano). Calvin is a writer, whose great tragedy is that he wrote a hugely successful novel in his teens, but has failed to live up to his talent in the subsequent ten years. Having about as much luck with the opposite sex as he has with his recent writing, Calvin is depressed and seeing a therapist (Elliot Gould). One night he has a dream about Ruby and begins writing about her, hoping to overcome his writer's block. The next thing Calvin knows, Ruby has appeared in his house and believes she lives there as his girlfriend. Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) discover, after some experimentation, that Calvin can change Ruby however he wants by altering his manuscript. However, Ruby proves to have a mind of her own.

In addition to playing Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan also wrote the script for the film and Paul Dano is her real life boyfriend. Thus the metaphysical and metatextual implications abound in a story about writers and writing, creators and their creations. Directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, "Ruby Sparks" is a very simple and small-scale story. Perhaps it's a little too small-scale, because several of the movie's central concepts aren't explored to nearly the extent that they could have been, and few of the characters besides Calvin and Ruby have much depth to them. When Calvin discovers his new powers, he doesn't question how or why he suddenly has this ability. Those questions are left to Harry, whose role is pretty much limited to sharing Calvin's secret and acting as a reminder that Ruby isn't a real girl. And despite the appearances of many familiar actors like Elliot Gould, Annette Bening as Calvin and Harry's mother, Antonio Banderas as her boyfriend, Alia Shawkat as a fangirl, and Steve Coogan as a rival author, they don't get very much to do.

However what they script does get very right is the relationship between Calvin and Ruby, and how Calvin has to deal with the realization that even though Ruby is his ideal, he's not prepared for the emotional reality of dealing with her day to day. The story focuses on what happens after a hero lands his dream girl, on mismatched expectations, inevitable frictions, and misunderstandings. It doesn't matter what the mechanism of Ruby's existence is ultimately, when the point is to comment on the consequences of being with girls like Ruby, who fit that "manic pixie dream girl" trope. Harry even warns Calvin at one point that Ruby is the kind of girl who it's fun to fantasize about, but who doesn't make a good girlfriend in real life. The self-awareness of the writing helps to distance the film from any overt supernatural "Twilight Zone" vibes or the usual wish-fulfillment silliness like "Weird Science." "Ruby Sparks" technically could be classified as a romantic comedy, but it skips right over the meet cute and the courtship, and ends up putting the characters in some pretty unexpected places.

It also helps that the leads are both strong. Paul Dano has had a good year, taking on several lead roles in smaller indie films, including this one. Calvin is a pretty shameless cliché of the earnest, but frustrated young writer with a tendency to romanticize things, but he's very convincing in the part. In fact, he's so convincing that I'm a little worried that Dano is going to get himself typecast playing moody writers after this and "Being Flynn." There's something awfully sympathetic about him, even when he's being a complete jerk. Zoe Kazan has a decent list of screen credits to her name, but this is the first movie where I really took notice of her. I like that Ruby comes off as pretty ordinary at first, and it really is her personality and her particular charm that distinguishes her as Calvin's idea of a perfect girlfriend. Dano and Kazan's chemistry together also translates well to the screen, and I could easily image the two of them in a more typical romance.

As for Kazan's as a screenwriter, I liked the ideas in "Ruby Sparks" a lot more than the execution, but I certainly enjoyed the movie and think she has a lot of talent. I liked the humor and the attitude and the idiosyncrasies. I think she certainly has it in her to tackle something bigger and more ambitious if she wants. And I really appreciate that Kazan had the guts and the foresight to not just wait for the right part to come along, but to write her own best role for herself.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dawn of the Duplass

I’ve been simultaneously trying to catch up on some of the smaller independent films that came out earlier in 2012 and familiarizing myself with the recent American independent film movement known as mumblecore, which I have ignored for too long. So I’ve recently worked my way through “Humpday,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.” The common element of all of these films is writer-director-actor Mark Duplass.

Along with his brother Jay, Mark Duplass is considered one of the founders of the mumblecore movement, starting with their first directing effort, 2005’s “The Puffy Chair.” They’ve gone on to direct several other mumblecore features like “Baghead,” “Cyrus,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” and their latest, “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which hasn’t hit DVD yet. So far I’ve seen “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” It’s taken me a while to appreciate the low-budget, DIY nature of mumblecore filmmaking, but I like how the stories are so simple and intimate, and rely heavily on character interactions and naturalistic dialogue. It makes for a nice break from the visually slick aesthetics of most mainstream films these days. There are some of titles that I still can’t wrap my head around, like Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” but I’m starting to find some favorites too.

Now I’m still not completely sold on the Duplass brothers as directors. I had a hard time with “Cyrus,” but I liked “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” a great deal better. Solid performances and some good writing. My biggest concern is that the subject matter of both films is extremely limited. Both center on a particular brand of awkward, dysfunctional family dynamic, and the leads are immature adult males with some social neuroses. While I like the realistic approach to the material, which often comes across as a rebuke of Hollywood’s idiot manchild comedies, it’s material that’s been done to death. The delayed maturity of the American male has been perhaps the most prominent theme in American films since the late 90s. “Baghead,” their 2008 quasi-horror film, is supposed to be a departure from this, and I really need to go track it down before I make any further judgments.

So far, I think I prefer Mark Duplass as an actor, particularly his appearances in other independent films that break the mold a bit more. He’s been everywhere in 2012, playing major roles in Lynn Shelton’s dramedy “Your Sister’s Sister,” and Colin Trevorrow’s science-fiction tinged “Safety Not Guaranteed.” He’s also shown up in the more mainstream “People Like Us,” “Darling Companion,” and is listed in the cast of Katherine Bigelow’s upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty.” Somehow he also found the time to co-direct “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which premiered at South by Southwest in March, and to keep appearing as one of the leads in FX sitcom “The League,” currently in the middle of its fourth season. Oddly, he’s never acted in one of the films he’s directed, something I’d love to see.

As a performer, Duplass has a great deal of charisma and this wonderful everyman quality to him. He can play more intellectual and put-together, as he was in “Humpday,” or someone going to pieces, like his would-be time traveler in “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Lynn Shelton’s films are largely based on improvisation, and you can get a good sense of how smart and insightful Duplass is as a performer from his work in “Your Sister’s Sister,” where he plays a damaged man in love with his dead brother’s widow. Even though a lot of his parts are variations on the same sort of character who might be a lead in one of his own movies, they’re also diverse enough to keep being impressive.

The one that really sold me on Duplass was his performance in Shelton’s “Humpday.” It has a ridiculous premise on paper, where Duplass’s character, Ben, reconnects with a close friend, Andrew, played by Josh Leonard. The two come up with the wild idea to make an art film where they sleep with each other on camera. Ben can’t ever quite articulate why he wants to do this, but convinces his wife, himself, and the audience that it’s deeply important to him. The final, extended sequence where Ben and Andrew find out exactly where the limits of their bromance are, is a nail-biter. And to top it off, all the dialogue in the film was improvised.

Thanks to recent technological innovations, we are living in a new age of multi-hyphenates, where filmmakers like Mark Duplass, Lena Dunham, and Louis C.K. are doing it all – acting, directing, writing, producing, and more. Duplass may not be as high profile as the others at the moment, there’s no question that he’s a creative force to be reckoned with. As he slowly moves into the mainstream, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he becomes one of our major American filmmakers, not just to the indie film fans, but everybody.