Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Malick's Latest is a "Wonder"

Since reviewing "The Tree of Life" last year, I went and hunted down all of the remaining Terrence Malick films that I hadn't seen. So, I understand the complaints I've heard about his newest film, "To the Wonder," that claim Malick is just repeating himself and rehashing old themes. The style and imagery is similar to "The Tree of Life" and "The New World," full of gorgeous nature shots and hallucinatory transitions. Characters whisper lines of narration. The story is not incomprehensible, but it is often difficult to suss out the particulars of our central couple's relationship, because there is so little by way of exposition, and some events seem to contradict each other. However, "To the Wonder" is not a film where plot and character are particularly important. Rather, its chief concern is with thoughts and dreams and experiences, looking at the inner lives of two people who fall and love, and those connected to them.

Neil (Ben Affleck), an American, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European, meet in France and fall in love. Neil brings Marina and her little daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to live in his hometown in Oklahoma. Most of the story is told in a stream of consciousness from Marina's point of view, though occasionally the POV will shift to Neil or Anna. We learn through snippets of murmured narration and the events depicted onscreen that the relationship is a difficult one. At first Marina is charmed by the new country, but then problems emerge, and there are difficulties adjusting. Tatiana wants to go home. They leave for a time, and Neil becomes involved with a local woman named Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marriage is discussed repeatedly, and we see a few images that suggests weddings take place, but it's not clear if Neil actually marries either woman. At one point Marina returns to Texas, and we see no more of Jane, so we can assume that relationship has ended. Finally, there are several interludes with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a peripheral character who meditates on the nature of his faith and relationships.

I think the best approach to the film is to treat is as a abstract work, a piece of visual poetry that is meant to be felt and absorbed for its marvelous aesthetics. The narrative is slight, but it does work on an emotional level, and Malick is exceptional in the way that he gets us invested in all the ups and downs of the troubled romance. While we don't know things like Marina's occupation or her relationship with Tatiana's father, we know exactly how she feels in every moment she appears onscreen. The performances depend heavily on physical action, to help convey the information that isn't being relayed in the narration and dialogue. Olga Kurylenko, like Jessica Chastain in "Tree of Life" and Q'orianka Kilcher in "The New World," is often shown exploring the scenery, movements exaggerated to emphasize how graceful and winsome she is. The implication is that in such moments, we are not only seeing a representation of Marina's physical self, but her animating soul and spirit. Kurylenko gets the bulk of the screentime here, far more than the first-billed Ben Affleck, and she's easy to watch, to sympathize and relate to.

One thing that does set "To the Wonder" apart from Malick's other films is that it takes place in the modern day, and though many of the scenes could take place in any era, there are the occasional shots of convenience stores and newer cars to establish that we are in the here and now. Much of the spoken narration is in French and Spanish, perhaps to give the film a more universal tone, or to emphasize the disconnectedness of some of the characters. However, Malick's approach to his subject matter is ultimately no different. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography continues to capture intimate human moments and stunning natural beauty. The stirring orchestral pieces by Hanan Townshend lend a timelessness to the images.

I found a viewing of "To the Wonder" a worthwhile experience, but it didn't have the same impact of "Tree of Life" with its massive scope and nostalgic yearning, or "The New World" with its sense of discovery and immersion in an alien landscape. "To the Wonder" feels smaller scale and very familiar, giving us a fresh perspective perhaps, but not really elevating that vision. The film is satisfying, but it's nowhere near the level of Malick's previous work. Also, though Father Quintana is one of the most blatant religious figures in any Malick film, the spiritual themes fall completely flat.

I would not recommend "To the Wonder" to viewers who have no experience with Terrence Malick or non-traditional narratives, because this is a tough one. However, for existing Malick fans, it's a good feature even though it's not among his best, and worth giving a look.
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Monday, April 29, 2013

Inside "A Royal Affair"

They say that history is written by the winners, but every so often a story about someone on the wrong side of history will come along that is so remarkable and so enticing that it demands our attention. And dramatists have long known that a tragedy can be just as juicy and entertaining as a victory in the right hands. This brings us to Denmark's 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee "A Royal Affair," a lovely costume drama about one of the most exciting episodes in Danish history.

The story is set in the 18th century, during the reign of King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard), who was known for being mentally unstable, so it was really Chamberlain Bernsorff (Bent Mejding), who was running the country. Our narrative is split between two characters. First, there's young Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), who is brought to Denmark to marry King Christian as a teenager, quickly becomes disillusioned with her boorish husband, and refuses to have anything to do with him after their son is born. The second is a German doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who through lucky circumstance becomes King Christian's royal physician and trusted advisor. The court is initially doubtful about the influence of Struensee, but the doctor manages to befriend the Queen, as they share similar intellectual interests and political ambitions.

"A Royal Affair" is reminiscent of the various dramatizations of the final days at Versailles with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, with its cloak and dagger court intrigues and eye-catching production design. However, director Nikolaj Arcel not only gives us the high emotions of the royal scandal, but also keeps a critical eye on the related political maneuverings of the Danish court and Struensee's serious attempts to bring about major social reforms. Struensee, the Queen, and their allies are all portrayed as highly intelligent, admirable people, who are acting with the best of intentions, but they gravely underestimate the power of the court and the strength of their own positions. And they also underestimate their own ability to be corrupted by power. The film stays well balanced between the perspectives of its two leads, and between the politics and the personal relationships. It's very sympathetic to Struensee and his goals, but at the same time is good about highlighting his faults and inevitable mistakes.

It's the performances that make the film so memorable, though, particularly Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen as the Queen and Struensee. Their relationship is the center of the film, one built through careful, diplomatic conversations initiated by Struensee to help improve the marital relations of the King and Queen. However, Mikkelsen's best scenes are when he gets to be raw and emotional, showing us the passionate, flawed man underneath the nonchalant exterior of the court doctor. Mikkelsen's been typecast as a cold-blooded baddie in his appearances in Western media, notably in "Casino Royale" and the "Hannibal" television series. Here, Struensee is simply a clever and talented man, who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.

Vikander, on the other hand, is best when she's keeping up the Queen's practiced exterior of cold disapproval, while radiating youthful vulnerability. Vikander has an unusual gravity and poise, and her fluency in English plus a growing list of impressive performances all but guarantee we're going to be seeing a lot more of her on the big screen soon. Mikkel Følsgaard is also invaluable as King Christian, who initially seems like an overgrown frat boy who is shunning his royal responsibilities in an act of rebellion, rather than someone who is suffering serious mental and emotional problems. However, as time goes on, and we see him manipulated by one faction after another, it's clear exactly how little power he has, and you can't help but feel sorry for him.

Historical dramas like this can often feel stuffy and lifeless, suffocated by the need to stay suitably faithful and respectful to the historical record. Or they can have the opposite problem and come off as an obvious falsehood, fashioned with far too much dramatic license to be believable. "A Royal Affair" manages to avoid both extremes. The historical figures come across as actual human beings, and though some events play out in ways that seem unlikely, they aren't unbelievable. The characters and relationships are clearly fictionalized to a large degree, but they make sense in context, and are well integrated into what we know to be the actual events of the day.

I think it helps that "A Royal Affair" is based on a chapter of European history that isn't well known outside of Denmark. I didn't have any preconceived notions of Dr. Struensee and Queen Caroline one way or another, so the film was able to surprise me several times. I can always appreciate a film that's able to do that, and this one does it very well.
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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Spoiler Warning

As we head into summer movie season and the hyped-up populist hordes (including yours truly) start descending on the theaters en masse, people are starting up the debates about spoilers again. Last week's big title, "Oblivion," is a science-fiction film that features a couple of big twists, and apparently difficult to discuss without getting into the finer details of what happens. Simply comparing "Oblivion" to other films with similar twists was enough to give the whole thing away, so some viewers were understandably sensitive.

I've written before about various tactics I use to avoid spoilers, which boil down to avoiding the places where spoilers are most likely to happen like anonymous message boards and unfiltered Twitter feeds. In the most extreme cases, where I really care about going in with a blank slate, I try to avoid mainstream media coverage too. However, I've been thinking about the situation from the other side. What are the rules for talking about spoilers? How specific do I need to be? When can I assume certain spoilers are common knowledge, or is that the wrong way to think about it? I mean, "Planet of the Apes" may be nearing the half century mark, but there are plenty of people who haven't seen it and don't know that iconic ending. And when is it appropriate to talk about spoilers at all?

Most of the film reviews I've written here are very light on the spoilers because their function is to act as overviews of what I liked and didn't like about the films. In the few cases where I've gotten really into a recent film and wanted to analyze the nuts and bolts, I've ended up writing two reviews, as was the case with last year's "Cabin in the Woods" and "The Dark Knight Rises," making it absolutely clear that the latter articles were very, very spoiler heavy. With "The Dark Knight Rises," so much of my experience with that film was about the years of speculation that went on, I felt the need to acknowledge and address the film in a broader, more meta-y way. "Cabin in the Woods" was a rare movie where its whole premise and structure depended on subversion, so it was hard to talk about it in the depth I wanted to without getting into spoilers.

I tend to be a little more lax on policing myself with retrospective pieces about older movies, specifically the "Great Director" posts. With those, I'm doing my best to highlight a film's best points and to argue why it's the director's best work, so tend to get more specific and more analytical than I would with a regular review. I also admit to being more willing to bring spoilers into reviews of movies that I really didn't like. "The Lorax," for instance, was one I didn't feel bad taking apart point by point, in order to convey the extent of how much I found the film lacking. I didn't spoil anything too major, but I don't think anyone who didn't know the "Lorax" story beforehand was really my target audience for that particular piece, which I made pretty clear.

Where I really have to be careful of warning for spoilers, though, is with the television posts. I don't think I've written a single post related to a specific TV show lately that hasn't started with some variation of "Spoilers for everything that's aired so far," or "Spoilers up to the end of last season." TV shows run for years and most of the big ones lately have been heavily serialized, meaning that the storylines build over multiple episodes and seasons. And what fun is it to engage in the usual water cooler discussions if it's not to talk about the latest developments in the "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" universes?

Unfortunately, we're not in the age of three networks and appointment viewing anymore, and people will watch many shows years later than they air, often through other services. Complicating matters is that people don't watch TV shows all at once like they watch movies, so it can take some careful navigating in bigger discussions where you're not sure which participants have seen what percentage of the show in question. After being on the wrong end of a few bad encounters, my rule of thumb is that you shouldn't assume anything. Warn often and warn in detail. However, even a simple "Spoilers ahead!" can save someone from so much grief.

I'm in the middle of "Veronica Mars" right now and reading old recaps and reviews from the AV Club as I go along to get my analysis fix. However, I'm also steering well clear of the comments sections and other discussions, because mystery shows aren't nearly as much fun without the mystery. So you can bet when I do my check-in posts (which are going to be coming up quick at the rate I'm going), you'll know exactly what I'll be spoiling and why.
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Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Missed Course With the Cannibal

Anyone out there keeping up with "Hannibal"?

You may have heard that NBC decided that after the events of Newtown and the Boston bombings last week, that they were going to pull the fourth episode of "Hannibal," titled "Œuf," (French for "egg") because of potentially sensitive subject matter involving young children and violence. The parts of the episode that were important to ongoing storylines have instead been edited down into a series of webisodes that are being released online. However, the full episode will air unedited outside of the United States and Canada, and will probably be released on home media sometime in the future.

First things first. Good for NBC for doing the responsible thing and exercising some caution and restraint. And yet, on some level I find myself perturbed by this decision. I understand why you wouldn't want people stumbling across an episode like this on broadcast television. Even in the 10 PM hour with special warning screens and the harshest possible TV ratings slapped on it, there are certain concepts and ideas that really are a little too much to let loose on the general public. "Hannibal" has pushed the envelope a few times already, and it's no surprise that the network wants to tread more carefully. Cable probably could have gotten away with it. Premium cable wouldn't even have blinked. However, "Hannibal" is airing on NBC, and it's a national broadcast network where there are much more stringent content rules applied because it's so much more accessible.

However, I really want to see this episode in its entirety. I really, really want to see it. NBC went ahead and aired the promo for "Œuf" at the end of last week's episode, and it teased some of the most arresting imagery in the show since the pilot episode, including one shot of a crime scene that appears to be directly referencing some of the more horrific visuals from "Silence of the Lambs." Having sat through more than my share of horror movies, I know exactly what I'm getting myself into and I have no concerns that the content is going to be too much for me. The existence of the webisodes alleviate some of my concerns about missing important continuity before the next episode airs, but I'd still love to get my hands on the full episode.

If you tell me I can't watch something, my inner five-year-old just wants to see it more. Moreover, I can't help but feel like I'm being penalized for someone else's sensitivities, even though I certainly understand and respect those sensitivities. It's like that time in one of my high school English class where we weren't allowed to finish watching the Steve Martin comedy "Roxanne" (we were reading "Cyrano de Bergerac") because somebody anonymously complained to the teacher that the crude humor was too much for them. I understood the concern, but I still wanted to watch the movie. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't know I was missing out, and if I weren't already anticipating the episode. Unfortunately I do and I am, so I can't help stewing about it.

If some of the comments I've been seeing around the internet are any indication, I'm not alone in this. There are a lot of people who are taking an interest. So I'm very surprised that NBC isn't offering the full episode on the internet in any form to American viewers. I'd gladly pay my three bucks for a digital download from Amazon or iTunes. I usually watch "Hannibal" online anyway, because Thursdays nights are so crowded. NBC wouldn't have to worry so much about propriety, because requiring payment would keep the wrong people from stumbling across the episode accidentally, and I wouldn't be surprised if NBC didn't make a few extra bucks from the increased interest that pulling "Œuf" has drummed up in the last week.

Alas, so far no dice. It's probably only a matter of time before it shows up somewhere though. Networks have pulled plenty of television episodes before in plenty of different contexts, and they've always come back eventually. I remember the "X-Files" episode "Home," which had graphic content and a really disturbing incest angle, got pulled from reruns for a couple of years after its first broadcast, and then came back with ads trumpeting its notoriety. And do you recall the third season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" getting delayed for two months because of the Columbine shootings?

So, this is really only a matter of inconvenience for "Hannibal" fans and I just have to have a little patience. Besides there's plenty to look forward to - tonight's episode will be the first of several directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, best known for his work with Guillermo Del Toro. And it also means we're one week closer to the season's endgame too.
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Will "Mad Men" End?

Three weeks into the penultimate season of AMC's "Mad Men," and I've got a serious case of the "what ifs." Though the pace of the show this season is still very deliberate, it's clear where the season is going to go, and I can't help speculating on where the show is ultimately going to find its endpoint. What is going to become of the Drapers and the employees of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, past and present? Permit me, if you will, to make some predictions. Spoilers ahead for all of "Mad Men" that has aired so far.

Don is in a state of certain decline. His performance at work has been suffering, and the Hawaii pitch in the premiere was a bust. There was nothing wrong with his ideas or his taste, but his ability to sell the campaign, to communicate to the clients, was sorely lacking. It seems only a matter of time before he's eclipsed by Ginsburg or someone else. At home, the situation is just as precarious. He's cheating on Megan with a neighbor, a situation we watched blow up in Pete's face in a parallel storyline last week, and he showed he couldn't handle Megan's feigned infidelity this week. Even if Don is never caught, spiritually the marriage is doomed. I expect that he'll lose Megan by the end of this season, and have to face a hard choice about where he wants to go from there next year.

I think he might consider letting go of the Draper name and going back to Dick Whitman. Sure, there would be a lot of consequences, but it would be a symbolic way to kill off Don Draper and all he stands for without actually killing off Don Draper. Or maybe he would move on to a new persona. It would also be in character for Don, trying to start fresh with a blank slate. But does he have the energy to start over again after two failed marriages, in a new age that he's rapidly losing touch with? As the premiere episode made clear, everything is changing around Don, but he's stayed the same through the last six seasons. It's up to him whether he transforms or fades away in the end, and I do hope that Matt Weiner lets us see him make that choice.

What about the rest of the Draper family? It's hard to say where Megan's going. She could just as easily go on to great success as an actress or throw herself off a building upon exiting Don Draper's life. Betty is struggling, but she's shown that she can change, if not for the right reasons, and I expect that she'll continue to metamorphose to a point where she truly puts Don and her old life behind her. She's still kind of a wild card on the show, still childishly vindictive, impulsive, and I'm a little scared of what damage she could unthinkingly do to Henry and the kids, but there's also the sense that she's finally becoming a little more self-aware and mature. Sally, I'm sure is going to become a rebellious teenage flower child, to everyone's horror, and I can't wait.

Then there's Peggy, who struck out on her own last season, and has found a real position of power. However, holding on to the that power is another matter, and this seasons looks like it's going to be a real test of her moral fiber. Ted convinced her to betray Stan's confidence, winning her the Heinz account, and who knows how far down that road she's going to go? I love that Peggy's a go-getter career woman who has been making it work, even hanging on to Abe much longer than I thought she would, but in the long run is she going to regret this? Peggy's big choice is going to be whether she is going to become corrupted and lose herself to the job the way the men have, or if she'll reject that way of doing things and try to navigate a different, more difficult approach. Either option is possible. One thing I wonder about is if she'll ever have any kind of family life - but then Pete Campbell's love child is still out there.

Oh Pete. He's becoming Don Draper, but he's still so bad at it. His maneuverings are clumsy and messy to the point where they're becoming self-destructive. I can't say I didn't see Trudy kicking him to the curb in the cards, but he's not going to get himself out of the relationship so easily, because Trudy's made of much sterner stuff than Betty. There's been an ongoing theory for the past couple of seasons that Pete is going to end up killing himself, and while I can definitely see the possibility, at this point I don't think it's going to happen. He's much more likely to lash out and direct that frustration on others, or get somebody else in more serious trouble, like the poor woman from last week. Professionally he's been doing very well, so I expect he'll still be at the top of the firm at the end of the series, and completely and utterly miserable.

Joan and Roger are next on the list. Despite Joan's partnership, she's doing pretty much the same thing she always has, managing the office and taking the bus to work. However, she's getting more respect outside the office and she's now in a position to go much farther. I find it interesting that we haven't seen Joan anywhere near Roger since the incident. Notably, she wasn't at his mother's funeral. A small, fluffy part of me wants them to end up together, making clever small talk until the end of time. Realistically, I think Joan's the most pragmatic of the group. She'll stick to her job, raise her kid, sock away the money, and be exactly where she started in twenty years, but she'll survive. Roger, after the existential crises he's been having lately, may not.

The firm itself is back on shaky ground after clawing its way back from the brink. All we've seen this year are dissatisfied clients, lost accounts, and vanishing talent. Peggy's gone, and now Harry Crane's threatening to quit. Like Don Draper, I think the firm is headed for the rocks unless it transforms to survive – new management, a changing of the creative guard, or perhaps another takeover.

And Bert Cooper dies fat and happy. The end.
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My Top Ten Favorite Shakespeare Movies

Happy Shakespeare's birthday everyone. In honor of the Bard, I'm writing up a list of my top ten movies adapted from his plays. I'm going to be very loose about that term, and throw in a title or two that aren't direct adaptations, but heavily influenced by his work. And to keep things interesting, I'm limiting myself to only picking one movie per play.

Romeo + Juliet (1996) - Let's get this out of the way first. Yes, I really enjoy Baz Luhrmann's modern-day take on "Romeo and Juliet," and it's my favorite of the film adaptations by far. There are some famously iffy choices, but I just love the MTV imagery and the cast - Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as our young lovers, Pete Postlethwait as the priest, John Leguizamo as Tybalt Prince of Cats, and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio.

Titus (1999) - Julie Taymor's blood-soaked version of "Titus Andronicus" with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange is similarly a flawed piece of work, but good grief, the creative staging and the symbolism-heavy visuals make it a hard one to forget. You never saw a more raw and venal approach to Shakespeare, where all the major players are really terrible, bloodthirsty people. The highlight of the film for me is Harry Lennix as the fascinating manipulator, Aaron.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967) - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are one of the most famous screen couples of all time. Franco Zeffirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew" is a wonderful example of their best work together. Burton is charming and robust, while Taylor is a joyfully over-the-top harridan. Around their performances, Zeffirelli builds a film that is wonderfully funny and effervescent and a little bit bawdy in all the right places.

Throne of Blood (1957) - There have been many adaptations of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," but nothing quite like what Akira Kurosawa and his favorite leading man, Toshiro Mifune managed to achieve with "Throne of Blood." The action is moved to feudal Japan, the kings and knights replaced with daimyo and samurai. And then there's the substitute method of execution, which leads to one of the greatest cinematic death scenes of all time.

Hamlet (1996) - I really love the 1948 version with Laurence Olivier, but how can you say no to Kenneth Branagh's version? It's the full play done over four hours on a grandiose set, populated by a star-studded cast of actors. (Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger!) Ironically it's Branagh himself as Hamlet who I find the least convincing, but everything else in the picture more than makes up for it. He's much better as Henry V, but "Hamlet" is definitely his best film.

Shakespeare in Love (1998) - I'm going to count this one for "Twelfth Night," because though the characters are performing "Romeo and Juliet," the events that transpire are what give Shakespeare the plot for the later play "Twelfth Night." It's easy to run out of superlatives talking about this movie, so let's just say the Tom Stoppard script, fantastic cast lead by Gwyneth Paltrow, and ridiculously gorgeous production design deserve nothing but praise.

Caesar Must Die (2012) - From Italy's Taviani brothers comes a look at the efforts of a prison theater program, where the inmates are preparing for a performance of "Julius Caesar." We follow their rehearsals, their discussions of the material, occasionally incorporating bits of their own lives and backgrounds, and finally parts of the final performance. Real convicts played their own roles in the film, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings.

Chimes at Midnight (1967) - Orson Welles' history of the character of Falstaff is based on parts of multiple Shakespeare plays: "Richard II," "Henry IV Part 1," "Henry IV Part 2," "Henry V," and bits of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The jovial, tragic old drunk is one of Welles' greatest later performances, and the film lives up to it, particularly the major battle sequences. So it's a real shame that the film remains underseen after decades stuck in legal limbo.

Richard III (1955) - This is my favorite of the Olivier Shakespeare adaptations, largely for Olivier's performance as one of Shakespeare's most vile and entertaining villains, King Richard III. That nose! That hair! That voice! It's no wonder the film is credited with popularizing both the play and the character, and Olivier set the bar for every Richard that followed. And nobody, not even Ian McKellan in the excellent 1995 version, has matched him yet.

Ran (1986) - Not just one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, but one of my favorite films, period. Kurosawa's Sengoku-era adaptation of "King Lear" was his final epic, capturing the horror of war and the pain of a family torn apart by pride and greed. The use of color and the spectacular cinematography and the Noh play symbolism are just breathtaking. The names and places may be unfamiliar, but the tragedy is unquestionably Shakesperean.
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Monday, April 22, 2013

800 Words on the Boston Bombing Coverage

My TV set stayed off during the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing that happened a week ago on April 15, 2013, and the subsequent manhunt for the two suspects that happened on Friday. I kept up by checking the internet for updates, not only on the bombing story but on the emphasis of the coverage. It was difficult not to pay attention to what was going on because it was practically all that anyone in the U.S. was talking about last week. However, this time it felt like all the worst case scenarios about the 24 hour news cycle and the danger of trusting what you read on the internet came true, one after the other.

During the days between the bombing and the manhunt, many news outlets were remarkably self-conscious about the potential harm of speculating on the identities of the bombers and their motives. That didn't stop anyone from speculating, however. There was plenty of on-air chatter about possible ethnicities, nationalities, religions, political stances, and more. The bombers were already being politicized long before they were identified, their potential impact on gun-control legislation, immigration reform, drone warfare, and other hot button issues getting plenty of attention. With so much interest in the event and so little information, it was inevitable that rumors would run rampant, and that the smallest details would be blown out of proportion. Jon Stewart has a good rundown of the worst offenders on "The Daily Show" last week.

I was glad that there seemed to be much more awareness of various groups trying to make the bombings fit certain narratives. There was a lot of pre-emptive defense of Muslims and the Saudi national who had been identified as a witness. Many people were being called out for racial profiling and jumping to conclusions. As quickly as the crackpots came out of the woodwork, they were confronted and scolded just as quickly. For at least the first few days of the news coverage, there was a real attempt to focus on the victims, the first responders, and relief efforts. Disasters tend to bring out the best in many people, and for a while that provided enough material to fill the airwaves and the newspaper columns. My favorite piece came trom the New Yorker: Why Boston's Hospitals Were Ready. However, all the good intentions and the emphasis on responsible reporting didn't last. Inevitably, attention shifted to the investigation, and things fell apart quickly.

CNN and many other news outlets reported that an arrest had been made on Wednesday afternoon, which had to be retracted when the Boston police denied that they had anyone in custody. Then on Thursday the New York Post ran the infamous "Bag Men" cover, that seemed to point to two "dark-skinned" individuals, neither of whom turned out to have anything to do with the bombings and weren't particularly dark-skinned either. The erroneous reports turned into news stories themselves, and many used them as an excuse to slam traditional media outlets. Meanwhile, internet-based outlets were hardly doing much better. Would-be sleuths on social media sites were trying to piece together evidence from photos of the bombings that had been released online. By all accounts their actions were mostly harmful, leading to several false IDs, and incidents of harassment and vigilantism. After the conclusion of the manhunt, it was revealed that the FBI was spurred to release the photos of the Tsarnaev brothers in part as an effort to mitigate the damage being done by these amateurs.

Now, in the aftermath, the mainstream media is blaming the internet, the internet is blaming the mainstream media, and I'm left feeling exasperated with both sides. After all that talk about how we should wait for information to be confirmed and avoid turning into an unthinking mob, that's exactly what ended up happening. At least this time around there's a little more introspection going on, and more discussion of the problems that the coverage revealed. Oddly, the mainstream media and the internet ended up checking and balancing each other to some extent, and maybe that's how it should be. Since both approaches have proven to be problematic, at least we can be glad that we're not stuck with one or the other exclusively.

And so we've completed another cycle of tragedy and terror and retribution in the American media. The suspect has been apprehended, the heroes have been cheered, and it was all very exciting and, though we won't readily admit it to ourselves, we were all very entertained. Sadly, for the bulk of the time, the public was kept pretty badly informed by a sensationalist media that was desperate to say something, anything, to keep our attention, and the collective speculation of the internet hordes that reflected our worst impulses to find someone to blame as quickly as possible.
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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The First Five of "Veronica Mars"

Yes, marshmallows, I'm joining your ranks at last. Some thoughts on the first five episodes of "Veronica Mars" below, with a few minor spoilers. Back in 2004, I erroneously lumped the show together with the "O.C." clones, sight unseen, due to superficial similarities, and a lot of chatter about which Southern California hunk the title character should end up. Can you blame me for mistaking this for just another teeny-bopper soap opera? And "The O.C.," really cheesed me off from the start, as someone who actually grew up in Orange County and wasn't happy that the show insisted on being about the tiny, unrepresentative corner of it where a bunch of rich white people lived.

Neptune, California seems to occupy part of that corner, with its high population of wealthy elites. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Neptune high schooler and private investigator, explains in voiceover that she used to be part of their world. She's the ex-girlfriend of Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn) and ex-best friend of his sister Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried), children of the most powerful man in town, Jake Kane (Kyle Secor). Unfortunately, Lily's murder eight months ago was the first in a chain of events that turned Veronica into an outcast. Her father Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), the sheriff at the time, suspected Jake was involved with the murder, which lead to Keith getting ousted and the town turning against him. Veronica's mother (Corinne Bohrer) became an alcoholic and then left town without explanation. Finally, Veronica was roofied and raped during a party, ruining her reputation even further. Now she helps her father run his new private investigation service, and avoids Duncan and his bad-boy pal Logan (Jason Dohring). Instead, she starts making new friends and allies, including the new kid in school, Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and the leader of a local Hispanic biker gang, Weevil (Francis Capra).

"Veronica Mars" has certain elements of a teen soap, but at heart it's a mystery series. Veronica is the newest incarnation of the girl sleuth, that great old trope that gave us Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I so appreciate smart heroines, and Veronica's brains are what she depends on to juggle the dog-eat-dog world of high school, the various cases that she investigates every week, and the ongoing mysteries of Lily's murder, her mother's disappearance, and the identity of her rapist. It's very satisfying to watch her working cases, maneuvering around her enemies, and navigating an especially rocky road to adulthood. I was a little worried after the pilot that Veronica would be a little too smart, manipulating everyone around her in complex schemes worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo. However, in subsequent episodes she's made more than her share of mistakes, and hit plenty of dead ends. I really enjoy Kristen Bell's performance too, the snarky cynicism, the outsider attitude, and every interaction she has with Enrico Colantoni as her father. They have one of the more entertaining father-daughter relationships on television that I can remember, both a working partnership and an occasionally tumultuous parent-child duo.

The big theme of the show so far seems to be that you can't judge a book by its cover. Though the pilot introduces Veronica being at odds with her old friends, the next few episodes show clear signs of reconciliation with Duncan and Logan. These two clearly aren't going to be limited to being typical bullies. Meanwhile, Veronica has already disposed of one potential love interest, Troy (Aaron Ashmore), who looked like a good guy on the surface, but turned out to be a baddie underneath when she finally listened to her doubts and dug deeper. I expect that this going to become a regular thing, playing with our perceptions of characters, and putting Veronica in situations where she's not sure how far she can trust those closest to her. It's already apparent that both of her parents are keeping secrets from her, and probably also lying to her. It's the sort of thing that forces a girl to grow up faster.

Some of the dramatics are a little over the top, but then Veronica's world is one where biker gangs roam the Pacific Coast Highway and there's no middle class – you're either filthy rich or one of the peons. It's more recognizably Orange County than the "O.C." version. At least there are a couple of minority characters, Wallace and Weevil. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the kids sling witty barbs at each other with spectacular timing. And yet, nobody intersperses the word "like" into sentences at random, with the proper Valley Girl abandon. Tsk, tsk. Points off for inaccuracy. Still, "Veronica Mars" under the guidance of its creator Rob Thomas, has been very well written so far. The individual cases have been solid, and the character building is strong. I especially like the use of flashbacks to fill in the details of Veronica's friendship with Lily and relationship with Duncan.

One thing I'm hoping will improve as the series goes on is the ratio of female to male characters. I get that Veronica's grieving for Lily and being socially isolated is a big part of her current situation, but all of her peers in the show are male so far, along with her major parental figure. Lily and Veronica's mother loom large for their absences, but the only regular female presence on the show other than Veronica Mars is her journalism teacher, Mrs. Dent (Sydney Tamiia Poitier).

That's a small complaint though. I'm already pretty hooked on the show, and looking forward to seeing it through to the end.
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Friday, April 19, 2013

Amazon's Pilot Experiment

The television development process goes a little something like this: the major networks will hire creatives to develop a show based on their pitches and ideas. Then they order pilots, which are test episodes, and often used as the introductory first episode of the series, if the show gets picked up to air. Pilots go through a lot of audience testing by the studios, and there are plenty that never make it past this stage. The NBC reboot of "Wonder Woman," for instance, shot a pilot but didn't make it to series.

Most people never get to see the pilots for the shows that aren't picked up, except under very unusual circumstances, because of certain financial issues and PR concerns. The information related to the audience testing is kept pretty tightly under wraps. So imagine Hollywood's surprise when Amazon made its first slate of original programming pilots, eight comedies and six kids shows, available to the public on Amazon Instant and Lovefilm, seeking people's direct feedback. Like Netflix, they've been looking to produce their own content, and are taking a different approach to the traditional television development process.

Among the pilots currently available for download are the "Zombieland" series, based on the 2009 Woody Harrelson film, "Alpha House" with John Goodman, about the hijinks of four senators forced to share the same address, "Browsers" with Bebe Neuwirth, about a news website, "Dark Minions," "Betas," about app developers, "Those Who Can't," about high school teachers, "and "Onion News Empire," an extension of the satirical Onion news organization. There are also two animated shows, "Supanatural," about crime-fighting divas, and "Dark Minions," described as a slacker science-fiction show. I haven't had a chance to watch any of them for myself yet.

There are some reasons to be cautious about this approach. Immediately any failures become more public, and if a high profile show liked "Zombieland" fails to attract much interest, it becomes harder to brush it aside. There was a lot of press and pictures passed around from "Wonder Woman," but NBC kept the actual footage from the pilot away from the public's gaze, and never so much as ran a commercial for it. Also, most television shows are launched with the benefit of advertising campaigns and a much more controlled narrative around them. Your first look at a new show is often through ads and commercials that help to generate hype, long before it actually goes to air. Presentation counts for a lot on television, and I don't know if Amazon is putting their best foot forward with some of these new projects.

Also, there's the little matter of retooling. Some shows have multiple pilots, or make major changes based on initial feedback. For instance, "The Big Bang Theory" had an initial pilot that featured a very different female lead character named Katie. She didn't really work, but the characters of Sheldon and Leonard and their interactions did. The second pilot with Kelly Cuoco as Penny got much better marks, and now "Big Bang" is a monster hit for CBS. Consider what might have happened if the public had seen the first dud pilot, and CBS decided to write the whole concept off based on their negative reactions. Some shows need more than one round of development, and t's pretty common to see notices about recasting and retooling. I don't know if the Amazon shows are going to enjoy the ability to make tweaks and changes. For them it may be sink or swim.

Still, the idea of getting the potential audience involved this early in a show's life cycle is a really appealing idea. If people latch on to a particular pilot, you could get strong word of mouth going before committing to a full series. Fans could become more invested in its survival, and the wider exposure could provide better data on how a show is likely to do in the long run, and help to create better marketing. This would be an advantage to the more niche shows that appeal strongly to a smaller audience, and from Amazon's press releases these are definitely people that the company wants to hear from. It's important to remember that it's the Amazon executives who will ultimately be deciding which shows go to series, and the audience feedback will only be one factor they consider.

After seeing how Netflix is handling the launch of "House of Cards" and its other new shows, it's interesting to se the different tactics that Amazon has embraced. These companies are in a rare position that they can afford to experiment a little and try out different things, because nobody really knows how launching web platform based programming is supposed to work. What works for television may not work on the internet, and vice versa. It's a very exciting process to keep an eye on, and we'll see how successful they prove to be.
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Thursday, April 18, 2013

2014 and 2015 Movies I Wanna See

The 2013 summer movie season looks to be on the quieter side this year, with only about five or six titles that I'm really curious about. I figured it was a good time to look ahead to other film projects that have been quietly coming together over the past few months. I've wanted to write about several of them individually, but it never felt like I had enough material, so I'm going to use this post to geek out about everything coming up in the near future that I'm really getting excited about. As usual for me, there's a lot of science fiction on the list. I'm a nerd. I admit it.

2014

In March we're getting Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited "Noah" project, starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Then shortly after comes "Transcendance," the directing debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, who is best known for working with Christopher Nolan. It's been described as a science-fiction neo-noir that will star Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany. Nolan will be helming his own original science-fiction movie, "Interstellar," which has something to do with time travel and will star Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. That one's currently dated for November. And a month later, we're finally going to see what Brad Bird's secret "Tomorrowland" project with George Clooney is all about.

Summer currently looks a little dire for original projects, but the Wachowski siblings will be returning with "Jupiter Ascending" in July, with Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. We're finally learning a little more about it this week since filming has begun, and it sounds like a promisingly crazy space opera in the same vein as the Korean segment of "Cloud Atlas." And a week later, Disney and Marvel will be unleashing "The Guardians of the Galaxy," one of the pivotal Marvel Universe Phase 2 films. Everything I've read about this goofy-sounding tale of intergalactic space cops sounds ridiculous (alien raccoons?!) and I can't wait to see how they're going to pull this off. Will this finally break the curse of the movies with the word "Guardians" in the title? Either way, this is going to be a big one.

Most of 2014' s sequels don't interest me (Amazing Spidey 2, Jurassic Park 4, Fast and Furious 7, Transformers 4), and others are too sketchy to say much about yet (Apes prequel #2, Hunger Games 3, Captain America 2, 21 Jump Street 2, Hobbit 3), but one that I'm definitely looking forward to is "X-Men: Days of Future Past" that will be coming in July. Brian Singer is back as director, and will be combining the various X-men movie canons with the franchise's most famous time travel storyline. Matthew Vaughn, who did such a fantastic job with "First Class," is contributing to the screenplay. The press has been full of announcements about returning castmembers, and we're getting Peter Dinklage and Omar Sy to boot. Bring it on!

On the animation front, there are a couple of potentially interesting titles: "The Good Dinosaur" form PIXAR, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" and "Happy Smekday!" from Dreamworks, and "The Boxtrolls" from Laika. We'll also be getting the highly anticipated sequel to "How to Train Your Dragon," which Dreamworks is counting on to become its next major franchise, so expect a lot of push behind that one.

Finally, some smaller movies with no set dates that we can only speculate are going to arrive in 2014 include Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel," Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups," Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," and the "Veronica Mars" movie. Note to self: go watch "Veronica Mars."

2015

Only the really big studio productions get scheduled this far out in advance, mostly animated films and superhero movies. But by any measure, 2015 is going to be a big movie year. The main events, of course, will be "Avengers 2" and "Star Wars VII," but PIXAR also recently announced that their mysterious November, 2015 release was "Finding Dory." The fact that Disney is behind all three of these movies points to the strength of the studio's brand acquisition strategy over the last few years.

On top of that, we've got the final "Hunger Games" movie, the "Avatar" sequel, Edgar Wright's "Ant-Man," and an original PIXAR movie called "Inside Out." Probably only of interest to me are the just-announced "Pitch Perfect" sequel and "Kung-Fu Panda 3." I like "Dragons" very much, but I don't think the "Panda" franchise gets nearly enough credit.

The most intriguing "maybe" of the year, however, is still only in the planning stages: Warners' potential "Justice League" movie. Depending on how "Man of Steel" does, this project may or may not happen, and we may or may not be getting a superhero team showdown with "The Avengers 2," and it may or may not be a complete disaster for Warners.

And that may or may not be the best entertainment of all.

Happy watching!
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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Technology Marches On

Right now, I'm typing out this post using a new version of Gmail that requires that I open a new browser window if I don't want to draft a new message in a cramped text box that's squashed into the right half of my screen. I juggle enough different windows and tabs at one time that I really don't want to deal with another one, but I can't find anything in the settings that would restore the prior one-window method. I liked drafting in Gmail because I got to write and keep an eye on my inbox at the same time. Now, I might as well be using Google Docs or a separate word processing program. There wasn't much warning that this change was going to happen in Gmail, and it's just the first of a string of coming changes to the internet services and programs that I've grown to depend on.

In the next few months, we're going to lose Google Reader, which I was using as my primary aggregator for multiple entertainment news RSS feeds and podcasts, and the current version of Tweetdeck, which I use to update my Twitter feed. Tweetdeck was really just a quick fix for a problem I was having with the Twitter web interface, and not actually more convenient for me, so this could be a good thing, providing the impetus for me to get the issue sorted out for good. I'm going to miss Reader much more, since it is the most popular and most useful newsreader out there. There's some comfort in knowing there are a lot of other people in the same boat as I am. Right after Reader's impending retirement was announced, there was a flood of people on Reddit asking for recommendations for replacements. In both cases it's not going to take much effort to acclimate myself to a new or modified service, but it's still hard to shake the sense of loss, because I spent so much time using both, and I'd gotten very familiar with them.

I've always been something of a late adopter - I managed to skip Windows Vista entirely by holding out with XP until Windows 7 came along. My current laptop is nearly six years old, and I don't own a smartphone, tablet, or anything that supports an app. I'll probably be replacing the laptop soon with a newer model, not because I'm unhappy with its performance, but because you can't just go an buy a brand new 2007 laptop. There are already parts of the internet my processor and graphics card are having a hard time keeping up with, and I've been warned that eventually most of the online services that I use aren't going to run as well with my old, outdated machine as they keep getting upgraded and updated. Of course I've seen the benefits of many of these improvements over the years, but sometimes it feels like I'm running a Red Queen's race. Video platforms continue to be the bane of my existence. I spent a good chunk of yesterday evening updating Java and Adobe Shockwhatever, trying to get an old Stanley Kubrick supercut to play properly. And who knows what kind of horror will be unleashed when Netflix switches over to HTML5.

I've been through this familiar situation enough times before that I know that I'm really just grumbling over change in general. There's nothing I can do about the changes to my online services in the same way that I can't do anything about the volatile gas prices or the end of Saturday mail services. The online world is actually better in many ways because there are a lot of options to conduct basic activities, lots of different providers (except for internet service itself), and a lot of sympathy towards late adopters. If I really wanted to, I could hold out with my current laptop for a very long time. I finally gave up on Windows XP back in 2007, but Microsoft is still supporting the operating system until next year. I might just stick to Windows 7 for a while, considering what I've been hearing about Windows 8, and wait until 9 or 10 roll around.

But first things first. I need a new RSS reader, hopefully one that will let me download audio content directly. And I might just give up Tweetdeck entirely and update directly through the Twitter site, or see if there's another third party services that's a little more user friendly. I need my Gmail account, but I might start drafting blog posts in what used to be my Hotmail account, which recently mysteriously transmogrified into this thing called Microsoft Outlook. I can't really tell the difference between them functionally, so no complaints. The transition was handled so well that it took me a few weeks to realize that I was actually using a different service.

Sometimes technology marches on, and sometimes it can pull a fast one on you.
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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Need a Space Western? Try "Defiance"

I have subjected myself to so many mainstream pandering, emphatically mediocre science fiction series lately, it is a tremendous relief to find one like Syfy's new show "Defiance," that is classic geek bait. Here we have a show with not just one or two very human-looking aliens, but at least half a dozen species of them living alongside humans, ranging from the albino-looking Castithan race, to a big guy who looks like an orangutan. And we don't just have a standard post-apocalyptic future, but a future where the entire planet Earth has been terraformed by alien colonists so that Antarctica is now rumored to be a tropical paradise, and a couple of major wars between the humans and the aliens have made a lasting impact.

The action centers in and around the city of Defiance, formerly St. Louis. It's known as a place where human beings and many of the newly arrived alien races decided to stop fighting and live side by side, banding together against the myriad threats posed by the rest of the world. Theirs is a frontier-like existence, and the whole series definitely has a lot of Western vibes. The pilot episode is all about how newcomers to Defiance, former soldier Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), end up becoming the new sheriff and deputy, after a raucous adventure that involves a hand-to-hand fighting match, getting involved in a family feud, solving a murder, a visit to the local bordello, and turning back an invading army of machine warriors called the Volge.

What I have always loved about science-fiction shows like this is the characters. "Defiance" has a lot of the types that you'd expect. There's the inexperienced mayor Amanda (Julie Benz), steadfast deputy Tommy (Deshane Williams), the sultry bordello and bar proprietress Kenya (Mia Kirshner), no-nonsense Doc Yewll (Treanna Keating), and a pair of feuding families, the McCawleys and the Tarrs, with offspring that turn out to be lovebirds, of course. But when you've got characters like Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) and his wife Stahma (Jaime Murray) under a couple of layers of makeup, you can buy them acting broader, and larger than life than if they were human characters. The Tarrs are the show's mob family, clearly devoted to each other and their son Alak (Jesse Rath), but they handle a lot of unsavory business, and have the temperament to match. Datak Tarr in particular gets to chew a lot of scenery. This makes them a lot more fun to watch than the human McCawley family, comprised of father Rafe (Graham Greene), son Quentin (Justin Rain), and daughter Christie (Nicole Muñoz).

I was surprised at just how much "Defiance" gets done in its two-hour premiere. There's a lot of backstory missing - we don't yet know where the aliens came from or why - but the show's creators do a great job of establishing a very weird and interesting status quo. It was very encouraging to note that one of those creators is Rockne S. O'Bannon, who also worked on the similar "Farscape" series. I don't think that "Defiance" is as visually distinct as "Farscape," but it's definitely aiming high. You've got several major alien characters in complicated makeup, a setting that may as well be on another planet, and loads of special effects for everything from the vehicles and weapons to the drinks at the bar. This isn't anything that we haven't seen before in science-fiction television, and it's certainly not pushing any new boundaries, but the execution is so good, I'm already invested in the show. I got a real kick out of how fast it managed to set up all these different relationships and conflicts while hinting at many more to come.

There are some elements that I think could use some work. One character who didn't come off very well is Irisa, who is a familiar sulking teenager for most of the pilot, and doesn't say much. Even though we know from the start that Irisa considers Nolan her father, it takes longer than it should to work out how they function together. Hopefully she'll open up a bit more in the coming weeks - she's already got a potential love interest lined up. Also, I'd really appreciate a little more worldbuilding information like timelines and better introductions to the different races to start getting a clearer picture of how the "Defiance" world operates. There's something to be said for being thrown into the deep end like this, but only if the show is able to follow through on its ideas.

I have a really good feeling about this one though, for the simple reason that "Defiance" has so much action and humor and cheeseball fun. This is the first new show in a while that feels like the lighter, weirder, more adventurous science fiction I always liked best.
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Monday, April 15, 2013

"A Beautiful Day" Years in the Making

Remember "Rejected"? Don Hertzfeld's surreally violent cartoon was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short back in the year 2000, and has become an influential cult favorite. It's striking not just for its inventive visuals and unusual level of blood and guts (inflicted primarily on minimalist pen doodles), but its particular existential and philosophical bent. In "Rejected," the discarding of the animator's rejected drawings is depicted as a horrific apocalypse, dooming his terrified creations to an unspeakable void.

This level of cheerful nihilism was only possible because Hertzfeld is one of those rare independent filmmakers working in animation who is essentially a one-man studio. By doing nearly everything himself, he retains a high degree of creative control, which ensures his work retains his mature, challenging voice and point of view. I encountered more of his darkly funny shorts over the years, like "Billy's Balloon," where balloons become sentient and turn on their owners, and "The Meaning of Life," which charts a twisted version of human history. Then in 2006, he produced something quite different.

"Everything Will be OK" is the seventeen-minute story of a man named Bill, depicted as a stick figure wearing a little rectangle of a hat, who is losing his mind. Bill is meant to be a real world person, though a highly abstracted version of one, who goes to work every day, keeps in contact with an ex-girlfriend, and has relatives who worry about him. He watches a lot of TV and likes ice cream sandwiches. At first his journey involves a series of absurd little episodes and funny observations on daily life - an everyday conversation gone awry because neither participant remembers who the other person is, inappropriate fantasies, and the boredom and emptiness of the daily routine. But then Bill starts forgetting more and more, and his condition goes from annoying to frightening, and it becomes clear that something is very wrong with Bill.

"Everything Will be OK" was followed by two other Bill shorts, "I Am So Proud of You" and "It's Such a Beautiful Day," completed in 2008 and 2011 respectively. Last year, Hertzfeld edited all three shorts together into a feature film, running a little over an hour in length, also titled "It's Such a Beautiful Day." The latter installments delve deeper into mental illness, dysfunctional families, and finally the very nature of life and death and human existence. Though it retains the same sense of humor and penchant for the gruesome as Hertzfeld's shorts, the approach is much more serious and even-handed, to reflect the more ambitious material. The result is such a weird and wonderful film, incredibly personal and very touching. What makes it all the more astonishing is that despite the occasional use of live-action film elements and some special effects, "It's Such a Beautiful Day" is primarily comprised of simple stick figure drawings and Hertzfeld's narration.

Yet the animation is so evocative, and the storytelling with these simple tools is so strong and so compelling. It's easy to relate to Bill, who comes off as a real, sympathetic person suffering from some terrible unnamed mental ailment, constantly questioning the nature of his existence. Because he has no defining visuals characteristics beyond his hat, he is instantly a universal figure, and you automatically feel for him as he struggles against delusions and disorientation. The hand-drawn animation also allows a closer degree of shared experience with Bill's tenuous state of mind, visualizing it in ways that live action film and other, more complicated kinds of animation would be unable to match. And you realize how little it takes - a few simple ink lines on paper, really - to evoke such powerful reactions.

Their's something tremendously heartening about the existence of a film like "It's Such a Beautiful Day." Theatrical hand-drawn animation is supposed to be dead in the U.S., economically unfeasible and out of fashion (Disney Animation announced a new round of layoffs last week). And yet here's Don Hertzfeld, toiling away with his doodles and stick-figures, who has created a film of real emotional depth and insight on the human experience, and has managed to support himself through his work. Hertzfeld self-distributed "It's Such a Beautiful Day," currently offering it for $2 online downloads through Veoh and other platforms.

I've always been a big fan of animation, but over the last few years I've found the output of the big studios creatively wanting. Sure, last year's "Wreck-It -Ralph" and "Madagascar 3" were a lot of fun, and you can't deny the creators of "Brave" and "Paranorman" had some serious artistic chops. However, when it comes to advancing the art of animation, "It's Such a Beautiful Day" leaves them all behind in the dust. This is the first animated film in years I can justify saving a spot for on my annual "Best of" list.
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Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Unico" and Childhood Movie Trauma

When we're very small, all movies are darker and more frightening than they are intended to be. Even if a character is only a year or two older than you are, that difference feels huge. Threats linger longer, and danger feels more real. It's rough to be a little kid, when emotions aren't tempered, and often feel out of our control. I think that's why the movies and television that we see at that age tends to hit a bit harder, why we experience them more strongly, and fixate on them.

On the internet, you often find people popping up in movie forums or message boards trying to identify something that they saw as a kid, that stayed with them over the years. I've gone through this myself a few times, trying to connect vivid recollections of old cartoons and B-movies, like "Prisoners of the Lost Universe," "The Adventures of Mark Twain," and "Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome" with their correct titles. And when I went back to watch them, they were barely anything like I remembered, usually much lighter and sillier and fake-looking. I have some positively horrific memories of the two "Care Bears" movies, which upon later review as an adult, turned out to be embarrassingly benign.

So it's a rare treat to find one of those half-remembered old movies that really is a scary and strange and weird as the child you thought it was. Thanks to the internet in the late 90s I figured out that an old anime movie I'd been especially fascinated with as a kid was "Unico in the Island of Magic," which had been dubbed in English the early 80s, released on home video and played a few times on the Disney Channel before it promptly disappeared. Surviving video cassettes were sold for ridiculous prices on Ebay. It wasn't until I was in college many years later that I worked out how to acquire a secondhand copy. An official Region 1 version was finally released last year by an indie distributor.

After the "Care Bears," I was expecting "Unico" to be just another piece of cheap kiddie pabulum, but it wasn't. Oh, the film was certainly made for consumption by children, including comic characters with exaggerated toon-y designs, and a main character, Unico the baby unicorn, who is cuteness personified. Unico was created by Osamu Tezuka, best known for "Astro Boy," and the idea is that Unico's magic powers and goodness have troubled the gods of his world, so he has to hide from them on Earth. The friendly West Wind takes him from place to place, where he has various adventures, beating back evil where he finds it.

If "Island of Magic" is any indication, Unico's world is a very dark place. Like Astro Boy, Unico is very simple and innocent, but the threats he faces are anything but. Shortly after the West Wind drops him off this time, Unico is adopted by a little girl named Cheri as a pet. She takes him home to meet her parents, right before they're paid a visit by Cheri's estranged older brother Toby, who ran away some years ago to become the apprentice of an evil wizard. This wizard is Lord Kuruku, who discovers Toby with his family, and promptly turns them into "living puppets," identical human-shaped blocks. Toby helps Cheri and Unico escape, but has to turn all the rest of the people in his village into more living puppets. Then Kuruku takes them all back to his island, where he's building an ever-growing nightmare castle, using the transformed people as building blocks.

And that's not the most disturbing part of it. I haven't even gotten to Lord Kuruku himself, who is this floating, ever-shifting paranormal creature, able to change himself into a variety of geometrical shapes and colors, always with a pair of mad, bulging eyes. The American dub of "Island of Magic" is clumsy stuff, as most dubs were in the 80s, but the voice they created for Lord Kuruku is this electronically enhanced, barely human sounding thing, full of screeches and warbles and distorted sounds. Upon rewatch, it was actually creepier than I remembered. I've found that most people who recall seeing the movie as kids, like I did, remember it chiefly for Lord Kuruku and the living puppets.

"Unico and the Island of Magic" is actually quite a hidden gem. It was the second of a pair of "Unico" movies produced by Sanrio, back when they were trying to make a name for themselves in anime production. The animation is surprisingly good, especially the effects work for Lord Kuruku and a finale that involves a lot of large-scale destruction. Still, I don't think the movie would have had quite the effect on me that it did as a grown-up if I hadn't seen it first as a child, and I didn't have those memories of being freaked out by the scary, screaming puppet man.

Seriously, what demented, twisted mind came up with this guy?
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Friday, April 12, 2013

My Favorite Zhang Yimou Film

Imagine if there was pressure from the American government to avoid negative portrayals of the Vietnam War on film. Imagine if because of that pressure, directors would be denounced and penalized, and their most important films subject to censorship or outright bans. Now imagine the American film landscape without "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Born on the Fourth of July."

That's why out of all of Zhang Yimou's films, "To Live" strikes me as the most vital and important. It was one of small wave of films that came out of China in the 1990s, along with "Farewell My Concubine" and "Blue Kite," that directly addressed the negative consequences of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, major attempts by the Maoist government to impose Communism on the Chinese people, affecting millions. Government pressure had previously stymied any attempts to examine these events in any depth. So when these newly critical films emerged, the government banned and un-banned them, vocally denouncing their content even as they racked up festival awards around the globe.

Zhang Yimou probably had the least to worry about. By 1994 he was the most prominent and successful Chinese filmmaker in the West, after a dizzying run of films including "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the Red Lantern" that had received unprecedented global recognition. "To Live" was his fifth collaboration with leading lady Gong Li, and contained all the elements that Zhang was famous for - bold visuals, picturesque locals, and particular emphasis on the lives of common people. Many of his earlier films had been torrid love stories, pitting the individual against the inescapable constraints of family and tradition. In "To Live," the struggle is simply for survival in tumultuous times.

We first meen Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li) in the 1940s. Fugui is a good-for-nothing with a weakness for gambling. After he loses his entire fortune and the family estate, Jiazhen leaves him, and Fugui is forced to go on the road performing shadow puppet operas in order to earn a living. However, by extraordinary luck, he and his partner Chunsheng (Tao Guo) come out on the right side of the war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Fugui is able to reunite with his wife and children. However, this is only the beginning of their struggles, as the world around them is changing very quickly, and Fugui's luck never stayed very good for very long.

When I watched "To Live" a few months ago, it wasn't until about halfway through the movie that I realized that I had seen it before, way back in high school. My parents rented a lot of Chinese films, but I didn't appreciate many of them back then. "To Live" left an impact though. All of a sudden I remembered in vivid detail how the rest of the story was going to play out, and I was getting emotionally distraught just at the thought of it. The film's tragedies are extremely affecting, not just because of their particular circumstances, but because they happen to these characters, and because we see the consequences of them over the long years of their lives.

The performances of Ge You and Gong Li are not particularly flashy, but they are extraordinary. We follow their family through the 50s and 60s and beyond, and see the weight of years accumulate on them. I was very familiar with Gong Li, who often played headstrong, doomed heroines. Here she gets her moments of pique, but tempered by stronger expressions of love and devotion. Ge You, however, was unfamiliar. In his early scenes of spoiled indulgence, it was easy to view him as a comic villain type, but fate and necessity soon require him to transform, gradually, into a sympathetic everyman who just wants to keep out of trouble and protect his little family.

From how I've described the movie so far, you'd probably expect "To Live" to be some kind of deathly serious, harrowing cinematic experience, and it's not. What I found on rewatch was that the film was much funnier than I remembered. Xu Fugui is a bit of a fool and a bumbler, who occasionally has to be taken down a peg by his wife and kids. Society may be cruel at times, but each individual we meet is shown to have a good side. The film is full of wry observations and little ironies, culminating in a thrilling, devastating, and somehow terribly funny sequence involving a poor doctor who incapacitates himself by eating too many steamed buns.

The government, despite all the controversy, doesn't come off all that badly for the most part. Yes, their policies definitely play a part in causing the family's sorrows, but those sorrows are just as much a product of luck and fate. I wonder if they were really more upset by the irreverence with which they were treated in a few scenes. Zhang Yimou is famous for his use of color composition - the drying silk skeins in "Ju Dou" and the famous lanterns of "Raise the Red Lantern." Here, he gets a lot of mileage out of the Communist iconography from the propaganda that is plastered everywhere, and incorporated into daily life to ridiculous extremes.

I think "To Live" resonates more with me now that I'm older, and I've seen the world change for myself. The events of the movie are far more dramatic and compelling and beautiful than most people's lives, but at its core it captures an essential truth: after enough time and enough history, everyone's life is an epic story.
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What I've Seen - Zhang Yimou

Red Sorghum (1987)
Ju Dou (1990)
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)
To Live (1994)
Hero (2002)
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
The Flowers of War (2011)

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Media Burnout and How to Avoid It

Don't worry. I'm not feeling burned out from watching movies and television, or writing about them in the slightest. However, the issue of media fan burnout is a very real thing that I've experienced before, and I thought it would be appropriate to devote a post to the subject.

I consume an awful lot of media, including movies, television shows, podcasts, and more. Occasionally I get carried away and overdo things, marathoning entire seasons of a show in one day, or piling on the major contenders before the Oscars, so I can get in on the fun of the predictions. When I was an anime fan I used to be much worse. I'd fast-forward through episodes of repetitive action shows, and plow through masses bottom-of-the-barrel titles that I expected would be terrible, in order to keep up with the wider fandom conversations. As a result, I've gone almost completely cold turkey on anime for over four years. I burned out so completely, that I'm still extremely hesitant about taking a look at any new shows. I expect I will, eventually, but it's going to be a while.

Everyone engages with media differently, and everyone has different experiences. I can only really comment on my own, but I suspect that many of you hardcore movie and television fans out there will find this familiar. I can't keep up a consistent level of interest and enthusiasm for media if I'm not constantly exposing myself to different things. That doesn't mean I have a short attention span, or that I can only watch new media. It means that I have to be careful to avoid falling into ruts or overly familiar patterns. To a certain degree I have to plan out what I'm going to watch and when I'm going to watch it. There's a lot of time management involved, and I make sure I pace myself - no more marathons unless it's for a special occasion.

This year so far, for instance, has mostly been devoted to watching the classics. After the flurry of new movies at Oscar time, I needed a break from the breathless, breakneck entertainment news cycles, so I started working through William Wyler and Zhang Yimou and Fritz Lang movies. I finished "The Wire" and caught up on shows like "Elementary" and "Merlin." A few weeks ago I eased up on the classics and started renting my way through some of the more obscure 2012 titles that had reached DVD, the movies that weren't the best of the year, but I figured were still worth a look. And it's all been very easy and laid back and I go at my own pace.

And now things are just starting to pick up again. "Mad Men" is back, one of my favorites, so I'll be following that weekly, with "Breaking Bad" to follow afterwards. In May, it'll be in another busy period. I'm planning to see the next "Star Trek" and "Iron Man" movies in theaters, and maybe "The Great Gatsby" depending on how the reviews shake out. My next round of Netflix Instant is scheduled for May too, so I can watch "House of Cards" and the new episodes of "Arrested Development." And "Venture Bros." will finally be back on the air. And Season 7 of "Dexter" will be on DVD, so I can go catch up.

There's a lot that I'm looking forward to, and working in the down time gives me a chance to work up anticipation. With anime, I was going so fast and so hard that I stopped being able to enjoy what I was watching. The more I watched, the less I would get out of it, until I found it simply wasn't worth the time and effort anymore. I was too overwhelmed to enjoy the good shows when I found them, while the bad stuff just grated on my nerves more and more. I didn't look forward to anything, because it all started to look the same.

I've been able to avoid this since I quit anime for other media. In addition to a much slower pace and more down time, I take pains to cycle through mainstream entertainment, art house and indie movies, and the oldies so if I get tired of one category, I can move on to the next. Television shows usually aren't as much of an issue because they're cyclical by nature. They go away long enough every year that you're glad to see them again when they come back. Why yes, it is time for "Doctor Who" again.

I've enjoyed my last few months wearing my pretentious movie fan hat, but over the last few weeks it's been a struggle to work through more serious, politically charged movies like Nikita Mikhalkov "Burnt by the Sun" and Chris Marker's "Grin Without a Cat." So yesterday I set aside the next big epic on the list, Warren Beatty's "Reds," and watched a bunch of "Project Runway" episodes instead. It's about time for blockbuster season again, and I'm ready for it.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Specs of "Robot & Frank"

Epic scale space operas have always been a weakness of mine, but lately I've found myself preferring the smaller scale science-fiction stories that look at how we interact with new technology closer to home. A great example of this sub-genre of is "Robot & Frank," which stars Frank Langella as curmudgeonly ex-convict Frank, who is starting to experience worrying gaps in his memory.

Frank lives on his own but has two grown children, Madison (Liv Tyler), and Hunter (James Marsden), who are busy with their own lives, but worry about Frank's condition. Hunter, in a last bid to avoid sending Frank to a retirement home, purchases a robot health aide to help keep his father out of trouble. Frank, stubbornly determined to stay independent, doesn't appreciate the gesture. You can probably guess that Frank grows used to the robot, and comes to rely on his useful skills and companionship. However, the twist here is that Frank is a former jewel thief, and manages to convince the robot that helping him to plan and execute various burglaries is a great way to keep him mentally and physically fit.

Langella is excellent as Frank, a man we suspect has always enjoyed behaving badly, and reveals great pride in his old profession, as he dusts off the old skills to show off to his new friend. However, with the return to lockpicks and architectural blueprints come the consequences that his felonious career has had on his relationships with family and friends, and the uncomfortable truths that he's been trying to avoid facing. His struggles against the memory lapses are so affecting, because of Frank is so relatable. He bristles at being helped or looked after, and there's something admirable about his stubborn insistence on paying regular visits to a diner that no longer exists. Perhaps he is terribly selfish, and enjoys corrupting his robot friend a little too much, but it's hard not to root for the old rebel when he see his enjoyment at returning to the old game.

I really liked the robot in the movie, which the filmmakers were careful not to anthropomorphize too much. It's functional, rather than flashy, resembling a large, blocky Lego man with a astronaut's helmet where the face would be, and a soothing voice provided by Peter Sarsgaard. And though it's at the center of a few very emotional scenes, this is not one of those stories where the robot becomes a real boy, or reveals a secret vein of humanity. Everything it does and says could conceivably be the result of clever programming. At one point it even reveals that it can be as tricky and manipulative as Frank is, in the name of doing what is best for him. Thus Frank's affection for the robot may be entirely one-sided, and the robot may only be reflecting Frank's needs and wants. It's telling that even though Frank comes to care for the robot, he never gives it a name.

There's an underlying conflict in the film about the adoption of new technology. Frank courts Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), keeper of the town's very old and analog library, which is on the brink of being shut down and converted into something compatible with the digital age. It's an awful shame, but an inevitability, as progress always is. Yet progress also brings Frank and the robot together, and their partnership lets Frank get into the kind of trouble he never could have managed on his own, and reach necessary revelations on his own terms. After so many science-fiction cautionary tales, it's nice to see a film where robots and artificial intelligence aren't remotely sinister at all, though the complicated implications of using them as companions are addressed several times.

This is clearly a low budget production, but that's appropriate for a story like this. New technology is present, but it's not overwhelming. There are only two robots that appear in the film, but that's enough to give us a sense of how they function in society, and how people regularly interact with them. First time director Jake Schreier creates a version of the near future that is very recognizable and far likelier than most others I've seen in these kinds of movies. You get a good sense that the old way of doing things isn't so easily set aside or forgotten.

I found "Robot & Frank" very light and easy to watch, occasionally touching without being too sentimental. Sometimes the themes are hammered home a little too hard, but the writing maintains a great sense of humor and the filmmakers stay as grounded in reality as possible. And most importantly, they play fair with the premise. This is a character piece first and foremost, and Frank, we come to understand, would never stand for something as boring and cheap as a happy ending.
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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Movie Gender Switch Project: The Princess Bride

YAM Magazine, an online publication about cultural media, came up with this interesting little prompt: The Movie Gender Switch Project. Simply take a movie with prominent male and female leads, swap their roles, and see how the story would play out as a result. I'm doing "The Princess Bride," which I guess becomes "The Prince Groom." Spoilers everywhere!

First off, the rules of the challenge specify changing the genders of the lead characters only, so the big stumbling block right off the bat is the original story would have Westley marrying Prince Humperdinck. I know society is more progressive in this area than it used to be, but this just isn't going to happen when you take into account that royal marriages are all about the procreation. However, Humperdinck could still appear to ally himself with Westley without the whole marriage thing, and then set him up to be killed off to start that war with Guilder.

Oh, I've got it. You can have the old king adopt Westley into the royal family as a prince for, let's say, saving his life. That keeps the title intact, puts the people on his side, and gives Humperdinck a reason to want to get rid of him. Of course he has to appear to play nice with Westley in order to respect his father's wishes, but truthfully he doesn't want any competition around even if he's next in line for the throne anyway. So Humperdinck has Westley kidnapped and has to make a big show of getting his new brother back. And you could switch out the wedding for a big coronation ceremony for the climax scenes.

On Buttercup's side of the equation, she probably wouldn't be going out into the world to make her fortune if Westley was a landowner with his own farm in the beginning. So she's traveling to visit relatives, her ship is boarded by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and she is presumed to have been killed. This gets a little tricky because Roberts is still a man, but Buttercup could feasibly find a way to disguise herself and replace him. There are always girls passing themselves off as boys in pirate stories, and of course there were real life women pirates. The disguise just wouldn't be as convincing to the audience, but we all knew that the Man in Black was really Westley from the beginning anyway, right?

So Buttercup follows the kidnappers, beats Inigo Montoya at swordfighting, Vizzini at the game of wits, and Fezzik - oh dear. Is it plausible for Buttercup to beat Fezzik at wrestling? Well, maybe it is. I mean, Westley was completely physically outmatched by Fezzik in the first place, and the tactics he used probably could be used by Buttercup effectively. Yeah, let's go with that. Buttercup beats Fezzik at wrestling, reunites with Westley, and they almost escape until Prince Humperdinck intervenes. Buttercup ends up with the albino and Count Rugen in the torture chamber, and Westley is back at the castle with time running out before he has to be... coronated. Oh, that doesn't sound right, does it?

What do we replace Buttercup's anxieties about getting married to Humperdinck with? A big part of her character arc was rejecting the prince and deciding not to go through with the wedding. No matter how you cut it, becoming royalty doesn't have the same amount of emotional heft as deciding whether or not to marry somebody. Well, we can turn a negative decision into a positive one. Westley can turn down the prince gig because he decides he wants to marry Buttercup, and he can't do that if he's royalty. And Humperdinck's plotting by that point would be too far along to allow Westley to decline the honor, so he tricks him into it. We can leave out the suicide business, I think.

Then the rest of the story plays out as usual. Storm the castle, rescue the new prince, Inigo Montoya gets that awesome revenge scene, and happy ending.

It's interesting how putting Buttercup into the typically male storyline, with the adventuring and the physical feats isn't nearly as hard as trying to work Westley into the typically female one, where the conflict is mostly about relationships and emotions. And it feels very strange to have Buttercup doing so much action-wise, while Westley doesn't get to do anything rougher than name-calling. The most affirmative thing he does is to save the king, which I invented to make the plot work. Buttercup was originally chosen by Humperdinck for being the fairest in the land.

Buttercup being an action heroine works pretty well, but I think some of the later scenes with Count Rugen in the torture chamber, and being dragged around as a corpse, end up with some additional naughty connotations that may raise some eyebrows. Miracle Max would likely be suspicious of Inigo and Fezzik for entirely different reasons and the tone of the comedy would be very different.

As for all the emphasis on true love, you end up with a very forceful Buttercup who may be coming on too strong, and a Westley who is very passive, and not too smart. More than anything else, I was surprised at how the characterizations that seemed so classical and sweet one way, play very, very differently when they're switched.
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Monday, April 8, 2013

"Jurassic Park" and the Summer of '93

The summer of 1993 was my first big movie summer. It was the year I I first regularly started watching new movies in theaters on my own, the year I started paying attention to what was going on at the box office at the time. Prior to that, I'd kept an eye out for the yearly Disney animated moves, but I didn't really have a sense of the business of movies, or how the successes and the failures were determined.

I know exactly when that changed. My parents got the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times every week, and I always liked paging through the "Calendar" section devoted to the entertainment coverage to look at the movie ads. L.A. is a movie town, and with few exceptions, studios always took out ads for new releases in the Times' "Calendar" section. And then one week, twenty years ago, they put out their yearly summer preview edition. The cover art showed Arnold Schwarzenegger locked in mortal combat with a dinosaur, in honor of the coming box office clash between "Last Action Hero" and "Jurassic Park." As I read through all the write-ups of the summer's films, and the predictions of their chances at the box office, it began to dawn on me. There were going to be winners and losers. There were stakes here that went beyond the movies simply being good or bad.

I still was a kid in '93, so of course I was focused on the kids' films like "Dennis the Menace," "Rookie of the Year," "Free Willy," and "Super Mario Bros." When "Mario" bombed, it was the first movie I think I really appreciated being a bomb. There were movies I'd liked that hadn't done well before, but I hadn't quite been able to tie the failure with box office performance prior to that point. So when "Last Action Hero" was trounced by "Jurassic Park" a few weeks later, I knew what it meant. I noticed when that summer's big hits like "The Firm" and "The Fugitive" stayed in the public eye and in the larger conversations about the movies, becoming points of common reference. I hadn't seen either of them, but I saw so many clips and read so much about them, that the awareness was there, long before my parents rented them from the video store the next year. I distinctly remember this article talking about possible tiered pricing schemes, that suggested charging top dollar for the most popular films, like "Jurassic Park" and "The Firm," and only half as much for Pauly Shore's latest comedy, "Son in Law."

Did this affect my view of the movies? Did I become more cynical about them? Not really. I still saw very few movies in theaters, so the box office game hardly affected me personally. Also, I was still young enough that I couldn't really differentiate between the good and bad movies, so it didn't really bother me if something I was looking forward to tanked and got bad reviews. All I knew was that it would still come out on video eventually. I remember being confused, but not disappointed by "Super Mario Bros." when I saw it. A few years later I would learn to appreciate some of the other consequences of being a bomb - no sequels, the talent involved taking hits to their reputations, and in the worst cases, companies like Carolco disappearing completely. And sometimes this would happen to perfectly good movies that didn't deserve it.

But the summer of '93 was the summer of Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There," from "Free Willy" playing endlessly on the radio. It was the summer of every female relative of mine reading Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," because the movie was coming out that fall. It was the summer I noticed a cute guy named Leonardo DiCaprio getting a lot of press for his performance in "This Boy's Life," a couple of months before he'd land his first Oscar nomination for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." It was the summer of listening to the "Jurassic Park" soundtrack over and over again, which we bought on cassette tape, long before the days when the studios would release them for free, as just another piece of promotional material.

The funny thing is, I can't remember if I actually saw "Jurassic Park" in theaters that summer. I remember watching it lots of times on VHS and on television, but did I ever see it on the big screen? Were my memories of it from a visit to the theater, or am I just remembering the ubiquitous marketing campaign and the making-of specials and the tie-in merchandise? I think I still have a few "Jurassic Park" pogs laying around somewhere.

The thing is, I'm not particularly nostalgic for the movie itself. I liked it fine, but it didn't resonate with me, really. I didn't fall in love with it the way so many other kids did. In fact, it marked another first for me. It was one of the first big blockbuster summer movies I got all hyped up for, and pretty much forgot about as soon as the next one came along.
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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bravo From Bad to Worse

There's been a lot written about how we're in a golden age of television. The cable model being able to appeal to smaller niche audiences has allowed television shows like HBO's "Game of Thrones" and AMC's "Mad Men" to flourish. Not so much has been written about the flip side of the equation, which is that reality shows are getting worse than ever, and spreading across the cable landscape at an alarming rate.

A few days ago I came across a press release for Bravo's latest slate of new and returning series. The network is one of the poster children for cable channels that have moved drastically away from their original branding. In the early days, it was an arts channel, home to "Inside the Actor's Studio," the early iterations of "Project Runway," and you could frequently find them running Cirque du Soleil specials on early weekend mornings. Now the channel is wall to wall reality programming, and their flagship is the "Real Housewives" franchise.

The new slate is an utterly depressing reflection of this. Nearly all their new and in-development shows are nominally differentiated variations on the same gut-turning formula of putting a group of spoiled, rich, ego-centric fame-chasers together and watching them behave badly in the name of furthering their dreams. "Below Deck" puts them on a yacht. "City Sisters" puts them in New York. "100 Days of Summer" puts them in Chicago. "Eat, Drink, Love" stakes out Los Angeles. “Southern Charm” tackles Charleston, South Carolina. And it's no mystery where "Princesses: Long Island," "Taking Atlanta" and "Ladies of London" are set.

The rest are a mix of human interest series that center around food, fashion, real estate, and rich people's problems. One of the shows in development is literally called "Rich People’s Problems," featuring Phaedra Parks, an attorney who was one of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta." Other new shows feature a "Divorce Diva," extreme parents, college admissions consultants, a songwriter mentoring youngsters in the music industry, a retired basketball player, newlyweds, two businesswomen opening a fitness club, and Courtney Kerr, whose gimmick is that she's on the hunt for a man in Dallas.

Some of these have some minor value as documentary shows, but mostly the audience is just expected to gawk at the subjects, the same way they do with the most awful examples of the genre, "Buckwild" and "Honey Boo Boo." You feel okay about it because they're getting paid, and many of the participants are rich and famous and want the exposure. However, it's all too clear what Bravo expects out of these shows: catfights, drama, hedonism, excess, and a few minutes of feel-good redemption now and then to ensure that the reality stars don't become completely unsympathetic.

These shows are heavily edited of course, to the point where most of the narratives are largely constructed. And so Bravo has made the logical choice this year to start developing scripted television, based largely around the same material. These include "Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce," "Heiresses," and "High and Low." I think the titles are self-explanatory except for the last, which is about the staff of a restaurant and takes place during the 1980s. And I'm sure we can expect all the same character types that we see on Bravo's other shows - catty rich girls, emotional gay guys, hardworking dreamers, artists, foodies, divas, and hot messes.

Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise when you look at Bravo's list of returning shows, the ones that have kept them going. We're up to five regular "Housewives" spinoffs that have been on for multiple seasons, a third year of "Shahs of the Sunset," and two different "Million Dollar Listings." The last surviving competition show from the "Project Runway" days, "Top Chef," increasingly looks like an odd man out, despite its high profile, and “Inside the Actors Studio,” which has made it all the way to season nineteen, looks positively retro.

I used to watch Bravo quite a bit when I first got cable, back in the late 90s. I liked that it was a little pretentious and a little highbrow, and that it would take risks on shows like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I think that's why this sad state of affairs stings worse for me than the similar declines of networks like TLC, A&E, MTV, and the others that have been swallowed up by similar reality programming.

I know that Bravo is far from the worst offender when you put it up against some of these other outlets. Heck, sometimes I find things on network television that I can't quite believe are real shows. Celebrity diving? Celebrity military boot camp? And "The Swan" is back?! It's clear that Bravo's bad habits are only a reflection of what's happening to the rest of television.
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