Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Superhero Turf War

If you're a fan of superhero media, chances are you've run across the issue of characters from the same universe having their various movie and print rights owned by different companies. This is particularly true of Marvel characters, where rights to make movies for some of their biggest headliners were sold to companies like Twentieth Century FOX and Sony in the days before Marvel got into the business of making movies itself.

Now that superhero properties have turned into a hot commodity, those rights are more valuable than ever, and have spurred a lot of the decisionmaking about what films are getting made and how. Sony currently owns the rights to Spider-man, but those rights revert back to Marvel if a new Spidey film isn't made every few years. That's why we got the rebooted "Amazing Spider-man" so quick, and a second film is already being fast-tracked. Even if the movie franchise isn't as successful as it once was, it's worth it to Sony to hold on to those Spider-man rights. Over at FOX, the X-men and Fantastic Four franchises are getting new movies, but the studio let the Daredevil rights revert back to Marvel a few months ago, because they weren't ready to commit to a new reboot.

There are a couple of places where these rights might overlap. The exact language of who owns what isn't public, but fans have long pointed out that there are two significant characters associated with both the X-men, controlled by FOX, and the Avengers, controlled by Marvel. These are the Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, a brother and sister pair with mutant powers who were also occasionally Avengers in the comics. He can run really, really fast. She's kind of witchy and causes chaos wherever she goes. And now both the "X-men" and "Avengers" movie series are laying claim to them. Joss Whedon has confirmed that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are going to be in " Avengers 2," and Bryan Singer not only announced that both characters will appear in next year's "X-men: Days of Future Past," but he's cast "American Horror Story" heartthrob Evan Peters as Quicksilver.

Now the details of how this is going to work are only a matter of speculation, and "Avengers 2" is still firmly in the pre-production phase. Some hopeful Marvel Universe fans are wondering if this could be a chance for an official cross-over between the two universes. If these two characters can be shared, maybe that will open the door to more collaborations in the future. Big studios certainly can play nice on occasion – "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" wouldn't exist otherwise. The cynics, including yours truly, are worried that the two movie studios aren't interested in playing nice, and may be on the verge of embarking on an epic legal battle to decide whether "X-men" or "Avengers" has dibs on Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The worst case scenario is that we end up with disrupted productions, compromised quality, and possibly delays in these films reaching theaters.

Personally, I don't like these two characters much from what I've seen of them in other media. The "X-men" always seemed to turn into more of a soap opera whenever they were around, so I find it ironic that they seem to have a similar ability to stir up drama in the real world. Still, they do have a lot of potential as characters. The reason they're in this unique position in the Marvel Universe is because they've traditionally gone back and forth between hero and villain roles. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, also known as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, started out as villains in the "X-men" series and were eventually redeemed. However, their father is the villain Magneto, and because of his influence they never manage to stay on the side of angels entirely.

If it were up to me, I'd rather see them in "The Avengers 2." "X-men: Days of Future Past" is already going to be a very crowded movie, juggling multiple versions of many familiar characters and introducing a gaggle of new ones into the mix. I don't see how Singer is going to be able to fit in Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch for more than cameos, and I suspect that is exactly what we're going to get. In "Avengers 2," however, Joss Whedon seems to want the pair to be front and center, and I think he's in a better position to do something interesting with them.

Keep in mind that however this turns out, both movies are going to be massive, and make oodles and oodles of money. This is a fight that's mainly of interest to the comic book nerds and the studios. Nobody else knows who these characters are, and if it all goes south, and things get so contentious that they get dropped from both movies (it could happen!) then I doubt most people will care too much that they're gone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What's a Mindf**k Movie?

Warning: This post contains language, because I'm not going to keep censoring the term "mindf**k movie." Got it?

After tackling the term "chick flick" a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to follow up by trying to pin down a working definition of the "mindfuck movie," a term I've been seeing used more and more on social network sites, particularly by young male moviegoers. To me, the term brings to mind movies featuring warped perceptions, the ones you'd expect from David Lynch and David Cronenberg. However, psychological genre thrillers like "Inception," "Shutter Island," and "Primer" seem to be the usual examples of mindfuck movies, stories that present you with one baseline reality and then find ways to subvert or twist that, calling into question what you think you know about what you've seen.

Lately, the term has been getting even broader, and covers movies with big narrative twists ("Old Boy," "Matchstick Men"), movies with psycedelic imagery or dream sequences ("Jacob's Ladder," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), conspiracy stories ("Pi," "Eyes White Shut"), mental meltdowns ("Repulsion," "Black Swan"), unconventional narratives ("Memento," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), unconventional storytelling ("Waking Life," "The Fountain"), and some films that feature prominent fantasy elements juxtaposed with the real world ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Heavenly Creatures"). Pretty much anything that would have worked as a "Twilight Zone" episode or anything that feels like a "Twilight Zone" episode, qualifies to be a mindfuck movie.

So where are the boundaries? I think it's easier to rule out what a mindfuck movie isn't. Mindfuck movies are not straightforward. There's always some major element of the characters' reality that isn't what it initially seems or has significant ambiguities. At some point the viewer should question whether what they're witnessing is really happening in film's established reality. There's no particular genre that a mindfuck movie is limited to, but they do tend to be more prevalent in science-fiction and fantasy. Also, because the story has to set up some kind of big twist or multiple levels or versions of reality, they tend to be fairly complex, at least on the surface. Mindfuck movies are almost always high-concept, meaning that it's difficult to describe the basic premise in a simple sentence, the way you're supposed to these days with original material.

What I've found that what draws people to these movies is that they are at least a little bit unconventional and offer some surprises. Many of these films are still fairly formulaic, despite a few narrative detours, and don't get nearly as screwy and ambiguous and weird as I think they could be, but I can see how your average moviegoers could have their world shaken enough by the ending of "Oldboy" or the wacky visuals and apocalyptic vibes of "Donnie Darko" to declare them examples of really daring and edgy filmmaking. Movies like "Holy Motors" or "Certified Copy" technically should count as mindfuck movies, but they're way too highbrow for the people who are generally asking for movies in that category. So, while mindfuck movies have ambiguities and lingering questions that require interpretation, like "The Shining," we're not talking about the movies that go so far into avant-garde territory that they lose mainstream appeal.

People who watch mindfuck movies aren't looking for the really smart or challenging movies, but the movies that offer a certain kind of experience. The puzzle or the mystery of these stories may hold a lot of the appeal, but I think the most important element is the revelation moment, when the rug is pulled out from under the viewer's feet, rules are changed in an instant, and the world is turned upside down. I've noticed that whatever subversion of reality is employed in these movies, it has to be presented in a more visceral, threatening manner, to really give the reveal some punch. So a thriller like "Primer" is much more likely to be called a "mindfuck" than a contemplative existential film like "Stranger Than Fiction," or a gentle romantic-comedy like "Groundhog's Day." The "Narnia" movies don't count, because the fantasy world is exactly what it appears to be. In "Coraline," the fantasy world is really an elaborate trap, that the heroine doesn't discover until the third act, so it does.

I count myself as a fan of this emerging little genre, because the movies are usually more cerebral and creative than the norm. However, I dislike the term "mindfuck," which is a descriptor only a teenage boy could have come up with. I'm pretty sure it's a variation of an older name for them, "mind-bender" movies, which I don't like much either. "Psychological thriller" seems to be closer to what these movies actually do for viewers, though that name comes with a different set of connotations, and it's too broad. If these movies become more popular, I expect we'll figure something out eventually.

Happy watching.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Star Trek" Into Derivativeness (With Spoilers)

Spoilers for "Star Trek Into Darkness" ahead. Lots of them. I mean it.

Whatever happened to boldly going where no one has gone before?

Now, I understand wanting to bring back one of the most infamous villains of the "Star Trek" series. I understand all the song-and-dance about trying to keep him out of the marketing, and J.J. Abrams prevaricating around the bush about who Benedict Cumberbatch was actually playing. However, I cannot for the life of me understand why you wouldn't use the opportunity of the alternate timeline to do something different with Khan. I don't understand why we had to have such a shameless rehash of the ending of "Wrath of Khan," especially one that never had any hope of having remotely as much emotional impact as the original.

I have to wonder what viewers unfamiliar with "Wrath of Khan" thought of these developments, whether they bought Kirk's sacrifice instead of being distracted by the parallels to the previous film like I was. It was hard to watch what I consider one of the most iconic moments of the "Star Trek" films essentially turned into a cheap fake-out death akin to too many others in modern action films. Was the reversal of Kirk and Spock's roles clever? Not very, since that was a pretty obvious way to play it. I'd have been much more impressed if Khan switched sides and was the one who made the sacrifice, as he seems far more morally ambiguous in this timeline. Or if they really had been gutsy enough to kill off Captain Kirk and left Spock or Sulu in charge. However, the moment I saw that dead tribble, I knew they were just going through the motions. And there was way too much of the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, aren't-we-being-clever attitude, plus a totally unearned "KHAAAAAAAN!" callback.

I've heard the charge that J.J. Abrams and the team of writers he's working with do not understand "Star Trek," and I don't agree with that. I think they have a perfectly good grasp on the themes and the ideas at the heart of this franchise. The new versions of the characters are perfectly fine and worthy creations. The trouble is that "Star Trek Into Darkness" was obligated to be a summer blockbuster tentpole aimed at a mainstream audience. To that end, they seem to have banished all the brainier, more conceptually challenging ideas that make "Star Trek" distinctive. In the 2009 reboot, Abrams managed to introduce all these new characters and ideas at a breakneck pace, and that worked because it was a first outing, and you could get away with substituting potential for substance. Trying to repeat that trick failed, because it revealed that the creators weren't willing to explore any of these ideas that they were evoking in any real depth.

What really boggles me is that "Into Darkness" follows nearly the same beats as the first movie. You have Kirk introduced as a rebel, a massive crisis gives him a chance to prove himself, and then Spock and Kirk do some bonding. The difference is that this time Khan is the threat, reimagined as yet another in a long line of recent terrorist villains. I was also very aware that other than the fairly simple concepts of super-soldiers and cryogenics, there's nothing in "Into Darkness" that doesn't have obvious analogs to a typical non-science-fiction action movie, like "Mission: Impossible" or "James Bond." The 2009 reboot at least had parallel universes and time travel for us geeks, but "Into Darkness" takes special pains to avoid anything remotely complicated or nerdy.

Instead, it was lots of big action sequences, lots of fantastic eye-candy, and the obvious villains: Khan and a quick glimpse of the Klingons. I get that the writers were trying to pay homage to the series' roots, but this time out they leaned far too heavily on the mythology and didn't take the kind of creative chances that would have pushed the franchise forward. When you have this kind of talent involved, the possibilities are endless, and I thought that the success of the 2009 movie would have given Abrams and company the clout to do something more ambitious, instead of another generic action picture grafted to a replay of the last half of "Wrath of Khan."

I appreciate that the new "Star Trek" is a series of movies that can't operate the way that the old ones did, but tribbles and namedropping do not make a "Star Trek" movie, and I needed to see more effort. In the end, I found myself wishing for a new "Star Trek" series or miniseries featuring these versions of the characters, just so they could stop running and yelling and fighting long enough to have real conversations with each other, and maybe go on the kind of cheesy, but inspiring adventures that the old crew of the Enterprise used to.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Star Trek" Into Derivativeness

This one's going to need a double review, one without spoilers, which I'm posting today, and one with spoilers that I'll be posting tomorrow. This is the one without the spoilers, so if you're planning to watch "Star Trek Into Darkness," go right on reading.

Coming out of the theater after my screening, I asked myself a question I find helpful to judge certain movies: who was this made for? "Star Trek Into Darkness," the follow-up to the 2009 movie reboot of the franchise, has lots and lots of references to "Trek" lore for fans of the original incarnation of the series. It brings back a few familiar concepts and ideas, reinterpreting them in intriguing ways. However, it's clear that director J.J. Abrams, and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof were not trying to make a film that would appeal to the usual "Trek" fans at all. In fact, I'm pretty sure that "Into Darkness" is going to end up disappointing many of them. Instead, their intended audience is the broader summer blockbuster crowd, and the emphasis is all on action and mayhem and special effects. Of course, that was also true of the 2009 "Star Trek" to a large degree, but it's much more apparent this time out and harder to ignore. "Into Darkness" doesn't feel like a "Star Trek" movie. It feels like a much more generic space adventure that is using the most famous and recognizable elements of the old "Star Trek" as window dressing.

Take the opening sequence, for instance. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive, that states the Federation cannot interfere in the development of emerging alien species, by rescuing Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) from certain doom and allowing a primitive civilization of aliens to see the Enterprise in the process. The consequences are severe for Kirk. He's removed from command, and the Enterprise returned to Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk's mentor. However, all the discussion is focused on Kirk's recklessness and Kirk's lack of appreciation for his responsibilities. We fail to see any of the negative consequences that affect the aliens, and there's no mention of how the damage to their society is going to be addressed. The Prime Directive has created many serious moral quandaries that have been at the center of multiple "Star Trek" episodes, and easily could have been the basis of an entire film by itself. However, "Into Darkness" immediately ducks the whole matter, skips the hard questions, and moves on to introduce the villain of our story: John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist who has a serious bone to pick with the Federation.

And so, "Into Darkness" quickly becomes a breathless action spectacular as the Enterprise crew goes on the hunt for Harrison, giving us one impressive set piece after another, and stopping only long enough for a few lines of tense exposition here and there before running off again. The movie is exciting and it is visually impressive. I think most people who go to see superhero and disaster movies are going to be perfectly happy with it. Casual viewers who liked the 2009 "Star Trek" movies should enjoy this one just as much. The characters are a lot of fun to watch, and the whole gang's back from the first film: Karl Urban as Dr. Bones McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Lt Uhura, Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Scotty, John Cho as Lt. Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Ensign Chekov. No matter who your favorite is, they all get their little moments to shine. And casting Cumberbatch as Harrison was a great choice, because his performances gives that character all these interesting ambiguities, suggesting that there's more to him than there really is.

Also, it's not fair to call "Star Trek Into Darkness" a mindless CGI action movie, because the writers did attempt to give us some semblance of a deeper story to go along with all the thrills. There's a new character, Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), who can be interpreted to be a commentary on current American military policies. And there's some groundwork being laid for some specific future conflicts that might yield interesting things in the future. However, it's hard to give the writers much credit when so much of the material for "Into Darkness" is taken from previous "Star Trek" stories, and the new approach to them just isn't very creative or interesting. The execution feels so half-hearted, and comes off as underwhelming at best. There's so much impact lost, because the characters never slow down enough to have the important conversations, and to feel the impact of the events we witness. Instead, the pace is relentless, pushing on from one spectacle to the next like a "Die Hard" movie in space.

And if you like "Die Hard," that's fine, but I wanted to see a "Star Trek" movie. "Into Darkness" included a lot of references that only fans would appreciate, but in a way that played very badly for anyone who knew enough about "Star Trek" to get those references. I was disappointed by "Star Trek Into Darkness," and now I'm very worried about where this franchise is going.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kindle Worlds and Legal Fanfiction

I figured that after "50 Shades of Gray" became a success, we'd get more attempts to monetize fanfiction, but I didn't see this latest one coming. Kindle and Amazon Publishing announced today that they're going to offer a service called Kindle Worlds, that will publish fanfiction for certain licensed properties. Submissions will be vetted to ensure that they follow a set of content guidelines (no erotica, no crossovers, etc.) and that they measure up to some baseline of quality. Authors won't get to retain the rights to their work, but they will get a cut of royalties, either 20 or 35% depending on the length of the story. It's a smaller percentage than they would for get for self-publishing original material through Amazon, where the cut is around 70%.

Still, the idea of making any money at all through writing amateur fanfiction is a big change in how the fan community has traditionally operated. It used to be a cardinal rule that you never, ever monetized fanfiction, because that would be stepping on the toes of the original content creators, and their right to create derivative works like sequels and spinoffs. Now three Warner Brothers television shows aimed at young women, "Vampire Diaries," "Gossip Girl," and "Pretty Little Liars" are the first franchises to grant licenses to create legal fanfiction for sale though the Kindle Worlds platform. There have been officially sanctioned fanfiction and other fanworks for quite a few different properties over the years, particularly for contests, but this is the first time I've heard of anyone granting permission to go try and make a profit with them.

Now, is this a good thing for fandom? As always, it's very hard to say. The big worry is that if Amazon and Kindle do make money with this service, they'll have a better argument that non-licensed fanfic is infringing, and be more motivated take steps to shut down everyone else's fanfiction that isn't being written for profit. The worst case scenario is that your "Vampire Diaries" fanfiction, posted on Tumblr or Archive of Our Own, becomes viewed as a competing product, and suddenly there's going to be a real incentive to end the benign neglect that has allowed the fanfiction community to flourish online over the years. However, the argument can be made that it's in the best interest of the properties involved to keep turning a blind eye. Fanworks essentially operate as free advertising, and they're a part of the fandom experience that has become much more visible and accepted over the years. Also, enforcement has always been notoriously difficult, and risks alienating fans.

Fanfiction writers aren't the only ones who are going to be affected. A couple of years ago, I remember there was a notorious published author who would write up these spectacular, hyperbolic tirades against the existence of fanfiction. Lots of people poked fun at him, especially since his name was on several tie-in novels for television shows. Tie-in novels and fanfiction are essentially the same thing, except that tie-in novels are licensed and they're written by professionals. If Amazon and Kindle can start making money off of work that's being generated by amateurs, and get away with paying them less, where does that leave the pros? A lot of notable science-fiction writers depend on the money from tie-ins to keep them going during lean periods. Is the market for this kind of work still going to exist after legal fanfiction? The delineation between fanfic and pro-fic is going to get even blurrier.

Of course, this is all assuming that Kindle Worlds is going to take off, which is not certain at all. Fanfiction has been around for a long, long, time, and the readership is used to getting it for free. The culture around it has often been strongly anti-commercial, and that may be difficult to change. Personally, I can't imagine paying for fanfiction, especially the kind of safe, friendly fanfiction that Amazon and Kindle seem to be the most interested in. I prefer all the subversive, weirdo, boundary-crossing stuff that would never make it into print in a million years. As far as I'm concerned, that's the appeal of these amateur stories.

I may be the exception though. The nature of media fandom has changed considerably since I first got involved, over a decade ago. Fanfiction is slowly but surely becoming more legitimate content, and eventually people are going to find ways to use it to make money. Kindle Worlds may not be successful, but it's a pretty bold idea. Unlike past efforts, such as the short-lived for-profit Fanlib Archive, Amazon and Kindle are actively addressing some of those thorny legal issues and they're willing to share a piece of the revenues too. I never thought I'd ever see this happen.

Kindle Worlds launches in June.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Doctor Who" Prepares For a Milestone

Spoilers ahead for the latest season of "Doctor Who."

The much-anticipated 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who" is coming up in November, and a star-studded special has been commissioned to mark the happy occasion. This most recent series of "Doctor Who," however, particularly the back half that featured Jenna-Louise Coleman as the newest Companion, Clara Oswald, often felt too much like it was setting things up for the big event. There was a lot of time talking up the big, plotty mysteries and series mythology, and not as much on the individual adventures. I liked fewer episodes this series, and didn't feel like I'd gotten to know Clara very well, but whenever we have any kind of format change on "Doctor Who," that's normal in my experience. I didn't like Amy much until Rory became a regular companion, and the last two Doctors each took nearly an entire series each to grow on me.

It wasn't a bad stretch of episodes at all, though understandably not as emotionally charged as the goodbye tour of the Ponds that came before it. My favorites included "The Bells of Saint John," "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" and "The Crimson Horror." "The Name of the Doctor," which left us on a big cliffhanger going into the special, was kind of a mess, but also a really fun and tense installment that neatly answered all the questions about Clara and will hopefully give her character a chance to grow from here on out. It's not that Jenna-Louise Coleman isn't doing a perfectly good job, but there really hasn't been much to Clara except being "The Impossible Girl." I'd like to see her given more substance, or at least her current situation as a live-in nanny fleshed out more. The point of Clara may be that she's ordinary, but she shouldn't feel so generic.

Matt Smith continues to impress. He's gotten so well situated into the role of the Eleventh Doctor, that I'm having trouble imagining anyone else in the role now. I've really grown to like this version of the character, who can get emotional and dark and lose control of himself, but there's always something a little otherworldly and a little inhuman about him. Where the David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston Doctors were very good, they always seemed to be very advanced humans instead of truly alien creatures. There's something about Smith that is always off-kilter in just the right way to remind us that he's an alien being doing his best impression of a human, and not the genuine article. And even though he's the youngest actor to play the part, he comes across as having a much higher mileage on him. He's the only reason that some of the weaker scripts worked this year.

This series also brought to the forefront a trio of new sidekicks who won me over in a very short time: the reptilian Silurian detective, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her plucky wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and their butler Strax (Dan Starkey), the potato-shaped Sontaran warrior. The three of them have been hanging out in Victorian England, meeting up with the Doctor whenever he happens to be in their time period. Aside from Madame Vastra, I don't remember how these characters were introduced, but they make for wonderful secondary heroes, and Strax is especially good comic relief. I love that he continually screws up genders and still retains a love for carnage that keeps getting him scolded. I've been hoping for a little more variety in companions, and this is the next best thing. I'm firmly with those who have been calling for a spinoff series to feature this trio.

Disappointments? There weren't any major ones that stuck out on the level of some of the episodes from previous series and previous Doctors. I can't point to anything specific that outright failed, but a few things I was hoping would be really exceptional, turned out to be just all right. The Neil Gaiman episode with Warwick Davis and the Cybermen? All right. Richard E. Grant as this year's Big Bad, the Great Intelligence? Sorely underused, but all right. The return of Alex Kingston's mysterious River Song? All right. The mystery of The Impossible Girl? Fine. It's likely that the anniversary special is going to turn out the same way, even with the promised appearances of so many past actors plus a bonus John Hurt.

However, I've got to say that I'm really impressed with where Stephen Moffat left us with the big cliffhanger. It may end up being a tease, as so many of these things are, but there's the potential for some really serious delving into the show's mythology coming our way. Even if the special in November doesn't deliver, it'll be fun to watch them try. And I'm happily attached enough to this particularly grouping of characters that I don't mind if we hit a few more bumps in the road going forward.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Why I Don't Use Tumblr

Big news over the weekend. Yahoo has announced a deal to acquire social networking site Tumblr for over a billion dollars. They see it as a great new platform for selling ad space, a move that is probably going to make its core user base unhappy, including a significant chunk of media fans who use it to share various contributions. However, I'm fairly ambivalent towards this news because I never got into Tumblr, though not for the lack of trying.

I think I may have fallen victim to a generation gap of sorts. When I was really active in media fandoms, the major activity was fanfiction, and the bulk of fandom interaction was centered around message boards, mailing lists, private sites, and finally some of the social networking platforms, specifically Livejournal. I migrated from one platform to another over the years without many problems. Then, a couple of years back, we saw a major shift from Livejournal to Tumblr, where the fanwork became more graphics based, centering around artwork, memes, icons, gifs, and videos. Tumblr, classified as a microblogger site, was great for sharing this kind of content, but I found it difficult to hold any kind of conversation there, and I couldn't make heads or tails of the navigation. Tumblr is closer to Pinterest or Twitter than a traditional blog, and it's all about finding similar content through various tags. While you can leave comments on individual items or posts, these can be difficult to follow from one to the next, and usually requires digging through a lot of links.

I think the appeal of Tumblr is that it's quick and simple to use, and participation is easy. A significant amount of user activity amounts to "reblogging," posting interesting items to your feed that other people have uploaded to Tumblr, the way people use Pinterest boards. This is easier to do with simpler fanworks like pictures than it is with multi-chapter fanfiction or long, involved, analytical discussions about the character development on "Doctor Who." A couple of months back, someone commented on my blog that I ought to be using Tumblr, because I'd get a much bigger audience that way. However, I don't think that Tumblr is a good fit for me, because my contributions are almost entirely text-based, and many of my posts run over a thousand words apiece. Tumblr is better suited for smaller, bite-sized chunks of text information, like quotes and snippets of chatlogs. There are plenty of other places and spaces online for the kind of fandom activities I prefer, the reviews and meta, which is why I've decided to stick to Blogger and Dreamwidth. I think if I were to use Tumblr, it would be similar to how I use Twitter. I'd just post links to my blog entries.

Initially it bothered me when Tumblr became so popular, and the Livejournal and Dreamwidth-based fandoms started to shrink. Sure, the blogs weren't the best places to have good discussions about media, but at least they were pretty good about attracting a significant number of likeminded fans to the same places, so they were worth keeping an eye on. The problem was, or course, that these little communities became insular very quickly, and there were high barriers to entry. If you didn't have a good grasp of writing or you weren't good at socializing, it was difficult to get involved. Tumblr removes or significantly lowers a lot of these barriers. You can follow the tags instead of specific users or carefully delineated communities, and you don't have to interact much in order to be an active user. The kind of Tumblr content that is the most popular often involves remixing or manipulation of existing media, activities that seem to be easier for younger fans to pick up. Tumblr is made for a different kind of media fan than the ones who prefers the older blogging sites, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Anything that keeps the fandom world going should be supported in my book.

I am a little bit worried about the Yahoo acquisition having an impact on the Tumblr fandom community. It's not the ads, but the potential changes in management and oversight of the content that may have the most negative impact. Fandom is notoriously anti-commercial because of the difficult IP issues that monetization usually brings up. Changes in ownership were among the major reasons that Livejournal and Delicious fandom user bases both fell apart. If the Tumblr-based fans move on, though, as fans inevitably do, my guess is that they're going to pick another microblogging service, since that's kind of interaction this group is used to now. Or they could pick something radically different. Even the people most heavily involved in fandom have no idea where fandom is going. That's what makes it so exciting to follow.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Saying No to "The Dress"

The media has a major impact on certain parts of our lives in the way that it sets expectations and standards for our experiences. I ran across a show on TLC the other day that is a perfect example of this: "Say Yes to the Dress," a half-hour reality show about brides picking their wedding dresses. At first it looks harmless enough, akin to paging through a bridal magazine. Brides come in for appointments to try on dresses, model for the cameras, get advice from boutique employees on hand, and eventually comes the big moment: saying "yes" to a dress.

However, the further I got into the show, the more it made my blood boil. The featured fittings on these shows always become events, fraught with emotion and drama. Most of the brides drag large numbers of family and friends into the boutique with them. The unspoken assumption is that they can't settle for any old dress, but they need the perfect dress to make their big day truly special. Sure, lip service is paid to financial considerations, but all the dresses we see still cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and are treated as the most important item on the bride's shopping list. The wedding dress acquires a holy mystique, with the ability to inspire all kinds of familial strife and tensions. The episode I saw had a bride and groom clashing over the style of the gown. She wanted something form-fitting. He wanted a poofy princess dress. Their clashing visions were played up to ridiculous extremes, and spun by the show as an early test of the couple's ability to compromise.

Now, I fully understand that the choice of wedding dress is very important to a lot of brides, and picking one is a valued part of the whole experience of putting a wedding together. And I also appreciate that weddings are big, momentous events that tend to attract lots and lots of drama. However, all the wedding shows I've seen, including "Say Yes to the Dress," treat the weddings like life or death experiences that require months of planning, ridiculous budgets, and a list of things that you absolutely, positively have to do in order to have the best experience possible. Sure, you can go get married at City Hall in a pantsuit, but that would be denying yourself the opportunity for the perfect fairy-tale day that you'll cherish for years and years to come. It's the message we've all been fed since we were kids: a wedding means the white dress, the dapper suits, the bouquet, the rings, the big venue, the reception, the showers, the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the dancing, the alcohol, and the multi-tiered cake.

A show like "Say Yes to the Dress" is another insidious piece of marketing, adding another stop on the way to the wedding. Now the wedding dress boutique appointment has become another oh-so-special event that a bride-to-be shouldn't deny herself. It becomes yet another focal point for potential disappointments. It becomes something else to worry about when you already have too many things to worry about. The show hit a nerve with me personally because I got married last year and encountered a huge amount of pressure to conform to the typical wedding narrative. The scary part was, a lot of the pressure was coming from me, from my own internalized ideas of what a wedding should be. It took some significant time and effort to figure out what I actually did and didn't want to do, and I ended up foregoing many things that people running these wedding shows would have been aghast that I had skipped.

And the dress? I don't like traditional white wedding dresses, but I decided to get one in order to look nice for the pictures that would be circulated among all of my relatives for the next few decades. I visited exactly one boutique, without an appointment, before deciding this approach wasn't for me. Instead, I went to a dress outlet store with some girlfriends, tried on the five styles of wedding dress that were available, and picked one. The process took an hour, and the dress cost me $200, including the dry-cleaning. I spent more on hair and makeup. I spent more on the flowers. The dress was not the perfect dress, but it did what I wanted it to, which was to make me look like a typical bride for a few hours that everyone could take pictures with. I'd have rented the dress if I could have, because now all it's doing is taking up closet space.

I'm not saying that nobody should buy an expensive wedding dress, or that you shouldn't enjoy wedding shows. I'm pointing out that nobody is obliged to say yes to the wedding dress experience that TLC is pushing or even any wedding dress at all. And I'm suggesting that it's a good idea to ask yourself why you really want something before spending thousands of dollars to make it happen.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Trip to "Cars" Land

I grew up in Southern California, so I've been to Disneyland many times, but it's been about a decade since the last trip, and I'd never set foot in the California Adventure park. So when the opportunity came up during my latest vacation, I figured it was about time I took the plunge. And why am I writing about it in my media blog? Well, for one thing it's Disney, and the theme parks are almost impossible to separate from the media empire that they've built up over the years. All the recent properties Disney has acquired were visible the parks this week - lots of "Star Wars" merchandise, "Iron Man" suits in the Tomorrowland Innoventions exhibit, and the Muppets 3D show tucked away in a corner of California Adventure. But besides that, a theme park attraction is something of a pinnacle for a media brand, a sign that you've a big enough draw to justify being associated with an expensive real-world experience. Or as "Community" put it, you want to be the show that gets twelve seasons and a theme park.

Specifically, I want to talk about the presence of "Cars," the PIXAR franchise that kids love, but adults generally rank near the bottom of their lists of favorite PIXAR movies. It's "Cars," not "The Incredibles," and not "Toy Story," that has an entire themed land in the California Adventure park, as big as Toontown in Disneyland. It's a recreation of Radiator Springs, the little town from the 2006 "Cars" movie, comprised of a long street with themed restaurants and shops on either side, finally dead-ending at the Radiator Springs Racers, the most popular ride in the park, with the longest wait times. There are also two smaller rides, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi's Flying Tires. The whole place is beautifully designed. The entrance to Luigi's Flying Tires looks like Luigi's tire shop from the movie, complete with the Leaning Tower of Tires out front. The Cozy Cone Motel, with its giant traffic cones, contains a series of snack stands, where you buy items served in commemorative traffic cone-shaped containers. Fillmore's organic fuel stop is now a beverage stand. Ramone's Body Shop sells clothing and merchandise. Flo's V8 Diner, of course, is a working diner.

Despite not caring much for the "Cars" movies, I thought Cars Land was a blast. There was so much work put into the place, from the mountain ranges created using forced perspective, to the talking "Cars" characters rolling down the street with a gaggle of handlers in tow, to the tons of little details incorporated into every single structure and visible item for sale. In line for the Luigi ride, where you ride around in little bumper-hover-crafts shaped like tires, I noticed that the hedges were shaped like tires, the stanchions for the lines were topped by little silver tires, and even the fencing around the greenery looked like tire treads. When I came back in the evening, many of the buildings were lit up with colorful neon signage. I found the Radiator Springs that existed in Cars Land far more engaging than the one that appeared in the movie, where many of the little businesses only registered as cute cartoon automotive gags and were quickly forgotten. Walking around the physical version, I was constantly struck by how cleverly executed the place was, and I couldn't stop looking at everything.

I'm sure that Disney's Imagineers could have made a similarly impressive locale for "Finding Nemo" or "Monsters Inc." There was also a smaller "Bug's Life" area at the park, aimed at smaller children, that had some nice touches. However, I can see how "Cars" had more potential for a variety of reasons. The movie was tied to a major outdoor location, Radiator Springs, that would be easier to recreate. Car racing was a major component of the plot, an activity that was easier to build rides around. "Cars" is also very conceptually and visually distinctive. Lots of other franchises have done insects and fish and toys and monsters before, but it's hard to think of another one involving automobiles. And then of course, I'm sure Disney was swayed by the fact that "Cars" merchandise has always done extremely well. It's almost certainly the reason why "Cars" got its sequel and a new spinoff film, "Planes," that opens later this summer. And it's why "Cars" headliner Lightning McQueen is all over the advertisements and identification banners and signs for California Adventure.

On the flip side, you really had to keep your eyes open to find any sign of "Ratatouille" or "WALL-E" at the parks. I was especially disappointed that "The Incredibles" barely had any presence at all. Now that Disney has all those Marvel superheroes to play with, I guess PIXAR's superhero family is on the outs. That's a shame, since I can think of a lot that Disney could do with the property. Remember Syndrome's secret lair? And Edna Mode's workshop? Guess I need to go buy more "Incredibles" action figures if I ever want to see them at the Disney parks.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Kickstarter Conundrum

I've been reluctant to say much about the Zach Braff Kickstarter controversy, because the story is still developing, and it's probably too early to draw any conclusions one way or another. However, this is becoming an important point of reference when talking about Kickstarter in any capacity, so I figured I should at least figure out where I stand on what has transpired so far.

So, here's where we are at the time of writing. Zach Braff started a Kickstarter campaign and has so far raised a little over $2.6 million from nearly forty thousand contributors to fund a new film, "Wish I Was Here," billed as the follow-up to his 2004 comedy "Garden State." There has been spirited debate about whether it's appropriate for a celebrity like Braff to use Kickstarter, since it's a fundraising platform that has been primarily used to help small, under-the-radar, independent film projects get off the ground. Writer Ken Levine wrote a blog post on why he wasn't supporting the project that attracted a lot of discussion. Braff is someone who has access to other backers, who appears to be independently wealthy enough to fund most of the film himself, and has plenty of industry connections. After several casting announcements this week, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that a traditional financier, Worldview Entertainment, will contribute additional funds to raise the film's budget to $10 million. There's some disagreement as to whether this sum is an investment or a loan, and whether Braff would have gotten this money without the interest generated by the Kickstarter campaign.

Still, the question remains. Why is "Wish I Was Here," a film that will star recognizable actors like Anna Kendrick, Josh Gad, and Mandy Patinkin, using Kickstarter? According to Braff, going the crowdfunding route allows him to retain creative control of the film, giving him final cut and the ability to cast who he wants. This is a perfectly legitimate concern, and one I'm sympathetic to. Finding the funding these smaller films has become more difficult in recent years, and Zach Braff may be a celebrity, but I doubt he has the clout to be given carte blanche over even a modest-sized production like "Wish I Was Here." I don't see all that much difference between a project headed up by Braff and one headed up by someone like Dan Harmon or Charlie Kaufman, who used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the stop-motion short "Anomalisa," though "Wish I Was Here" clearly has much better commercial prospects and will probably land a traditional distribution deal. I think what most people are worried about is the precedent for more typically Hollywood-friendly media this project is setting, and the uncomfortable possibilities being opened up for other filmmakers to abuse the system. I'm not saying that there has been any abuse, but there's a significant and growing likelihood that it's where all this may lead to.

Will the increase in celebrity-headed projects like "Wish I Was Here" and the "Veronica Mars" movie end up taking attention and funds away from the smaller projects that need them more? Could Kickstarter end up devolving into a mechanism to pre-sell products and media that were going to happen anyway? Will it be used as a market research tool to gauge interest in future films or as a way to spread the risk around for less conventional projects? Many of the studios are struggling, and it would be tempting to get the fan bases of existing properties to offset the costs of new franchise installments. Remember, Kickstarter contributions are donations, and if a film like "Wish I Was Here" makes a huge profit, the contributors won't get to share in the profits like traditional investors. Their compensation is only limited to the special rewards like DVDs, screenings, and the chance to appear for a few seconds onscreen as an extra.

However, on the flip side this could also mean that interesting projects that might never have been made otherwise will now get a fighting chance. And Kickstarter recently released a statement supporting the Zach Braff and "Veronica Mars" fundraising campaigns, pointing out that they had attracted more contributors to the site who had gone on to donate more funds to smaller projects. We really don't know enough yet to tell if the net effect of these more high-profile Kickstarter movie projects is going to be positive or negative. I think it's important to remember that the power ultimately lies with the contributors. If they feel like they're getting a bad deal, they won't contribute. If they feel like they're being taken advantage of, they won't contribute. And remember, the involvement of a celebrity is not necessarily a positive. A Melissa Joan Hart-backed indie movie recently pulled its Kickstarter campaign after failing to drum up enough interest.

As for me, I kicked in a few dollars for "Anomalisa," but I have no interest in "Wish I Was Here." I didn't find the synopsis about the main character's midlife crisis very compelling, and I didn't think much of "Garden State." I wish Zach Braff all the best, but I'll be saving future contributions for more interesting projects that I hope will be coming our way.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Person of Interest," Year Two

As we work our way through sweeps, it's time to check in on "Person of Interest," which has been developing nicely in its second year. It started out as a crime procedural with some conspiracy elements and vaguely sci-fi concepts. Now it's handily juggling storylines involving organized crime, police corruption, government cover-ups, espionage, cyberterrorism, and a surprisingly strong dose of good, old-fashioned cyberpunk - with better fashion sense. "Person of Interest" has been particularly good at parsing out information, a little at a time, particularly the sequence of events that led Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) to his current cause, using the Machine to help people in need. Despite all the memorable antagonists he and John Reese (Jim Caviezel) have faced this year, it's the revelations about the past that had all the best moments. Some minor spoilers ahead.

First, let me acknowledge the new additions and the expanded roles of the show's ever-growing recurring cast. Alonzo Quinn (Clarke Peters) and Officer Simmons (Robert John Burke) were introduced as the top of the chain of the criminal HR organization, mostly keeping the pressure on Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman) as he struggled to stay on the side of angels. Detective Cal Beecher (Sterling K. Brown), got a nice arc as a love interest for Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who also may have been mixed up with HR. Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen) and Grace Hendricks (Carrie Preston) got a lot of screen time as figures from Finch's past, while Kara Stanton (Annie Parisse) and Mark Snow (Michael Kelly) from the CIA showed up for a few episodes to complicate Reese's present. Amy Acker is far and away the show's best villain as the hacker Root, who walks that fine line between crazy and true believer. Every time she kidnaps Finch is a treat. Then there's the weaselly, but helpful Leon Tao (Ken Leung) and government assassin Samantha Shaw (Sarah Shahi), who become regular allies. Oh, and we can't forget Bear, the Belgian Shepherd attack dog who Reese adopted at the beginning of the season. He's become a great source of humor and a way to inject a little more humanity into his human partners.

It's surprising when you look back and see how much happened this season. All four of the leads, Finch, Reese, Carter, and Fusco got their own recurring storylines, and there was frequent switching around among them. You'd get Fusco battling HR one week, Carter navigating her relationship with Beecher in another, and then Reese getting an arc with the CIA to break things up. I found it especially clever that most of the flashbacks with Finch tended to happen in the case-of-the-week episodes that otherwise could be treated as filler. Even more impressive, it never felt like any of the conflicts or mysteries were being dragged out for too long. We got some very definite answers this year about the nature of the botched mission that Reese and Kara Stanton were sent on, about the loyalties of Fusco and Beecher, and lots of details about the Machine. The character who got the most development this year was arguably the Machine itself, which was revealed to be sentient at the end of last season, and this year has to battle a destructive virus, multiple factions trying to gain control of it, and finally a game-changing finale event that shifts the show's power dynamics considerably. I don't think there's a single of the series' big mysteries that didn't see some significant advancement this year, and a few were even resolved completely.

Week to week, "Person of Interest" certainly had its mediocre episodes. The big action setpieces with all the fancy weaponry were used sparingly, mostly saved for the episodes right before or after a breaks. The production wasn't quite as good as the best episodes from last year, but the quality remained very high and very consistent, with some especially spiffy new twists on the surveillance footage visuals. The writing rarely devolved into technobabble, but there was the usual reliance on technology so sophisticated it functions like magic, and the super-cool action hero antics of Mr. Reese and Shaw occasionally bordered on the cartoonish. These were the two characters who I don't think got as much attention as they probably should have, especially Shaw, who was introduced late in the year and abruptly became a major player. Mr. Reese, true to his name, is still rocking his mysterious Man-in-Suit persona, but considering how much we've learned about all of our other leads, he's starting to come off as a little two-dimensional by comparison, and the mannerisms increasingly seem affected.

Well, there's always next season to tackle those issues, and considering how much the second season got done, the third shouldn't have too much trouble getting Reese lined up for growth spurt. Maybe get Paige Turco's fixer character Zoe involved - she's always a highlight, and her appearances this year were too brief. "Person of Interest" moves to Tuesdays in the fall. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trailers! Trailers! The Blindsided Edition

I can't believe this. I thought I was being smart waiting for the "Ender's Game" trailer to debut before I wrote up my latest trailer post. But now I'm behind again, because we've had a flood of other major trailers released since. Usually I would space these trailer posts much further apart, but screw it. I want to talk about some of these now, especially since there are a couple of awards contenders in the mix. And I'll toss in a few for the upcoming summer indie pictures I left out previously. Here we go. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

The Butler - A star-studded cast, an inspirational true story, and a director who has never dealt with this kind of obvious Oscar-bait prestige material before. Oh boy. This is either going to be a must-see event film or it's going to be a disaster. There's sure to be controversy with some of the casting choices, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. However, "The Butler" may hit that sweet spot and become a feel-good crowd-pleaser the same way that "42" did this earlier this year.

Inside Llewyn Davis - There was an earlier trailer released back in January, but this international one gives us a better look at what the Coen brothers have been up to with their latest film, about the journey of a 1960s folk singer named Llewyn Davis, played by up-and-comer Oscar Isaac. The movie is already getting some buzz for its soundtrack, which features contributions by T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Mumford & Sons, and others. It will be in competition at Cannes this month, but we won't be seeing it in theaters until late December.

Captain Phillips - Directed by Paul Greengrass of "United 93" and two of the "Bourne" films, this is one of the action films I've been looking forward to the most this year. With this kind of true-life material, using the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, plus the involvement of Academy favorite Tom Hanks, this could have become a typically schmaltzy Hollywood dramatization very easily. However, Greengrass's stark style and penchant for realism, as evidenced in this promo, should keep his take lean and mean.

Gravity - This is the by far the best trailer I've seen all year. It presents the film's premise very quickly and very well: two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fall victim to a terrible accident that turns a spacewalk into a terrifying, desperate struggle to avoid being lost to the endless void of outer space. The special effects look great, and the thrills are already palpable. The final shot is one of those great little jolts of nightmare fuel that makes me suspect this is going to be a far more visceral film than I was expecting.

The World's End - I'm not thrilled with this honestly, because the trailer seems to reveal that the apocalypse involved here is some kind of monster invasion, which makes it look a little too much like "Shaun of the Dead." Sure, seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost running around and fighting creepers again is sure to be fun, especially since they have Martin Freeman along for the ride, but I was hoping for their take on a different genre, like their buddy cop antics in "Hot Fuzz." Oh well. To early to say much more about this one yet.

August: Osage County - I've been warned that this trailer is misleading. "August: Osage County" looks like a "Steel Magnolia" style women's picture here, the better to draw in Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts fans, I'm guessing. However the story is actually very dark, based on a play by Tracy Letts, whose last script was for "Killer Joe." I wouldn't have minded so much if the trailer as an accurate reflection of the film, because the cast is so high-powered, and we really don't get enough solid character dramas like this anymore.

Fruitvale Station - A big indie contender that came out of the Sundance Film Festival this year, this is a dramatization of the final hours of Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Williams, before his shooting death by the police at the Fruitvale BART Station in 2009. The trailer plays up the final acts of violence, as expected, but it's the glimpses of Williams' and Octavia Spencer's performances that are the most intriguing. I hope this one lives up to the hype, though I can also see where it might fall short. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Before Midnight - Celine and Jesse are back again in the third chapter of the "Before" series directed by Richard Linklater. Now our fateful lovers have finally gotten together, had a couple of kids, and are approaching middle age together, but it seems that their relationship issues haven't gone away. This time the action is set on a picturesque Greek island, but it looks like it's following the same structure of the last two movies: more long conversations about life and love with two familiar characters it's very nice to see again.

Only God Forgives - This trailer debuted a while ago, but it definitely deserves a mention. It's saying one thing loud and clear: if you liked Ryan Gosling and Nicholas Winding Refn's last movie, "Drive," you're probably going to like this one too. Lots of atmosphere, lots of violence, and a welcome appearance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who we don't see enough of anymore. Apparently the plot involves the murky world of organized crime and boxing matches in Thailand, but all you really need to know is that it's a movie that is just oozing cool.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Undead "Community" Shambles On

Well, this is an outcome I never would have predicted at the start of this season. "Community" has been renewed for a fifth season after a bumpy and delayed fourth season. Meanwhile, NBC has reveamped nearly its entire comedy lineup, cancelling the once promising freshman shows "Go On" and "The New Normal." While "Community" had some good episodes this year, and I've been a lot more forgiving than many other fans, I'm not sure that I'm happy about it getting yet another reprieve. Since creator Dan Harmon was ousted from the show, "Community" just hasn't been the same.

Let's start with the positives of this season first. I liked the "Freaky Friday" and Sophie B. Hawkins Dance episodes. I'm willing to go to bat for the secret origins, Inspector Spacetime convention, and even the puppet episodes. However, everything else, including last night's season finale have all been pretty meh. It's not that they didn't have good ideas or that they weren't ambitious, but the execution just wasn't what it should have been. Jeff consistently being a more positive and altruistic person? Britta and Troy getting together? Chang returning to Greendale as Kevin, faking a case of Chang-nesia? Fine in theory, but the writers didn't seem to have any idea where to go with them. Jeff 's insirational speeches just got blander and less cynical, Chang had a last-minute change of heart that cut short his evil plotting, and the best thing about Britta and Troy's relationship was their break-up and return to the status quo.

I tried to be patient at first, but at the weeks went by, it became clear that the new guys weren't coming close to matching the quality Harmon and the old crew had achieved. The friendships at the center of the show were too frequently mushy, and sentiment was leaned on very heavily to force resolutions that didn't feel earned. There was plenty of meta commentary, but the subversive edge was almost totally gone. In-jokes got overused and the gimmicks were more obvious. Last night, for instance, brought the return of the Darkest Timeline characters from "Remedial Chaos Theory," more paintball battles, a new spin on "Troy and Abed in the Morning," and even a few nods to the dictator Chang, but the reasoning for bringing all these elements back didn't hold water. It was just fanservice, where in the past the show wouldn't done this without also seizing the opportunity to comment on the nature of fanservice, or to at least be more clever about how it was deployed. Existing weaknesses were also amplified. If the Harmon-era writers didn't know what to do with Pierce, the Guarascio and Port-led writers didn't even seem to try. This wasn't helped by Chevy Chase's obvious absence from several episodes after he quit the show.

I've read predictions from a few other critics that the show is transitioning to a safer, blander, and more generic version of itself, but I suspect that further changes are going to be more radical. Jeff Winger has finally graduated from Greendale after four seasons, fulfilling the show's original premise. Sure, he's grown and changed enough that he'll stick around to have more hijinks with his friends in the future, possibly as a new teacher, but the Study Group will be no more. It's going to be a rough transition when the state of the characters isn't as well-defined as it should be. Most of the character development from the first three seasons was preserved in the fourth, but attempts to advance from there have been shaky at best. There's been a notable lack of depth to this year's stories, possibly because the writers were more concerned about preserving the show's existing chemistry than pushing forward. However, they're at a point where they have to embrace the change fully, or they're just going to flounder.

There's every reason to be hopeful that the writing will improve and the show will regain more footing next year. I don't know what the fifth season is going to look like, but there are still some talented writers on the roster, and plenty you could do with a cast this talented. Chevy Chase being gone certainly won't hurt. However, I think it's telling that a rumor that Dan Harmon might be approached to return to run "Community" got more positive response than the renewal announcement. Considering all the bad blood and the politics, this is a highly unlikely prospect. However, it's clear that "Community" fans still very attached to the show and they're still sticking around in large enough numbers for NBC to keep it around for a little longer. I'll still be watching, though not with nearly as much enthusiasm. The goal of reaching six seasons and a movie isn't as appealing as it once was.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Making Time for "The Hour"

Set in the 1956 UK, "The Hour" give us a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a fictional BBC news magazine show, also titled "The Hour," billed as one of the first programs of its kind. The action centers on three characters: producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), fighting to prove herself in a male-dominated profession, her best friend Freddie Lyons (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant reporter with a difficult personality, and Hector Madden (Dominic West), the presenter with all the right connections. We see the intrigues, the politicking, and the fights with the censors, as they strive to push the journalistic envelope. To make things even more interesting, the first series involves a murder investigation and espionage conspiracy, while the second goes after a vice ring and police corruption.

Created by Abi Morgan, who scripted "Shame" and "The Iron Lady," "The Hour" is a top-of-the-line production, with beautiful period settings, compelling subject matter, and all the right talent involved. The first episode meanders a bit, but when the story gets going, it can be difficult to stop watching. I've seen other reviews compare "The Hour" to "Mad Men" because of the similar era and the focus on workplace tensions and sexy extracurricular activities. "The Hour" is smaller in scale, though, only having six episodes in each series and a smaller cast of characters. It really only tackles one major historical event, the Suez Canal crisis and the military aggression that followed. It also has considerably more straightforward storytelling, using a standard detective framework for each year's ongoing investigations. Nowhere to be found are any deeper, moodier meditations on living through the troubled era. Rather, "The Hour" resembles a lively crime serial as much as it resembles a serious social drama.

This isn't a bad thing, at all. "The Hour" may not have the ambitions or the thematic richness of "Mad Men," but it is still a smartly written and extraordinarily well-acted show. It's formula is familiar, but it knows how to do that formula well. Without question, the show's biggest assets are Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai as Lyons and Rowley, whose friendship is the bedrock of the series. Rowley is being given a major opportunity to prove herself, but is doubtful of her abilities, while Lyons is one of those insufferable, self-righteous young idealists who's always right and loves to prove it. They have an affectionate, sibling-like relationship where they argue and banter with each other. It's a lot of fun to just watch them do the walk-and-talk. Underlining the relative lightness of the show's tone, their nicknames for each other are "James" and "Moneypenny."

Dominic West as Hector Madden is positioned as the outsider, who quickly becomes entangled in both their lives when they all find themselves reluctant colleagues. He and Rowley quickly start making eyes at each other, while initially antagonistic encounters with Lyons evolve into something more mutually beneficial. West has the character with the most shades of gray, and the most potential for some in-depth social commentary, but doesn't get the chance to explore Hector's deeper recesses as much as I'd have liked to see. The plot tends to background him in the first season, so he never feels quite on the level of the other two. Still, West makes the most of his chances to shine, and it's good to see him back in front of the camera.

Backing up the trio are a wealth of strong supporting performances - Anton Lesser as the avuncular Head of News, Clarence Fendley, Joshua McGuire and Anna Chancellor as other newsroom contributors, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Angus McCain, an antagonistic government press liaison, Peter Capaldi in a second series role that is a massive spoiler, and Oona Chaplin as Hector's upper-crust wife Marnie. And I want to single out Burn Gorman, who has a small but important part in the first series as suspicious reporter, Thomas Kish. it's one of those performances that is so instantly memorable, I couldn't believe that I had never noticed the actor responsible before - and I've seen Gorman in plenty of other movies and television shows before this.

Sadly "The Hour" was cancelled after only two series and twelve episodes, and ends on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved. It's nowhere near as daring or as cutting-edge as the fictional program it examines, but "The Hour" makes the most of its material, delivering some terrifically tense and exciting hours of television. It's also a pretty easy watch, in spite of its torrents of literate dialogue, so I can happily recommend it to the people who prefer the lighter crime shows like "Sherlock" and "Luther" to the moral murkiness of "Mad Men." On the flip side, if you prefer the character drama of "Mad Men," "The Hour" has a couple of fascinating figures that are worth seeking out.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Films of 2012 I'm Ignoring

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a completist when it comes to movies, so my best of 2012 list isn't going to be done until the fall, when the last couple of titles his home media. My "To Watch" list is currently down to about a dozen titles, including the indie "Middle of Nowhere," which has no DVD or Blu-Ray release date yet, "Neighbouring Sounds," which hits Netflix in about a week, and "No" and "Kon-Tiki," which are still in the middle of U.S. theatrical runs. I'm probably not going to get to everything, because there are always one or two titles that never show up at all, that I have to simply leave out.

However, I'm looking at a much shorter list this year than I've had in the past, because I'm being much more selective about what I'm watching. After a rough 2011 season where I spent weeks slogging through smaller indie films that I knew were pretty dubious in the first place, hoping to turn over some hidden gem that I'd overlooked, I've decided I can be a little more stringent about my standards. That didn't prevent me from sitting through "Hyde Park on Hudson," which I deeply regret, but I'll know better next time.

So for fun, I thought I'd list the movies of 2012 that I'm just going to ignore, not because they've done anything wrong, but because there have been too many in the past that promised the same things, and failed to deliver. It's not you. It's me.

Let's also treat this as a pre-emptive disclaimer for my upcoming 2012 year-end list. "The Paperboy" and "Bully" were borderline cases I've written about before, so I won't reiterate my assessments here. But what other notable 2012 films am I not bothering to watch, and leaving out of contention?

Promised Land, dir. Gus van Sant - You must have seen the commercials, that feature Matt Damon as an agent of a drilling corporation, who comes to a small town to buy up drilling rights, butts heads with an anti-fracking activist, and gets friendly with a local woman. Mediocre reviews and a really tepid premise sank this one. Sure, fracking is a compelling subject, but if I want to watch a movie about it, why don't I just watch "Gasland"?

Savages, dir. Oliver Stone - Mixed reviews don't deter me if I like a director, but I've given Oliver Stone too many chances over the years. I just couldn't work up any enthusiasm for what the trailers were selling as a pretty skeevy looking drug movie, centering around a strange menage a trois. Oh, and everything I heard about the film from other people who had seen it was uniformly negative. Apparently the ending didn't go over well.

Not Fade Away, dir. David Chase - Chase's directing debut, described as a post-war coming of age story about a teenager who fronts a rock band, played by John Magaro. Aside from the involvement of several players from "The Sopranos," there is nothing that looks particularly distinctive about this movie. The reviews were fine, but not high enough to get me over my growing weariness with bildungsromans.

Liberal Arts, dir. Josh Radnor - And then of course you have your midlife crisis movies. Radnor plays a protagonist whose answer to his dissatisfaction with life is to go back to his old college, reconnect with an old professor, and get into an age-inappropriate romance with a student played by Elizabeth Olsen. It just screams wishful thinking. It had some good reviews, including a great recommendation from Roger Ebert, but I'm bored just looking at the poster.

360, dir. Fernando Mireilles - Now I like this director, but I hate this premise. "360" is a modern day update of the Max Ophuls' film "La Ronde," where we see how a group of people, high and low, are connected to each other through various romantic relationships. The idea is contrived as hell, and Ophuls only barely managed to make it work with the help of Anton Walbrook's charming performance as the Raconteur. After lousy reviews, I can't imagine the modern version offering anything appealing.

Chasing Ice, dir. Jeff Orlowski - 75 minutes of watching icebergs breaking off from glaciers and listening to people talk about global warming. Oh, I don't think so. "Chasing Ice" may be gorgeous and universally acclaimed, but for me watching this sort of documentary is like eating my vegetables, and there have been enough on my plate this year. I'm also skipping the eye-candy epic "Samsara" for similar reasons.

The Amazing Spider-Man, dir. Marc Webb - I'm sorry, but I just can't get myself into the headspace for this one. In my mind it's still way too soon for a reboot of this franchise. In a couple of years maybe I can catch up, but right now I know I wouldn't be able to give the Andrew Garfield version of Spidey a fair shot. So he's staying in the very bottom of the queue until further notice.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Guilt Trip" and Guilty Pleasure

Some people's guilty pleasure movies are mindless action spectaculars, idiot comedies, or fluffy romances. I indulge in all of these occasionally. My go-to guilty pleasure movies are usually kids' films, especially cartoons. However, I realized that there is another little subgenre of films that I also tend to enjoy even if they're terrible – feel-good family bonding movies, like "The Guilt Trip."

"The Guilt Trip" is a mediocre movie at best. Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand play a mother and son pair who go on a road trip across America together, which forces them to go through various contrived trials and tribulations in order to become more appreciative of each other in the end. Rogen is Andy Brewster, an inventor who is trying to pitch a new , environmentally friendly cleaning product to several potential buyers, and has set up meetings all over the country. Before setting out on the trip, he visits his long widowed mother Joyce, played by Streisand. One thing leads to another, and Andy invites his mother to come along, in order to secretly set up a meeting between her and an old flame who lives on the opposite coast. Yeah, I mentioned the contrivances, right?

The thing is, I like Barbara Streisand, even when she's predictably chatting her son's ear off and calling him every ten minutes in order to check up on him. She's still a tremendously funny performer, and impossible to dismiss. Here's she's mostly just playing her usual screen persona with some maternal exaggerations, but it's nice to see her again, and I can't help thinking she could have really brought some spark to some of the roles I've been seeing Diane Keaton and Diane Lane in lately. I can't remember the last time I saw Streisand in a screen role this substantial, and that's a shame. Even though this is really slight material, she commits to it fully. And on the other side we've got Seth Rogen, who I've been slowly coming around to lately, and it's good to see him playing a good guy, who cares about his mother, and puts up with her demands to a heroic degree. He brings a good-natured snarkiness to the table, and the best scenes are of him and Streisand in the car, just talking and ad libbing. The credits sequence features a bunch of alternate takes with different jokes.

Watching "The Guilt Trip," which is so predictable that I was ticking off the plot points and the twists through the whole last third, I discovered that the movie was nonetheless doing a fantastic job of appealing to my yen for a certain kind of feel-good movies. They can be formulaic, but they can't feel too schmaltzy. They can be aimed at the older crowd, but not solely at the older crowd. They can require a lot of suspension of disbelief as long as they have a good sense of humor, which "The Guilt Trip" mostly does. But when I go back through the movie, what really appeals to me is that Rogen and Streisand manage to present us with a warm, funny, functional parent-child relationship. Movies about family ties are usually about the problematic ones, about the angry, bitter, destructive ones. This makes for great drama, but tends to leave the viewer feeling like hell.

Family is one of my big anchors in life, and I admit that I tend to romanticize happy families. I think this is why I respond so strongly to movies like "The Descendants" and "Win Win," and "Juno." These are stories that put the family unit under strain, but in the end they endure. And they show family relationships the way I tend to view mine as I've gotten older – a little awkward, a little bumpy, and full of compromises. The Brewsters may have drifted apart in "The Guilt Trip," requiring various wacky adventures and misunderstandings to get them back on the same page, but it's clear from the outset that these two care about each other. And seeing them affirm that put a big stupid grin on my face, even as I was wincing through the ancient jokes, and the way-too-obvious reveal about what happened to Joyce's lost love, and the slam-dunk pitch that finally gets Andy his big sale.

"The Guilt Trip" is meant more for older moms than their adult children, because the story definitely skews toward more mature tastes and viewpoints. Joyce is the one who has a love interest, and who always seems to have the upper hand. Still, the balance is pretty good. I was definitely sympathizing with Seth Rogen's character the whole way through, and there was just enough ribald humor that his usual fanbase should find the movie tolerable to sit through – but not so ribald that they can't watch it with their mothers.

Friday, May 10, 2013

My Favorite Pier Paolo Pasolini Movie

This was the post I originally preparing for Easter, and I see no reason why I should wait an entire year for the holiday to come around again. Also, considering where the subject matter ultimately took me, maybe it's a good thing that I didn't post it on Easter after all.

If you've heard of Pier Paolo Pasolini, then it's probably because you've heard of his most notorious film, "Salo," considered one of the most disturbing pieces of cinema ever made. I've always thought it was terribly unfair that Pasolini should be remembered for this one film, when he directed eleven others, and was also a poet, journalist, academic, playwright, novelist, and heavily involved in Italian politics. In all arenas he was a provocateur, and I don't think Pasolini himself would have had any issue with being remembered for "Salo" - he's the one who decided to make the picture after all. He was used to controversy, constantly in jail for blasphemy and obscenity charges.

It took me a while to warm up to Pasolini's films, when I went through his filmography a few years ago. I thought the earlier ones looked remarkably ugly, often depicting the extremes of poverty in great detail. His usual lead actors were not conventionally attractive, and few were professionals. He liked including scenes of raw sexuality and violence, and was particularly keen on social commentary and subversive satire. As he moved into classical subjects and more fanciful stories, they were treated no differently. His "Arabian Nights" is a bawdy picaresque with graphic sex scenes. His "Oedipus Rex" has no sets, minimal dialogue, and the story is condensed to its absolute essentials.

It wasn't until I saw "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," recounting the life of Jesus Christ, that it clicked. What Pasolini was doing was no different than what the neo-realists were doing twenty years earlier, and some film academics consider Pasolini to be the last member of that movement. His approach to classical material was to try do away with all the artifice and the whitewashing that these stories had accumulated over the years through other adaptations and interpretations. So in Pasolini's version, Jesus Christ is played by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui, who looks like a perfectly ordinary man, but speaks with a remarkable intensity and charisma. As he recites passages from the Bible in the course of preaching the Gospel, the effect is mesmerizing, and little unnerving.

The film was made in 1964, at a time when Hollywood was turning out Bible epics like "Ben Hur" and "King of Kings." Where Hollywood was using opulent sets and casts of thousands, Pasolini's film is in black and white, shot entirely on location in stark, rugged environments, and he shows his characters close to how they really existed. Great emphasis is placed on the common people eking out their existence from the harsh terrain. They are dressed poorly, behave roughly, and are largely concerned with survival above all else. We see all the mud and dirt up close. The film had a low budget, but the harsh aesthetics were a conscious choice. Pasolini was so insistent on being as faithful to his source material as possible, that nearly all the dialogue in the film comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew. There were few additions or abridgements of the text, though he did de-emphasize the miracles, which are treated as matter-of-factly as possible. In later years, Pasolini would express regret for having included the loaves and fishes at all.

The demystification and the humanizing of the life of Christ may take away the grandeur, but I think it helps the impact of his story in many ways. Without all the distractions of pageantry and ornamentation, or even the usual storytelling devices to make the events more cinematic, all you have left is exactly what's in the text itself. The words of Jesus become central to the film, and we are able to see it in something close to its original context. There are many scenes of Jesus preaching, sometimes kindly, sometimes angrily and passionately. We meet the people who the words were first meant for. With the supernatural elements largely relegated to incidental moments, it becomes easier to appreciate the philosophy behind the teachings, and to draw parallels to everyday life. The film looks so simple, but what it says about Jesus Christ is anything but.

It's one of the commonly remarked-upon ironies that Pasolini was an atheist and a homosexual, but created one of the most faithful cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus Christ. However, when you look at Pasolini's other work, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" makes perfect sense. Pasolini's Christ is the Christ of the common man, who is a powerful figure for his words and deeds rather than his origins. The startling degree of realism and historical accuracy bring a candidness that I've rarely seen in other passion plays, and immediately make you regard the events in a different light.

And you don't need to be a believer in order to appreciate that.

What I've Seen - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Accattone (1961)
Mamma Roma (1962)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966)
Oedipus Rex (1967)
Teorema (1968)
The Canterbury Tales (1972)
Arabian Nights (1974)
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Upstream Color" is Unique Cinema

You'll occasionally come across one-hit wonder directors, the guys (and gals) who came out of the gate with a bang on their first film, only to follow it up with far more lackluster efforts. Sadly, some promising directors really only have one great film in them. After Shane Carruth's low budget time travel thriller "Primer" became a cult hit in 2004, he went off the radar for nearly a decade, and I honestly thought for a long time that he was gone for good. But now he's back with a second feature, "Upstream Color," that proves his first success was no fluke.

Like "Primer," "Upstream Color" is a science fiction story with a very plotty narrative, full of twists and turns and improbable things going on that significantly impact the lives of its characters. This time, however, the story is not told in the conventional way, where the concepts are all carefully explained to the audience, with lots of exposition to make sure that you understand what's going on. Instead, there is next to no exposition at all. I saw this movie right after I saw the new Malick film, "To the Wonder," and was surprised to discover that the storytelling style was so similar. "Upstream Color" is heavily reliant on visuals, and it's through precise editing and carefully chosen images that a fascinating narrative is constructed.

A woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is knocked out and abducted one night by an anonymous man (Thiago Martins, credited as "The Thief") and forced to ingest maggots that have a unique effect on living organisms. The maggots give Kris's captor the ability to control her, and use that power to empty her bank accounts and then condition her to perform endless, repetitive tasks on command. The maggots grow into worms, which are surgically removed from Kris. The next morning she wakes up, abandoned, without any memories of the abduction, to find her life in shambles. Some time later, after Kris has regained some footing, she meets a man named Jeff (Shane Carruth) and falls in love with him. And it's only as their relationship blooms that Kris discovers that the abduction was only the beginning of something much bigger and more sinister.

We never learn the names of the special parasitic worms, or the mysterious group that is studying them. We don't even know exactly how the worms are supposed to work, though we see their effect on Kris in great detail. The film refuses to give any straight answers, but many of those answers are right there in front of you, if you can figure out how to decode them. Some are fairly straightforward. Kris has a panic attack when someone else far away is in danger, and the two lines of action are intercut together to suggest that Kris is emotionally linked to the other character, though no one ever states the connection explicitly. Residue left on plants by the maggots is a bright blue color, and whenever that color appears, we know that they are present.

However, what to make of a long sequence where a man credited as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) is collecting various sounds? And what about the swimming pool sequences? And what about Jeff and Kris getting each other's childhood memories mixed up? And what was the significance of Kris's abductor forcing her to transcribe pages from Thoreau's "Walden" and making paper chains out of them? Was there any significance? After a single viewing, I know that there's a lot that I must have missed, and I really want to see the film again to see what else I can puzzle out.

However, even without the finer details in place, the film is a stunner. This isn't just another puzzle box movie. The central romance works, the mystery and thriller elements are solid, and the performances are tremendously engaging. Carruth wisely put Amy Seimetz at the center of the film, and makes her character a little abrasive and difficult. Seimetz does a fantastic job of expressing a gamut of emotional states, sometimes playing up the ambiguity of whether or not she's in control of her actions, without ever going over the top. Carruth is fine as Jeff, but Seimetz delivers a tour de force.

Of course, there's plenty to praise Shane Carruth for - he directed, produced, wrote, shot, edited, and composed the music and sound design for "Upstream Color." He's also self-distributing the movie, which is why you can already buy it now on DVD and Blu-Ray after it's only been in limited release for a month. I really hope that this film gets more attention, because it's one of the most unique pieces of science-fiction I've seen in ages, told in such a bold, interesting way.

I really hope Shane Carruth's next film doesn't take a decade to reach us, though if that's the amount of time it takes for him to make something as great as "Upstream Color," it'll be worth the wait.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Don't Sweat the Statisticians

A New York Times Article, Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data, has been creating a lot of discussion in the past few days. It's a profile of Vinny Bruzzese, a statistician who is part of a new trend in Hollywood: subjecting scripts to content analysis to try and maximize financial impact. From the examples given in the article, this seems to involve weeding out unpopular elements like bowling alleys and Ouija board scenes that are associated with less successful movies. Now script analysis is just starting to become prominent, and it's largely unproven, but there's quite of bit interest in it.

However, of course, there are also plenty of naysayers. Filmmakers are understandably perturbed about their creative process being subject to the kind of analysis that is clearly designed to facilitate our movies becoming even more generic and repetitive than they already are. However, this isn't a remotely new phenomenon. Studio executives have been using similar tools for years, specifically market research, focus groups, and test screenings, to inject some outside opinions and try to make films that are less risky and have wider appeal. Bruzzese's analysis is an extension of this impulse, the big difference being that it happens during the script stage instead of when the film is nearing completion.

The eternal conflict at the heart of the movie business is between the creative talent who make the movies and the businessmen who run the studios and need to make a profit. The creatives prefer to treat the movies as individual works of art, but the businessmen prefer to treat the movies as products, and the more predictable and formulaic the better, because that means less risk. This is why we're seeing so many PG-13 franchise films and cartoons in theaters, what Danny Boyle refers to as the "PIXAR-ification" of the movies. The studios have figured out that these are the movies that tend to draw big audiences the most reliably, and bring the biggest worldwide box office returns.

There's nothing wrong with making money, of course, and making money doesn't necessarily mean a compromised or lower quality film. Though some filmmakers hate them, test screenings have long been recognized as a helpful tool in some situations, to gauge audience reactions and figure out where the weaknesses in a movie are. I expect the same thing will prove true of script analysis. It's just another tool that may prove useful in the making of a movie, appropriate in some situations but not others. For one thing, this kind of analysis would seem to completely discount the value of novelty. I don't know about you, but the movies that appeal to me most are the ones that look like they're going to show me something I haven't seen before.

Now I love movies, and I'm on the side of more creative freedom and more original films whenever possible, but I've been around long enough to know that you can't have the big giant blockbuster movies like "Iron Man 3" without both the creatives and the businessmen. Commercial filmmaking on this level is always a collaborative process between art and commerce, and can't exist without catering to the general public. So it's perfectly understandable why you'd want tools like script analysis available to help ensure that your big summer blockbuster is going to make its intended audience happy. Of course smaller films for smaller audiences aren't going to get much use out of it, but some of those bloated CGI action-fests that are already artistically suspect? I don't see how script analysis could really hurt them.

And if the executives try to use the statistical analysis results like a bludgeon, the way they often do with focus groups? So what? Their job has always been to do all they can to minimize risks, and if they have a new kind of hard data to rely on, I think it's preferable for them to focus on that instead of generating the famously arbitrary notes that have come up in the past. Remember Jon Peters and the giant mechanical spider that he wanted to put in the last "Superman" reboot? Whatever Bruzzese's analysis covers, I don't think it's going to come up with anything nuttier than that.

Ultimately, I'm highly doubtful about the effectiveness of applying statistics to any kind of creative endeavor, and it has been proven time and time again that nothing is a sure thing in Hollywood. Audiences can be fickle, remember, and just because they like something once, doesn't mean they'll keep liking it in the future. The hits and flops aren't always obvious, and it's difficult to quantify why something worked or didn't work. It's certainly more complicated than not having scenes take place in bowling alleys.

What's wrong with bowling alleys anyway? Maybe the statistics are just reflecting that it's harder to do these scenes right.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Trailers! Trailers! The Catching-Up Edition

It's the first week of May, and we've already got several full trailers for some of the big November movies in circulation. I haven't done a trailer post in a while, so we'll be talking about these, plus some of the notable later summer films where the first trailers were only released in the last few months. We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started. As usual, all links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Thor: The Dark World - Of all the individual Marvel movies, I'd put "Thor" near the bottom of the list. I like the character, but his appearances on screen have felt the most slapdash and lacking in substance. I expect the filmmakers know this, which is why they make sure to show us part of a scene that likely happens a good ways into the second act: Thor seeking help from Loki, who is easily the most memorable villain in Marvel's film universe so far. We don't see anything of the film's actual villains, or really much of the threat they pose, but Loki's involvement is enough.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - I've already been spoiled regarding a lot of what happens in this movie, so I was impressed with how well this trailer kept some of the biggest plot points under wraps, at least for now. I wouldn't be surprised if future trailers go on to reveal more. However, this one nicely sets up the rising tensions between Katniss and the Capitol, giving a lot of screen time to Donald Sutherland, who plays the major antagonist President Snow. And the sight of Philip Seymour Hoffman getting in on the fun makes me indescribably happy.

R.I.P.D. - The trailer spends most of its time setting up the concept of Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as part of an undead police force, but what it's really doing is selling you on a certain mood and tone. This is going to be a supernatural action movie with a lot of CGI effects, but it's also going to be a broad comedy. I can definitely see why people are suggesting that this is going to be "MIB" with the undead. Even the poster looks pretty similar. But will "R.I.P.D." be any good? I can't tell from what we've seen so far, but I do like everybody involved here.

2 Guns - Here's Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg playing a pair of cops, who are both working undercover at cross purposes, get betrayed, and have to join forces to win the day. Pretty standard buddy movie setup. So you sell the movie the way you always do. Car chases! Gun battles! One liners! The big question is whether Washington and Wahlberg are going to work well together onscreen, and I think the clips make a decent case for it. The banter flows, and the antagonism feels genuine. It's not very original, but who sees a movie like this for originality?

RED 2 - The retirees are back for more mayhem, and this time they're joined by new villains Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lee Byung-hun. However, the highlight of this installment is almost certainly going to be Anthony Hopkins, who is acting a great deal sillier than I've seen him on the screen in some time. Will he and John Malkovitch have a ham-off at some point? I can only hope. Otherwise, you have your typical spies and renegades story and most of the cast of the previous film back for more fun - including Helen Mirren and all her dangerous toys.

The Wolverine - The problems of "The Wolverine" trailer are twofold. On the one hand, it's relying way too much on previously established imagery from the "X-men" franchise. And on the other hand, the new material looks pretty weak. The bulk of this movie will be set in Japan, but the visuals are generic, the action and effects look underwhelming, and the whole thing is just so much smaller scale than anything else in the franchise. These are major problems that the marketing for "X-men: First Class" had too, and I hope "The Wolverine" is similarly better than its ads.

Elysium - Director Neil Blomkamp is back, and he's brought more "Halo"- like visuals and some big stars for his latest science-fiction film. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster star in the tale of a dystopian future society where an extreme split has developed between the haves and the have-nots. I'm expecting more social commentary, more crazy action scenes, and more deeply flawed characters. And I'm intrigued that the story appears to have many similarities to the manga "Battle Angel Alita," the one James Cameron's been trying to turn into a film for a decade now.

Ender's Game - And here's the movie that I'm the most curious about, out of everything else listed here. How do you turn Orson Scott Card's science-fiction classic into a Hollywood effects extravaganza? From the new trailer I recognize the characters and the concepts, but how faithful is this adaptation going to be? The trailer is provocative, but it's hardly very informative, more concerned with making sure we see every award-winning actor who will appear in the film than introducing us to Ender Wiggins or his universe. The glimpses of Battle School and the Formics are encouraging though.

Turbo - I know, I know, but the little snails are frickin' adorable!