Friday, June 28, 2013

A Big Yes to "No"

There has been quite a bit of controversy about the Chilean film "No," one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in the most recent Oscar race. Some have compared it to "Argo," for simplifying historical events, leaving out important details, and giving too much credit to one individual working in a very large, complex campaign. "No" captures the events of 1988, when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is pressured into allowing a plebiscite, a nationwide vote on whether he is to remain the leader of the nation after fourteen years of tyranny. Both Yes and No supporters are given fifteen minutes of airtime to present their case on national television every night for a month. The No campaign, aiming to oust Pinochet and restore democracy, is initially viewed as hopeless. However, a change in tactics orchestrated by advertising guru René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) helps to turn the plebiscite into a real race.

It's understandable why some have taken offense to the notion that a couple of ad men, with their rainbow logos, catchy jingles, and bodaciously 80s TV commercials were instrumental in mobilizing the opposition against Pinochet. Director Pablo Larraín insists that "No" captures the spirit of that moment in history, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Though it could have used more context, what we have here is clearly the story of one man operating on one front of a larger struggle that was going on long before he got involved. Saavedra is young and forward looking, viewed as something of an outsider since he spent much of his life exiled in Mexico. When he argues that the No campaign should be more positive and fun, he has to contend with members of the opposition who think he's trying to downplay Pinochet's atrocities and silence his victims. Saavedra is also constantly clashing with campaign leader José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) and his own creative team. Meanwhile, his boss at the ad agency, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is secretly working on the Yes campaign, and actively undermining the No campaigns's efforts. At home, Saavedra worries about the welfare of his young son, Simón (Pascal Montero). And then there's Saavedra's ex-wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a political activist and the harshest critic of his work.

I know next to nothing about Chile or its history or politics, but I didn't need to. This is an immensely fun and entertaining underdog story with an irresistable hook, plenty of thrills, and a feel-good happy ending. Yes, it's about a political campaign, but "No" is very good about setting the stage, using the propaganda clips and the characters' behavior to bring the unfamiliar viewer up to speed, not just on the politics, but on the mood of the country. We see people going to great lengths to maintain the secrecy of their involvement with the No campaign, long before we fully understand why such measures are necessary. The movie has a tendency to idealize Saavedra, and some incidents are clearly invented, but it also shows his faults and backgrounds him when it's appropriate. There's no time to give everyone the credit they deserve, but many different groups of people and their various viewpoints are represented in some way. I especially appreciated the strong presence of Verónica, who does not hesitate to accuse our hero of legitimizing a farce when she learns what he is planning to do. Antonia Zegers and Gael García Bernal deliver strong performances, and the scenes of them together are highlights.

I love the look of "No," which uses a lot of documentary footage and significant parts of the actual Yes and No campaign broadcasts. Larraín designed everything else in the movie to match, giving the move an appealing period look with a retro, low-tech aesthetic. And then he shot it all on Betacam to make it look even more like the 80s. Even the opening credits and title are slightly misaligned to make it seem like you're initially watching the movie on an old cathode ray television. Since the film is about a television ad campaign, the act of television viewing becomes important. Larrain includes many shots of people watching and discussing what they see on television, and many vital scenes simply place the audience in front of the small screen, so that the audience can watch the news or the final versions of the No campaign commercials right along with the Chileans. There are a couple of nice transitions that jump from a scene of something being filmed to the finished product being broadcast.

Would I call "No" the definitive movie about the end of Pinochet's regime? Certainly not, but it's a good starting point and provides a lot of juicy material for discussion and debate. The comparisons to "Argo" are very apt, not only because "No" plays fast and loose with history in some problematic ways, but because it is a fully engaging, intelligent, and satisfying movie. And Gael García Bernal is a considerably better actor than Ben Affleck, so I think it's actually better than "Argo" by a good margin.
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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Everything You Need to Know About Mecha

With "Pacific Rim" coming out in a couple of weeks and the marketing blitz hitting a crescendo, I think it's time to talk about mecha. The mecha genre, found primarily in Japanese media, covers stories about humanoid robots and machines, including mechanized battle armor, mechanical constructs, modified vehicles with battle capabilities, and your good old-fashioned battling robots. The Transformers are mecha, even though they're technically aliens from outer space, because they're living machines who have the ability to act like vehicles and other large mechanized objects. Iron Man is a borderline case, since his armor does give Tony Stark special enhancements, but traditional mecha tend to be more substantial machines that are piloted or operated.

I've noticed that there's been widespread confusion over the appeal of mecha in the American mainstream, as Japanese media remains an acquired taste. Why giant robots? Why building-sized machines and vehicles, often stylized to ridiculous extremes? Well, part of it's cultural, of course. Japan is famously an industry leader in the research and development of robotics, and use more of them than just about any other country in the world. Robots are also far more prevalent in Japan's popular media, with the Giant Robot genre emerging in kids' manga in the 1950s and 1960s. Several influential titles like "Mazinger Z" and "Tetsujin 28" (aka "Gigantor") seem to have kicked off the national love affair with giant, heroic, mechanical creatures. I think it's also worth remembering that Japan is home to the kaiju, the giant monsters like Godzilla and Mothra, and the same impulse that created them probably also had a hand in the robots getting supersized.

In the West the most high profile mecha franchises remain the ones that were made for children, like "Transformers," "Voltron" and "Power Rangers." In Japan, however, mecha gradually expanded into many different genres over the years. Mecha action and science-fiction shows are a given, but there are also mecha comedy, fantasy, historical fiction, and crime series aimed at much older audiences. They range in style from cartoony and over-the-top to starkly realistic and cerebral. The Real Robot anime subgenre is notably more grounded in the real world and shows human beings using mecha as tools. Some of the most famous mecha franchises like "Gundam" and "Macross" are military-themed shows that involve extensive depictions of mecha used in violent warfare, often alongside traditional weaponry. Mecha stories have become so pervasive in Japanese fiction, they can be seen as the equivalent of superhero stories in the United States, with their own tropes and traditions. Sure, giant battle machines and people with superpowers are completely impossible, but don't they look cool?

Having seen my share of mecha TV series and movies, It's clear that mecha are great for really huge-scale carnage. The "Transformers" movies have already proven this. However, another important aspect that I think often gets lost in the discussion is that piloted mecha allow normal people to gain the powers of superheroes - superior size, strength, and all kinds of different weapons, while still remaining ordinary, relatable people. Mecha pilots tend to be less like Superman, and more like Maverick from "Top Gun." Unlike what we saw in "Transformers," sentient Giant Robots usually work in concert with human operators, and their relationships are central to their stories. This allows for very personal human drama to play out on an epic scale. "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the most influential mecha show of the 90s, is about a group of teenage mecha pilots with a lot of sticky psychological issues, who can't help bringing their problems with them to the battlefield.

Considering current American blockbuster trends, the mecha genre is increasingly looking like a good fit for franchise filmmaking needs. Giant IMAX screens require giant spectacle to fill them, and you don't get much bigger than gargantuans like Optimus Prime and Tetsujin 28 duking it out against the forces of evil. With Michael Bay, "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel" setting the bar higher for big CGI-enhanced battles, most mecha series should fit right in. "Pacific Rim" was clearly heavily influenced by many famous mecha anime, and if it does well, I expect we'll see more adaptations in the same vein. And if it doesn't, it may only be a temporary setback, as mecha keep showing up in our movies in various from, from the AMPs in "Avatar" to the rumbling robot boxers of "Real Steel."

Like many mecha fans, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Japan's film industry is one of modest means, so they've produced very few pieces of live action mecha media. Hollywood studios are currently the only ones capable of creating something with big budget production values like "Pacific Rim," and they're taking a pretty big gamble on this movie, considering the traditionally niche appeal of mecha in the US.

In Japan, however, they're going to eat this up.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Bumper Crop of Biopics

Don't look now, but we've got a bunch of true life stories and biopics headed our way. I'm not sure what set this off - maybe Spielberg's "Lincoln" clearing $180 million at the domestic box office, "Argo" winning the Best Picture Oscar, or the surprise success of "42"? - but the latter part of 2013 is about to get swamped with movies that can begin with the epigraph, "Based on a true story."

August brings the Steve Jobs biopic "Jobs" with Ashton Kutcher and Lee Daniels' "The Butler" with Forrest Whitaker. September offers Ron Howard's "Rush," about Formula One racer James Hunt, and the Princess Diana biopic "Diana" with Naomi Watts. In October, we're getting "Captain Phillips," starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a ship hijacked by Somali pirates, and Wikileaks tell-all "The Fifth Estate," starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as notorious stock broker Jordan Belfort, arrives in November, a few short weeks before "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" with Idris Elba makes its debut.

Then the floodgates open in December as the Oscar races kicks into gear. "Dallas Buyers Club" will have Matthew McConaughey as early AIDS patient Ron Woodroof. David O. Russell's ABSCAM movie finally has a title, "American Hustle," and will dramatize the famous sting operation. "Saving Mr. Banks" has Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, clashing over the making of "Mary Poppins." George Clooney's "Monuments Men" is a WWII caper film based on real events. Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" follows a more recent military operation gone wrong, also based on real events. Two of the most anticipated titles are "Grace of Monaco" with Nicole Kidman, and "12 Years a Slave," with Chiwetel Ejiofor. Not scheduled yet, but expected to be on the schedule soon are Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" with Steve Carrell, "Lovelace," with Amanda Seyfried, and "The Railway Man" with Colin Firth. And of course, there's the Coen brothers' fictional biopic "Inside Llewyn Davis," about the titular singer-songwriter played by Oscar Isaac.

And then there's all the projects in development and in the early stages of production. Did you hear the rumors about who's getting cast in the proposed HiIlary Clinton biopic? Or who's directing the new Houdini movie? George Jones and Barabara Streisand were recently announced to be getting their lives retold on film, though the entertainer we really want to see brought to the big screen is Freddie Mercury. Wasn't Sacha Baron Cohen supposed to be attached to his movie? Other notable figures expected to be the subject of upcoming films include Martin Luther King Jr., Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Marvin Gaye, Whitey Bulger, Elton John, Paul Robeson, Cantinflas, Margaret Keane, A.A. Milne, Hank Williams, John Gotti, Janis Joplin, Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, Dr. Seuss, the Beach Boys, Lance Armstrong, Johnny Carson, Pelé, and those 33 Chilean miners Hollywood hasn't forgotten about.

Biopics and true life stories are standard movie fare, of course. They're usually not very high profile until they start popping up around awards season, can be counted on to have a certain built-in audience, and they rarely cost very much. So why are we getting so many of them this year? The theories vary. Some see it as another sign that Hollywood is short on ideas and has resorted to cashing in on the image of beloved celebrities. The recent bump in made-for-TV movies about drama-magnets Anna Nicole Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Kennedys seem to fit there. Or maybe it's the recent shift we've seen in high profile biopics like "Lincoln" and "The King's Speech," away from the cradle-to-grave approach, and toward highlighting specific events or periods in their subjects' live. This allows for more creative freedom, and may have gotten more filmmakers interested in the genre.

My own pet theory is that this could be early signs of push back against the blockbuster business model. Midrange films are staging a minor comeback after getting squeezed out of studio slates, especially as it's been proven with titles like "Lincoln" that they can make good money. Also, cable and the Internet are providing new potential platforms for them. Steven Soderberg's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" brought in record ratings, which appears to have led to a healthy uptick in greenlights for some long-simmering projects.

Personally, I'm glad to see this happening. I like a good biopic, and real life is a great source of material for interesting stories. Sure, the Princess Diana movie looks awfully slight, and I'm sure they're going to turn "Captain Phillips" into a Hollywood-style action movie, but they provide a nice break from all the superheroes and revenge fantasies and cartoons that seem to have taken over the rest of the schedule. And if nothing else, they're usually movies made for grown-ups, which I fully support on principle.
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Mad Men," Year Six

Major spoilers ahead for the most recent season of "Mad Men"

In the later seasons of "Mad Men," Don Draper has rarely been a character I've found compelling. He's always driven the action, making many major decisions, but he's often been a character that everyone else in the show reacts against. Don's ongoing journey of self discovery, trying to reconcile Dick Whitman with the Don Draper persona, the past with the present, and the success of being a top ad men with his growing spiritual emptiness, was certainly interesting to watch, but he always adapted to each new challenge and bad stretch, or found an escape hatch. He was great at always making that bold decision that pulled himself and the firm away from the brink every time, from marrying Megan to merging his firm with Ted Chaough's.

Season six, however, covering the tumultuous events of 1968, was the year that Don didn't bounce back. Instead, we find him forced out by the newly reorganized and renamed Sterling Cooper & Partners, his marriage to Megan on the rocks, and completely unable to maintain the pretense of being Don Draper anymore. On the one hand this is a huge step forward for Don's personal growth, as exemplified by the very last scene of the season, where he takes his kids to go and visit the unsavory ghosts of his childhood. The whole illusion that so much of his life has been built on may be about to dissolve. However, in the process Don has jeopardized both his career and his family, and it's been pretty breathtaking to watch. I love that after a string of bad pitches, it looked like things were about to turn around thanks to the typically Don Draper moves of combining firms and establishing a rivalry with Ted. However, in the finale it's apparent that it hasn't helped at all. The Hershey pitch is one of the best and most obvious theme-underlining moments of "Mad Men," where Don delivers a beautiful, nostalgic campaign idea for Hershey's and then completely subverts it, himself, and the whole business of advertising, by telling the truth. Escape, contemplated in so many ways throughout the episode, is no longer an option.

Don wasn't the only one who had an eventful year. Peggy's story so far has largely been about her rise as a career woman. This season focused on her personal life to a degree we hadn't seen since the first season. Everyone who wanted Peggy to end up with Don got a taste of what that might look like when Peggy has an affair with Ted, a great character who illuminates Peggy's fears that she's become too compromised by her career to have the kind of home life that she wants. After a tragicomic attempt to nest with Abe, her rejection by her biggest supporter at work seems to drive home the message that she can't have it all. The Peggy and Ted breakup over broken promises mirrors the fight between Don and Megan that seems to signal that their marriage is done. But in spite of the reckless affair, I'm still hopeful for Peggy. I love that she's come far enough to have friendly drinks with Pete, that her friendship with Stan survived the poaching of a client, and that she's emphatically taken sides against Don now. Their old mentor-mentee relationship is done too.

And then there's Pete, whose year was about as bad as Don's except that we could all see it coming from a long way off. Trudy's forced him out of the house, the firm has exiled him to California, and his mother's dead. Two of these things are connected to the show's most intriguing new character, Bob Benson, the con artist who spent the season slowly climbing the firm's ladder in Don Draper fashion. Pete's reacted how we expect he would react to all the other calamities this year, except for that moment when he corners Bob, and decides he might make a better ally than enemy. It offers the hope that he can learn from past mistakes and grow into a better person. Of course, this being Pete, the idea blows up in his face and perhaps indirectly leads to his mother's death. And never has a "Mad Men" storyline been so morbidly funny as Pete and Bob's clashing over the gay Spanish male nurse who ends up eloping with the addled Mrs. Campbell. And can you imagine what Pete Campbell is going to look like, operating in California among the hippies next year?

As for the rest, Joan and Roger got backgrounded mostly, though Joan had that really strong episode with Avon and Peggy. Roger keeps getting more world-weary, and I'm looking forward to his resentment of Bob coming to a head. Bob represents the new guard, of course, and may perhaps finally be old guard Roger's undoing. Tap-dancing cyclops Ken, Harry, and Stan were great every time they appeared, but I wish Harry's ultimatum had gone somewhere. There were a lot of these little unfinished threads this season, including Ginsburg's freakout and Dawn's doubts about the firm. There wasn't enough Betty or Sally this year for my liking, but they were used very well. Betty is skinny again, and becoming a better human being, winning over her daughter a little more. As for Sally, her episodes were few, but they were big ones. Her catching Don and the aftermath were instrumental to how Don's story played out this year. My guess is that she'll continue to have a major effect on his actions in the future.

One more season to go. Let's hope Matt Weiner sticks the landing.
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Revolution of "Reds"

If you dig deep enough into world cinema, it's inevitable that you're going to run across films depicting the rise of various socialist movements across the globe, from France's "Grin Without a Cat," to Argentina's "Hour of the Furnaces," to those early masterpieces of Soviet cinema, "Battleship Potempkin" and "October." Here in the West, where socialism is still met with knee-jerk rejection, it can be difficult to remember that in the early days, The Revolution was once viewed in a very positive light by a broad base of passionate supporters, who believed it could change the world for the better. And so it was very surprising to come across Warren Beatty's "Reds," a biopic of the American journalist and radical "red" activist John Reed, best known for writing the book that "October" was based on, Ten Days that Shook the World. Despite being made in the early 1980s, during the highly conservative Reagan era, the film is deeply sympathetic to Reed, and offers a fascinating look at a long forgotten historical figure and American social and political movement.

"Reds" is usually billed first as an epic love story, using the relationship between Reed (Warren Beatty) and fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) as its main throughline. The two meet in Oregon in 1912, and Bryant follows Reed to New York, where she becomes swept up in a community of freethinking artists and intellectuals and bohemians, including playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). The relationship between Bryant and Reed is a rocky one, as Bryant is fiercely independent and finds it difficult to work in Reed's shadow. They attempt to have an open relationship, which proves to be disastrous. Many eventful years later, they travel to Russia to cover the events of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 together, which becomes a major turning point for Reed, radicalizing and politicizing him. It's Reed's involvement with the American communist and socialist movements, and his ties to the Bolsheviks, that eventually threaten to separate him from Bryant for good.

I admit that I had "Reds" in the back of the queue for a long time, simply because of its length. A three hour film based on such obscure subject matter didn't sound appealing. However, I failed to appreciate that "Reds" belongs to that class of old-fashioned historical epics that does such a marvelous job of immersing the viewer in a particular place and time and milieu, and pairing that experience with first rate character drama. The scope and the detail of the recreations of Greenwich Village and revolutionary Petrograd are stunning. The cast is great, lead by Beatty and Keaton at the top of their game. They're so good as a pair of magnetic young artists in love, who can't help but be drawn together again and again, even though they frequently make each other miserable. Their fight scenes are particularly effective, full of politics, philosophy, and the kind of deeply personal invective that only really clever people who know each other very well are in a position to deliver. But more than the intellect, it's the way that the actors capture the zeal of their characters for their cause and their work that makes it so easy to get invested in their lives, even if we know that Reed and Bryant ultimately end up on the wrong side of history.

And that history is never forgotten for a moment. Beatty, who directed, produced, and starred in the film, and shares writing credits with Trevor Griffiths, went to considerable lengths for historical accuracy. "Reds" has a strong documentary element, as the dramatized narrative is interspersed with several snippets of interviews from real people who knew Reed and Bryant, or were otherwise involved in the events depicted in the film. Many were involved with the American Socialist party and other political movements of the day. Credited as "witnesses," the elderly interviewees provide firsthand accounts of their experiences during the era. Some speak to social conditions, some repeat gossip, and the various claims occasionally contradict each other. This serves to bolster the film's portrayal of Reed and Bryant, and remind viewers that their lives weren't so far removed from our own. It's a wonderful technique, one I'm surprised we don't see used more often.

Though Beatty clearly wants the audience to examine its own preconceptions, I think it's important that he never pushes too far. It never feels like he's stumping for Socialism at any point. He plays John Reed as an admirable true believer, but one with plenty of faults and hypocrisies who made some major mistakes, particularly toward the end of his life. As a romance and a biopic, I found "Reds" extremely satisfying. And as a passion project, this is one of those rare beasts where the sky high ambitions of its creator are fully matched by stellar technical and storytelling skill. In fact, this may be the best American epic film I've ever seen.
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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Future of the "Iron Man" Movies?

A couple of minor spoilers for "Iron Man 3" ahead.

It was announced a few days ago that Robert Downey Jr. had signed on to reprise the role of Iron Man in the upcoming "Avengers 2" and "Avengers 3." There was no mention of an "Iron Man 4," though that doesn't rule out the possibility that deals for more sequels may happen later. I know that the ending of "Iron Man 3" looked pretty definitive, and if I had my way it would be the last "Iron Man" movie for a long time, but we are talking about a film that has so far made $1.2 billion dollars in ticket sales alone. Disney and Marvel will be make as many more "Iron Man" movies as they can get away with.

But what if Downey doesn't sign on for any more "Iron Man" installments? Well, right now what this new deal means practically, is that Downey is going still to be Tony Stark through at least 2018, when "Avengers 3" is most likely to hit the big screen. My guess is that "Avengers 3" may be Downey's last appearance as the cinematic Iron Man, even if there is an "Iron Man 4." I don't know if Joss Whedon is going to still be involved at that point, but I expect that we're going to see him permanently retired in some manner (I doubt Disney would allow him to be killed off in traditional Whedon fashion) that sends him off with a bang. At that point Downey will be 53 years old - not too old for another few rounds as a superhero, but old enough that Disney and Marvel should be seriously entertaining the notion of rebooting "Iron Man." There was a five year gap between the two "Spider-Man" movie franchises, and assuming that window keeps shrinking, I don't think it's unlikely that we'll get a new actor playing Tony Stark as early as 2022, four years after "Avengers 3" and fourteen years after the first "Iron Man" movie.

The more important question for audiences is whether this is a good thing. Do we want more Iron Man? And is "Avengers 2," "Avengers 3," and a possible fourth and even fifth "Iron Man" movie how we want him? Well, looking at the four appearances of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark onscreen so far (not counting cameos), I have serious doubts. If you treat the existing "Iron Man" trilogy as a finished series, it's pretty mediocre. Great first film, lackluster second film, and an okay third film. Both the second and third film offer some character development, where Tony has to pull himself out of existential funks, but he doesn't make any major advances, and the status quo is unchanged until the very, very end of "Iron Man 3," where the ending isn't convincing. We already know Tony's going to be back for another "Avengers." Also, the sequels have been relentlessly safe, avoiding the hard partying reprobate Tony we were first introduced to, and staying far, far away from the comic book version who battled alcoholism and other personal demons. It's no secret that Shane Black wanted to adapt the "Demon in a Bottle" arc, but Disney nixed the idea as too dark and kid-unfriendly.

I'm not saying that we need "Iron Man" to get R-rated, but it's been depressing to see a character with so much potential wasted in so many disposable, lukewarm adventures. If we get an "Iron Man 4" and "Iron Man 5," it's only going to get worse, the way that the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have progressively declined. I'd actually prefer seeing an "Iron Man" prequel without the superhero elements, because we would actually be able to see more of the major milestones in his life - Tony meeting Pepper, Tony becoming friends with Rhodey, and maybe even Tony having to deal with the aftermath of his father's early demise. These are the kinds of things that I can't help feeling that the "Iron Man" films should have made time to explore by now, but they haven't. "Iron Man 2" was a particularly egregious example of the franchise treading water and shamelessly taking advantage of the audience's goodwill.

I find I'm more interested in the next "Thor" and "Captain America" movies. "Thor: The Dark World" is at least getting a good villain in Loki, and Thor's long-distance relationship with Jane Foster will be a focal point. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" moves storylines with Black Widow and Bucky Barnes forward, and we should see more of Cap's fish-out-of-water experiences living in the modern day world. I can buy that these superheroes still have a lot of major battles ahead of them that could support big films. I'm sure an "Iron Man 4" could drum up some dire new threat for Tony Stark to tackle, but by nixing most of his usual personality flaws It feels like all of his biggest challenges have already been met. He got the girl. He's faced the demons of his past multiple times. The bad boy was tamed, though mostly offscreen. He's become a better person and has his happy ending.

Too bad Marvel and Disney aren't going to be able to leave well enough alone.
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Friday, June 21, 2013

"Hannibal," Year One

Spoilers for the first season ahead.

I've had such a love hate relationship with this show. On the one hand it's one of the most visually interesting crime dramas on television, thanks to the efforts of Bryan Fuller and crew. The cast is also to die for, with Mads Mikkelsen as an irresistible new version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and good supporting work from Lawrence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, and Gillian Anderson. Hugh Dancy is still not quite up to par, but his performance grew on me eventually. I like that the corpses of the week often make me physical recoil in a way that I hadn't since the weirder episodes of "The X-files." I like that the case-of-the-week format is largely abandoned by the second half of the season to focus on the interactions of the main cast and the fallout of a single case that had been solved in the first episode. And even when it is tracking down guest star murderers, it doesn't play by the rules, paying far less attention to working out the weekly mystery than exploring what the new mystery means for the increasingly tenuous mental state of Will Graham.

On the other hand, "Hannibal" is often a slog, featuring long, long dialogue scenes of Will in psychoanalysis and puzzling his way through the various motives of the murders. The show's cental conflict between the FBI and Hannibal is sometimes wonderfully tense and thrilling to watch, and sometimes feels like they are going around in endless circles, dragging things out. It doesn't help that nobody in this show talks like a normal person, not the agents, not the lab tech comic relief, and not even the teenage girls. Instead, it's reams of obsessive exposition, often in the form of repetitive arguments and interrogations. Aside from Hannibal, everyone seems eager to recite what they're feeling at any particular moment with hardly any cueing. This is necessary for a show that is so concerned with the inner workings of Will's mind and tracking Hannibal's manipulations, but sometimes they lay it on way too thick. Alana and Will's romance predictably goes nowhere because within a few seconds of making her attraction clear, Alana is reciting all the reasons why the pair wouldn't work together, providing a very professional self-diagnosis of all her neuroses.

More troubling are the constant logic leaps the audience is expected to swallow - Jack insisting that Abigail Hobbs should be investigated as an accomplice to murder with hardly any evidence, Will failing to get a second opinion after the mysterious death of his physician, and the remarkably rushed introduction and dispatching of Abigail's best friend who coincidentally looks almost exactly like she does. Lord Dark Helmet once declared that "evil will always triumph, because good is dumb," but this was pushing things. I'm usually pretty forgiving of genre shows, but I do expect the basic plotting to be more solid, especially when we're talking about a show where all the main cast members are highly intelligent FBI agents or doctors or both. I really dislike how Jack Crawford is too often about as perceptive as a brick. If I were to suggest any improvements for next season, it would be to ease up on the "Shining" references and pay more attention to ensuring that the characters' actions make sense.

Last night's finale episode was one of the strongest of the season, though, and provided some very satisfactory payoff to weeks of escalating tensions. I expect I'd like "Hannibal" better if I watched multiple episodes in one sitting, giving the febrile atmosphere more of a chance to work its way into my skull. I may have my reservations about the overly analytical dialogue, but it does fit this heightened, stylized world that "Hannibal" exists in, where the most horrific crimes are often rendered exquisite through Hannibal's dinners and the artfully arranged crime scenes. The show evokes the creeps on very visceral level, but often understated or intellectualized in a way that makes them much more effective. No other horror series I've seen, not even the more graphic "Dexter" and "American Horror Story," has been more consistently disturbing. And as often as it's dull, it can be very clever. I loved the final scene of last night's episode, with that wonderful reversal on the most famous Hannibal Lecter appearance.

And finally, it was all worth it for Mads Mikkelsen's version of Hannibal Lecter, who is one of the best television characters I've met in some time. I'm glad the show's creators haven't been afraid to depart from their source material and expand on the characters in such delightful ways. "Hannibal" is far darker and more daring that I could have every hoped for, and has turned out to be a very good fit for television. I'm not convinced it's as good as some of its fans insist, but I'm looking forward to next year.
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Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Carnivàle," Year One

The opening monologue of HBO's "Carnivàle" promises the tale of a clash between two men wielding the powers of good and evil, the latest incarnations of forces that have been battling each other since time immemorial. However, during the entirety of the first twelve-episode season, we don't get to see that clash, though the two men from the story are eventually identified. "Carnivàle" was famously cancelled after two seasons, so I wouldn't be surprised if the pair never get to face off onscreen at all. Instead, it's better to think of "Carnivàle" as the story of two men struggling to survive during the Great Depression, and to understand the influence of supernatural powers on their lives . Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) is a young fugitive with strange healing powers who joins up with a travelling carnival, the Carnivàle of the title. Brother Justin (Clancy Brown) is a minister who is guided by strange visions and a strong desire to eradicate sin in the world.

The show primarily stays focused on the carnival storyline, which features the the bulk of the series' regular cast. Samson (Michael J. Anderson) the dwarf runs the show, relaying orders from the unseen owner of Carnivàle, known only as "Management." Jonesy (Tim DeKay) is his right hand man, the chief roustabout with a bum leg. Performers include the blind mentalist Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), Lila the bearded lady (Debra Christofferson), Ruthie the snake charmer (Adrienne Barbeau), Gecko the Lizard man (John Fleck), a pair of conjoined twins (Karyne and Sarah Steben), and the "cootch show" striptease troupe, the Dreifuss family, comprised of father Stumpy (Toby Huss), mother Rita Sue (Cynthia Ettinger), an daughters Libby (Carla Gallo) and Dora Mae (Amanda Aday). Finally, there's Sofie (Clea DuVall), a young tarot card reader, who partners with her mother Apollonia (Diane Salinger) to read people's futures. Apollonia is catatonic and bedridden, but has strong telekinetic and psychic powers, and can speak to Sofie mentally. In Brother Justin's storyline, we also meet his sister Iris (Amy Madigan), and his mentor, Reverend Norman Balthus (Ralph Waite).

"Carnivàle" is a slower paced show, more concerned with building up characters and atmosphere than it is about building up any kind of narrative momentum. There are several very strong self-contained episodes, but largely the series is built on incidental moments and small encounters. It's not until toward the end of the season that the viewer can really appreciate the cumulative weight of all these little moments, and come to realize that all these strange carnival folk are now familiar faces in world that seems to be going terribly wrong. The show's greatest achievement is the recreation of the 1930s, the era of the Dust Bowl and Depression, when an apocalyptic mood hung over America. A feeling of encroaching dread also hangs over Carnivàle, as they're plagued by one calamity after another. It's fitting for a show where our main protagonists, Ben and Brother Justin, are constantly fighting their doubts and fearful of the consequences of taking action.

I understand why the show wasn't more popular, because "Carnivàle" isn't nearly as romantic or nostalgic as it sounds from the premise. There's plenty of mysticism and magic, and there are always some good, picturesque visuals to appreciate, but most episodes also spend a significant amount of time showing us the less glamorous side of life on the road and the extreme poverty of the era. The freaks may all be real and the psychics and mystics actually have special powers, but Samson still regularly has to resort to tricks and cheats in order to keep the show in the black and everyone fed. All the characters have their shades of gray and varying codes of morality. On the one extreme you have Brother Justin and his increasingly disturbing sermons, and on the other you have the Dreifuss family and their unorthodox views on sexuality. Perhaps the only real innocent is Sofie, on the verge of growing up, and surrounded by questionable influences.

However, their world is so wonderfully constructed - not just the way it takes care to get the period details right, but the relationships and the intrigues among the carnival workers, and the way that Ben and Brother Justin gradually learn about their powers. For those who are willing to put aside expectations and take "Carnivàle" on its own terms, the show can become engrossing very quickly. I found the storylines with Ben and Brother Justin weren't nearly as interesting as Sofie's growing pains or the Dreifuss's marriage issues or even Samson's peculiar relationship with Management.

After twelve episodes, I'd be happy to see the bigger storylines start ramping up, or if the show just wants to spend another twelve episodes exploring the dusty Midwest, I'm fine with that too. This is one of those media universes where it's gratifying just to be able to spend some time there and consider the possibilities.
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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Way, Way, Way Too Much to Watch

Ah, June. The regular television season is over, I'm down to the last couple of obscure foreign movies from 2012 to track down on home media, and there aren't many movies in theaters right now that I'm particularly interested in. I've decided I can wait to see "Man of Steel," for instance, and I have no interest whatsoever in this "Monsters Inc" prequel. You'd think that would mean I'm taking things easy, right? Well, in years past that might have been the case, but in the age of year-round programming slates and web-based media, I've found that I've fallen very, very far behind in serial media.

Dear readers, you are about to get buried in a flood of TV and web series posts, as I'm looking at a mountain of shows that I need to catch up on and work through. I'm just about done with "Veronica Mars," which I've really been enjoying, but it's eaten up a lot of time. I've also finally had a chance to finish off the first season of HBO's "Carnivale," which I've been watching on DVD off and on over the last few months. Meanwhile, the season finales of two shows I've been keeping up with weekly, "Hannibal" and "Mad Men," are both happening in the next couple of days, you can expect write-ups to follow. Yes, I am also going to get to the third season of "Game of Thrones," once I get through the last batch of episodes I'm supposed to be waiting to watch with somebody. I haven't seen "The Rains of Castamere" episode yet, and believe me, I'm really getting sick of the dodging spoilers.

Beyond that, access issues and bad timing have been a factor. My living situation has been in limbo for the past couple of weeks, forcing me to put off resubscribing to Netflix Instant back in May like I had planned. My list of Netflix shows to watch has now grown to ridiculous proportions. In addition to the obvious titles like "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," I'm also anticipating being able to sink my teeth into the Sundance Channel's "Top of the Lake" with Elizabeth Moss and BBC's "The Fall" with Gillian Anderson. Season 3 of "Louie" should show up in a couple of weeks too, though these things have been harder to keep tabs on since the Netflix API went down. I've also finally started "Downton Abbey," and I fully intend to keep watching, but I'm putting it off until I can really devote some time to it. For anyone who's interested in the show, you'll have to go to Amazon for streaming episodes starting in July, because they're getting the exclusive rights to the series, though the most recent episodes should still be on PBS.org.

And then we have the currently airing series. "Venture Brothers" is back on Adult Swim after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. I've only seen the hour-long premiere episode so far, but it was brilliant. I'm so happy to have these guys back. Also, the last season (until they figure out some way to cheat cancellation again) of "Futurama" is premiering on Comedy Central tonight. The previous season was one of the weaker ones, but I still love the show, and I'm sticking it out until the end. Speaking of Comedy Central, John Oliver has been killing it as the substitute host of "The Daily Show" these past two weeks, though he needs to build up some experience on those interviews. And over on USA, it's the last season of "Burn Notice" too - I can wait for that one to hit streaming, fortunately. However, I don't want to wait to watch the new Stephen King miniseries, "Under the Dome," which starts on Monday night on CBS. Good grief, how long has it been since we've had a decent-looking Stephen King project? Oh, and I'm a couple of weeks behind on SyFy's "Defiance," which continues to be every bit as cheesy and retro as I had hoped

I thought that the last season of "Breaking Bad" was going to start in July, but I was wrong. The premiere date is actually August 4th. Maybe that'll give me time to go catch up on the shows I've been putting off like "Girls," "Veep," and "Dexter," which is also about to go into its final season over on Showtime. I still need to finish the previous season, which just hit DVD. And of course there are all the other shows I've been meaning to start for ages like "Boardwalk Empire," "Once Upon a Time," "The Americans," and "Modern Family." At least I've finally decided to drop "Homeland" from the list. And I know I say this every time, but how long has it been since I've seen "South Park"? That show's still on, right?

Oh hey, that new BBC series "Orphan Black" sounds really cool. Let me pen it in for next October.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tracking More Delayed Movies

There have been several prominent films pushed back significantly from their original release dates in the last couple of months. Big delays are no longer a rarity, since release dates are set so far in advance, and production and post-production timelines can be unpredictable. If a big delay is announced close to the original release date, this usually signals that these films are in trouble, though not always. Last year the "G.I. Joe" sequel got bumped from last June to this March, which didn't seem to hurt its box office earnings. The sixth "Harry Potter" got bumped from a holiday release to a summer one, solely because Warner Brothers wanted another tentpole for that quarter. However there have been others, like "Jack the Giant Slayer," which made a move from last June to this February, and promptly went down in flames. So what films have been getting pushed around the slate recently? And what does it all mean?

"300: Rise of an Empire," was pushed from August 2, 2013, to March 7, 2014, but they released a teaser trailer roughly around the same time that seems to have been pretty well received. The original "300" was a surprise hit in March, 2007, so it makes sense that Warner Brothers would want to position the follow-up in the same timeframe. It's also facing less competition now for the action crowd than it would have in August. "300: Rise of an Empire" looks to be very effects heavy, I'm guessing that it's post-production issues that caused the delay. I suspect the same is true of "Elysium," which is coming in August, instead of March, where it was originally scheduled. Sony is probably hoping it can follow in the footstep of Neil Blomkamp's previous late summer hit, "District 9." Lately March and August have been about on par with each other for generating hits, so neither of these films seem to be any worse off than they were before.

The same can't be said for "I, Frankenstein" a horror/thriller comic-book adaptation starring Aaron Eckhart that got bounced from February, 2013 to September, 2013 to January 24, 2014. January and February are where the movies expected to be bombs are sent to detonate out of the public eye, so it's probably not wise to expect much from this one. "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" was a similar title that was finally released this January after repeated delays, and managed to break even, but nobody seemed to like it much. Also, things are not looking good for Detroit's favorite cyborg police officer. We were supposed to be getting that "Robo Cop" reboot this year, but Sony Pictures moved it back from August to a chilly weekend early February, 2014.

The long delayed "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" was scheduled for October, but it's getting pushed back all the way to next August. By the time it's finally released, it will have been a nine year gap since the original. Something apparently has gone very wrong here, but there's no news yet as to exactly what's going on. I want to note that this is one of several recent sequels and prequels that are trying to jump start franchises for older, and more modest hits. These are a little riskier than most franchise films, which is probably why the studios have been quicker to move them around. Another one in the same vein is "Kick Ass 2," which was originally dated for a prime June slot, but got bumped back to August to avoid some stiff competition.

Wondering where that Steve Jobs biopic with Ashton Kutcher went? It was moved from April to August, apparently for more time to work on marketing strategy after a lackluster premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I don't know how much luck it's going to have as late summer counterprogramming. Meanwhile, the Dreamworks animated feature "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" was moved from this November to next March, escaping a crowded holiday slate and filling a hole left by the repeatedly delayed "Me and My Shadow," which was dropped from the schedule entirely and has gone back into development. Dreamworks Animation's ambitious release slate from the end of last year looked too good to be true, and I guess it was.

However, it's important to remember that delays aren't always bad news. "Captain Phillips," starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a ship hijacked by Somali pirates, was pushed from March to October, in order to position it for Oscar contention. True life caper story "Argo" was also released in October last year, before it went on to win the Best Picture statuette. Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" comes out around the same time, after a delay of nearly a year, and may also be an awards contender. And then there was the under-the-radar "Now You See Me," which Summit was originally prepared to dump in January. Then it got moved to March, and then late May, where it has quietly become an unexpected summer sleeper hit.

Finally, I continue to keep an eye on "47 Ronin," which was originally set to premiere in November of 2012, and is now set for February of 2014 after significant retooling and reshoots. Who the hell greenlit a samurai epic starring Keanu Reeves in the first place?
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Monday, June 17, 2013

"The Hobbit" and Fan Edits

The first trailer for the second "Hobbit" movie was released last week, confirming some of my worst fears. I wasn't too happy with the first installment, "An Unexpected Journey," and now "The Desolation of Smaug" looks like it has many of the same problems. There are going to be appearances by characters who weren't in the book, including Legolas from "Lord of the Rings," and an entirely invented female warrior elf, Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily. Minor character Radagast the Brown, who was my least favorite part of the last film, is back for another round. This means more subplots and digressions and attention taken away from the once straightforward quest story of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves. Even the brief appearance of Smaug the Dragon at the end of the trailer wasn't enough to erase my doubts.

I find myself anticipating a day, probably late in 2015 after all the "Hobbit" movies have been released on home media, when some enterprising Tolkein fan will be able to take the trilogy and edit out all the extraneous, invented content, all the fanservice, and all the indulgences, and carve out a tight, lean, faithful adaptation of the "Hobbit" that will only take a fraction of the time to watch. In short, I want a fan edit, defined by Wikipedia as "a version of a film modified by a viewer, that removes, reorders, or adds material in order to create a new interpretation of the source material." Copyright law prevents legal distribution of these creations, of course, but fan edits have become quite popular in recent years, particularly the efforts of several enterprising fans who have tried to improve the notorious "Star Wars" prequels. One of the earliest and most famous fan edits is a trimmed down version of "The Phantom Menace," known as "The Phantom Edit" that was passed around Hollywood in the early 2000s, created by an anonymous editor who was eventually revealed to be Mike J. Nichols. Now there's a thriving community of fan editors, who have produced alternate versions of everything from "Austin Powers" to "Eyes Wide Shut."

With the growing popularity of video editing software and remix activities like vidding and mashup videos, fan edits feel like a logical extension of the same creative impulse. There are so many films out there that cause consternation among films fans, particularly the most impassioned ones who spot all the little errors and mistakes, and can't help but wish that they could just go in themselves and fix things. Or those who disagree with how a beloved media property has been adapted, and want to mitigate what they perceive to be unfortunate damage. Or those who just want to have some fun and see if they can reintegrate all the deleted scenes from their favorite comedy back into the movie. After all, who hasn't wished they could fix the ending to "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" or that there was a version of "Blade Runner" or "Legend" that just gave you all the footage from all the different cuts? The biggest fan editors are professional directors, of course. George Lucas coming back after twenty years to tinker with the original "Star Wars" trilogy provided the example for many of these fan editors to follow.

Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" franchise has already been targeted by fan editors, of course. "The Two Towers" in particular has always had its detractors, who weren't happy with some of the departures Jackson made from the original novel. I never found these differences distracting enough to impact my enjoyment of this movie, but the "Hobbit" film is a different matter. In my review, I pointed out that it felt like we were watching an Extended Edition cut of the film, with all the extra material that would only be of interest to hardcore fans left in. I was sure there was a good version of "The Hobbit" somewhere in there. Since we already had the Extended Edition, I wondered if Jackson might considering doing a more stripped down, faithful cut as an extra on DVD sets. Instead, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition" is going to be released on home media later this year with an extra 20-25 minutes of footage, and I can't imagine how much more of a slog the film is going to be with even more unnecessary material crammed in.

Fan edits haven't really caught on in the mainstream, but I can imagine them getting more traction if we see more situations like "The Hobbit," where these movies are getting padded out to the point where it's seriously affecting their watchability. I really hope I'm wrong abut "The Desolation of Smaug," and the third "Hobbit" film, "There and Back Again." But if I'm not, I can see myself resorting to fan edits in order to revisit these films in the future - as a new way to just skip ahead to the good stuff.
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Friday, June 14, 2013

"Aeon Flux" and "The Maxx"

Once upon a time in the 1990s, MTV was the home of some of the most interesting experiments in adult-oriented American animation. "Liquid Television" was their showcase for indie shorts that launched several series, including "Beavis and Butt-head." However, I was more interested in the less conventional titles, particularly two shows that I took the trouble to track down when I was in college: "Æon Flux" and "The Maxx." These days animation aimed at adults isn't a rarity. But as much as I enjoy "Archer" and the recently returned "Venture Brothers," it's still these two MTV shows that serve as my benchmark for what mature, ambitious animation can be.

Let's start with "The Maxx," based on the Sam Kieth comics. Though it looks like a superhero story, featuring a titular hero with superhuman powers and a hidden identity, he's not your standard crime-fighter. The Maxx in the real world is a homeless bum, but he also exists in another world linked to his subconscious mind, and perhaps others, called the Outback. The Outback is full of monsters and fantastic creatures, and the Maxx is charged with protecting the Jungle Queen, who in reality is a social worker named Julie. Most of the too-brief series is spent unraveling the various traumas that brought these characters together, and battling the various evils that the Outback is spilling into the real world.

This is a story that could conceivably be told in live action, but it would be pointless. The joy of "The Maxx" is in its wildly exaggerated characters and its anarchic cartoon violence, paired with some very dark and twisted explorations of the human psyche. I saw most of the show in a single sitting, but I expect the individual episodes must have played just as well in their original eleven-minute installments. Despite the more adult subject matter, they have all the energy and the outsized emotion of a purely comic cartoon shorts like "Tom and Jerry" or "Looney Toons," more than enough to make a big impression on the viewer in only a few minutes. What especially impressed me is that the characters feel like real people, underneath all the layers of comic-book fantasy. Maxx fixates on "Cheers." Julie has a feminist streak. Sarah is too miserable even for the Goth crowd. So at the show's core is some really good, solid character drama that is more than enough to make up for the rougher spots.

Moving on to "Æon Fluxx," which was originally created by Peter Chung as a series of five-minute shorts, and then eventually expanded into half-hour episodes. This one took advantage of cartoon logic to some wild extremes. The series is set in a dystopian future that looks like something out of Moebius comic, where the female rebel freedom fighter Æon, dressed in outfits that tend to resemble leather fetish gear, is perpetually at war with the forces of her arch-nemesis (and occasional lover), the dictator Trevor Goodchild. In the original series of "Æon" shorts, the main character died violently in every episode. In the longer episodes, her survival rate was a little better, though none of the endings could be called happy in any sense. As you might expect, there is no continuity of story from one episode to the next, and really no constants aside from the two main characters and the basic premise. One of the best stories doesn't even feature Æon as the main character.

I find it difficult to describe "Æon Flux." It resembles "Heavy Metal" on a surface level, full of sex and violence, but it's far more intelligent, more bizarre, and more ambitious. Watching it felt akin to reading a really good anthology of science-fiction short stories, full of strange existential conundrums and ironic concepts. It's one of the few shows where I honestly never knew where any of the stories were going, where there didn't seem to be any boundaries at all. Not only could Æon die, but she could be fundamentally changed in different ways, depending on the episode. She could really and truly fall in love with Trevor. She could turn out to be from a different universe or reality, or simply a clever ruse that never actually existed at all. Moreover, some of the concepts are so alien, like mind-warping astral beings and artificial consciences, they can be off-putting to sci-fi novices. The animation is particularly helpful here in giving form to some really wild and avant garde ideas.

It's been nearly two decades since these series went off the air, and I've rarely seen anything in American animation that has come close since in terms of sheer daring and maturity. And I find it sad that they've become so obscure now, and that few people remember or reference them when talking about television animation. Sure, "The Simpsons" and "South Park" undeniably had the most impact in the 90s, but they weren't the only trailblazers. And I hope that someday we'll be in a time and place where commercial animation can venture down that path again.
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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Hello Hollywood Meltdown

Recent remarks by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been widely reported over the last day or so. The two directors were speaking at a USC film event, and made some predictions about the future of the entertainment business - current trends would result in more projects being produced for television, theatrical films becoming a niche product, cinema visits becoming more expensive, and the internet eating into everything. It's nothing that others haven't been predicting for a while now, but to hear it out of the mouths of two of the most high profile commercial directors working today gave it some extra oomph, particularly the details. Spielberg revealed "Lincoln" was nearly an HBO movie, despite his sterling reputation. Lucas expects to see the rise of high priced movie palaces offering luxury viewing experiences akin to a night out at a Broadway show.

The bit that got my attention was their prediction that there is going to be a "massive implosion" at the studios in the near future. Because the studios are so risk averse, and they've been increasingly reliant on these big, expensive tentpole action pictures, film slates have become less diverse and audiences are eventually going to lose interest. We've already been seeing some signs of superhero fatigue that seem to support this. According to Spielberg, at some point we're going to see a group of these high-priced franchise movies all bomb at once, leading to another paradigm shift for the industry. Think of a half dozen "John Carter" sized failures in the same year, forcing the studios to rethink their strategies. There were some predictions that it might even happen this summer, since we have an extraordinarily crowded slate with seventeen major films that cost over $100 million apiece, but only about half are expected to generate enough profits to justify their cost. Two of the biggest potential bombs with major production woes, "World War Z" and "The Lone Ranger," are still ahead of us.

To some degree I think that this may be wishful thinking, because the creative community is sick and tired of the factory assembly line approach to making these big films. However, the success of this approach has been clearly established. Globally, the top ten films with the highest grosses of 2012 were all franchise films, and they were eight of the top ten domestically. Franchise movies are largely critic proof, have viewers who are remarkably tolerant of bad product, and are easy to market. Some of the most anticipated upcoming films haven't shot a frame, but are being hyped up for simply being part of successful franchises - the new "Star Wars" and Marvel universe films in particular. However, I do see a slowdown coming a couple of years down the line, maybe after 2015 when a few more of these huge projects have been disappointments, and fans will have to adjust their expectations. I don't see the Marvel Universe movies continuing to be successful indefinitely, especially after Robert Downey Jr. inevitably leaves the Iron Man role and we start getting into the Phase Three movies featuring more second stringer superheroes. And while I'm hopeful about the new "Star Wars," it's important to keep in mind that the franchise is aging rapidly, and the hardcore fans have already been burned before.

If the implosion happens, what are the films that are going to be responsible? Well. over the past decade we've seen the studios test the limits of the audience's goodwill over and over again. They've prolonged finite series like "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" with extra installments, shortened the reboot cycle with "The Amazing Spider-Man," and turned out memorably awful cinematic dreck like "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." How much are people willing to take? Where will they eventually reach a breaking point? It's hard to say, but so far, the biggest bombs have been would-be franchise starters like "John Carter" and "Battleship," and all the big potential bombs of this summer look to fall into the same category. My guess is that this is where we're most likely to see that speculated crash happen. The current major franchises are inevitably going to end, and they'll need replacements. If Hollywood is unable to come up with enough new properties to keep feeding to the tentpole assembly line, the whole thing falls apart. We already saw a small scale version of this in the summer of 2010, when titles like "Prince of Persia," "The Last Airbender," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and "Robin Hood" failed to get much traction. These were underperformers rather than outright bombs, but if the budgets had been higher and the competition rougher, the damage could have been much worse. More recently, there's been a trend of giving smaller, cheaper hits like "RED" and "Kick-Ass" the franchise treatment, hoping they'll grow into something bigger.

The other big possibility is the series that people have lost interest in, which isn't easy to discern until the box office totals start dropping, and by that time it may be too late. The third "Transformers" movie and the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie both made plenty of money, but I worry about the upcoming sequels. They're both bound to be expensive, but nobody I know has much interest in either franchise anymore after too many increasingly lackluster sequels. In trying to squeeze the last bit of interest out of these film series, the studios may be setting themselves up for a fall. Eventually we're going to see somebody miscalculate how many people are actually willing to fork over money to see the next generic franchise superhero movie or the next generic franchise ensemble comedy movie, and have to eat a major loss. Audiences are predictable, except when they're not. Who would have guessed at the beginning of the year that the latest "Hangover" would be trailing "The Great Gatsby" at the box office?

I tend to agree with Spielberg and Lucas that it's exciting watching this all unfold, and considering the wealth of filmmaking possibilities that could be right around the corner. However, right now we're still firmly in the age of the blockbuster behemoths, and they're not going down without a fight. I think their ultimate conquest is far from certain.

But if it does happen, oh what a sight it'll be.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Oz," the Shiny and Colorful

I had very low expectations for "Oz, the Great and Powerful," the recent Disney prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," that reveals how the Wonderful Wizard first came to the Land of Oz. That's probably why I had a fairly positive experience with it. I consider myself a big Oz fan, who has a lot of history with the franchise and its various spinoffs, including "Wicked." "Oz, the Great and Powerful" is exactly what the marketing makes it look like: a big, shiny fantasy spectacle with far more style than substance. It doesn't do a very good job of keeping in the spirit of the original Oz films and books, but if you're just looking for some good family entertainment, it works perfectly well as goofy, whiz-bang fun.

We first meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco) as a Kansas carnival magician, who styles himself as Oz, the Great and Powerful. He's a con-man, a womanizer, and a cheat, but yearns to be a great man. Fate steers him into a hot air balloon that gets sucked into a tornado, sending Oscar to the Land of Oz. There, people mistake him for a Wizard, who has been prophesied will save Oz from destruction. He meets new friends, including a talking winged monkey, Finley (Zach Braff), a porcelain China Girl (Joey King), and three beautiful witches named Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). The question of whether these witches are bad or good is central to the story, and as you might have already guessed, one of them turns out to be the famous Wicked Witch of the West.

The plot is a mess, and though all the actors involved are competent, it's hard to escape the feeling that several of them have been terribly miscast. James Franco, for instance, does not deliver a bad performance by any means, but it doesn't quite fit the bigger, larger-than-life feel of the rest of the movie. Similarly, this version of the Wicked Witch only works if you keep in mind that this is a younger, not yet fully-formed Wicked Witch, and thus very different from Margaret Hamilton's take on her. I expect for many Oz fans, this portrayal is going to clash terribly with their childhood memories of the character. Because of the different kind of story being told here, and because Disney had to take pains to avoid evoking MGM's "Oz" too closely, there's also a much more generic feel to the fantasy land.

At the same time, the execution of the spectacle is so well done, it makes up for a lot of these flaws. Disney couldn't take anything directly from "The Wizard of Oz," but it does pay homage to it through many, many references, large and small. The most obvious is that all the Kansas scenes are shot in sepia tones, and use the old 4:3 aspect ratio. It isn't until Oscar arrives in Oz that the film changes to color, and the picture transitions to full widescreen. The visuals are designed to reminded viewers of the saturated Technicolor look that gave those first Munchkinland scenes so much impact. It's a treat to watch Oscar explore the gorgeous Oz landscape, including a fantastically vibrant Emerald City. The CGI effects work is especially good, creating two major characters, Finley and the China Girl, who are convincing as any of the human beings onscreen.

The hand of director Sam Raimis is only apparent in the odd frame, since this is such an obviously Disney-controlled product. However, you do get some of his twisted sense of humor here and there, most notably in the tornado sequence. His visual style, with the long tracking shots and horror movie angles, is also apparent if you're paying attention. This helps to keep "Oz, the Great and Powerful" from looking too much of a piece with similar films like Tim Burton's "Alice and Wonderland." There are constantly interesting things to look at. Even if the story wasn't holding my interest, I wasn't bored for an instant. And after the recent blitz of summer action films that hurtled along at breakneck speeds, it was nice to have several sequences in "Oz" where you could really sit back and take in all the gorgeous graphics at a more leisurely pace.

There are a lot of things I wanted from a new Oz movie, and "Oz, the Great and Powerful" didn't give me as many as I was hoping for. However, it does make me feel very positive about the future of Oz on film. Clearly Disney put a lot of effort into making this one look good. If they put half as much effort into the story and characters for the next one – and it's looking good that we'll get a next one – it could really be something special.
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Challenge of "Exotica"

There are great movies that aren't well known due to age or reputation, but the ones that always get to me are the ones that are obscure because of their subject matter. In my experience, viewers tend to put their guard up around films that have even a hint of pornographic intent around them. And so we come to Atom Egoyan's "Exotica," which takes place largely in a strip club of the same name, and features several scenes of young women taking their clothes off and dancing. I don't want to downplay the fact that there is sex and nudity in the film, and the director is counting on the audience to react to these elements in certain ways, but there's lot more going on under the surface.

The plot of "Exotica" is told in a piecemeal fashion, where important information and context is revealed gradually, often through flashbacks or fateful conversations. We have to learn about the characters and untangle the meanings behind their actions as we go along. First there's Thomas (Don McKellar), an awkward young man who we first see going through customs at an airport. Then there's Eric (Elias Koteas), announcer at the Exotica club, who sometimes gets a little too personal on the microphone for comfort. He's particularly fixated on one of the dancers, Christina (Mia Kirshner), which worries the club's owner, Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian). Finally there's Francis Brown (Bruce Greenwood), a regular at Exotica, who also employs his niece Tracey (Sarah Polley) to "babysit," though we learn quickly that there's no baby.

Figuring out how all of these different characters connect to each other is satisfying, but the real strength of "Exotica" is in the way it explores and illuminates their inner lives. Though I've made it sound complicated, the sequence of events is simple and easy to follow. It's why events play out the way that they do, and why particular characters react in certain ways that are the biggest mysteries. Like Egoyan's more well-known feature, "The Sweet Hereafter," "Exotica" centers around loneliness and grief, and the way that different people cope. Despite moments of darkness and violence, I found the story to be remarkably sensitive and empathetic. I like the way that this film treats sex work, suggesting that the motives of the parties on either side of the transaction may be quite different from what we assume. I like that the characters are shown to be fundamentally kind and protective of each other, even if they have other motives that can also lead them to also treat each other badly.

"Exotica" has a unique atmosphere about it. The pace is slower and environments are unremarkable, putting all the focus on quiet conversations and private encounters. The club, for instance, is not exactly an inviting place, but you can see why it's alluring to a certain kind of clientele. Everything is low-key, allowing an emphasis on sensuality over raunch, passion over venality. The cheap furnishings and jungle decor somehow only add to the mystique. Christina uses Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" as her theme music when she performs, and the deep, melancholy, baritone vocals seem to reflect the primal subconscious desires of her customers. There's so much sexuality in the film, but the parts that most mainstream media tends to forget about - intimacy, comfort, and no small degree of solace.

The cast is full of familiar faces who do some of their best work here. I can't praise Elias Koteas enough, who looks very close to the way he did in the "Ninja Turtles" movies, but is playing a soulful, damaged man who offers up hypnotic monologues on human nature. Then there's Don McKellar, whose character is hiding multiple secrets behind a shy exterior, and is at his most expressive when he's not saying anything. Bruce Greenwood's Francis is the most enigmatic of the leads out of necessity, and it's difficult to dislike him even when he's in situations where we can only assume the worst. As for Mia Kirshner, I'm surprised that I haven't seen her in much since this film, because she shows so much promise and maturity.

This is the first film in a while that genuinely surprised me by making some terribly brave choices that I wasn't expecting. It's not an easy film to approach, but it provides such a great viewing experience, one I'm a little at a loss to compare to anything else. I found "Exotica" far more rewarding than many of the films I've seen that use a similar narrative structure, such as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," and Michael Hanneke's "Code Unknown," for the simple reason that in "Exotica" it doesn't feel like the narrative is a gimmick. And the only reason I can think that it's less well known than those titles is because its surface themes make it seem so unapproachable.

I think it's well worth taking the risk to see for yourself.
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Monday, June 10, 2013

The June 2013 Follow-Up Post

If you're new to my follow-up posts, these are a collection of brief updates on topics I've previously written about, but that I don't believe require an entire new post to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience. Doing one of these every six months has been working pretty well, but there's been a lot going on lately, and I'm finding I have more than enough content to shorten that interval a bit.

"Doctor Who Prepares For a Milestone - If you haven't heard yet, a few days after I wrote about the season finale of the latest season of "Doctor Who," we got the bombshell announcement that Matt Smith would be leaving the role of the Doctor after this year's Christmas special. Now we're in the midst of another round of speculation about who the next Doctor is going to be. Will we get a black Doctor? A female Doctor? Personally, I'm still reeling from the suddenness of the announcement. I really like Smith in the role, and it feels like he's been here for less than no time at all. Three series is a perfectly respectable tenure though, and I can't begrudge the actor for wanting to move on. Still, if it were up to me I'd pick an older actor for the next round, so playing the Doctor won't likely to be a stepping stone to better career opportunities.

The Next Movies Becoming TV Shows and Amazon's Pilot Experiment - I talked about five pilots that were being considered for television series: "Beverly Hills Cop," "About a Boy," "Bad Teacher," "Zombieland," and "The Joneses." Well, two are headed to TV and three are not. "About a Boy" is on NBC's fall schedule, and CBS has "Bad Teacher" for midseason. Bravo passed on "The Joneses," and CBS passed on "Beverly Hills Cop," a surprise since it was one of the most high profile projects this year. There was mention of it being shopped around to other networks, but I haven't heard anything yet. Meanwhile, the "Zombieland" pilot was part of the Amazon Instant Video experiment, where feedback from the general public was solicited as part of their development process. According to writer/producer Rhett Reese, we "hated it out of existence." Instead, Amazon will move forward with political comedy "Alpha House" and Silicon Valley themed "Betas."

Bring on the Movie Musicals! - Did I call it or what? "Beasts of the Southern Wild" star Quvenzhané Wallis will be headlining the new version of "Annie" opposite Jamie Fox, and it's already scheduled for a Christmas 2014 release date. The other musical project that's seen a lot of movement in the past few weeks has been "Into the Woods," which is being put together by Rob Marshall for Disney. So far Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Blunt and Christine Baranski have been named as potential castmembers. This is shaping up to be a big one, though I'm a little worried about the vocal chops for the actors who have been cast so far. Meanwhile, it was announced today that Clint Eastwood is going to direct a big screen version of "Jersey Boys" for Warner Brothers.

Disney Buys Lucasfilm?! - I've written quite a bit about the development of the new "Star Wars" films, but it's important to remember that the "Star Wars" franchise isn't just the films. So while everyone has been enjoying the speculation over what J.J. Abrams is doing, it should also be pointed out that in the same period of time Disney has put the brakes on nearly all the remaining "Star Wars media. They cancelled Cartoon Network's "The Clone Wars," in favor of developing a new Disney Channel cartoon currently titled “Star Wars Rebels,” set to premiere in 2014. Game company LucasArts has been gutted, and projects like "Star Wars 1313" cancelled. EA has landed a deal to exclusively develop future "Star Wars" video games. However, there are rumors that Disney thinking about resurrecting that live-action "Star Wars" TV series. Maybe they could pair it with "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Finally, a couple of programming notes. I've decided that I'm going to blog write-ups for each individual episode of the last half-season of "Breaking Bad," when it comes back in July. I've never tried this with a television series before, and I figure this is good one to start with since I'll definitely be watching every episode very close to the time they air (through iTunes), and there are only eight episodes left. I'm pretty close to finishing "Veronica Mars," and I'm evaluating what series to move on to next. "Carnivale" looks like a pretty likely contender, and then "Dead Like Me." Finally, I want to do another round of review-a-day posts similar to last year's July Experiment. It'll have to be in the fall at the earliest though. I've been thinking about solely writing about revisiting films I've already seen, though I don't think I could sustain that for a whole month.

I'll keep you updated.
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Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Favorite Yasujiro Ozu Movie

Yasujiro Ozu movies may be difficult to approach at first. They appear to be very culture-specific, because they deal primarily with the domestic lives of the Japanese, and often feature unfamiliar social customs. However, the stories always come down to universal family relationships, usually those of parents and their children. Major conflicts are rarely in play, but there are often difficult situations or troubling circumstances that have arisen which cause the characters considerable worry. Ozu films are about ordinary people, living out ordinary lives, but they can be very absorbing, and have great emotional impact.

There are certain films that need a little life experience on the part of the viewer in order to appreciate fully. I've found that this is the case with many of Ozu's films, because they often feature older characters, and they're very leisurely paced. The atmosphere is as important as the developments of the plot. Ozu's most famous film, "Tokyo Story," is about an elderly couple who encounter difficulties when visiting their adult children in the big city. Their feelings of displacement are conveyed as much through shot composition as they are through the performances and dialogue. And then there's my favorite Ozu film, "Late Spring," about a father and daughter pair who must face the question of the daughter's future.

The situation is one that Ozu examined many times in many different films. The beloved daughter has grown up, and it's time that she got married and started her own family. In "Late Spring," Professor Shukichi Somiya (Chishu Ryu) is a widower who has lived only with his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), for many years. Noriko is now in her late twenties, but whenever the subject comes up she insists that she's not interested in marriage. Her father and many of their acquaintances are starting to worry about her prospects. They set about discovering the reason for Noriko's feelings and seeing if they can be changed. Potential matches are discussed, meetings are arranged, and finally the truth about Noriko's reluctance is discovered and addressed.

Ozu films appear to be very slight on the surface. In "Late Spring," the action is limited to a series of conversations and everyday occurrences. However, the lives of the Somiyas are changed forever by what is ultimately decided. These are not important events in the larger scheme of things, and it's easy to imagine that this situation is a fairly common one in families with children of a certain age. However, in the moment, as we live out these events with these specific characters, the drama is remarkably affecting. We get to know Professor Somiya, a kindly, older man with a pleasant temperament. Like many of Ozu's heroes, he's very polite and unassuming, willing to listen to the advice of others, and deeply concerned about the welfare of his daughter. Then there's Noriko. Setsuko Hara is such a cheerful, warm presence, and gives Noriko a winning personality and easy charm.

I was a little wary of "Late Spring" before I watched it, because the idea of getting a daughter married off for her own good seemed a rather retrograde and unpleasant idea. However, story wasn't nearly so simple. The real love story at the center of the film is between the father and daughter who have depended on each other for so long, and are both reluctant to part ways for different reasons. It's their relationship that is the heart of the matter, one that has to change in order for both of them to move on as they must. Ozu portrays their struggle as a natural turning point in both of their lives, one that is as inevitable as it is painful. And he does it with such sensitivity and such candidness, in such a straightforward way.

After seeing many more of Ozu's films, I've grown to appreciate their lightness of tone, and easygoing, minimalist style. His shots are always perfectly constructed, but static. The camera almost never moves, and cuts are carefully employed. Most stories take place in the modern day, set in middle class and lower class homes, which are always made to look peaceful and inviting. There's something very relaxing about watching an Ozu film, knowing that the people will always be friendly and talkative, the scenery will always be picturesque, and though there may be some tears shed, life will go on as it should in the end.

I'm glad I first watched "Late Spring" when I was in my late-twenties, when I could identify very strongly with Noriko and all of her worries about moving on into a new stage of life. I expect that in a few decades, I'll be able to watch it again, but this time with more appreciation for the father's point of view. I'm actually looking forward to it.
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What I've Seen - Yasujiro Ozu

I Was Born, But... (1932)
Only Son (1936)
Late Spring (1949)
Early Summer (1951)
Tokyo Story (1953)
Equinox Flower (1958)
Floating Weeds (1959)
Late Autumn (1960)
The End of Summer (1961)
An Autumn Afternoon (1962)
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Saturday, June 8, 2013

My Top Ten Episodes of "Angel"

Well, I've done "Buffy," so it's only fair that her ex should get a list too. A quick disclaimer that I know I've seen every episode, but most of those were at the time of airing over a decade ago and I haven't revisited most of them in a while. Picks are arranged by airdate, and are not ranked. Lots of spoilers ahead:

In the Dark - "Angel" leaned heavily on crossover episodes with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the early going, when it was still trying to find its footing. Faith was a great recurring villain, and Wesley, Spike and Harmony would join the cast more permanently. The first crossover remains one of my favorites, the one where Spike rolls into town to cause some trouble. The opening scene alone, where Spike offers his own snarky narration to Angel's hero activities, is worth a watch. And there's another fun "Buffy" cameo at the end.

Hero - The character of Doyle the half-demon was a big part of the first season, and his departure was one of the show's first milestones. Though it was sudden, Doyle goes out in a much more satisfying way than most characters in Joss Whedon shows, on his own terms. It was also a good reminder that nobody on the show except the title character was safe. My only quibble isn't with this episode itself, but the lack of impact on subsequent episodes - I think Doyle was only mentioned again once after this.

Darla - The counterpart to one of my favorite "Buffy" episodes, "Fool for Love," which aired the same night and shared several plot points and flashback scenes. The episode covers Angel and Darla's history together as vampires, told through the recently re-ensouled Darla's fever dreams as Angel is trying to rescue her from the clutches of evil law firm of Wolfram and Hart. The jaunts into the past are a lot of fun, especially the appearances by other familiar faces including Spike, Drusilla, and even the Master.

Billy - It took a while for Fred to grow on me, and I think that was helped along by Wesley being so smitten with her. "Billy" marks the first of many missteps in their romance, where a man named Billy who can induce violent misogyny in other men causes Wesley to nearly kill Fred. It's a strong character episode for both of them, and nicely incorporates a real-world fear. Also, this one features one of the better appearances by Wolfram and Hart villain Lilah, who gets to show her more vulnerable side.

Lullaby - Honestly, this one's only on the list for the ending, which is one of the most memorable death scenes I've ever seen on television. It's a pretty chaotic episode, with Darla in labor, Holtz on the warpath, and the gang still grappling with the implications of the prophecy baby. Julie Benz really delivers as Darla, wrapping up the whole Angel-Darla relationship in truly epic fashion. There's also the great use of demon bar host Lorne, who would become a regular in the next season, but was already acting like one here.

A New World - Everybody hated Vincent Kartheiser as Connor, right? Well I didn't, at least not for his first appearance as a teenager, just returned from a hell dimension to confront his father. The episode is a great introduction to the little hellion, especially in the way that it gives us a different perspective on the "Angel" universe from his point of view and sets up all these new quandaries for Angel. At ths point it wasn't clear how Connor was going to fit into the show's existing dynamics, which brings us to -

Shiny Happy People and The Magic Bullet - Yes, I'm cheating, but I think of these two as a single story. I really disliked most of Season Four and where it took Cordelia and Connor. However, the climax of the storyline with Jasmine nearly taking over the world and briefly enslaving the entire cast was a lot of fun. "Buffy" and "Angel" featured several different flavors of apocalypse, but this is one of the most intriguing versions. Also, it gave Fred a chance to be the hero, which never happened enough.

The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco - I know several people who hate this episode, but I can't help lighting up with glee at the thought of it. There's just something so goofy and wonderful about Angel teaming up with a Mexican luchador named Numero Cinco from a family of number themed luchadores to fight evil. I know that Ben Edlund wasn't in any way involved in this episode, but it feels like a live action version of "The Tick" - moreso than the actual live action version of "The Tick"!

Smile Time - I'm a sucker for theme and gimmick episodes, and so we have to have the episode where Angel gets turned into a puppet version of himself while investigating an evil children's show. Season Five is far and away my favorite year of "Angel" because they finally settled into a format that worked, and found a good balance between the genre elements and the soap opera elements. And they started to really embrace the ridiculous. Like puppet Angel's hysterical brawl with Spike.

Not Fade Away - The finale episode frustrated me to no end when I first saw it, because it ended on a cliffhanger and they killed off my favorite character to boot. However, there's so much good stuff here, so many good character moments and resolutions and callbacks that acknowledged how much the show had changed over the years. I don't think there was a better way for "Angel" to go out, with everyone still fighting the good fight, even though I'm still disappointed that it didn't get to continue.
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Friday, June 7, 2013

Hitting the Wall With "Homeland"

This is my second attempt to start watching "Homeland," the much awarded, much praised Showtime drama that became a great big deal when it premiered two years ago. The first time around, I watched the free episode that was released when the show first premiered. Not impressed, I didn't give it another thought until all the accolades started rolling in and I started getting recommendations from friends. This time around, I got through another episode, but I still have no desire to go any further. To put it bluntly, the show bothers me on several levels.

Damian Lewis stars as Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a Marine who was held captive by Al Qaeda for eight years before being rescued and returned to the United States. Worried that Brody might have been compromised during his time as a POW, a CIA intelligence officer, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) begins a one-woman campaign to watch his every move with the help of the CIA's surveillance equipment. She spends much of the first two episodes installing and then utilizing all manner of hidden cameras and microphones to spy on Brody, his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin), and their two children. When she's not doing that, she's busy trying to justify her actions and the intense level fo scrutiny to her boss, David Estes (David Harewood) and her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). Carrie's ultimate goal is to track down the terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), who Brody was in contact with during his imprisonment.

I don't have an issue with the basics of this premise. The subject matter is timely and the ideas are intriguing. However, I have no patience with the typical, unrealistic complications that have been included to add more drama. It's not enough that Carrie is an underdog at the CIA, obsessing over a threat that only she seems to believe is there. No, she has to be bipolar and emotionally unstable too, constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown. Sure, it's believable that Jessica Brody would have had an affair that now has to be kept under wraps since her husband has returned from the dead. But did the affair have to be with his very best friend Captain Faber (Diego Klattenhoff)? I found it difficult to watch these episodes of "Homeland" and not see all the seams and the structuring, all the little things designed to make the show more tense and exciting, while at the same time making it feel like generic Hollywood product, completely undermining its believability.

I think part of the problem is that I know that this isn't how intelligence gathering really works, and it's jarring to see the procedures being flaunted so flagrantly left and right. I have this problem with police and lawyer shows too, though my brain has learned to treat them as fantasy after years and years of exposure. "Homeland," however, makes many overtures toward being more realistic than other spy media, but it doesn't make quite enough of them. When I'm watching it, I'm stuck in this odd mental place between the starkly candid "Zero Dark Thirty" and the obviously fantastical James Bond movies, not clear on how much real world logic is applicable to the events I'm seeing unfold. The universe seems similar to the dodgy one that "24" used to inhabit, with more nudity and profanity because this is a premium cable show. I don't think the adult content helps much. It just makes the whole story feel more tawdry and salacious.

I can see how "Homeland" could get much, much better, and I'm sure that it does eventually. However, I find myself totally disinterested in what it's shaping up to be. To me, "Homeland" looks like another paranoid, gung-ho military fantasy about chasing down mysterious terrorist threats and unraveling plots set in motion by evil foreigners - and like so many other films and television shows in the same vein, it feels exploitative, reductive, fear-mongering, xenophobic, and downright distasteful at times. I find it very hard to get any entertainment value out of this as a result. There's too much focus on visceral thrills and emotional turmoil, to the point where the elevated tensions feel very artificial and contrived. Playing up and twisting real-world fears about terrorism like this makes me extremely uncomfortable, especially where there's no grounding context to speak of, and the subject matter is such sensitive stuff. I'm guessing the story will get more nuanced, but the terrible old cliches are killing it right now.

What's worse, I don't find a single character likeable or intriguing enough to want to see more of. Sure, I like all the actors involved here, and I'm thrilled for Claire Danes that she got to sink her teeth into such a substantial role at last. She's great as Carrie Mathison. However, I have no interest in watching Carrie Mathison continue to obsess about Sergeant Brody. I don't care what happens to him or his wife or the kids who look nothing like their mother. The only character I find sympathetic is one of Carrie's intelligence assets, who is almost certainly going to get herself killed off soon in a way that imparts the maximum amount of trauma and guilt on Carrie. And you know what? I don't particularly want to watch that happen. Maybe after I finish off a few more shows and I'm in the mood for something darker I can try to suck it up and tackle "Homeland" again.

But not today.
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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Don't Worry About Will Smith

Boy, Will Smith is having a rough week. I haven't seen so much vitriol aimed a a mainstream movie since "John Carter" came out. Everyone in the media seemed to be falling over themselves to pronounce Smith latest, "After Earth," a bomb, well before any actual box office numbers came in. Reviews were largely negative, but they weren't "worst movie ever" bad, as I saw some Twitter users claiming over the weekend. Few people were talking about the actual content of the movie, but plenty were talking about the Smith family being Scientologists (which they've denied), M. Night Shyamalan being a hack, and the obvious nepotism of giving Jaden Smith such a large role in the movie. It seems a lot of people have beef with the Smith family, and they've been taking the opportunity to vent their spleen.

From a business standpoint the important part is that "After Earth" will likely spell the end of Will Smith's unprecedented box office streak that made him the king of summer blockbusters for more than a decade. Since 1996, every summer film he's starred in has made over $100 million domestically. However, Smith has been noticeably slowing down lately. Since 2008, he's only done one other film, "Men in Black 3" which brought in a decent, but unimpressive $170 million. His next will be Akiva Goldsmith's "A Winter's Tale," a smaller project where he only has a supporting role. Smith doesn't have any other big blockbuster-type films confirmed at the moment, and the worry is that if he doesn't put in more appearances at the top of the box office charts soon, his star wattage is going to take a serious hit.

Will Smith is one of the last of the real A-listers, the Hollywood leading men who can be counted on to open a picture. He still commands a big paycheck and has a lot of clout on his projects because people will still go to see a movie solely because he's in it. "After Earth" would not have been made without him, and certainly not with such a sizable budget. I think it's easy to see what went wrong here. Columbia, figured that lots of special effects and Smith's presence would be enough to convince moviegoers to show up, and some of them did. However, they didn't count on the negative effects of the movie also starring Jaden Smith, who audiences have never really warmed up to despite his high profile. Then there was director M. Night Shyamalan, whose name wasn't in any of the marketing, making it look like the studio was trying to hide his involvement. Worst of all, Smith wasn't playing a typical wisecracking, charismatic Will Smith character, but a dead serious authoritarian figure.

The audience had a lot of doubts from the reactions I saw to the trailers, doubts that were never adequately addressed. When the bad reviews started coming in, suddenly it was an excuse for everyone who ever had any complaint with the Smiths or Shyamalan or Scientology to start pushing back against the marketing hype. We had multiple articles with conspiracy nuts looking for Scientology messages in "After Earth" (none of them very convincing), dissections of Shyamalan's career woes, and endless speculation about Will Smith's parenting skills. It's doubtful that audiences are going to trust a Will Smith movie to be synonymous with a good time after this. "After Earth" may be the equivalent of Tom Cruise's couch-jumping moment on "Oprah" all those years ago, when the facade cracked and we started seeing the actor as a fallible human being instead of our favorite movie star.

Of course, Tom Cruise movies still do very well, and his career has been fine. "Oblivion" had a similar science-fiction premise to "After Earth," and it did decent business. However, Cruise's name doesn't have the same cachet that it once did, which is why the marketing department had to work a little harder, and they made sure that Morgan Freeman and all the spiffy CGI were featured in the trailers too. I don't think Smith should have any trouble getting back on track. He's only 44, and has a lot of photogenic years left. Another "Bad Boys" sequel ought to fix things right up. Also, the biggest complaint with "After Earth" in the end seemed to be the nepotism, which may be obnoxious, but much more understandable than Cruise's couch-jumping anti-mental health care antics.

Then again, we have to ask whether Smith wants to keep being king of the summer box office. He came up with the story for "After Earth," and we can probably assume that his character, Cypher Rage, is the kind of part that he's more interested in playing these days - darker, cooler, and more mature. It might be time for him to move on to another stage of his career and start looking at more diverse material. Personally, I'd be happy to see him making smaller, riskier movies like "Six Degrees of Separation" again, which I still think is best performance. Or maybe he's happier off the screen these days than on it.

But I don't see any reason to worry about him. All the biggest movie stars have had a few flops in them, and there are probably going to be far worse ones this summer. Stay tuned.
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