Saturday, August 31, 2013

Incoming Fall Premieres

The 2013-2014 network television season will soon be upon us, and it's full of ambitious projects. As much as the draw and the influence of network TV has decreased recently, with cable and web offerings taking up more and more of the spotlight, the networks are still default for the mainstream and a good barometer for the rest of the industry. So I thought I'd give you a quick rundown on the new series that I'm the most interested in keeping an eye on this year.

Sunday - NBC's midseason contender, "Believe," is a supernatural genre show. Alfonso Cuarón created this one with Mark Friedman for J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, and that's enough to get me to take a look. It's being paired with the action thriller, "Crisis," which is firmly a maybe, because Gillian Anderson has signed on as one of the leads, but the threat of annoying teenagers is high. ABC's "Resurrection" features the dead returning, but in non-zombie form. Lots of good talent attached to that one, but it's one of those open-ended mystery shows that could just end up going around in circles..

Monday - CBS sitcoms "We Are Men" and "Mom" feature several actors I like. Jerry O'Connell, Tony Shalhoub, and Kal Penn, will be commiserating divorces in "We Are Men," while Anna Faris and Allison Janney will be a bickering mother-daughter pair in "Mom." NBC's crime serial "The Blacklist" reads kind of generic, with its evil mastermind teeming up with law enforcement to prevent major crimes, but it does have James Spader and Harry Lennix. Over on FOX, though, is the promising "Almost Human," a Bad Robot sci-fi series about a cop teamed up with a robot. Former "Fringe" writer J. H. Wyman created it, and the cast features Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Lili Taylor, and Mackenzie Crook. And I have to at least get a look at the pilot of "Sleepy Hollow," which just sounds goddamned ridiculous, but maybe in a good way.

Tuesday - "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the Marvel cinematic universe spinoff about the further adventures of Agent Coulson and minions, is being overseen by various Whedons and Whedon-in-laws. It's inevitable that I will watch this, having been a fan of every other Whedon TV show so far, and an unapologetic defender of "Dollhouse." Not much else on Tuesday to get excited about, but I will be reviewing FOX's "Dads," the Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi comedy that turned in a pilot that is currently causing a great deal of controversy for having a lot of racial humor involving Asian stereotypes, reportedly in extremely poor taste. Yeah, Asian Solidarity obliges me to give this one some attention. Ironically "Dads" is being paired with "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," a police comedy with Andy Samberg that is getting some of the most positive attention this season.

Wednesday - I'm cautiously excited about ABC's "Super Fun Night" sitcom with Rebel Wilson and Liza Lapira. Wilson's been great in everything I've seen her in lately, and I'm willing to give her girls-having-shenanigans sitcom the benefit of the doubt for a couple of episodes. The CW is remaking the old British kids' series, "The Tomorrow People." Sadly, it looks exactly like the typical CW young-people-with-powers show. Might get a watch for some of the cast, though. But I can't say the same for NBC's remake of the detective series "Ironside." Did we really need another "Ironside"? With Blair Underwood? Really?

Thursday - And here's where things escalate quickly. Robin Williams in CBS's "The Crazy Ones" is going head to head with Sean Hayes in NBC's "Sean Saves the World," which is leading into Michael J. Fox in "The Michael J. Fox Show" up against "Two and a Half Men." Also, Greg Kinnear's coming to FOX in lawyer show "Rake," and we're getting a "Once Upon a Time" spinoff, "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," which looks oddly similar to "Sucker Punch" from the previews. I always liked "Alice in Wonderland" though, and this might be some good for some romance-fantasy fluff. Still, what I'm most interested in on Thursdays is finding out when "Community" and "Hannibal" are coming back.

Friday - NBC has become the go-to for genre programming on Friday nights. They'll be pairing "Grimm" first with "Dracula," from the creators and a couple of the stars of "The Tudors." I didn't like "The Tudors" much, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers is finally playing a vampire, and that should be fun. Then in the midseason we're getting the pirate series "Crossbones," from British writer Neil Cross. It also has John Malkovitch playing Blackbeard, which guarantees I will watch the whole thing, knowing nothing else about the show.

I'll be picking pilots and premieres to review from this bunch. Also, I am working on how to do similar summary write-ups for cable shows, which is more difficult because they don't have the same development schedule. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Happy watching!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hitting Delete

My laptop decided it was no longer interested in functioning like a rational computing machine a few days ago, requiring me to upgrade my operating system to something more current. In the process I had to move everything off my hard drive, which has around 100 GB of storage capacity, to a spare removable drive that was around 32 GB. I was 20 GB over, and didn't have the time to try any alternate online options. This meant I had to clean house.

As you might expect, video files were responsible for the bulk of the clutter. I have some personal videos, but the real problems is that I have a habit of saving videos from the internet I like, especially when it's not certain that I'll be able to access them again. I've got a pretty big collection of fan-made Anime Music Videos (AMVs) from my otaku days, for instance. There's no formal distribution for these things and creators can disappear off the face of the earth without warning, taking their content with them. Because of the legal gray area these works exist in, a fan-made video posted on Youtube might get suddenly pulled down or rendered unwatchable on without any warning. I've made Youtube playlists to bookmark interesting fan videos, and came back after a few months to find half of the entries removed. There are a couple of dedicated archives devoted to AMVs and fanvids and mash-ups, but these can disappear quickly too. The only way to be sure you'll be able to access to fan-made content whenever you want is to hold on to a copy, just in case.

Of course, I didn't just save fan-made content. I kept a brief four-minute clip from a 2005 episode of "The Daily Show," where one of my old employers made an appearance (incorrectly identified, to our office's amusement). It's currently available through the Comedy Central website, but who knows for how long? The clip is part of a rambling opening monologue, not the kind of content that can be bundled onto home media and sold, as "The Daily Show" has done with some of their other pieces. Viacom could decide at some point that it's not worth their while to keep the eight-year-old clip online, and I'd lose the proof of a near-brush with fame. Lots of other memorable content is ephemeral and often hard to access after the initial broadcasts - commercials, award ceremony clips, idents, news reports, talk show segments, specials, local programming, and more. And there are always those obscurities that never make it to home media, or quickly go out of print. "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam," the famous 1960s underground anti-Vietnam protest cartoon resurfaced online a few months ago after decades of rumors and whispers about who might still have one of the rare prints. Better make a backup copy, before it disappears again.

Then you come to the realization, as I did, that this is hoarding behavior. Most of my fears about losing access to all this content are unfounded. The Internet has done a great job of preserving all sorts of unlikely media bits and pieces, just waiting to be stumbled over and rediscovered again. More and more old movies and shows find their way to some kind of official release every day. With the new prevalence of streaming services, the costs have come down across the board. Many of the long-forgotten shows I watched as a kid are on Netflix and Hulu right now. The fan-created content has also been making plays for increased legitimacy, and it's exceedingly rare that something worthwhile will disappear without a trace forever. In fact, I keep coming across kids sharing older AMVs that have been in circulation for over a decade by now.

So I commenced the long-overdue purge of my hard drive. I dumped the clips I knew I was never going to rewatch. I dumped everything that was high-profile enough that I was confident I'd be able to find them online again, with a little digging. Official music videos, movie trailers, election season parodies, and most of the commercials went into the Trash Bin. Goodbye, epic Blackcurrant Tango advert. So long, "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam." I still kept that "Daily Show" clip, though, and a good chunk of the AMVs - many of them unlabeled or mislabeled to such an extent that reassembling the collection would have been a massive undertaking. In the end I cleared out enough to transfer the rest to the external drive with a lot of room to spare.

Inevitably I'll fill up the hard drive again, and I'll have to clean it all out again at some point in the future. But considering how much fun I had this round, going back and revisiting all that content, I'm not too worried about it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Making Peace With the Rumor Mill

One of the major entertainment news stories today is the debunking of the rumor that Bryan Cranston is being courted to play Lex Luther in the new Batman v. Superman movie, a claim that seems to have originated at the shady Cosmic Book News site, and then was inexplicably picked up by Rolling Stone and snowballed from there. This happened, despite the Cosmic Book News story being full of unlikely details, like Ben Affleck supposedly being signed on for thirteen appearances as Batman, and Matt Damon being in the running to play Aquaman. Oh boy. Meanwhile, Latino Review keeps jawing about casting rumors for the next "Star Wars" movie and insists that some big announcements are coming soon. Whether those announcements have any truth to them, or are completely made up doesn't seem to matter to the fans.

I'm complained at length about the rumormongering surrounding big franchise movies before. However, watching the Bryan Cranston item play out over the last few days, I don't think that there's any meaningful way to fix this problem. To explain why, I'm going to use the news aggregator site Reddit as a stand-in for the larger internet. All the content on Reddit is user-submitted or linked to with the appropriate crediting, each item displayed in an order determined by "upvotes" and "downvotes" from Redditors. The real fun is in the discussions attached to each item, where individual comments are also governed by upvotes and downvotes. I use the site frequently and I'm a fan of how they do things, but there are some significant downsides to democratizing the content. Over and over again I've seen obviously false or erroneous items reach the top of the front page, on the strength of sensationalized titles. I've watched misinformation spread through discussions where hundreds of people upvote a comment that sounds good, but may be completely wrong. Corrections or questions about the source of the information can often be buried way down the page, where few people ever see them.

This is the way the internet works too. Users gravitate toward sensationalized content, toward exciting and familiar names. A website like Cosmic Book News can upload complete nonsense, and the nonsense will get page hits if it's talking about the right subject matter. It's not hard to see why the Bryan Cranston rumor took off. The story about Ben Affleck being cast as Batman last week was huge, and Cranston's "Breaking Bad" has been getting lots of attention for its ongoing final season. Cranston being cast as Lex Luthor doesn't sound too unlikely. "Breaking Bad" has wrapped, so Cranston should be available for big film roles. It's not until you actually read the story that the fakery becomes obvious, and of course many of us never bother to. If one legitimate publication like Rolling Stone fails to fact-check before it prints the rumor, these things can spread like wildfire through the whole mainstream media. The temptation to jump into the speculation before the studio returns your calls can be irresistible. People want to write about it because everyone else is writing about it, and those pagehits sure are shiny.

Reddit has mechanisms in place designed to counter this to some extent. There are moderation teams that are quick to remove posts from self-promoters, slap "Misleading Title" tags on questionable content, and keep a close eye on contentious topics. Commenters are good about self-policing too, calling out people who post stolen content, voicing skepticism for unlikely claims, and often providing vital context. However, there are many, many instances where these counterefforts are to no avail and the bad information spreads. Despite multiple debunking stories being posted around the internet today, I can guarantee that there are a lot of Batman fans out there who still think that Bryan Cranston is playing Lex Luthor, because they'll pay attention to the juicy rumor but overlook the retraction. Remember the rumor about all six James Bond actors appearing onstage together at the last Oscars? That one was debunked weeks before the ceremony, but I still ran across plenty of disappointed viewers on Oscar night wondering why Sean Connery hadn't shown up.

Don't think you're the type to fall for these kinds of rumors? Well, I did. I saw the Cranston rumor posted on Reddit without attribution, and while I hadn't seen anything about Cranston being in talks with Warner Bros. on my usual entertainment news sites (Deadline, Indiewire, Filmschoolrejects) it sounded believable. There are always rumors floating around about the biggest blockbuster movies, and some of them turn out to be true, like Vin Diesel talking to Marvel about being in "Guardians of the Galaxy." I didn't bother checking sources or reading the Reddit discussion (which did point out that it was a rumor), because frankly I'm not all that interested in what's going on with the new Batman and Superman movie at this stage, and too many of these early news items and rumors have obnoxious spoilers attached.

It's important to remember that this far out, when these big movies are still in pre-production, everything is up in the air. Actors get cast, but they can also get recast. Directors get fired. Scripts get rewritten. The studio executives can still cancel the whole thing if they want. Nobody knows what the final product will look like, not even the guys in charge. So there's very little harm in speculation and fake stories at this point because it doesn't really affect anything, and debunking is easy. All Warner Bros. has to do is put out a press release saying Lex Luthor will be played by so-and-so, and we all start talking about who's going to play Alfred or Robin or Lois Lane. And this is why Cosmic Book News and Latino Review keep getting away with it.

The rumor mill is an annoyance, but honestly not a very big one. And it's good at keeping me on my toes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Pain & Gain" is the Best Michael Bay Movie

I despise the "Transformers" movies. They pander to a sensibility completely contrary to my own, with their adolescent male obsessions with hot chicks and sleazy self-obsessed heroes. Through a combination of poor timing and rotten luck, I've been obliged to sit through all three "Transformers" movies so far. And yet, I often liked the Michael Bay action spectaculars of yore, particularly "The Rock" and "The Island." When I heard that Bay had signed a deal to direct the fourth "Transformers" movie in exchange for being able to make a smaller, original project, "Pain & Gain," I was cautiously optimistic. Would we get the old, more restrained Michael Bay back? The answer is no, definitely not. However, "Pain & Gain" is by far the best and most bizarre Michael Bay movie ever.

Miami body-building professional and con man Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) decides that his quickest path to the American dream is to abduct one of his fitness clients, a scuzzy rich man named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and make him give Daniel all his money. The plan is half-baked, but with the help of fellow body-building pals Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Noel (Anthony Mackie), Daniel goes ahead with it. This leads to a string of unlikely events, that private detective Ed DuBois (Ed Harris) is charged with piecing together to discover the truth. Also in the mix are the gang's stripper associate Sorina (Bar Paly), an underhanded gym owner John (Rob Corddry), Noel's naughty nurse girlfriend Robin (Rebel Wilson), and Ken Jeong as motivational speaker Johnny Wu.

"Pain & Gain" is based on a real series of crimes that happened in the '90s, which the film is keen to remind the audience of at a key point in the film. It is heavily fictionalized and exaggerated, though, making the three dunderheaded perpetrators far more likeable and outrageous than they were in real life, and playing up the oddity of their crimes. Even cursory Googling about what actually happened makes it clear that Michael Bay's version bearbears little resemblance to reality. There's been some controversy about the recklessness with which Bay has made claims about the film's truthfulness, but considering how easy it is to find out what really happened, I don't think there's much negative impact on the experience on the film itself, where the parts that actually are true are hard enough to swallow as it is.

Also, Bay's approach to the film is so over-the-top and so high-voltage, "Pain & Gain" cna't be anything but self-parody. It gets a lot of mileage out of poking fun at a variety of badass action movie tropes. Here the criminals are in many ways the prototypical Bay heroes: overgrown, immature, musclebound, and self-entitled. They pant after scantily-clad women and have terrible impulse-control. They spin elaborate tales of self-aggrandizement, based on the common narratives of American success: capitalist self-actualization, spiritual enlightenment, and salvation through newly forged family ties. The heinous nature of their crimes is attributed more to stupidity and carelessness than any real malice on their part. Still, there's no question that Bay thinks these guys are utterly awful human beings.

The self-awareness also extends to the rest of the film. If you thought Bay's recent output has been crass and crude and spent too much time ogling the female form, "Pain & Gain" pushes it to comedic extremes. Partially naked ladies and sex paraphernalia are a full-blown visual motif, appearing all over the film. The writing nails the attitude and the mindset of a certain breed of hypermasculine American male. Our bodybuilder protagonists talk like they never leave the locker room, their dialogue laced with testosterone and self-improvement catchphrases. The violence is either ineffectual or cringe-inducing, played for laughs as often as it's played for thrills. Even the filmmaking takes potshots at itself, making constant use of the frenetic, MTV-style editing that Bay made famous in "Armageddon."

The actors are all great sports. Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie make fools of themselves with gleeful abandon, but there are scenes where they are genuinely frightening in their ignorance and amorality. Dwayne Johnson's does an absolutely brilliant twist on his usual screen persona, starting out as the most friendly, empathetic, and soft-hearted of the trio, and then spiraling out of control as drugs and delusion take hold. And then there's Tony Shalhoub, playing one of the most unlikeable scumbags to every grace a Michael Bay film, and considering the scumbag quotient of the "Transformers" films that's saying something.

"Pain & Gain" is no masterpiece. It's over-eager and transparent in its aims. The content is terribly self-indulgent, even if it is supposed to be satirical. There are tone and story issues, and a couple of places where the filmmaking choices are as bizarre as the crimes being depicted. It frequently feels like Michael Bay is trying too hard and overreaching, but it's heartening to see that he is trying. "Pain & Gain," weird and flawed as it is, has some admirable ambitions. It's actually about something besides easy entertainment and excess for the sake of excess - though it is very entertaining.

And it's also the best damn thing Michael Bay has ever made.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fanfiction and the Movies

The big screen adaptation of "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" hit the screens last weekend, and has not been well received, but has lead to some interesting discussions about fanfiction and film. Many reviewers have latched on to the factoid that "Mortal Instruments" had its origins in "Harry Potter" fanfiction, back when author Cassandra Clare went by Cassandra Claire, and made Draco Malfoy the hero of her fanfiction stories. Well, whether they were entirely her stories is debatable, but let's save that for another time.

In "Mortal Instruments" Draco became Jace and Hermione became Clary, much in the same way that "Twilight" heroine Bella became Ana and Edward became Christian in "Fifty Shades of Gray." The new characters are distinct, but the echoes of their origins are hard to escape. I've seen some writers use the video game term "expy" to describe them, short for exported character, where the template of a previous character is used in a new scenario with only superficial changes to create a new one, often filling the same role in the new story. Officers Stephens and Ramirez in "The Dark Knight," for example, are slightly altered versions of Batman universe mainstays, Bullock and Montoya. While expys can become full-fledged, independent characters with a little effort, the term is often used negatively, applied to those characters who are easily recognizable as being a rip-off or a reworking of someone familiar. You'll see the more blatant ones used as cameos or homages, which is when they seem to work best.

No surprise that critics are decrying "Mortal Instruments" for being derivative, many taking the time to tie the film's weaknesses to the fact that its source material was fanfiction, and pointing out all the elements that came from "Harry Potter." I find this unfair for a couple of reasons. First, Hollywood movies have long been guilty of turning out derivative films full of derivative characters. Think of the dependence on certain big name actors who keep playing the same roles over and over again. Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington play minor variations on their most usual movie personas in most of their action movies, only breaking out the real acting chops for Oscar season. Think of all the rom-coms with interchangeable plot complications. Think of all the "Twilight" and "Potter" clones that weren't based on fanfiction. The familiarity was probably a big factor in getting the "Mortal Instruments" movie made in the first place. Studio executives love being able to boil down concepts into references to earlier hits, so "Mortal Instruments" being "Harry Potter" crossed with "Twilight" was almost certainly a selling point. And when they get their hands on more off-the-beaten-path source material, like "The Dark is Rising" or "The Golden Compass," they tend to dumb them down do everything possible to make them look more generic and familiar.

Fanfiction and Hollywood would seem to be a match made in heaven, except that's a misunderstanding of what fanfiction is for. Sure, fanfiction is derivative in that it depends on existing characters and concepts for effectiveness, but it's transformative of these elements rather than slavishly repetitive. The whole idea is that fan stories use the existing characters in ways that the original authors can't or won't. The best fanfiction is often the wildest stuff - deconstructions, subversions. parodies, crossovers, alternate universes, genre experiments, and metatextual commentary. Part of the reason romance fanfiction is so prevalent is because many popular characters come from media that isn't inclined to provide much romance to an audience that can't get enough of it. While "Mortal Instruments" may have its roots in fanfiction, it's not fanfiction. It shed the concept of turning a recognizably villainous character into a hero when it became original fiction, and stopped engaging with the original "Harry Potter" text. Instead, "Mortal Instruments" is better described as yet another in a long line of "Potter" clones.

Mainstream movies, dominated by endless franchises that only allow stories to move forward at an incremental pace, that keep remaking the same properties over and over with only minimal differences, are antithetical to the anarchic creative urges responsible for the best fanfiction. Occasionally Hollywood makes movies that do qualify as fanfiction - "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," "Oz the Great and Powerful" - but it's only rarely that you find one that really gets the point, like "Inglorious Basterds" or "Cabin in the Woods." A proper "Harry Potter" fanfiction movie would follow the "Potter" kids twenty years in the future trying to deal with middle age problems, or retell events from Luna Lovegood's point of view as a musical satire, or reveal the secret affair that was going on the whole time between Professor McGonagall and Professor Trelawny, or at the very least add a few sex scenes. If "Mortal Instruments" is to be counted as "Harry Potter" fanfiction, it's the worst kind - a boring, uncreative, unchallenging retread of terribly familiar ground.

And with a Mary Sue heroine too. Tsk, tsk.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Confessions"

Spoilers for everything up through this episode. And we have some doozies this week.

Let's talk a little bit about Jesse Pinkman. The title of next week's episode is "Rabid Dog," and it's no secret anymore who that's referring to, after one of the most visceral cliffhangers that "Breaking Bad" has given us in a while. Jesse's been a passive player since he quit the business after the train heist, directionless and adrift. Tonight he's no longer passive. He's been given purpose, a reason to finally unleash his building rage. Hank tried to give him that reason, but in typical Hank fashion was too eager and too transparent. As jaded as Jesse's become about Walt, it's easy to forget that the two of them do have a long history together and Jesse is nothing if not loyal, especially against an old and familiar enemy.

And he nearly let himself be shipped off to Alaska out of that loyalty. After finally calling Walt out for "working" him, Jesse essentially forgave him for killing Mike. He once again let Walt manipulate him with a show of paternal affection and concern, in the same way Walt manipulated Junior earlier in the episode. I love that the writers got us to invest in the possibility of Jesse's escape, the most appealing option he's been given after weeks of guilty purgatory. And at the very last second, the dog abandoned at the side of the road finally put two and two together. I thought the truth about Brock (and or Jane) was going to come from Hank, but Jesse putting it together himself is far more satisfying, and turns him into a wild card with his own agenda. I think he might still team up with Hank at some point, but right now Jesse's rage is burning way too hot for him to be thinking rationally.

Aaron Paul was the MVP of the hour, the first time this season he's really been given substantial material to work with. With the beard, he looks so much older and more haggard this year, but Paul's still as intense and vulnerable as ever. I love it when he gets to play off of Bryan Cranston in Heisenberg mode, and we got one of the best of their confrontations tonight. Their relationship has been warped from the start, but it can still be touching. Bob Odenkirk was also in rare form, the closest we got to comic relief in this episode as the increasingly nervous Saul. I found it tremendously upsetting to see him on the receiving end of real violence. Even though Saul is a ratfink and an enabler for Walt, he's essentially a bystander who stays out of the action. Then again, it was a great way of upping the stakes. If Saul could end up covered in blood, anybody in this show could be next.

Hank, meanwhile, has been outmaneuvered. He strikes out yet again with a potential witness, Jesse this time, and Walt's latest tactic represents a new low that caught me by surprise. The taped confession is another narrative feint, revealed to be a threat after the stony taqueria meeting between the Whites (wearing light clothes) and the Schraders (in dark clothes). This is possibly the most frightening thing that Walt has done yet. He's not threatening to kill Hank, but to destroy his life – his reputation and livelihood – and shamelessly twisting the facts to do it. The message is clear: if Hank is willing to destroy his family, Walt's taking Hank down with him. Hank and Marie watch the video in shock, much in the same way that I'm betting most of the audience was. And of course when we see Walt, he doesn't seem bothered at all by the enormity of the lie, and I like that it's suggested that this is why his performance on the tape is so convincing. Note that it's clearly weighing on Skyler, though.

So Hank's been temporarily stonewalled while Walt deals with the immediate threat from Jesse next week. We also can't forget about Todd and Uncle Jack, who made a brief but threatening appearance at the beginning of the episode. Todd is yet another loose end that could implicate Walt in major crimes that he's forgotten about, one who is proving worryingly loose-lipped. It'll be interesting to see how this storyline ends up affecting Walt, which seems peripheral for now, but won't stay that way for long. Finally, though Walter Jr. has reappeared, he still doesn't know about Heisenberg. However, they've built up the reveal to the extent that it's got to be a major plot point in the weeks to come.

Finally, one of this week's random pop culture reference is Hello Kitty, a beloved symbol that depends on the harmonious interaction of White and Pink. That's kinda fitting, yo.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The Fall" is Fantastic

"The Fall" is a five-episode serial recently produced for television by the BBC. At first glance it's similar to many other crime dramas. A serial killer is on the loose in the area, preying on women who fit a certain profile. A sharp detective, an outsider with few allies, does her best to find him before he can kill again. The fact that the detective is a woman is no longer unusual, but the fact that it's a female detective acutely aware of the gender politics of the killings and her own uneasy place in the police hierarchy is something rare. Minor spoilers ahead for the first two episodes, just to be safe.

Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) comes to Belfast to review the recent investigation into the death of a young woman. She's warned by Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch) that things are different in Northern Ireland, and suggests that she is unprepared. Soon the death of one woman becomes three, after an earlier crime is linked and another victim, Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), is identified. We know from the start that the killer is a man named Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a bereavement counselor who has a busy wife, Sally Anne (Bronagh Waugh), and two young children. Spector appears to be a normal, decent family man, but is driven by terrible sexual impulses and obsessions.

"The Fall" is chiefly comprised of a pair of character studies of Spector and Gibson, on opposite sides of the investigation. Spector juggles his nocturnal criminal activities with work and family obligations. He's constantly tempted by other women in his life, including Liz Tyler (Séainín Brennan), a mother he's counseling through the death of her son, and Katie (Aisling Franciosi), the flirty teenager who babysits his children. Gibson is soon involved as a witness in the death of a local detective she slept with, resulting in a political quagmire and potential scandal. The investigation continues to hit bumps and mistakes are made. The crimes escalate in due course, but the show is in no particular hurry to reach any sort of resolution or confrontation, more interested in the inner lives of its characters. The events of the series would have likely been compressed into a single episode by most other crime dramas. And that's precisely what makes it worth watching.

I found Gibson fascinating. She seems totally unflappable at first, taking charge and issuing orders with ease and authority. She is sexually forward and makes no apologies for it, coolly undercutting any attempts to shame her for her after-hours activities. She also matter-of-factly reminds those working on the case (and viewers at home) to refrain from making value judgments about the victims, something I can't remember seeing in any similar media without it coming off as haranguing. She's so smartly written, in a way that's conscious of all the gender and social issues that must surround a woman in her position, but without letting her character become beholden to them. It's one of the best roles Gillian Anderson has ever had, and I'm so glad she's appearing in more high-profile projects lately. I've missed her.

The approach to Paul Spector's portrayal is also unusual, one that spends as much time looking at his good side as it does at his bad side. We learn that Spector is a caring father who goes to great lengths to hide his proclivities from his family. He is a quiet man, protective of children in general, and has a strong sense of morality and justice. When he suspects his patient Liz may be being battered by her husband, he goes to visit her at home, unannounced. Sometimes he's put in situations that invites us to mistake him for a flawed hero, a sympathetic rule-breaker that we could root for. However, he is also unequivocally a monster, as we see in the gut-wrenching crimes he perpetrates. Jamie Dornan portrays both sides of Spector easily, and is especially good about getting across his pride and self-righteousness.

In some ways "The Fall" feels like a prequel to a larger series, the way it holds back from the usual plotty twists and turns of most investigation stories and ends in a place that seems to anticipate further installments. And sure enough, the BBC recently announced that a second series of "The Fall" has been commissioned for next year. I look forward to seeing more of Gibson and Spector, but part of me wonders if they shouldn't have left well enough alone. Part of the effectiveness of "The Fall" is that it doesn't follow the template of your average crime serial, and that it doesn't go where the audience thinks it will. I've seen so many similar shows come and go, but "The Fall" stands out for all the right reasons.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Obligatory Ben Affleck is Batman Post

Big casting news out of Hollywood yesterday. After some rumors that Warners was trying to lure Christian Bale back to the role, they've announced that the new Caped Crusader, making his debut in 2015's "Man of Steel" sequel, will be played by Ben Affleck. I wasn't paying much attention to the casting speculation, but this is a choice that demands some commentary. I'm disappointed, but not for the reasons that you might think.

Affleck is a decent actor and looks the part of Bruce Wayne, which is all that's really necessary for him to play Batman. You don't need to be a decorated thespian to be a good superhero - "Captain America" and "Thor" prove as much. Affleck's previous turn as a crime fighter in 2003's "Daredevil" was nothing to be ashamed of, and people forget that he was considered a contender for the role of Superman back in the 90s. And he did put on the blue tights briefly for 2006's "Hollywoodland," a period thriller where he was cast as the jaded '50s Superman actor George Reeves. Sure, some of the fans are upset about the Affleck's casting, but some of the fans are always upset. I expect Affleck is perfectly capable of turning in a decent performance as Batman, and have no objections to him on those grounds.

So why am I disappointed? Because Affleck just came pretty damn close to getting nominated for an Oscar for directing "Argo." Over the past few years, he's proven that he's far more valuable to us as a director than as an actor. I know he's continued to take other acting gigs, like appearing in "To the Wonder" for Terrence Malick and the upcoming thriller "Runner, Runner," but I'm worried that being a leading man in a big franchise film, and everything that comes with it, are going to take his attention away from the kinds of projects that are better served by his talent. How is this going to impact "Live By Night," the adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel that he was putting together with Leonardo DiCaprio? What about his rumored Revolutionary War film, "Bunker Hill"? Scott Cooper has already replaced Affleck on the big screen adaptation of "The Stand"? And I can't imagine that Affleck only signed on for one movie, so how is that going to affect his other potential projects further down the line?

I'd be much more excited about the "Man of Steel" sequel if it had been announced that Affleck was directing it, instead of starring in it. Remember, Affleck turned down a chance to direct a possible "Justice League" movie last year. I'm not thrilled when I see promising directors who have made a name for themselves with smaller films getting involved with the studio franchises, but at least Justice League" would have given Affleck a chance to stretch a little as a director, tackling a big blockbuster action movie after a string of mostly realistic, serious dramas. I'm still waiting for him to show a more range, though "Argo" was a step in the right direction. Affleck being behind the camera would have also made me more excited about the prospect of a Batman and Superman movie than I am at the moment. I understand why Warners wanted him for "Justice League," since Affleck's style is a good match for the starker Christopher Nolan style that defines the current DC movie-verse. Instead, we're probably going to end up with Zack Snyder again, and while I know he's getting better, he's still a director I have some serious issues with. He's still an action junkie in the worst way.

I have to wonder why Affleck said yes to Batman, after expressing dissatisfaction with superhero roles in the past. Warner Bros was instrumental in "Argo" getting made, so saying yes to Batman definitely helps Affleck to cement his relationship with the studio, and that may result in their backing some of his future, non-franchise films. Over at Forbes, Scott Mendelson goes into this possibility in more detail. Like the recent Michael Bay deal that got Paramount to pay for "Pain in Gain" in exchange for Bay directing "Transformers 4," this could be a move that ensures Affleck gets to make his own pictures on his own terms.

I also suspect that Ben Affleck took the role because he just likes acting, which accounts for him casting himself in the lead roles of two of the three movies he's directed. And that's fine, because he's not bad at it. He's not great, which I've felt has held back his work to an extent, but he's always done an acceptable job. As for playing a superhero, on the one hand he's got his artistic credibility to uphold as a serious filmmaker, but on the other hand, it's Batman. What red-blooded American male doesn't want to be Batman?

So put the pitchforks away. It could have been a lot worse. Ben Affleck deserves a chance to show us what he can do, though I wish were talking about him behind the camera instead of in front of it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Chill of "Top of the Lake"

Small towns full of dark secrets are a mainstay of mystery dramas and crime serials. We expect broken families, shady cover-ups, and a wary, insular community where the hero or heroine has few allies. All this applies to "Top of the Lake," set in the fictional town of Laketop, New Zealand, which true to its name sits at the top of a deceptively beautiful and dangerous lake. What distinguishes the seven episode miniseries is the involvement of writer-director Jane Campion, who created and wrote the show with Gerard Lee, and shares directing duties with Garth Davis. Campion is best known for "The Piano," and "Top of the Lake" is another insightful exploration of women caught in restrictive relationships and oppressive social roles.

Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is visiting her dying mother, Jude (Robyn Nevin) in Laketop, where she grew up. She's drawn into the investigation of a local twelve-year-old girl, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), who tried to drown herself in the lake and turns out to be several months pregnant. When Tui disappears, the main suspect is Tui's father, Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan), a cruel, tyrannical man who lives with his grown sons in a guarded compound, and exerts a great deal of influence over the rest of the community. Other suspects include a convicted pedophile (Jacek Koman), and a boy named Jaime (Luke Buchanan) who was friends with Tui. The last people to have seen Tui are the members of a troubled women's commune, lead by a spiritualist named GJ (Holly Hunter), living in shipping containers by the lake. Robin gets some help from the police, chiefly her supervising officer Detective Al Parker (David Wenham). Matt's youngest son Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), who is Robin's old high school boyfriend, also comes to her aid.

The first several episodes are slow and moody, but when "Top of the Lake" starts picking up the pace, the revelations come fast and furious, with uncommonly strong impact. This is the most satisfying take on the "small town full of secrets" premise that I've ever seen, because all of these secrets are devastating, and never treated like they're anything but devastating. Usually there's an illicit thrill to learning the awful truth in crime dramas, but this is not the case in "Top of the Lake," where the central crime is the sobering rape and abuse of a twelve-year-old, and the goal of the heroine is trying to prevent the situation from getting worse. The writing is intelligent, and expects intelligence from its viewers. Many truths are implied rather than stated, and there are major loose ends that are never addressed, but we get enough information to draw our own conclusions. I also appreciated the very strong, emphatically female point of view. Laketop is dominated by a highly patriarchal social structure, and violence against women is common. Robin has to treat nearly every male character as a potential threat, a mindset I've never seen brought to the screen so well. Yet most of the antagonists are humanized and sympathetic to some degree.

All the performances are terrific, with Elisabeth Moss doing a superb job in the lead role. Robin is as damaged as anyone else in Laketop, something we only learn gradually, as old wounds are reopened and events escalate. The twists and turns of the plot are familiar, and would be unbearably melodramatic if not handled right. However Robin is assertive at work, but professional, able to consider Al and Johnno as potential love interests while keeping the investigation her top priority, and when she does become emotional, it's not self-conscious. She's reminds me of Gillian Anderson's Agent Scully from "The X-files," usually cool and collected, but able to summon some real emotional fireworks when necessary. And then there's the terrific menace of Peter Mullan's Matt Mitchum, whose violent rages and mercurial moods make him a ticking time bomb in every scene. We know that Matt and his sons are murderers from very early on, but the police have no evidence and the Mitchums are confident that they won't be caught, having gotten away with so many other unspoken misdeeds.

"Top of the Lake" is one of the most beautiful pieces of television I've seen this year, with its bleak, stunning cinematography of the New Zealand mountains and lakes and wilderness. There's something very old-fashioned and highly effective about its quietness and its lack of visual bombast. It gives Laketop an atmosphere of chilly unapproachability, and raises the specter of older, more primal fears. It's also one of the most ambitious shows, presenting thoughtful examinations of gender roles and gender portrayals, tackling sex and violence and victimization with startling maturity.

This is one of the first major pieces of original content to be distributed by the Sundance Channel, and "Top of the Lake" is a perfect match for their emphasis on independent and world cinema. I hope we'll see more like it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The American Edit

Two of the films I've been anticipating this year are Bong Joon-Ho's science-fiction action film, "Snowpiercer," and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fantasy romance "Mood Indigo." They've already both been released in their home countries, South Korea and France. As is the norm with foreign features, they won't reach theaters in the U.S. for some time, probably not until next year. "Mood Indigo" doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet. However, recent announcements have just vastly lengthened that wait time by several months at least, and maybe more. "Snowpiercer" is being distributed by the Weinstein Company, which sent around a press release a few weeks ago revealing that they would remove roughly twenty minutes from the 125 minute running time. Australia's Vendetta Films, which is handling "Mood Indigo," recently followed suit, announcing an international version of the film trimmed from 130 minutes to just 94.

Sadly, this isn't rare. Over the course of film history, many films have been pared down due to studio demands, often resulting in multiple versions. And it has to be acknowledged that sometimes the shorter cuts are better than the longer ones. The most famous examples is "Cinema Paradiso," where Harvey Weinstein trimmed over fifty minutes and the film became a critical darling, racking up awards and praise. However, just as often we end up with something like the American version of "Shaolin Soccer," also distributed by the Weinsteins, which lost over twenty minutes and came out a garish mess. Harvey Weinstein has cultivated a reputation for his editing policies over the years, earning him the nickname Harvey Scissorhands. His edits and other changes, such as simplified subtitles and voice-overs, have been met with outcry and resistance every time. And he's ignored them all, because he knows he can get away with it. Most Americans simply don't pay enough attention to foreign films to care, and his tactics have proven to be effective at attracting audiences.

But can he and Vendetta Films get away with this with two of the most high profile international films being released this year? What's especially galling about the "Snowpiercer" situation is that the film is already very U.S.-friendly. It's mostly English language with a whole passel of recognizable Western stars like Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris. It's gotten some excellent reviews already, including a rave from Variety, and is a box office smash in South Korea. And the running time is barely over two hours, not remotely overlong compared to some of the bloated American blockbusters in theaters this summer. There's no artistic eye behind this decision. These aren't even going to be content cuts to secure a lower rating. Interviews with director Bong Joon-ho have revealed the cuts will mostly be to character development scenes, and voice-over narration will be added. This is a hack job intended to make sure the film "will be understood by audiences in Iowa ... and Oklahoma." Or as Twitchfilm put it, Weinstein Thinks You are Too Dumb for "Snowpiercer."

One thing to keep in mind is that the Weinsteins haven't tried such a high-profile stunt in a while, and the movie landscape has changed. More importantly, the marketing landscape has changed and the way that people find out information about new films has changed. The internet and social media have become a major force, and it's difficult to keep negative information under wraps. I've seen other attempts at localizations of foreign media go terribly wrong before, especially when there's an existing base of fans ready to provide comparisons to the original versions. Bong Joon-Ho may not be well-known in the U.S., but he has some passionate supporters thanks to cult movies like "The Host." Harvey Weinstein has done a wonderful job of alienating these fans so far, and he's not going to be able to escape a storm of controversy when "Snowpiercer" makes its American debut. Usually controversy is good for Weinstein films, but this time it may not be good for Weinstein. There's another variable to consider, which is how much easier internet piracy of movies has become. If Weinstein's not going to make the hotly anticipated, highly lauded original version of "Snowpiercer" available to the American public, in all likelihood the internet will.

Foreign film fans who still have some scruples can take heart that the original versions of "Snowpiercer" and "Mood Indigo" will eventually be made available in the U.S. Original versions of edited films are often released as "Director's Cuts" after the initial home media releases have come and gone. However, they rarely receive their own theatrical releases, and the default versions that you see on television and available through streaming services tend to be the edited ones. I've been lucky enough to be in a position where I have been able to access former Weinstein victIms like "Hero" and "Shaolin Soccer" through Chinese language distribution channels, but unless I resort to imports (which I might), I expect a long wait before I can see "Snowpiercer" and "Mood Indigo" as intended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Dilemma of "Elena"

An elderly woman wakes up in the Moscow apartment she shares with her husband. The scene is tranquil, and the pacing is slow, allowing us to take in the little details of her morning routine. This is Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a retired nurse who has been married to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) for two years. Vladimir is wealthy, but balks at contributing to the funds that Elena sends to her grown son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), his wife Katerina (Elena Lyadova), and their two children. Sergey is perpetually unemployed and Vladimir thinks he is a good-for-nothing, who should be the one providing for his family. Elena points out that his he doesn't hold his own estranged daughter, Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina), to the same standard.

The plot of "Elena" unfolds in a very simple, direct fashion. Elena's teenage grandson Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) needs money to buy his way into university and avoid military service. A crisis presents her with the opportunity to provide it, but this requires her to make a hard choice between Vladimir and her son's family. We learn the concerns and the personalities of the characters through everyday conversations and actions. We watch Elena take a long trip to a much poorer neighborhood to deliver her pension to Sergey and Katerina. We watch how Sergey and Sasha behave during Elena's visit. When Tatyana enters the picture, she has two conversations with Vladimir and Elena separately, enough to give us a good sense of what her life has been like, and her opinion of Elena, though nothing is made explicit. The main players rarely display much emotion, but I found myself reacting very strongly to the story.

Andrey Zvyagintsev, who ten years ago also directed the excellent father-son drama, "The Return," once again examines family ties and social ills. This time his camera is more pointed, highlighting class divisions, social mobility, and compromised morals. At the center of the film is Elena, who is perfectly sweet and polite to everyone she meets, but who refuses to drop the issue of money for her children and grandchildren. Nadezhda Markina's performance is warm and natural. At first we sympathize with her. Vladimir is stingy and unfair. Of course Elena loves her offspring, no matter how imperfect. But then, Vladimir is entitled to his biases, and much of what he says has some truth to it. Tatyana may be bitter and resentful, but she's also far more insightful than anyone else in the film. And in the long pauses between conversations, there is ample time to think about why Sergey is so imperfect, and the way that children reflect the faults of their parents, and how those faults can compound across generations.

The visual storytelling is excellent throughout. There are two major scenes of physical violence in "Elena," shot in very different ways, showing different acts, perpetrators and victims. We are invited to compare them. Which is more destructive? Which perpetrator has more to feel guilty about? Are the impulses behind the acts all that different? Perhaps the most jarring sequence is the final one, where we see a group of characters in a wholly different context than we've seen them before, emphasizing certain aspects of their natures. The most mundane acts are heavy with implication - sharing food, playing video games, and tidying up. There's a brief moment early in the film where Katerina prevents Sasha from going to visit with a friend during Elena's visit, scolding him for wasting his time with hooligans. It seems like such a small, typical exchange, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's the key to the whole film.

The pace remains fairly slow throughout, and there are some scenes that will try the patience of some viewers. Zvyagintsev holds some shots for an uncomfortably long time, and others, like a slow zoom in to a photograph on the wall, underline his point too bluntly. However, this also helps him to build a terrific amount of tension, and to establish various characters' psychological states with admirable economy. So much of the effectiveness of the drama come from Elena's family coming across as so ordinary, speaking and acting with hardly any artifice at all.

"Elena" is one of those deceptively slight-looking morality tales that becomes more and more complex and fascinating the deeper you dig into it. Though it's set in modern-day Moscow and is specific to its environs in some respects, the themes are universal. It presents an interesting counterpoint to stories with similar subject matter, such as "Howard's End" and "Raisin in the Sun," which treat social mobility as a positive outcome. "Elena" has far more mixed feelings about the matter, and there is considerable ambiguity about the futures of the characters.

There's no question as to Zvyagintsev's talents though. Between "The Return" and "Elena," he's established himself as one of the best modern Russian directors. And this is only his third film.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Buried"

Spoilers for everything up through this episode! I mean it!

First, one of the reasons I love "Breaking Bad" is because it introduced us to Michelle McLaren. That wonderful, silent pre-credits sequence with the old man and the trail of money is a fantastic little mini-movie that shows off her directing skills. The desert drive with Walt, the hallucinatory digging scenes (with barrel cam!), and the trip to the giant pile of money in the storage unit also stand out as fantastic moments.

Now let's get to what happened this week. So far nearly everything I've predicted about what was going to happen episode by episode has been completely off. "Breaking Bad" keeps accelerating far faster than I think it will. So sure, I figured that Marie would find out eventually, and she and Hank would try to get Skyler to turn against Walt, but not this fast. And I certainly wouldn't have imagined that it would end with Marie turning on her sister and trying to run off with Holly. Between Hank's overzealousness and Marie's utter lack of sympathy and kleptomania, Skyler's been backed into a corner.

Now the biggest quibble I had with the episode: do Marie's actions make sense? She's the least major developed character in the whole show, and it felt like her anger and feelings of betrayal erupted out of nowhere, which I expect was by design to some extent. If you go back into earlier seasons, and all the times that Skyler and Walt lied to and endangered the Schraders, which Marie references, it does provide some explanation for the depth of Marie's hurt. Still, I can't remember Marie ever being so quick to resort to violence before – not that Marie's really been put in situations where she's gotten the chance to display such tendencies – and I'm not sure I fully buy it. Kudos to both actresses though. Best fireworks of the hour, even with the massacre in the last few minutes.

I also figured that Todd and his relatives were going to be back in charge of the meth cooking operations soon, but I didn't think they'd be seizing control so directly and so fast. Lydia continues to be a great comic figure, a ruthless operator with absolutely no stomach for the actual workings of the meth trade – the inappropriate high heels! – but is at least smart enough to make friends with the right reprobates. The same is true of Walt, who quickly sends Saul's guys to fetch the money, and then gets to re-enact the most painful parts of one of my favorite under-appreciated Stephen King short stories: "Dolan's Cadillac." He takes the money and buries it in the desert alone, and then pays the price for it physically.

I love that the show takes the time to give us a comedic interlude with a pair of minor characters, similar to last week's "Star Trek" fanfiction monologue with Skinny Pete and Badger. This time it's Huell and Kuby going Scrooge McDuck with the pile of money, and weighing the pros and cons of absconding with the stash to Mexico. As dark as the show has been getting, it's still got its sense of humor. Jesse zonked out on a playground roundabout, the awkward hug in the diner, Hank talking his way into the interrogation room, Jesse leading Lydia out of the massacre zone, and the punchline to Skyler trying to convince Walt that she's still on his side – it's black humor, but it's effective.

Now, the one thing I more or less got right was that Jesse's guilt would put him in a position to become an informant for the DEA against Walter White. The first half of the show was so emotionally charged, that even though we saw Jesse in the cold open, I completely forgot about him until Hank hears about his arrest at the DEA. It's a great bit of plotting, since much of the episode was about how Hank blows two chances at getting Skyler to cooperate, and then makes the stakes explicit in the kitchen scene with Marie. Jesse represents one more shot at redemption at the last minute for him, and at the same time he's one of "Breaking Bad's" common loose ends that will only bring more trouble for Walt.

The battle lines have been drawn – Skyler has thrown in her lot with Walt, and is now enabling his bad decisionmaking. Marie is similarly pushing Hank toward further confrontation. It was too quick, perhaps, but the momentum is so strong and the performances are good enough that I'm not too bothered by it. Jesse's a giant question mark. And as with last week, there's one major playing piece who didn't show up in this week, but will surely be pivotal in episodes to come: Walter Jr.

See you next week, assuming I don't get sent to Belize.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Top Ten Episodes of "Avatar: the Last Airbender"

The second season of "The Legend of Korra" is coming up soon. I'm looking forward to it, especially after that Comic-Con trailer. So I thought I'd use this month's top ten column for a quick revisit to its progenitor series, "Avatar: the Last Airbender," which has my vote as being the best children's animated series of the new millennium, and the best thing I've ever seen come out of Nickelodeon.

Picks are unranked, listed in mostly chronological order, and there are some light spoilers ahead for the first two seasons, as I can't talk about much of the third season without them. And as usual, I will totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes. Here goes!

"The Boy in the Iceberg" - Yes, it's the pilot episode. What a great introduction to Aang, the easily excitable airbender kid who Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka accidentally free from deep freeze in an iceberg. I wish I had seen this episode first, since it does a great job of setting expectations about the tone and the content of the show while introducing the rules of the "Avatar" world.

"The Waterbending Master" - Aang and Katara have to navigate carefully when Master Pakku refuses to teach Katara waterbending. This is a thoughtful look at the characters trying to balance their needs and interests with that of someone from a different culture, plus it has a great ending where Katara gets to throw down in one of the most exciting displays of waterbending in the whole series.

"Avatar Day" - Some dismiss this as a filler episode, but I think it's one of the funniest installments of the show. The gang come across a village that hates the Avatar, which prompts Aang to try and right the past wrong, and Sokka to play Sherlock Holmes with detective gadgets and a funny hat. We also get some significant advancement in Zuko and Iroh's storyline, as they adapt to life on the run.

"The Blind Bandit" - Toph's introduction episode, which spends a lot of time in the fascinating world of professional earthbending tournaments, which seems to function similar to professional wrestling. The parodies are great - one of the combatants is named The Boulder - but the fights are truly thrilling. Toph is one of my favorite characters, and this episode is a big reason why I started rooting for her immediately.

"The Drill" - Another big action episode that gives us one more round of Aang and his friends fighting Azula's forces. This time they intercept the Fire Nation's attempt to breach the outer wall of Ba Sing Se using a giant mechanical drill. In addition to the phenomenal construction of the action sequences, this has some of my favorite banter from characters on both sides.

"City of Walls and Secrets" - The gang finally reaches the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se and quickly sense that something's not quite right about the place. The Orwellian society presents a different kind of obstacle that the kids haven't had to deal with before, and the darker themes and ideas in play are handled well. Also, the whole bit about the Earth King's bear is absolutely priceless.

"The Puppetmaster" - Trying to find out what's behind a series of disappearances, the kids meet an elderly waterbender who takes a strong interest in Katara. This one was originally aired around Halloween and presented as something of a horror story. It's surprising how dark this one gets, taking the concept of bending the elements to some pretty uncomfortable extremes.

"The Boiling Rock" - A two parter that features a good old-fashioned jailbreak story and some big surprises. This is one of several third season episodes that uses a smaller cast to spotlight specific characters, so Sokka, Suki, and Zuko get some great moments to shine, dealing with a situation that keeps getting worse. However, it's the villains who end up stealing the show with a major game-changing ending I didn't see coming.

"The Ember Island Players" - It's an old trope that right before the grand finale, you get a cheaper episode, usually a recap clip-show in the case of cartoons. "Avatar" takes the idea and does a great twist on it, putting the kids in the audience of a Fire Nation play that tells a warped version of the story so far from their enemies' point of view. The play and the kids' reactions to the play are hysterical.

"The Firebending Masters" - I've saved my favorite episode for last. This is the one where Aang and Zuko go to the home of the original firebending masters to learn firebending. The way these two interact on their journey, and learn the truth about the mysterious masters together is so much fun. The animation here is breathtaking, the final firebending lesson being one of my favorite moments from the whole show.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer Movie Wrap-Up

So here we are in the doldrums of August, looking back at yet another wild summer movie season. I saw eight of the major studio releases this season, more than average, but mostly big action films I'm more willing to pay money to see in a theater. Still, I felt I saw enough to get a good sense of how the season went. I've been keep up with the box office tallies and the chatter about audience reactions, so I can talk about a few trends.

The biggest story is the blockbuster busts, of course. There were plenty of early warning signs that the slate was too crowded with too many expensive, $100 million plus productions, leading to a lot of big losses. "The Lone Ranger," "R.I.P.D.," "Smurfs 2," and "White House Down" felt the worst of it, while "After Earth" and "Pacific Rim" did badly in the U.S., but performed well enough overseas to make up some of the difference. You can count this as the summer where everyone was talking about global numbers, not just the industry analysts but regular movie fans too. I've never seen a summer where so much of the chatter was about comparing different release dates, marketing campaigns, and audience interest in different countries.

Most of the underperformers were original properties, meaning non-sequel films. This has lead some to conclude that the studios are going to be more risk-averse about them in the future. However, on the other hand some of the biggest success stories of the summer were smaller budget, non-franchise films like "The Conjuring," "The Purge," "Now You See Me," "This is the End," and "The Heat." None of them were especially high grossers, but they all made over three times their budgets. The same can't be said for higher profile films that brought in bigger numbers, like "The Wolverine." Also, one original film that was expected to be a major bust, "World War Z," made half a billion dollars worldwide and plans are being made for a sequel.

There's been so much focus on the bombs this year, that some have overlooked the fact that this has been a pretty financially robust summer. Moviegoers spent around $7 billion in domestic ticket sales alone, and the box office winners included the expected franchise films "Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6," "Despicable Me 2," "Man of Steel," and "Monsters University." Even the franchises that didn't do as well as the studios hoped still brought in a lot of viewers, like "Star Trek" and "Hangover." However, 3D companies are feeling the pinch, as metrics show that audiences are abandoning 3D in droves, and 3D presentations account for a smaller share of a film's revenue than they have in previous years. Three years after "Avatar," it looks like 3D may have finally run its course.

But what about the quality of the movies? This summer has failed to produce any universally lauded films, or films that have become so popular as to ascend to the level of real cultural touchstones. Of the movies I saw, some hits, some bombs, and a few in the middle, my reaction was about the same to all of them: they were okay. "Iron Man 3," "Pacific Rim," and "White House Down" were a lot of fun, but these aren't movies I'd watch again in a hurry. "Star Trek: Into Darkness," "Despicable Me 2," and "Elysuim" were disappointments, but had their good points. "World War Z" and "Fast & Furious 6"? Mildly entertaining. Serviceable. Okay. There was a lot of repetitive city crushing and dystopian imagery. Many had plots that were terribly labored, shallow, safe, and familiar. Young white males were well represented, and the rest of us, not so much. But I still felt like I'd gotten my money's worth.

I stress that there were few movies that I'd call outright bad. Usually there are a couple of big hits that get dreadful marks from critics, and then we have a big debate on whether movie critics are relevant anymore. This year that conversation didn't happen. Rather, because there were so many films flooding the theaters, I noticed people were actually more prone to check the reviews this year. This is only anecdotal evidence, of course. There were still bad movies that made money - "Grown Ups 2" is at the top of the list - but not as much money as they have in the past. Meanwhile, good reviews seems to have helped horror movie "The Conjuring" take the box office by storm.

So all in all, not a good summer at the movies, but not a bad one either. However, it was a very interesting one, and perhaps a portentous ones. I expect more sequels, but also more counterprogramming like the surprisingly popular "The Great Gatsby." I expect more zombies and superheroes, but I also expect more Melissa McCarthy movies. I expect more overspending and more crashing tentpoles, but I also expect that there will be more sleepers and more surprises. At least is was nice to get a break from Michael Bay this year, who will be back for a two-fer in 2014.

Until next time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Favorite Werner Herzog Film

This one was a bit of a struggle. When I settled on writing about Werner Herzog for this month, I immediately thought of his two New German cinema classics, "Aguirre the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo." Herzog made his name with those two portraits of madness and colonialism, with the help of his most famous leading man, Klaus Kinski. I love these films dearly, but as I was going back over Herzog's filmography, I found myself considering entirely different options. Herzog is still working steadily, and these days he's perhaps better known for his documentaries than his fictional films. There's such a particular style and sensibility to them, that they're quite unlike anything else I've ever seen. "Grizzly Man" is the best known in the U.S., the one brought him to the attention of the mainstream culture, and lead to references and parodies popping up in all sorts of strange places. However, the one that has stuck with me ever since I saw it, is the documentation of his trip to Kuwait in the wake of the first Gulf War, "Lessons of Darkness."

Like so many of his other works, "Lessons of Darkness" is about madness. Herzog looks at the aftermath of the war totally devoid of any politics. Rather, his approach is to look at the destruction itself, manifested in various forms. We begin with an opening quotation, attributed to Blaise Pascal, "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor." And then we are presented the horrors of war like a travelogue of Hell, with long, loving shots of the rubble of civilization, including several aerial views to show us the full scope of the carnage. Human beings are present, and a few are interviewed, but the focus remains on the ruined landscape. The second half of the film is largely devoted to the burning Kuwaiti oil fields and the efforts of firemen and engineers to contain them. The images of the oil wells on fire, creating plumes of smoke hundreds of feet high, is an awe-inspiring sight. Herzog backs long shots of them with stirring classical music, inviting us to contemplate their terrible beauty with him. He's evidently a Wagner fan, which is entirely appropriate.

Herzog's famously fatalistic narration is relatively sparse in "Lessons of Darkness," but when he does speak, it is to impart a worldview that is both deeply pessimistic and filled with wonder. He marvels at the workers at the oilfields, who seem to lose their humanity as they acclimate themselves to extreme conditions and a nightmarish, seemingly impossible task. He describes the devastated terrain like that of an alien planet, an unrecognizable place inhospitable to the life that once occupied it. In Herzog's eyes, he has arrived at the Apocalypse, and so dutifully frames the experience in epic, existential terms. The film is split up into segments, each denoted by title cards like "Finds from Torture Chambers" and "Satan's National Park." Some critics have described the film as being akin to science-fiction, as Herzog explores the hellscape like a visitor from another world, repulsed yet fascinated by what he has found. Some interpreted this to be ironic, but I found Herzog to be in deadly earnest.

It's difficult to find films to compare "Lessons in Darkness" to, aside from fictional apocalypses like Lars von Trier's "Melancholia." Herzog doesn't hesitate to dig deep into his subject matter and grapple with the larger questions, but the narrative he constructs is so unlike what you would expect from a documentary about the first Gulf War, it's hard to think of it as a Gulf War documentary at all. Instead, the film feels more akin to a Chris Marker style cinematic essay on the nature of humanity's self-destruction, one that just happens to use Kuwait as its backdrop. Wikipedia currently classifies it as a fictional rather than a documentary film, and though I don't agree, I can see the argument for this. Thanks to Herzog's efforts, "Lessons in Darkness" transcends current events, and remains as timely and as haunting as ever, long after the first Gulf War has been overshadowed by the second. I've seen very few other documentaries that have been able to escape a sense of their own history in this way.

As much as I love his earlier feature work, I suspect that Herzog is going to be remembered in cinematic history primarily as a documentary filmmaker. He's been equally daring and ambitious with both, often blurring the line between them. However, anyone can make a fictional film about a madman. Not many directors choose to seek out the madness in oilfields and the Vietnamese jungle and the Alaskan wilderness, and elevate them the way that Herzog has through the documentary form. So I have no reservations about declaring my favorite Herzog film to be a documentary, the first I've written about for this series. "Lessons of Darkness" is as potent an examination of the warped human soul as "Aguirre" or "Fitzcarraldo," and is as easily as beautiful and as moving.

What I've Seen - Werner Herzog

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
Fata Morgana (1971)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Stroszek (1977)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Cobra Verde (1987)
Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Rescue Dawn (2006)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
Into the Abyss (2011)
Queen of the Desert (2016)
Lo & Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Despicable Me 2" - Minions Need Moms

"Monsters University" is nearly gone from theaters, nobody wanted to see "Turbo," and I was not going to pay full price for tickets to "Planes" or "Smurfs 2." So what option did that leave me for taking the younger cousins out to see a cartoon feature this weekend? "Despicable Me 2."

I want to spend this post looking at the movie's mixed messages about parenthood and family, some of which are a little troubling. This is not a proper review of the movie, but I'll give you a short, spoiler-free one up front. I liked the original, and the sequel is a clear step down, pushing Gru (Steve Carrell) and his girls into a formula rom-com, that occasionally remembers the main characters are supposed to be foiling a mysterious villain and saving the world. Fortunately the little yellow minions get a lot of screen time, and they're plenty of fun. I'm glad they'll be ditching Gru entirely for their own movie in the near future. All in all, "Despicable Me 2" is a pretty slapdash, though well-intentioned venture, and I couldn't help spending most of the running time thinking of ways that PIXAR or Dreamworks could have done the whole thing better. But the kids liked it, so I certainly feel no animosity toward the movie's existence.

Spoilers ahead.

Now let's talk about motherhood. I was kind of tickled at first to discover that "Despicable Me 2" really is a romantic-comedy through and through. Gru is partnered up with secret agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) to bring down a villain they have tracked down to a local mall. Gru and Lucy connect, Gru finally works up the courage to ask her out, and at the end of the movie we see them get married, and Lucy happily become the girls' new mother. The whole movie is pushing the superiority of the traditional nuclear family pretty hard. Many children's films are guilty of this, but in "Despicable Me 2," it's especially obvious because of how simple and formulaic the plotting is. At one point Lucy, on her way to a new job in Australia, has the sudden epiphany that she's in love with Gru. She's so smitten that jumps out of the airplane she's in mid-flight, shouting "I choose Gru!" and hang-glides her way back to where she left him. This happens, despite Lucy showing no real romantic interest for Gru up until that point, and barely meeting his adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher).

Some of this can be chalked up to bad plotting and bad storytelling, but it's still telling that the movie purposely skips over all the complicated parts that happen in real life. It doesn't bother to ask the most fundamental questions. Does Lucy want to be a mother? Will becoming one impact her plans to be a great secret agent, a job she's very, very passionate about? Do the girls get along with her? Do they mind that she occupies so much of Gru's attention? Does the prospect of a new mother bring up any issues they might have with losing their birth parents? All of these questions might have been brought up and addressed offscreen - the movie suggests that the courtship is not a quick one - but expanding a family is not a matter to be taken lightly, and the movie may be giving the wrong impression to younger viewers. "Despicable Me 2" simply isn't ready to deal with something so emotionally complicated, so it gives us the perfect fairy-tale rom-com version. Lucy is accepted immediately by the girls, and expresses no qualms about changing her whole life to become part of Gru's. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.

Another issue I've seen others bring up is that the ease of Lucy's integration into the family makes one-parent households seem inferior. I can see this, as single mothers are pretty common in fiction, but single fathers get married off as quickly as possible. Still, I think this is mitigated to some extent by the movie showing that Gru is an excellent single dad. He's willing to do just about anything to make the girls happy, including dressing up as a fairy princess for Agnes's birthday party. However, he's not willing to pursue women simply to find a mother for the girls. This is made clear by the running subplot involving a nosy neighbor, Jillian (Nasim Pedrad), who keeps trying to set Gru up on terrible dates. As for the girls, the older two don't express any interest in having a mother, though Margo tries to set Gru up for online dating. It's only the youngest, Agnes, after being given the contrived assignment to deliver a Mother's Day speech (by the most insensitive teacher ever), who awkwardly points out that she doesn't have a Mom, and then latches on to Lucy at first sight.

But this is just a kids' cartoon, you might say. It's all a fantasy. Yes, but that didn't stop "Brave" from tackling thorny mother-daughter issues, or "Incredibles" from addressing the struggles of being special, or "Up" from giving us a heartrending picture of loss and regret. "Despicable Me 2" could have been so much more meaningful and more interesting if it had just tried a little harder and took itself more seriously. I wouldn't say that its messages rise to the level of being bad or harmful in any way, nothing that a hundred other pieces of media haven't done in the past, but it because it tries to play it safe, it does end up perpetuating some worrisome ideas.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Empty-Headed "Elysium"

I went into "Elysium" with reduced expectations. I'd been warned that Neil Blomkamp's new science-fiction allegory, the follow up to his excellent "District 9," was a much simpler and less ambitious story that was more concerned with being an action-packed summer blockbuster. However, I wasn't prepared for how much of a step down from "District 9" it would be.

Things start off well enough. We're introduced to the world of 2154, where most of the population lives on an overpopulated, polluted Earth in poverty. The elites long ago fled to an orbiting space station called Elysium, which is visible from Earth. In the slums of Los Angeles lives a former orphan and car thief named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), now a blue collar factory worker just trying to make an honest living. His childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is a nurse at a nearby hospital. Max always dreamed of going to Elysium, but illegal ships carrying non-citizens are turned away or shot down by Elysium's zealous Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). However, when Max receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, his only chance for survival is reaching Elysium, which has special Med-Pods that can save him.

You might notice that the basics of the plot are pretty close to "District 9." We have a protagonist who has a serious medical condition that requires him to undertake a hero's journey and transcend the broken systems of a dystopian society. The difference this time is that there's so much more typical action movie business tacked on. Max not only has a love interest in Frey, but Frey has a little daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who is also sick and needs to get to Elysium. Delacourt is not only enforcing the totalitarian rules of this society, but also plotting a coup with corrupt industrialist John Carlyle (William Fitchner). But if that wasn't enough villainy to deal with, there's also the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who does most of their dirty work, and provides an excuse for one-on-one fight scenes with Damon. Oh, and there's even the loyal ethnic friend who gets the short end of the stick - here it's Julio (Diego Luna), Max's fellow petty criminal pal. However, at least the Ally of Convenience, a gangster named Spider (Wagner Moura from the "Elite Squad" movies), who runs all the illegal flights to Elysium, is around long enough to be a real character.

"Elysium" is clearly a much lighter and more commercial film, but not everyone seems clear on to what degree. So you have Jodie Foster playing a wildly over-the-top villain whose performance is noticeably too cartoony for the film's more serious tone. And then there's Sharlto Copley's Kruger, who doesn't really work at all, because his menace keeps being undercut by barely intelligible rambling that may have been meant to be comedic. Possibly. And you have the same kind of gory, visceral violence from "District 9," where you see a lot of the carnage up close. However, the story is told in very broad strokes, including scenes of uncomfortably on-the-nose moralizing that seem like they should be in a movie for a much younger crowd. The social commentary on the state of healthcare and the divisions between rich are poor are not handled very well, the fantasy filter far too slight, and the workings of the world of "Elysium" too underdeveloped.

Oh sure, the film has great visuals. With the benefit of a Hollywood budget, Blomkamp does a fantastic job bringing visions of decaying urban cities policed by robots and space station paradises to life. I love the way that he delineates the different kinds of technology used on Earth versus in Elysium, and the different languages, and all the weaponry and vehicles. As an action film "Elysium" does its job, providing a fair amount of fights and chases and demonstrations of how to fell a flying Roomba. However, the movie clearly wants to be more than that, and comes up empty at every turn. There are too many unanswered questions about the world, like why Elysium won't share its technology, and what the terms of its coexistence with Earth are. Surely Elysium is still dependent on Earth for resources to some extent, right?

However, I keep coming back to the basic storytelling as the fundamental problem. It's a major disappointment that after a hero as complicated and memorable as Wikus Van de Merwe from "District 9," Matt Damon is stuck playing someone as trite and bland as Max Da Costa. It's to Damon's credit that Max comes off as well as he does. The metaphor of rich and poor being physically isolated from each other is a perfectly fine one, but there's no bite it the way it's presented, no sign of the fiendishly clever scripting that let Blomkamp address lots of different facets of problematic race relationships his last time out. Instead, it too often feels like the director was being distracted by shiny sets and fancy effects. He clearly had a lot of new ideas he wanted to try out, but there aren't many that worked as intended.

I hate to say it, but this sophomore slump may be indicative of a one-hit wonder. And that's an awful shame.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Blood Money"

This is my first attempt at blogging specific episode write-ups for a televisions show. "Breaking Bad" only has eight episodes left, making its final half-season ideal for this experiment. Spoilers ahead for the whole show that has aired so far. Let's do this thing.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that Hank would put the pieces together so quickly and we'd get a major confrontation between Hank and Walt at the end of this episode. Things had to start escalating quickly in order to get us to the flash-forward Walter White who pulls up to his destroyed family home in the pre-credits sequence and frightens the lady next door just by saying hello. That sequence promises the audience two things - first, that Walter White is going to be outed to the public as Heisenberg, his name and reputation forever tarnished, and second, that we're going to get some loose ends tied up. The biggest loose end from last year, the ricin cigarette, is retrieved from the remains of Walt's bedroom, but who is it intended for?

"Blood Money" spends most of the episode checking in with all the major players left on the board and where they stand. We pick up right where we left off with Hank in the bathroom, who is so affected by his revelation that he has a panic attack driving home. Luckily this provides him the cover to start working his new lead in private, including a new variant on the cook sequence - a case file review montage. It's also a clever way to review Walt's major crimes so far, giving us a brief look back at Gus and Gale and even the grainy surveillance video of Walt and Jesse's first methylamine heist. Hank is so tight-lipped throughout the episode, barely saying a word to Marie, enduring a frightening trip to the hospital, silent during the case file review, and evasive in the face of a newly menacing Walt. So his physical attack is a wonderful, jolting surprise. Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston get to face off in a way I wasn't expecting to see for at least a few more weeks.

After all, there were plenty of other major developments in this episode. After Badger and Skinny Pete regale us with their plans for a "Star Trek" pie-eating-contest episode (extra points for the high level of nerdy details), Jesse tries to figure out how to get rid of the five million in "blood money" Walt gave him. This leads to a quick visit with Saul, and then what may be the most important conversation that took place this week - Walt trying to persuade Jesse that Mike's still alive. Jesse is willing to agree with him, as he's agreed with Walt in so many other similar conversations over the years, but clearly he's not buying Walt's version of events. The next time Walt tries to sell him a lie, I expect Jesse's going to call him out on it. He's not quite there yet, but the guilt is getting to him. I hope we get to see the repercussions of Jesse's Robin Hood escapade next week.

Twitchy Lydia also showed up briefly, to try and entice Walt to come back to work for her, giving the Whites a chance to demonstrate their newfound loyalty to each other. Walt shows he's willing to be honest. Skyler reciprocates with a show of protectiveness. The whole car wash scene was delightful, the way Skyler was unexpectedly insightful, the spiel about complimentary coffee, and Lydia continuing to do a terrible job of keeping a low profile while conducting nefarious business negotiations. However, this also seems to telegraph that one or both of the Whites may not maintain this new status quo for much longer. Walt's empire building tendencies have shifted to new money-laundering car washes for now, but I expect him to backslide quickly.

I didn't expect Walt's cancer back so soon, but then it was worth it to allow for some big season premiere fireworks, but still keep Hank at bay. For now Walt has forced Hank into a standoff, with perhaps his smoothest and most devastating Heisenberg argument yet. Walt has been here so many times that he knows how to handle these confrontations now, and his assuredness is terrifying. The other two storylines set up in this episode are probably going to see the most progression for the next few weeks. Events are still in the early stages of being set in motion, and we've got a ways to go yet before we get to Walt and the ricin cigarette in the flash-forward.

After all, one major character was nowhere to be found in this episode: Todd. Jesse Plemmon's name is in the credits and he's all over the marketing materials so we know he's got a significant part to play this season.

Have an A1 day, everybody.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Four Shorts By Spike Jonze

The trailer for Spike Jonze's new film "Her" was recently released, his first feature since "Where the Wild Things Are" in 2009. However, Jonze has been busy during the break, directing four different shorts that can be found online without much effort, and about the same number of music videos. I want to focus on the shorts, however, as shorts are too often unfairly overlooked and unloved entries in a director's filmography. Many consider them lesser works, or simply stepping stones to full features, and Jonze is a fairly rare director who has continued to produce short films after helming many successful features. So let's take a look at Spike Jonze's recent shorts, one by one, in chronological order:

"We Were Once a Fairytale" (2009) - Made before "Where the Wild Things Are," though its official release was delayed until after "Wild Things" premiered. Discussions for Jonze to direct the music video for Kanye West's "See You in My Nightmares" evolved into this eleven-minute short film. See Kanye as you've never seen him before, playing himself as a drunken lout in a nightclub, who is not having one of the better nights of his life. He repels women, makes a nuisance of himself, instigates a fight, and finally has to face the consequences - a bizarre finale involving puppets, rose petals, and multiple suicides. This is more of an oddball experimental piece than anything else, with a few bits of interesting imagery, but not much else to recommend it.

"I'm Here" (2010) - Wikipedia tells me this thirty-minute short was funded by and is a promotion for Absolut Vodka, which I didn't pick up on at all. Instead, it feels like a much more personal piece, a gentle romance between two robots who live in a version of Los Angeles where robots and human coexist side by side. Lonely robot Sheldon (Andrew Garfield), our protagonist, has a beige, blocky computer tower of a head, with expressive eyes and mouth rendered with the help of CGI animation. The robots have mechanical bodies, but dress in normal clothes, hold normal jobs, and seem to live and behave and feel the full gamut of emotions in the same way that humans do. The female robots, with oval heads and slimmer limbs, even have hair. Sheldon meets and falls in love with a dreamy robot artist named Francesca (Sienna Guillory), and their relationship proceeds much in the same way that human relationships do. However, there are certain advantages to being a robot in love, as Sheldon discovers when unexpected tragedy strikes. It's the worldbuilding here that is the most impressive, with its use of deliberately dated-looking materials to build the robots, and the whimsy of the dialogue and the interactions. It's all a little on the precious side, and it came to no surprise to me what the main inspiration for the film turned out to be, but I liked this one. It's exactly the kind of sentimental, humane approach that I'd expect Jonze to take to this kind of material, and provides the best hints of what "Her" is probably going to look like.

"Scenes From the Suburbs" (2011) - Jonze's collaboration with the band Arcade Fire, for their recent album "The Suburbs." There's very little fantasy or whimsy here, in a thirty-minute short about a group of teenagers living in a small town. We primarily follow two boys, Kyle (Sam Dillon) and his best friend Winter (Paul Pluymen), over the course of an eventful summer. Initially their lives seem simple and untroubled, but the growing presence of armed and hooded members of a sinister militia force in their town suggests something is seriously amiss. The short is an allegory for the loss of innocence, and how we lose the ones we love, built from nostalgic memories of adolescence, and real-world grown-up fears of oppression and violence. This is my favorite of the four shorts for its ability to evoke very painful emotions. Jonze shows us only a few pieces of the characters' lives, but it's enough to understand how the distances form and the alienation sets in between the two boys. Some of the most important scenes are only seen in quickly-cut, fragmentary glimpses, interspersed throughout the short. A six-minute music video version of the short was also produced, containing some different material, so the two versions of "Suburbs" complement each other. Finally, take note that Arcade Fire will be scoring "Her" for Jonze.

"Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side)" (2011) - A quick six-minute animated love story, between characters from the covers of colorful tomes in a live action bookstore. Our hero is a felt skeleton who leaves the cover of "Macbeth" to woo the fair damsel who graces the cover of "Dracula." Alas, he is intercepted on his journey by a tragic encounter with the whale from "Moby Dick." The concept is straight out of the old Warner Bros shorts, like "Have You Got Any Castles?" except far more macabre, and in the closing moments, far more raunchy. The execution is a lot of fun, though, and this is another great example of Jonze mixing mediums and putting his own mark on an old, established, formula.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Oh, "Oblivion"

There are only about six named roles in "Oblivion," of which I was only convinced that one was a character with anything approximating a real personality. This is Commander Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise as the usual everyman he's played in so many action movies over the years. Of the other five roles, three are minor characters who are essentially plot devices. The remaining two are a pair of women, Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) and Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko), whose relationships with Jack are supposed to be central to the film's premise. However, both women are so abysmally blank, and their actions so contrived, it's difficult to accept that they're supposed to be real people.

Initially we're introduced to Jack and Victoria, who we are told act as a skeleton maintenance crew on Earth, which has been abandoned for fifty years after attacking aliens rendered the planet largely uninhabitable. The humans won the war, but a few of the alien "Scavs" remain, trying to disrupt the power stations that convert seawater into energy for the human colonies on Titan. Mechanized flying drones do most of the patrolling and fighting, but Jack and Victoria remain in order to handle drone repairs. They've been alone together in their little tower outpost for nearly five years, getting their orders from a mission commander named Sally (Melissa Leo), in the orbiting "Tet" space station above them. In order to keep important information from falling into the hands of the enemy, Jack and Victoria have had all memories from before their mission wiped. Jack, however, still dreams about a woman named Julia, and has a fascination with surviving items from before the war. Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are also in this movie, but to say who they play involves more spoilers than the viewer should probably know about in advance.

Many high-concept science fiction films often suffer from feeling cold and detached, where the filmmakers get so carried away designing their gorgeous futurescapes and new technology that they neglect their characters. Joseph Kosinksi, who directed "TRON Legacy," succeeds here in creating a beautiful dystopian world with an interesting history, and relaying a fairly intelligent, ambitious science-fiction story. However, the characters meant to inhabit that story are flatter than cardboard, and it's only thanks to Tom Cruise in the lead, doing what Tom Cruise does best, that the movie holds together at all. Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough are both very lovely women and competent actresses, but the parts they play are just a collection of convenient traits, and neither gets a single one more than they absolutely need for the plot to function. Victoria loves and is possessive of Jack, she's not the least bit curious about anything happening down on Earth, and she is loyal to Mission Control above all else. All those things come into play in the story exactly how you'd expect them to. Julia at one point gets her hands on a firearm and gets to blast away at her enemies, which only emphasizes how utterly useless she is during the rest of the movie. As for Mr. Freeman and Mr. Coster-Waldau, it's maddening how wasted they are in throwaway parts.

However, to Kosinski's credit, the strength of his worldbuilding very nearly lets him get away with it. I admire the early scenes of the film, where Jack is exploring the ruined Earth in his spiffy flying "Bubble Ship." The thoughtful production design is the movie's biggest asset, the way that it takes its time to show us all the nooks and crannies, and the way it subtly feels like a throwback to all those great old hard science-fiction films of the 1970s, with their more uncluttered, monochrome environments. The mood of the film is oddly inviting, with its moments of stillness of silence, though it never feels slow-paced at any point. I love the look of the aliens and the drones, the way they behave and Jack's interactions with them. Though the film is terribly predictable for anyone who's watched enough science-fiction, and the ideas aren't well developed at all, it's still nice to see anyone commit so wholeheartedly to this kind of material, and trust the audience to be able to follow along with all the technobabble and narrative twistiness.

So I came out of "Oblivion" impressed, even though I don't think it was a good movie. It was a decently entertaining watch though, proving that though Tom Cruise may be getting older, he's still a solid leading man and capable of carrying an exceptionally nerdy science-fiction action movie better than most actors half his age. And Joseph Kosinski is still a terribly promising young director who I hope gets the chance to try an original project again one of these days, and improve on "Oblivion."