Saturday, November 30, 2013

At Sea With "Captain Phillips"

2013 may go down as the year of the survival film, with many of the biggest prestige films of the fall featuring individuals placed in extreme situations. "Captain Phillips" is based on the true life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. This is easily the kind of film that could have been turned into a gung-ho, bombastic action fantasy with slick set pieces and black and white morality. Fortunately, the movie was put into the capable hands of Paul Greengrass, former documentary filmmaker, and the director of such films as "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," as well as the latter two Matt Damon "Bourne" films.

"Captain Phillips" takes us step by step through the hijacking, from the ship and the pirates departing from their respective ports, to the attack on the ship, to the hostage situation that results, and finally to the inevitable resolution. It certainly doesn't lack for intensity and thrills, and the central performance by Tom Hanks as Phillips is a good one. However, what really gives the film its power is the decision to give equal attention and character development to the four hijackers. We first meet Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed), and teenager Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) at their village, and get glimpses of their lives. This provides vital context for everything that follows, and much of the film is told from their point of view.

The commitment to a high level of realism is noticeable all throughout the film, and elevates it. Some incidents and much of the dialogue were clearly invented, but the script by Billy Ray is full of technical and military terminology that no one stops to explain. The Somalis all speak English to some degree, but among themselves they converse in Somali, and they do so at length. In your typical action spectacular, the threat of four armed men in a speedboat would seem to be too small, but in "Captain Phillips," it is carefully established that no one on the ship is armed, the shipping company has failed to provide adequate security, the safeguards and procedures to thwart such an attack are limited, and though military aid is eventually dispatched, it takes a long time to get to there. By the time the pirates manage to board the ship, the seriousness of the threat is clear.

The Somali characters were played by actual Somali actors, a key detail that really helps to sell the story. No one is saying that Samuel L. Jackson is not a great actor and wonderfully intimidating, but he could never play the leader of the pirates, Muse, the way that Barkhad Abdi does. We would never be able to experience the same, gradual humanization of the character the way that we do with him. As good as Hanks is, it's Abdi who gives the most memorable performance here, a wonderful mixture of naive optimist, who keeps trying to reassure us that everything will be all right, and world-weary cynic who has been lied to too many times.

The fly-on-the-wall approach puts the viewer in the thick of the action, which makes the tension all the more terrific. However, the director at the helm make a lot of difference. I've seen an awful lot of films with bad shakeycam recently, but Greengrass all but started the trend with the "Bourne" films, and he knows how to use it better than anyone. The camera bobs up and down with the speedboats and the life rafts, peeks through gratings and binoculars, and when the characters are plunged into darkness, so are we. More importantly, it's all very restrained, controlled, and the action remains perfectly coherent. No motion sickness warnings this time.

The Maersk Alabama story was all over the news when it happened, but I suspect that few in the American public knew the details of what went on during the hijacking, aside from the fact that Phillips survived. And surely there can't have been many who knew the fates of the four Somalis, which the film gives equal narrative weight. Cynics might wonder what the point of dramatizing the event in a film would be, and "Captain Phillips" provides a very good answer. It shows you parts of the story in a way that the news reports never could. It demystifies the Captain even as it celebrates him. And it reminds us that the pirates were human beings too.

I'm not particularly inclined to call "Captain Phillips" one of the best films of the year, though I think it's tremendously entertaining, a technically impressive pieces of cinema, and successfully addresses some tricky issues surrounding Somali piracy head on. It's about the best dramatization of the hijacking that we could have hoped for, but at the same time I don't feel I understand what was so compelling about this story to warrant the film being made. The characters are all a little too idealized, and the plotting is often terribly thin. There are a lot of true life stories that I'd have rather seen Paul Greengrass's talents applied to.

Friday, November 29, 2013

"Family Guy" Frustrations

Ah, Thanksgiving weekend. When I get together with family over the holidays I usually end up watching several hours of television that I wouldn't under normal circumstances. In the past there have been "NCIS" marathons, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" evenings, and this year multiple episodes of "Family Guy" with my brother. He's a fan of the show, but I long ago decided that it was not for me. Still, I was a little curious about how "Family Guy" had been doing. I hadn't watched an episode since before its resurrection, back when it was still growing a cult following on "Adult Swim." Now that it had become monstrously popular, maybe it was more watchable.

Thanks to Hulu, we had access to a couple of the most recent episodes, and after watching several, I'm sorry to say that the show hasn't improved one bit. Oh, I understand the appeal. It's dark, mean, raunchy, and delivers a lot of shock value very well. However, it's almost totally lacking in heart, and I found the majority of the shocks way to gratuitous and lazy to be very entertaining. Daring can't substitute for cleverness. Also, there were the usual old problems that "South Park" so deftly skewered back in "Cartoon Wars," when it revealed that manatees with topic balls were the secret to the success of "Family Guy." There's the randomness of the non-sequiturs, the slapdash feel to the writing, and the sense that they're still cribbing their best material from better shows.

On the other hand, there have been some improvements. I like that Stewie's not the evil megalomaniac anymore. Instead, he's a neurotic gay sophisticate who happens to be trapped in the existence of an infant. His interactions with the only other sane member of the Griffin asylum, Brian, were my favorite parts of the episodes I saw. I heard the recent spoilers about Brian, and I have to say the move is daring, but it could also be disastrous to the show. Stewie and Brian have one of the only relationships on the show that actually works as a relationship. Peter and Chris still seem to be about the same. Lois has gotten a little darker, but is still essentially the same housewife template. Meg, the eternal victim, seems a little less miserable than when I saw her last, though that's only because she's embraced her family's perversions more fully.

What really struck me about these episodes was the level of the content. It's gotten much more extreme over the years, and is at least on par with the late night cable animated shows. There is lots and lots of sexual humor. I found references to pornography, sadomasochism, incest, rape, and it was implied that Meg had a menage a trois with Nintendo video game characters Mario and Luigi. Stewie's rejected teddy bear committing suicide our of despair seemed positively cuddly by comparison. "Family Guy" is veering awfully close to another animated show from a few years ago that relied almost entirely on shock humor, Comedy Central's short-lived reality show spoof "Drawn Together." It gave up on the premise pretty quickly in favor of copious amounts of sex and violence. "Family Guy" hasn't quite sunk to that level, but it's getting there.

I want to emphasize that it's not the content itself that I have a problem with. I love "South Park" and "Archer," and the more outrageous they get, the funnier they usually are. Those shows, however, are clever and well-written and understand that their best material comes from their characters. The generic storylines are broad parodies of family sitcoms that were out of date decades ago. "Family Guy," while it does get a few chuckles out of me here and there, is just graphic and sophomoric for the sake of being graphic and sophomoric. I'm honestly a little stunned that this is airing on a mainstream network in the 9PM hour. Sure, they never show any detailed genitalia and the nobody curses, but you'd think the blood and gore and vomit and sick humor would have gotten more flak in the general public. Or maybe I'm just old fashioned.

What I find especially strange is that from what I've seen of the "Family Guy" spinoffs, "The Cleveland Show" and "American Dad," creator Seth MacFarlane is capable of being much smarter and more interesting. "American Dad" in particular has had some great episodes, and I've never seen it be remotely as mean-spirited and vile as "Family Guy" has become. Heck, I liked "Ted" much more than I was expecting to, and I'm looking forward to the sequel. In its current form, I find "Family Guy" tolerable, but it's not something I'd ever watch on my own. In fact, over the course of the mini-marathon of episodes I sat through today, I find it a much easier watch if I only listen to the show and don't look directly at the screen.

Never a good sign.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Decline of TV... Again

Heard the news about the death of television? There was a recent Business Insider article you might have seen, titled TV Is Dying, And Here Are The Stats That Prove It"TV Is Dying, And Here Are The Stats That Prove It. it features a lot of colorful graphs showing the contraction of the broadcast and cable viewing audiences as more and more people move to online video content.

There's not much I can really add to this, since this is very much a story in progress, and I'm pretty woefully out of the loop. However, I thought I could offer a point of comparison. A few days ago I was reading through the blog wrote prior to Miss Media Junkie, and happened upon an entry talking about the state of the television landscape, written when I still had a cable subscription. I posted it online almost ten years ago to date. You'll notice that some things have changed, notably the increased presence of the internet, but many of the problems that are plaguing TV today were around long before cord-cutters and the rise of mobile content.


"I thought to myself that I hadn't really said much about television, which I have strong opinions about, and at least as much interest in as I have in the cinema. The problem is, I really don't watch much of it any more. I like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Frasier" and "That 70s Show," but I only watch them sporadically. I keep meaning to watch "The West Wing" and "Alias" and "ER," but I just can't work up the enthusiasm to do it. The only two prime time shows I actively keep up with on a regular basis anymore are "Will and Grace," and "Angel," the latter mostly because I've invested nearly a decade in the Buffy-verse and they finally dropped the most pointless characters. "Friends," which used to be one of my favorites, wore out its welcome about two years ago, and I've been silently praying for its demise ever since.

"I do make a point to watch the PBS broadcast of the "BBC World News" whenever possible, and I'm addicted to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central. I'd probably cancel my cable entirely if it weren't for Mr. Stewart. The only cable channels I actually watch are Comedy Central, Bravo, TCM, and the Cartoon Network. Everything else is essentially just like having a few dozen more network channels, plus scores of special interest stations that don't really seem to be of interest to anybody. Watching AMC and Sci-Fi slowly sell their souls to the mainstream was a painful experience. Cable didn't use to be like this. I remember back in the 80s, when the only commercials were between shows, and editing was rare.

"There have been a series of articles lately, remarking on the decline in network viewership during the Fall season. Blame has fallen on everything from programming quality to measurement error to growing competition. The resulting panic, however, has caused cancellations left and right as the networks try to regroup. CBS, of all networks, has come out on top for the time being - probably due to its conservative bent and older, more loyal audience than anything else. NBC and FOX, two networks that have thrown themselves wholeheartedly at hipper, younger consumers for years, seem to be faring the worst.

"So what do I make of the situation? I'm putting the bulk of the blame on competition. Though I haven't seen most of the shows being talked about, I doubt any of the new dreck was any worse than than it has been in years past. The difference is that people have stopped differentiating between network and cable nearly as much as they used to, and they're orienting themselves towards shows over lineups. I think people finally figured out "Must-See TV" doesn't take three hours to watch. Add the growing technological advances like Tivo and their ilk, and you've got viewers who expect more out of their programming, who aren't willing to sit through mediocre filler anymore. And I think that's a good thing.

"There's a certain fluidity of media that's happening these days, where people are often renting their favorite television shows instead of tuning in them. I go to the video store and see stacks of "24" and "Oz" and "Sopranos" DVDs getting plenty of attention. The tube, as a whole, has somehow gotten much less important in recent years. I can remember back to when the premiere of a movie on network television was a highly trumpeted event, and it always came at least four years after the movie had left theaters. These days, the big event movies garner little to no interest, unless they're produced for television, and will hit the airwaves in as little as two years after release. The upswing in popular R-rated movies and increased ad time have required far more editing and cutting than in years past. I remember shaking my head through a butchered airing of "Interview With the Vampire" on NBC a few years back, and reading about how "television versions" of certain scenes of feature movies were now being shot in anticipation of these problems. That's another thing the networks are worried about - they've gotten too "clean" for popular culture."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

V for Violence

I've written about a couple of movies and television shows celebrating twentieth anniversaries this year, but I've avoided the one TV show that arguably made the biggest impact: Haim Saban and Shuki Levy's localization of a cheesy Japanese sentai show, "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers." I was in middle school by the time this thing hit the airwaves, but I had younger siblings and cousins, and I saw a good chunk of the show's early seasons. And I was also old enough to be very cognizant about the worries among parents about how the fantasy violence was affecting their kids. I remember a news magazine show rather ham-fisted showing possible causality between youngsters watching "Power Rangers" and increased aggression, violence, and behavioral issues.

Well, now it's two decades later, the TV Parental Guidelines have been with us for fifteen years, and V-chips for ten. The original "Power Rangers" generation has grown up into technology obsessed twenty-somethings, and "Power Rangers" is still churning out new episodes. The franchise was acquired by Disney in the buyout of the FOX Kids holdings back in 2002, and Haim Saban eventually regained control of it around 2010. The controversy over the show's content has all but vanished, as "Power Rangers" viewers didn't grow up to be any more violent or disturbed than any previous generation. Mention of "Power Rangers" has lost the menacing overtones it once had among parents, and has instead acquired something of a nostalgic vibe, especially among Millennials.

This shift in perception is emblematic of how debate over violence in the media has mostly disappeared. A recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed out that PG-13 movies contained more incidents of violence than R-rated ones, and the reaction from the public seemed to be a collective shrug. Oh, there was some hand-wringing from the usual watchdog groups, but hardly much uproar from the mainstream. After all, we live in an era of superhero movies battling it out for box office dominance every summer, and violent anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White making television worth tuning in for. The "Hunger Games" sequel just had a massive opening weekend and garnered remarkably positive critical notices. Not bad for a film about teenagers forced to participate in bloodsports for the amusement and distraction of an oppressed populace.

I have very mixed feelings about violence in media these days. On the one hand, I like that the envelope is being pushed, that we can have movies like "Hunger Games" and "Ender's Game" that use violence and its repercussions to tell interesting, meaningful stories for young adult audiences that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. On the other hand, there are so many, many films that lean on violence as a crutch, that use it badly, and far, far too often. The recent Superman reboot, "Man of Steel" went completely overboard on the the violence, sacrificing pacing, suspense, character development, and story to an endless brawl between two combatants who could hardly even feel the effects of the carnage being wrought. Zack Snyder is particularly guilty of this. I still maintain he ruined the "Watchmen" movie by pushing the content to ridiculous, indulgent extremes.

Ah, but "Watchmen" wasn't aimed at children and adolescents, and that's true, but it was made with the kind of sensibility that we see much too often in mainstream films for that audience, the one that assumes that violence is inherently interesting on its own. It's not. In fact, violence can be downright boring when executed badly, when it's unoriginal, perfunctory, prurient, and the filmmaker is too preoccupied with slick production values. Tamer PG-13 violence can be more problematic than the gorier, R-rated kind because it doesn't show consequences. It's "fantasy violence," to use the TV term, where nobody bleeds, nobody suffers a concussion from being knocked out, and nobody ends up paralyzed from a misaimed punch. It undercuts what actually makes violence compelling, which is the potential for serious harm.

And that takes us back to "Power Rangers." Personally, I never saw much harm in the show. The laser guns and karate chops didn't seem that much worse than the POW! and BIFF! type fisticuffs I used to watch on the old "Batman" TV series. The biggest difference to me was that the focus of the stories was almost always on the fighting, on the repetitive, escalating battles that always ended with a towering Godzilla-style monster being blown to smithereens. I keep being reminded of that pattern in a lot of bad mainstream action films for kids and young adults, particularly the "Transformers" movies. What bothered me about the show wasn't that it was silly or violent or foreign. It was that it was lazy. And I suspect it conditioned a lot of kids early on to expect laziness out of their media.

That's the part I still have a problem with.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Happy "Who" Milestone

Spoilers ahead for the "Doctor Who" 50th Anniversary, "The Day of the Doctor," and the recent "Doctor Who" mythos in general.

I am happy to report, that despite huge expectations, way too much hype, and a bumpy couple of seasons of "Doctor Who" that have lead to a decline in ratings, the long-awaited 50th Anniversary special for "Doctor Who" came out great. It was stuffed with callbacks and references to the older "Who" canon, but also perfectly watchable and coherent for newer fans. Most importantly, it did a fantastic job of tackling one of the primary central mysteries of the post-reboot era, what happened to The Doctor during the much alluded-to Time War. Generally I wouldn't be writing about a single episode like this, but we have here a genuine cultural event, and there's a lot to talk about.

The anniversary special is best supplemented with two tie-in shorts. The first is a six-minute prequel titled "The Night of the Doctor," starring the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. It's the only appearance the character has made outside of the 1996 American TV movie, and firmly settles the debate as to whether McGann's Doctor should be considered part of the larger "Who" continuity. And then there's the thirty-minute documentary spoof, "The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot," which follows the attempts of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy (that's Classic "Who" Doctors Five, Six, and Seven) to find a way to finagle themselves into the anniversary special. Loaded with cameos and in-jokes, it should go a long way towards soothing the ire of those die-hard "Who" fans who were really hoping for every living actor who played the Doctor to come back to put in a cameo appearance.

I'm glad that showrunner Steven Moffat didn't go that route. All the Doctors do show up eventually, though most of them only very briefly through archival footage and some CGI cut-and-paste. This means that there's plenty of room to actually tell a full-fledged, interesting "Doctor Who" story worthy of the momentous occasion. Thanks to some timey-wimey metaphysical rigamarole, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) gets to team up with the Tenth (David Tennant) to defeat a horde of invading shapeshifter aliens called the Zygons. We also meet the previously unknown regeneration of the Doctor that came between the canonical Eighth and Ninth Doctors. He is credited as the War Doctor (John Hurt), who fought during the Time War, and committed such atrocities against his own people that he abandoned the name of Doctor completely. Neither of his future selves is particularly happy to see him.

Current companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) and former Companion actress Billie Piper, playing the interface for a Doomsday machine called The Moment, are along for the ride too, but the story really belongs to the three versions of the Doctor. It's so much fun watching these characters interact, Ten and Eleven bickering, and the War Doctor acting like their exasperated father, who is incredulous that these two flashy young men are who he'll become in the future. But then we probe deeper, and examine how the actions and experiences of the War Doctor reverberate through the later phases of his life. It's a valuable chance for them to finally deal with a lot of emotional baggage that hasn't been fully acknowledged up to this point. The differences between Ten and Eleven are well defined, with Moffat designating them as "The One Who Regrets" and "The One Who Forgets."

But this certainly isn't a doom-and-gloom exercise. There's lots of humor, lots of action, and an outrageous deus ex machina bit of reconning that would be totally unforgivable if this was any show but "Doctor Who." Moffat makes fantastic use of Hurt and Tennant, and puts the cameos in where they're appropriate. It doesn't make sense to have Rose Tyler back, but Billie Piper is great as The Moment. Trying to shoehorn the older Doctors into the story would have been too much, but we do get Tom Baker, who played the Fourth and arguably the most iconic Doctor, in a quick closing cameo as an ambiguous figure known as The Curator. He's the only obvious fanservice in the special. Nearly all the other references are well integrated so that fans who aren't in the know won't realize they're missing anything.

There were a few bumpy spots. The absence of the Ninth Doctor (Christpher Eccleston) in any of the festivities was very obvious, and some have guessed that the War Doctor was only created because Eccleston declined to take part in the special. The story's resolution leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and may contradict earlier stories about the Time War like "The End of Time." And then there's the issue of the upcoming Christmas special - well, we'll save that for next time.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Fourth Annual Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

This year for Christmas, I want:

For a few major franchise films to tank so that we can stem the ridiculous tide of sequels and remakes that have been inundating multiplexes. I'm resigned to 2014 and 2015 being swamped in high-numbered sequels that nobody really wants, like "Transformers 4" and "Resident Evil 6," but so many of these series have outstayed their welcome and need to be put out to pasture. Why do we need another "Die Hard" movie? And another "Jurassic Park"? And are they really rebooting "Robocop"?

For more diverse superhero movies. With the superhero trend showing no signs of slowing down, we need to get black and Latino and female superheroes on the big screen eventually. It's inevitable at this point. I'd love to see those rumors of a Wonder Woman movie finally come true, or I'd even be happy with a Black Widow spinoff at this point. And did you see the fanart of Idris Elba as the Green Lantern that's being passed around the internet? John Stewart was the Lantern I always liked best anyway.

For next year's crop of original science-fiction movies to do well. We've got several prominent titles coming in 2014, including Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," Wally Pfister's "Transcendence," and the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Rising." I'm hoping that the success of "Gravity" was a harbinger of sorts, ushering in a new trend of more daring, more interesting science-fiction movies. Now that the price of the special effects has come down, we've been getting some very interesting new entries to the genre. And the future successes of these movies would mean a higher chance of Hollywood taking chances on future ones.

For more adventurous CGI animated films. 2013 has been a pretty dull year for animation so far, with too many too familiar characters, stories, and visuals. There are more franchises than ever before, and "Planes" in particular was a low point. I'm baffled that Dreamworks came out with two original properties this year, "The Croods" and "Turbo," while most of the other major studios were pushing sequels or prequels or spinoffs. With Miyazaki threatening to retire for good this time, and PIXAR having setbacks, this is a good opportunity for other animation producers to step up their game.

For the "Scandal" effect to keep on rolling. Some point to the "Obama effect," which has lead to prestige pieces featuring African-American stories like "12 Years a Slave," "The Help," and "The Butler," but I attribute the recent spike in minority lead actresses on television directly to Shonda Rimes and Kerry Washington. Thanks to their success, we have Nicole Beharie on "Sleepy Hollow," and the upcoming reboot of "Murder She Wrote" with Octavia Spencer. It's a good sign that the Golden Age of Television won't have the same problematic racial and gender representation issues as mainstream films.

For the continued rise of the web series revolution. I don't just mean on Netflix, but the original shows coming on Amazon, Hulu, Funny or Die, and other streaming content providers. This is the crux of the new media upheaval, and the new distribution models means that there is a fresh opportunity to do shows as no one has done them before. The variable running times, the new emergence of shorter form series, and more have resulted so far. There aren't many concrete rules yet, so creators should enjoy the freedom of the new frontier while they can.

For an uncut North American release of Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer." There are rumblings that test screenings of the Harvey Weinstein cut haven't gone well, and the bad press can't be doing the Weinsteins Company any favors. The original cut of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Mood Indigo," which is also being edited for international release by a different company, is probably much less likely to reach the U.S. for some time because of some of the reviews I've seen, but "Snowpiercer" should have a much better shot.

For all the shows that disappointed me this year to do better, and for the good ones to keep up the good work. And for some of those high-numbered sequels to surprise me next year. I know nobody sets out to make a bad movie, except Friedberg and Seltzer, purveyors of the worst movie spoofs in the history of movie spoofs, who need to ask themselves if this is really what they want to be doing with their lives.

For a good fifth season of "Community." I'm not holding out for six seasons and a movie anymore. Right now I just want Dan Harmon to be able to close out my favorite sitcom the way he wants.

For a more user-friendly Itunes. Seriously, I feel like I'm only still using the service because I can't cash out my remaining gift card balances.

And good luck to Peter Capaldi, perhaps the sexiest man to play "Doctor Who" to date.

And a pony.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 22, 2013

"The Legend of Korra": Year Two

It was a mixed year for "The Legend of Korra," with animation studios getting swapped around, too many different plots going on in the beginning, and Korra herself revealing deep flaws that felt like a major step backwards from her character progression last year. However, when all was said and done, I liked this season much better than the previous one. It has several episodes that are among the best things the "Avatar" team has ever done.

Korra faces several different antagonists this year. First there's her power-hungry uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern Water Tribe, who comes to the South with his twin children, Esca and Desna, to start a civil war. Angry dark spirits attacking ships and causing havoc are another problem. Then there's a mysterious force in Republic City that is also causing trouble but Mako, now a cop, is the only one who realizes it exists. Meanwhile, Bolin and Asami get caught up in the schemes of an eccentric businessman named Varrick. Tenzin, having been rejected by Korra after a severe falling out, spends time reconnecting with his family, including his older siblings Bumi and Kya. And finally there's the biggest villain of the season, whose very existence and relationship to the Avatar is a major spoiler.

"Legend of Korra" struggles to juggle all of these different characters and storylines. The spirit world figures into a lot of the story this year, and the season even features the subtitle "Book Two: Spirits," but there's so much else that needs to be set up and established, that we don't get around to the spirits for a long while. It's really not until the midpoint of the year, when we get to a two-parter explaining the origins of the Avatar, that the show seems to find its groove again and regains some of the lost coherence and momentum. I think the biggest issue was that the show tried too hard to make sure all of its supporting cast got time in the spotlight. Bolin's movie career, as funny as it was, could have been largely cut, and several of Tenzin's little bonding sessions with his kids likewise could have been skipped.

Korra herself bore the brunt of the damage, sad to say. She spent so many of the early episodes being stubborn, hotheaded, shortsighted, and much too easily duped, that I got frustrated with her, as I'm sure a lot of other viewers did. It's not that the issues she faced were inappropriate or that they didn't make sense for her character, but that they all should have been addressed much earlier, or in some cases it seemed like they had already been addressed during the first season. I understand that "Korra" was originally supposed to be a stand-alone miniseries and the creators wanted to end the first season with some finality, but too much of her development this year failed to build on her existing journey. Fortunately her arc concluded in a better place, and characters like Mako, Tenzin, and Bolin were handled better. Mako actually has a personality now, thank goodness.

Messy as it all was, ultimately I liked "Korra" this year so much better than last year. We got out of Republic City and got to see how the rest of the "Avatar" universe was doing. We delved much further into the show's mythology and there was a lot of great worldbuilding, particularly everything related to the first Avatar, Wan. There were also more references to and cameos by characters from the previous series, without relying on too many flashbacks. Aang was largely absent this year, but he had arguably a larger presence thanks to all the time we spent with his squabbling offspring. Lots of longstanding questions about the nature of the Avatar, the Spirit World, and the spirits were finally addressed.

I felt that the change in environment to largely urban settings was something of a mistake when "Korra" first premiered, so the focus on the spiritual world and the more slowly evolving Water Tribes was a welcome change. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Avatar Wan episodes, which take place thousands of years prior and utilize this wonderful woodblock art style. The Spirit World also provides lots of good opportunities for unique visuals with different design sensibilities. I should also note that it's very obvious which episodes were given to the show's primary animation house, Studio Mir, and which were farmed out to a second-stringer.

I'm a little worried about how the series is going to progress from here, because we've still got at least two more Books coming down the pipeline, and yet again the story seems to have wrapped up pretty nicely. It's hard to say where the story could go from here - maybe they'll finally do something with Zuko's grandson?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The 2013 January-June Bizarro Oscars

I had a lot of fun doing this last year, so we're back again. Who would the nominees and winners of the Oscars be if the voters were limited to choosing films that were only released during the first half of the year? I'm putting down my picks for the major categories, combining the Screenplay categories into a single one, because the logic of the Adapted/Original distinctions is just impenetrable. This year was more difficult to scrounge up possible nominees for than last year, because spring was really pretty dead, and most of the major summer contenders came later in the season. I'd be surprised if any of these films made a showing at Oscar time - which is the whole point of this little exercise.

Best Picture

Before Midnight
Frances Ha
The Great Gatsby
The Iceman
The Place Beyond the Pines
Side Effects
What Maisie Knew

I'm going to leave this at nine nominations, which is what the Academy had last year, because I've simply run out of likely contenders. I also considered Dannny Boyle's "Trance," which is too much of a genre picture, Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," which is too esoteric and wasn't very well received by critics, and "Upstream Color," which is too far removed from the mainstream for most Academy viewers to deal with. "Upstream" is currently my favorite film of the year. Other possibilities like "The Kings of Summer" or "Disconnect" are too obscure to garner much support. Out of this bunch, the real contenders are probably "Place Beyond the Pines," "Side Effects" and "Before Midnight." "Before Midnight" would win, being the only picture with any buzz left this season, and because it would be a chance to recognize the other "Before" films at the same time.

Best Director

Brian Hegeland - 42
Richard Linklater - Before Midnight
Jeff Nichols - Mud
Derek Cianfrance - The Place Beyond the Pines
Stephen Soderbergh - Side Effects

I really wanted to put Noah Baumbach here for "Frances Ha," but the Best Director Nominees traditionally mirror the frontrunners for Best Picture, and crowdpleaser "42" would have a much better shot than "Frances." Besides, Hegeland is a Hollywood veteran and has a significant body of work, though mostly as a screenwriter. The other open slot goes to Jeff Nichols, becuase "Mud" was great, though not the kind of film the Academy usually goes for. The trophy would still go to Linklater for "Before Midnight."

Best Screenplay

Richard Linklater - Before Midnight
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
Jeff Nichols - Mud
Derek Cianfrance - The Place Beyond the Pines
Scott Z. Burns - Side Effects

This is where I would put "Frances Ha," where I think it has the best chance for recognition. Aside from Baumbach and Gerwig for "Frances," and Scott Z. Burns for "Side Effects," this is nearly the same bunch as the Best Director group, underlining how important writer/directors have become in recent years. I don't think there's a clear favorite in this category, but my choice would be Baumbach and Gerwig for "Frances Ha," so let's go with that.

Best Actor

Chadwick Boseman - 42
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Great Gatsby
Matthew McConaughey - Mud
Michael Shannon - The Iceman
Ryan Gosling - The Place Beyond the Pines

Sorry Ethan Hawke fans. As much as I like him in "Before Midnight," he's never been the most memorable part of any of the "Before" movies, and the competition's pretty stiff. We can argue about whether McConaughey and Gosling should be counted as Lead or Supporting for their roles, but they were the headliners and made their time onscreen count. "The Iceman" didn't live up to Michael Shannon's performance, but wasn't able to diminish it either. Boseman played Jackie Robinson, which speaks for itself. Finally, Leo practically single-handedly made "Gatsby" work, and the Academy would likely give him the statuette for it.

Best Actress

Julie Delpy - Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
Rooney Mara - Side Effects
Amy Seimetz - Upstream Color
Onata Aprile - What Maisie Knew

Most of the major contenders didn't feature particularly memorable lead performances from actresses. So I had to dig into some of the less well-known titles. Delpy, Gerwig, and Mara have all been well recognized as being a big part of why their respective films worked. Delpy would probably go home with the Oscar. However, the most unique and interesting performance I've seen from an actress this year was Amy Seimetz's work in "Upstream Color," and if the movie would be honored by the Academy for anything it would be for that. Also, it's worth remembering that much of the buzz around "What Maisie Knew," was for the work of its excellent child star.

Best Supporting Actor

Harrison Ford - 42
Jude Law - Side Effects
James Franco - Spring Breakers
Nick Offerman - The Kings of Summer
Ben Mendelsohn - The Place Beyond the Pines

James Franco would be a long shot in the current race, but not here. Alien in "Spring Breakers" was one of the best supporting performances we got this spring. Harrison Ford's been having a nice, quite comback year, and "42" was one of the highlights. Jude Law was just as important in the chemistry of "Side Effects" as Rooney Mara. Nick Offerman completely surprised me in "Kings of Summer," and Mendelsohn has been sadly overlooked, despite contributing so much to the "Place Beyond the Pines" ensemble. No clear winner here, so I declare this a five-way tie. I also considered Jake Gyllenhaal and Joel Edgerton for "The Great Gatsby," but I just like the others more.

Best Supporting Actress

Gemma Arterton - Byzantium
Nicole Kidman - Stoker
Carey Mulligan - The Great Gatsby
Eva Mendes - The Place Beyond the Pines
Julianne Moore - What Maisie Knew

I'm the first to admit this is not a great list of performances, but again, most of the major films in contention were pretty male-centric this time. I specifically scoured my lists for older and obscure actresses, and came up almost empty. So, it's the usual favorites like Julianne Moore, Carey Mulligan, and Nicole Kidman who are back. Kidman was the most interesting thing about "Stoker," and the same goes for Gemma Arterton in "Byzantium." Eva Mendes managed to stand out in "The Place Beyond the Pines," quite a feat considering the cast. Mulligan gave the difficult role of Daisy Buchanan in "Gatsby" some life, and Moore was lovably hateable in "Maisie."


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Almost Human" Could Be Great

Let me get the obvious comparisons out of my system first. FOX's new science-fiction cop show, "Almost Human," could also be titled "Blade Runner: The Series" or "Alien Nation: The Android Years." It's takes place in a world roughly thirty years into the future, where android "synthetics" are now a common part of human society. After a massive uptick in crime due to the rise in well-organized, well-armed criminal syndicates who deal in all kinds of dangerous new technology, all police officers are now required to have a synthetic partner.

We're introduced to John Kennex (Karl Urban), a decorated detective who lost his human partner and the team he commanded to a syndicate ambush, and is only returning to duty after nearly two years of recovery, with a synthetic leg and a lot of personal baggage. He initially rejects the idea of a synthetic partner, but is eventually paired up with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an older model that has been largely discontinued, because his model was designed to mimic humans very closely, and had an unfortunate history of mental instability. Supporting players include Kennex's supportive superior, Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor), fellow detectives Richard Paul (Michael Irby) and Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), and the eccentric lab tech Rudy (Mackenzie Crook), who is their go-to for information on synthetics.

The first few synthetic police officers we see speak and act like we'd expect robots would, with slightly electronically modified voices, overly technical jargon, and strict adherence to the rules and regulations. It doesn't hit the viewer until they meet the far more human-like Dorian that sentient beings in "Almost Human," are being treated as possessions and property, despite the clear evidence that some are built to think and feel and intuit on the same level that human beings do. The fact that Dorian is played by a black actor, and Kennex by a white one only underlines the point. Though there's been a lot of unsubtle hinting, these issues haven't been addressed directly yet, because the show is still busy setting up the buddy-cop dynamic and introducing this new world to the audience, bit by bit.

And what a world. Created by J.H. Wyman, a veteran of "Fringe," and produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, "Almost Human" is one of the best-looking science fiction universes I've ever seen on television. The worldbuilding is gorgeous and the special effects are feature-quality and liberally used. There's rarely any sign of subpar graphics work or iffy practical elements that tend to dog similar shows like this. The second, case-of-the-week episode is just as impressive-looking as the action-heavy pilot. The show cribs quite a few design elements from "Blade Runner," and "TRON," which gives it an appealing retro-futuristic '80s feel. I suspect that's why "Almost Human" was also giving off some distinct "Miami Vice" vibes too, not that John Kennex would ever be caught dead in pastels.

So far Kennex has been the stoic grump hiding a lot of pain, and Dorian put in a quasi-counselor role, pointedly trying to get him to reconnect to humanity. I really like the pairing of Urban and Ealy, two actors who have been knocking around the media landscape for far too long without adequate opportunities to show what they can do. I know I've seen Ealy before in other roles, but found it hard to recall those performances, but in "Almost Human," it's almost impossible to stop looking at him. He doesn't play up any quirks to denote Dorian's artificiality, but it's there. I could spend the rest of the season just watching his uncanny valley reactions to things.

The banter's been great, and the overall writing strong enough that I'll be happy to wait for the deeper, juicier storylines to develop the way they have on the other Bad Robot shows like "Person of Interest." So far the show has set up a big arc that will follow Kennex trying to bring down the syndicate and find out what happened to his ex-girlfriend Anna (Mekia Cox), who disappeared while he was in a coma. There's also a lot we need to uncover about Dorian's origins. This is pretty rote stuff, but hopefully it'll lead to better things in the future.

I'm also itching to see the supporting cast fleshed out and developed more. Minka Kelly's character, yet another victim of low-cut blouse syndrome, is so obviously Kennex's major love interest that the show doesn't bother trying to pretend that she isn't for more than one episode. Lili Taylor and Mackenzie Crook on network television should be a treat though, if the creators give their characters enough to do. And apparently John Larroquette will be joining the cast shortly. He's always fun.

If "Almost Human" keeps up its current level of quality and ambition, this could be a great sci-fi series, and there haven't been many lately. I'm also very encouraged that we're dealing with a hard sci-fi concept, artificial intelligence, rather than the softer genre entries that have been coming in lately, like all the superpower and post-apocalypse shows. And with a cast and budget at this level, I'm hoping for the best.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wright, Frost and Pegg at "World's End"

I was a little confused by the early trailers for "The World's End." Wan't this supposed to be Edgar Wright and company's spoof of an apocalypse film? Or were we looking at something closer to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which though technically under the aegis of the sci-fi genre, is much closer to horror, and they'd already covered very similar thematic ground in "Sean of the Dead," right? Anyway, the prior collaborations of Wright with actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was strong enough that I was willing to give them some benefit of the doubt.

"World's End" caps off what is now popularly known as the "Cornetto Trilogy," begun with zombie parody "Sean of the Dead," and continued with action movie lampoon, "Hot Fuzz." If you didn't know anything about "World's End," you might initially mistake it for a pleasant little comedy about a group of old college friends who reunite after a few decades to go bar-hopping together. Simon Pegg plays Gary King, once the coolest guy in town, but now a washed-up, middle-aged nobody who never really did anything with his life. Trying to recapture some of his former glory, he manipulates his old friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to come help him finish the Golden Mile, which requires twelve pints downed from twelve different pubs around their hometown of Newton Haven. Twenty years ago, they didn't manage to finish, but this time Gary is determined to succeed.

There's absolutely nothing genre-related going on in the first thirty to forty minutes of the film, but it's still a pretty entertaining look at a group of old friends taking stock of where they've ended up after twenty years. Gary is extremely likeable, in spite of being a mess of a human being and willing to resort to all kinds of lies and tricks in order to get his way. Pegg gives him a lot of rough-edged charm and vulnerability. Frost, meanwhile, is playing against type as the most world-weary and most successful of the bunch, who has the least amount of patience for Gary's antics. Their relationship, as is tradition, is the heart of the film. The other three members of their group are less well defined, but get their own little subplots and moments to shine. I'd have been perfectly happy to see a straight comedy with these guys, just dealing with typical middle-aged problems.

So when the supernatural action business does get underway, initially I was a little put off. Were we really going to have to drop all this good character-building for an hour of fights and chases and CGI explosions? But this wasn't "Transformers," but an Edgar Wright film, and he's always very adept at weaving all the themes and the story threads into the action. The guys do quite a bit of soul-searching and personal demon slaying as they try to survive the night. I won't give away the nature of the threat, in case you haven't been spoiled by the trailers and the commercials yet, but rest assured that Wright and the rest also do right by the science-fiction genre, the way they did with the zombies and the action heroes.

Edgar Wright's movie universes are always a lot of fun because they're so well constructed. "The World's End" has loads of little details you won't pick up until a rewatch, all of them subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing the story's themes and ideas. The science-fiction story parallels the guys' own gradual slide into complacency and suburban stagnation over the years. Each new bar brings new surprises, the situation escalating to a wonderfully weird finale. I liked that there were real consequences to people's actions, and the story goes to some surprisingly deep, dark, and serious places. On the other hand, the action is a blast to watch, the humor delivers, and the movie is an awful lot of fun.

As with the previous Cornetto films, keep an eye out for cameos, in-jokes, references, and visual puns. I expect that opinions are going to be very mixed as to how this compares to the previous installments in the trilogy. It's probably the least action-oriented, and the least concerned with dissecting genre tropes, but it also has some of the most well-rounded characters with the most touching stories. The epilogue has been downright controversial in the discussions I've seen around the internet. Personally, I like "The World's End" a little less than "Shaun of the Dead" and a little more than "Hot Fuzz." And it is by far the best of it's own particular little sub-genre of similar films that we've seen this year.

And does this have to be the last Cornetto film? There are so many more movie genres that could use this trio's attention.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On "The Lathe of Heaven"

Watching all of these recent science-fiction action spectaculars premiere lately, I think it's a good thing to remember that you really don't need much by way of resources to make a good, engaging science-fiction movie. And I'm not just talking about the one-room talking head exercises like "The Man From Earth," or artsy pieces like Darren Aronofsky's "Pi." Some of the best science fiction media ever made has been very simple stuff, often forgotten and overlooked in favor of flashier projects. One of my favorite sci-fi obscurities is a television movie with very unlikely origins.

Way back in 1980, PBS commissioned directors David Loxton and Fred Barzyk to create a pilot for a potential series of science-fiction television films. The series never materialized, but this did result in an adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Lathe of Heaven," the story of a man named George Orr (Bruce Davison), who has "effective dreams," dreams that can rewrite reality while he sleeps. George goes to a doctor who specializes in dreaming, Dr. Haber (Kevin Conway), hoping to be cured, but when Haber discovers Orr's powers, he decides to use them to try and better the world according to his own ideals. He aims to solve all the problems that plague mankind - war, prejudice, poverty, and more. Unfortunately, George's dreams prove to be mercurial, and difficult to control. The story is complex, set in a dystopian future that undergoes disasters, plagues, and even an alien invasion. Loxton and Barzyk had a budget of $250K (about $710K in today's dollars), and two weeks to shoot the movie.

Watching the film today, it's clear that budget could only be made to stretch so far. You can tell that most of the film was shot in and around a series of Dallas office buildings. Many of the effects look terribly primitive, notable the alien spacecraft that are no more than crudely animated blobs of light superimposed on top of landscape shots. All the aliens are clearly a single creature puppet, dressed and shot differently for each appearance. However, some of the storytelling devices and production solutions that the filmmakers came up with are simply brilliant. Surreal video art and symbolic images populate George's dreams, showing major upheavals happening in the abstract. To present the devastating effects of a plague, George dreams he is seated at a table surrounded by people, who all are eventually draped in gray sheets and then disappear, one by one. When he wakes up, the once busy courtyard below Dr. Haber's office is empty. Simple as that.

The performances do a lot of the heavy lifting here. The film is very exposition-heavy. Each time George has an effective dream, he wakes up to a different reality that needs some of the details filled in, and there is a lot of thunderous debate about the nature of reality, morality, existentialism, and other such heavy topics. It's simple enough for non-sci-fi fans to follow easily, but the material could get dry very quickly. Fortunately Davison and Conway are up to the task. Conway especially is fantastic, as the self-righteous and increasingly megalomaniacal Dr. Haber who morphs from a friendly counselor into a menacing villain. The two of them, plus Margaret Avery as George's lawyer and love interest Heather LeLache, keep the increasingly bizarre and cerebral story from ever going off the rails.

"The Lathe of Heaven" is remarkably faithful to its source material. Author Ursula K. LeGuin was heavily involved with the film from the start. As a result, the script by Roger Swaybill and Diane English (who would create "Murphy Brown" a few years later) is refreshingly smart, literate, and trusts the audience to be able to keep up with its numerous twists and turns. In the spirit of "The Twilight Zone," the ideas are placed at the forefront, rather than the actors or the effects, and it's apparent how much trust the filmmakers had in the strength of the concepts. At the same time, it's a very cinematic adaptation, with little moments of humor and lots of great visuals. The aliens, somehow, have not aged badly, and I've never seen a film with more threatening shots of urban architecture.

"The Lathe of Heaven" was difficult to come by for years, never released on home media thanks to rights snafus until the year 2000, when it was restored and rereleased. It experienced a brief resurgence of interest thanks to this, enough to prompt a new adaptation from A&E in 2002 with a much bigger budget, but little of the charm or effectiveness. Over the past thirteen years, "The Lathe of Heaven" has largely faded from the public consciousness again, which I think is a shame. It's one of those rare, successful adaptations that really should be discussed in the same breath with the 70s sci-fi classics like "Silent Running" or "Soylent Green." It remains a cult favorite, though, and at least it's far easier to access now than ever.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hell's Frozen Over: The "Ender's Game" Movie

I read "Ender's Game" when I was in junior high, and several of the sequels, but I was never particularly taken with the series. The elements that many of its fans prize - the shockingly young age of the primary characters, the brutality of their actions, and the sadism of their elders, did not particularly appeal to me, and I didn't find them vital to the story. That's probably why I didn't react as badly to the film version of "Ender's Game" as many others, which has predictably had its content considerably toned down from the book.

In a not-too-distant future, mankind has barely survived an invasion force of insectoid aliens called the Formics, and have directed their entire society towards training a generation of young soldiers for the next encounter with them. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who runs the Battle School program for the most gifted children, singles out a boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) as their best hope, and aggressively begins to train and mold him into a ruthless leader. Ender is conflicted, and despite Graff's efforts to isolate him, tries to maintain ties with his older sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Ha also make friends and allies at Battle School, including a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and a younger boy, Bean (Aramis Knight).

"Ender's Game" stays fairly faithful to the books, perhaps too much so, trying to cram far too much story into a film that one suspects was contractually required to run shorter than two hours. There is way too much exposition, introducing concepts and characters at breakneck speeds, and the pacing is a mess. Even with several important subplots deleted from the story, everything still feels rushed. The timeline has been seriously compressed, so that Ender's training only seems to take a few months instead of several years. Many characters don't get nearly as much fleshing out as they need to, and there are some parts of the story that are so watered down, that they don't really work any more. The primary one is the Mind Game, a video game used as a psychological testing tool that takes on greater for Ender. Rendered in unappealing CGI, all the Mind Game sequences are a bust.

Then you have the main feature of the Battle School, the Battle Room, a zero-G training environment where two "armies" of cadets meet in simulated combat. Despite so much importance and emphasis being placed on Ender's experiences in the Battle Room, which have by far the most impressive visuals of the film, we only get to see two training sessions and two full battles. After that, we're whisked away somewhere else completely. It's difficult to stay invested in the film when we keep bouncing around from place to place, from one set of characters and dilemmas to the next. Ender has many challenges to overcome, but they're overcome so quickly that most of them hardly feel like challenges at all.

Still, the movie gets some fundamental things right. The first is Ender, aged up to about twelve or thirteen. Asa Butterfield, last seen as the waif in "Hugo," is credible as a boy with the potential for enormous cruelty and destructiveness, but who also has great intelligence, empathy, and sensitivity. Many of Ender's experiences could have come across as dry philosophical exercises, but Butterfield succeeds in humanizing the young genius enough to make the audience care about him. Likewise Colonel Graff is about the best performance I've seen out of Harrison Ford in years. Some of his actions border on the inhumane, but you understand Graff's motivations and his reasoning.

I wish I could say the same for some of the others. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin's roles have been so altered or truncated, they're not left with much to do. Ender and Petra's friendship gets some unfortunate romantic connotations the way they've been aged up. The role of Major Anderson, the second in command at Battle School, was beefed up for Viola Davis. She's placed as a counterpoint to Graff, concerned with Ender's psychological well-being and the damage that the training may be doing. Unfortunately, it's a thread of the story that goes nowhere, and abandoned before it can really pan out. Then there's Moises Arias, an interesting choice to play Ender's chief rival, Bonzo, but severely undercut for simple lack of time.

I got enough out of the movie that I would recommend it, but with a lot of caveats. It's compromised, it's messy, it has a lot of good ideas it doesn't know what to do with, it's too short, and it's too reductive. And yet, I admire it for its great ambitions and for pushing the envelope as far as it did. And I'm glad that we've reached a point, culturally, where an "Ender's Game" film of any faithfulness could be produced.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Are Villains the Next Trend?

Disney unveiled the teaser trailer for their new "Maleficent" movie with Angelina Jolie this week. It seems to be following in the footsteps of "Wicked," which turned the Wicked Witch of the West into a misunderstood antihero, and the "Once Upon a Time" series, which has humanized and complicated several Disney villains, most notably the Queen from "Snow White," Rumpelstiltskin, and Captain Hook. A good villain or monster has always been an object of fascination, capable of anchoring their own lucrative franchises like "Hannibal" and "Dracula." With the rise of antiheroes on television, characters with many shades of gray are all the rage.

So villains are enjoying a higher profile than ever before. Even the media that doesn't explicitly put the villain front and center often features marketing that does. With so many superhero franchises churning out so many different installments, it's often the villains who are getting the most press, simply because they're often the only new element in too-familiar sequels. There was endless debate about the nature of Ben Kingsley's Mandarin in "Iron Man 3," huge anticipation for Benedict Cumberbatch's baddie-who-is-still-a-spoiler in "Star Trek Into Darkness," and the only thing people seem to have consistently liked about "Thor: The Dark World" was Tom Hiddleston's return as trickster god Loki. In the marketing push for the upcoming "Amazing Spider-man 2," it's all about Jamie Foxx's Electro right now. And what do we know about the next "Avengers"? Who all the new villains are and who's signed up to play them.

Fairy tales feature some of the most iconic villains in pop culture, and the fairy tale trend has been going strong for a while now in movies and television shows. Filmmakers have so far taken a variety of different approaches to bringing these stories to the big screen. We've had the fairly straightforward "Mirror, Mirror" and Kenneth Branagh's upcoming "Cinderella." There have been more adult, gritty action spectaculars like "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." The recent Tim Burton "Alice in Wonderland" was technically a sequel to the Lewis Carroll original, with a grown-up Alice who must become a warrior to save Wonderland. However, many of the most successful of these films have been the ones that have taken steps to reinvent classic characters, or put their own particular twist on the familiar stories in a less drastic way, almost always putting more emphasis on the villain of the piece.

When Disney revisited "The Wizard of Oz" universe earlier this year, it decided to put the focus on the Wonderful Wizard instead of Dorothy, creating an origin story for the Wizard and the Wicked Witch resulting in "Oz, the Great and Powerful." It was an easy way to give a children's story a more adult sensibility to attract older audiences while retaining much of the whimsy and charm of the original. A "Sleeping Beauty" adaptation was always a difficult sell because the heroine is so passive, but if you put the iconic villainess in the spotlight, suddenly it becomes much more interesting for grown-ups. What's more, princesses tend to require ingenues, but you can attract an A-list star with some real clout like Angelina Jolie with a more interesting evil witch or sorceress role, "Peter Pan" is the next property lots of different studios have been circling. There are multiple projects in development right now, most of them revisionist prequels and origin stories revolving around Pan and Hook.

And why not? Villains have often been sorely neglected in other adaptations and their histories are largely uncharted territory. Disney has been particularly good at fleshing out old storybook antagonists, turning the fairly unmalicious old sea hag from "The Little Mermaid" into boisterous diva Ursula, and putting George Sanders' voice with an animated tiger for an unforgettable Shere Khan. And they're still at it. This year's newest Disney animated feature, "Frozen," will star a far more complicated, human Snow Queen than the one conceived of by Hans Christian Anderson. Good villains are one of the big advantages Disney still has over Dreamworks and other competitors. I can imagine a lot of possibilities for interesting projects similar to "Maleficent."

On the other hand, I also feel that filmmakers should proceed with caution. It would be too easy to push too far making these villains into sympathetic antiheroes and tragic figures, undercutting what made them so memorable to begin with. The "Maleficent" synopsis reveals her fairy tale origins have been entirely reworked, and there's the possibility that she may get a happy ending. Is this really what we want? Explaining the origins of the Grinch in the live action movie was a terrible mistake, and I never looked at Darth Vader quite the same way again after the "Star Wars" prequels.

Usually we like the bad guys because they're, well, bad.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Populaire" is Terrific Fun

The recent French romantic comedy "Populaire" depends heavily on the fact that it takes place at the end of the 1950s, when a bright young woman named Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) considers a secretarial job for an insurance firm to be something to aspire to. Her new boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris) quickly dubs her a terrible secretary, but is intrigued by her ability to type at incredible speeds. He maneuvers her into competing in speed typing competitions, becoming her coach and biggest supporter. Is there any doubt that his prickly exterior will eventually soften, and the two will end up together, just as Rose faces her greatest challenge on the world stage? But as always, it's the execution that makes all the difference.

Romances and competition films have similar structures, and it's a mystery to me why they're not paired up more often to such good effect. My guess is that the filmmakers have trouble balancing the two sides of the story, and tend to lose the character drama as the sports cliches take hold. "Populaire" manages the trick by throwing its full weight behind the love story, which is very much a new spin on the old "Pygmalion" plot. The leads have wonderful chemistry and they have plenty of room to build up good characters and establish their onscreen relationship. Déborah François is charming and fresh, while Romain Duris comes off as a jerk at first, but slowly metamophoses into someone worth rooting for.

What I really appreciated about "Populaire" was that it's fairly straightforward, with few of the maddening little arbitrary complications that tend to plague most modern romantic comedies. When the roadblocks do come up - Échard still having feelings for an old flame Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and Rose rising to greater fame, they come up organically and they're earned. The end of the second act, when sports movies generally toss in some new group of rivals, or romances have an old boyfriend return out of the blue, avoids the common pitfalls by digging deeper into its characters. Rose has had all the growth and development so far, so now we turn to Échard and figure out his motivations, and see how he's been changed by the experience.

One of my favorite segments of the film is a brief series of scenes where Rose is left with nowhere to go on Christmas, so Marie takes her to Échard's house and introduces her to his assembled family as Échard's fianceé. A different film would have dragged out the deception, or inflated its importance. "Populaire" does not, simply using the evening to get the pair used to the notion that they make a good romantic pair, and Échard's family are neither seen nor mentioned again. Or then there's the running series of bets that Échard makes with his friend Bob (Shaun Benson) on the typing competitions. This is not a plot point at all, but a gimmick used to illustrate Échard's character. It's revealed to Rose very early on, and it barely seems to matter to her. How many other romantic films have blown similar bets all out of proportion?

As a result, "Populaire" is a breeze to watch, very familiar and predictable and pleasant. The typing competitions are a lot of fun, exciting and agreeably silly at the same time. A lot of humor comes from the subtle satire of the time period, with lots of visual caricatures of businessmen and typists, particularly the period fashions. The production design is very bright and colorful, heavy on the pastels and graphic patterns. Homages to older films are everywhere and brief appearances are made by older stars. You get the feeling that if you just walked a few blocks away from the clattering typists, you might run across a Jacques Demy musical taking place at the same time.

I think I reacted so well to "Populaire," because there have been far too many romantic-comedies that have gotten it so wrong in recent years, too goofy, too melodramatic, too complicated, too subversive, too retro, or too modern. Or more often, they get all the right components lined up, but end up with all the wrong proportions. "Populaire" is perfectly balanced, between the sport and the romance, between Rose and Échard, and between the giddy effervescence of the '60s trappings and the decidedly more forward-thinking attitudes of our heroes toward being in love.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Introducing "Steven Universe"

Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" just isn't losing steam, after three years and five seasons. I've mostly missed the boat on this series, to my regret, but I'm getting in on the ground floor of a brand new show that could be described as something of a spiritual spin-off, "Steven Universe." It premiered on Cartoon Network last week, helmed by Rebecca Sugar, one of the most high profile staff members of "Adventure Time." So here's a review.

"Steven Universe" is getting a lot of press for Sugar, who is the first woman to be billed as sole creator of a Cartoon Network production. Since Cartoon Network has been a little light on programming featuring girls since the Powerpuffs went off the air, I was glad to hear it. And sure enough, "Steven Universe" features three very strong, interesting female characters, Garnet (UK singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), who are known collectively as the Crystal Gems, and protect Earth from all manner of monsters and mayhem with their special Gem powers. Amethyst can conjure a whip and has shapeshifting abilities, and Pearl conjures a sword and can create holograms, for instance.

However, the story is firmly focused on their youngest and newest recruit, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an energetic, roly-poly boy around preteen age who inherited a Gem from his departed mother, but doesn't know how to use it yet. In the premiere he briefly manages to activate it, conjuring up a shield. Sadly, attempts to repeat the feat have so far failed. Steven lives with the Crystal Gem warriors in their temple/headquarters/apartment, and does his best to help them with their world-saving while getting into plenty of trouble on his own. He's very much a little brother figure, struggling to prove himself and live up to his elders. Everything is seen from his point of view, and it's a funny, cheerful, and entertaining one.

The Gems have a lot of personality and have a lot of potential as characters, but the show works because Steven works. He's a lot like Finn from "Adventure Time," except a little younger and sillier, and much less competent. Steven works very hard, but has to deal with a lot of failure. Fortunately Steven is a very resilient kid who never stops trying, and he's got great support from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who may be busy, but clearly care a lot about him. We briefly meet Steven's dad, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling), in the second episode, a former rocker who lives out of a van. He's loving and amiable, but clearly "a mess," and Steven is probably better off rooming with the superheroes.

So far it's the show's visuals and its genial sense of humor that have me hooked. I love, love, love how the Crystal Gems have been designed. They're all clearly female, but Garnet is a big, stoic warrior figure, Amethyst is messy and laid back, with some huggable heft to her, and brainy Pearl is icicle thin, but all angles. They're very different from how women and girls are usually caricatured in animation, with little effort to make them look conventionally attractive. The animation is fun, full of crazy action and wacky facial expressions, but what's really impressive is the gorgeous background art and environments. The Gems' temple is a real stunner, featured heavily in most recent episode.

Best of all, I like how the show is goofy and weird and very much committed to doing its own thing. Steven has a habit of randomly singing songs - most of which he made up himself. He gets obsessed with things like ice cream sandwiches and making snappy comebacks. A whole episode is devoted to him showing off the usefulness of a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. It's only been four episodes, and the potential for memes is already off the charts. And yet underneath it all, the show has a lot of heart. The Gems act like a group of close siblings, and plots are more concerned with relationship dynamics and interpersonal issues than the usual superhero action schtick.

I'm rooting for "Steven Universe" to stick around for a while. It has completely won me over and I'm curious to know about the show's bigger mythology and everybody's backstories. There's a lot that has been hinted at, but we don't know many specifics yet. It hasn't been explained where the Gems come from or if the girls are even Earthlings. There's also not much of a wider cast so far. Aside from Steven's family unit, the only other potential semi-regulars that have appeared are a mailman and the employees of a local donut shop. But as we've been getting introduced to this world little by little, it's been a blast. And I look forward to getting to know "Steven Universe" a lot better.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Measuring up "Man of Steel"

I'm glad I went into "Man of Steel" with fairly low expectations. The Richard Donner "Superman" is so deeply embedded into my psyche, I've pretty much accepted that there's never going to be another take on the character that will live up to it for me. The new version certainly didn't, but it didn't try to. Rather, it is exactly what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder kept threatening it would be, a much darker, moodier, serious version that shows no trace of Superman's origin in comic books for wide-eyed young children. I found the movie mostly well made, very uneven, and overwhelmingly joyless, humorless, and honestly a little depressing.

Still, I understand perfectly why many moviegoers enjoyed "Man of Steel." Not everyone wants the larger than life superhero figure that I always think of Superman as being. This version is far more human, full of doubts about his place in the world and his responsibilities toward Earth and Krypton. Henry Cavill does a great job filling out the suit and giving Kal-El/Clark Kent some psychological depth. Much of the running time is devoted to his growing pains, charting encounters with bullies, struggles to hide his burgeoning powers, and his relationship with his adopted father, played by Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in years.

Less successful are the parts of the movie that deal with the Kryptonians. Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gets a much expanded role, setting up the conflict with the film's villains and sending his infant son to Earth in the opening sequence. These scenes are too exposition-heavy, designed to deliver mind-numbing action sequence after action sequence, and take away from the more personal exploration of the Superman character that the rest of the film tries to give us. The villains, banished Kryptonians General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Faora (Antje Traue), are a bust. They're intimidating, sure, but they're not developed well at all, and because "Man of Steel" plays everything so straight, Michael Shannon isn't in a position to really let his inner ham loose the way we all know that Michael Shannon can.

Somewhere in the middle, and often getting a bit lost amid all the other plot threads, is the romance with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She provides a lot of early momentum to the plot, chasing after an elusive proto-Superman in order to report on his story, but becomes caught up in his plight and the threat from the Kryptonians. Adams gets a lot to do, and I like this more grounded conception of the character, but Lois Lane remains fairly blank, barely making an more of an impression than her disapproving boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). When she falls in love with Superman, it's so matter-of-fact, you wonder if any of the writers had ever been in a romantic relationship before.

"Man of Steel" tries to do too much and be too many different movies. The parts that worked - the character pieces about the young Superman, the examination of two different father-son relationships, and the journey of self-discovery, would have been more than enough on their own to fill out a whole feature film. However, this is a summer superhero spectacular, and Zack Snyder was hired to direct, so of course it also had to be an epic scale action movie too. The trouble is that action movie is an unrelenting smash-fest, completely missing the nuance and the atmosphere of the rest of the movie. The final climactic battle seems to go on forever, an orgy of destruction that completely loses human dimensions in yet another attempt this year to best "The Avengers."

"Man of Steel" did some things right, and established the new Superman well enough that I think he has the potential to carry a full franchise. However, the way the movie was constructed, so that it's all the fights and CGI that are pushed front and center, ironically all the character development got backgrounded. Cavill gets tossed around, but he rarely gets to do much acting. The bulk of the development is really with the kids in the flashbacks. Consequently, I don't think I got nearly as good a sense of what this Superman is all about as I should have. And that's a shame.

Will I give him another shot? Sure, I guess. Pairing him with the new Batman in the next outing is a good idea, and should help to better distinguish his character. "Man of Steel" took a few too many cues from "The Dark Knight," delivering another brooding hero in a grim universe. It'll be good to see him face off with Batman directly so the filmmakers will have to address what really makes Superman, well, Superman. On the other hand, assuming it's the same creative team, there's a strong likelihood that we're in for more brainless carnage overload.

I'm really not happy with where the DC movie universe is going right now.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Negotiating the Thanksgiving Theater Trip

I love the fact that we're getting so many more prestige pictures in October, movies like "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" that have been doing very well at the box office. However, this leaves me with a little bit of a dilemma this year. You see, Thanksgiving weekend has become something of a magnet for would-be blockbusters over the last few years, and the prestige pictures are getting edged out. "Gravity" will be in its ninth weekend of release by Thanksgiving weekend, and difficult to find. "Captain Phillips" will be in week eight, and probably even scarcer because it didn't do as much business. This worries me, because these are my best bets for "older parent friendly movies" to take Mom and Dad to during Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving has always been a movie weekend in or family. I have very fond memories of seeing Disney films like "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" with older cousins who herded us all out of the house for a Friday or Saturday matinee, and did my own share of herding when I was old enough. There were a lot of James Bond films in the 90s, various historical dramas, Zhang Yimou films, and other Oscar bait when it was just my immediate family, since my parents aren't big on blockbusters. This year is going to be one of those Thanksgivings, with most of the younger cousins grown up or planning to be away for the holiday. But as I'm looking at the upcoming schedule of holiday releases for films that are Mom and Dad appropriate, I worry that I may be in for some trouble here.

I've discussed on this blog before that my parents love movies, but their preferences tend to skew very old-fashioned. Last year was fine with "Life of Pi," a nice adventure spectacle with a respectably mature storyline. Or else we might have gone to "Lincoln" or "Skyfall." This year, there will be no James Bond to bail me out and there's not a lot of Oscar contenders in the mix. I'm looking at a sea of effects-heavy science fiction and fantasy films, exactly the sort of thing that my mother is likely to dismiss as "silly" and my father will reject as being "for kids." So no "Thor," no "Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and no "Ender's Game." If it were just my mother, "Frozen" would be an option, because she loves musicals and never had a problem taking us to Disney cartoons. Dad, not so much.

I'm also worried about content. Films like "The Counselor" and "Blue is the Warmest Color" are out, way too graphic for them to handle. Spike Lee's "Oldboy" should be tamer than the Korean original, but still too violent and intense to consider. "Homefront" with Jason Statham is out for similar reasons. "12 Years a Slave" and "All is Lost" are probably going to be too heavy and depressing viewing. Nearly all the comedies are out for potential crude language and sex. "Last Vegas" and "Delivery Man" are both only rated PG-13, but considering their plots revolve around a a lot of potentially illicit behavior and you can get away with a lot with a PG-13 these days, I'd rather be safe than squirming awkwardly in my seat the entire time.

So what's left? If "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" are gone from theaters, I'm hoping that I can find "Nebraska" or "Inside Llewyn Davis," which should both be in limited runs by then. "Dallas Buyers Club" is a firm maybe. "Escape Plan," weirdly enough, is also an option. Arnold and Sly may be as silly as superheroes in their own way, but they're still grounded enough in reality to balance that out. Historical movies like "The Book Thief" and "The Fifth Estate" usually go over well. I'm not particularly keen on seeing either of these, but one does what one must. One year not too long ago, the iffy George W. Bush biopic "W." was the only thing Dad was interested in seeing, so that's what we watched.

Picking films at Christmas would be a lot easier. Then I'd have "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Grudge Match," "47 Ronin," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," and a ton of smaller releases to work with. George Clooney's "Monuments Men" would have been a pretty much perfect pick, and it's too bad it's been delayed. There's a lot I'm looking forward to seeing this season, and I expect it's going to be a great Oscar race, but just thinking about going with my parents to watch anything makes me paranoid. Too dark? Too silly? Too raunchy? Too avant-garde? Too much violence? Too much strong language? Too much CGI?

I'm sure we'll figure out something, but maybe we should just stay in and rent Les Miz again.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Stories We Tell" and "The Act of Killing"

It's turning out to be a very good year for documentaries. There are two recent ones that couldn't be more different in subject matter or execution, but they both use some similar techniques and bring up some of the same questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking. The first is "Stories We Tell," Sarah Polley's exploration of her origins and the complicated history of her family. Polley conducts interviews with relatives and friends to construct her narrative, and then uses actors and period sets to recreate scenes from the past to fill in the details.

The second is the far more sobering "The Act of Killing," where filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous third director interview Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, revered Indonesian leaders who in the 1960s were directly responsible for the death squads that wiped out as many as two million Communists and accused Communists. Like Polley, the filmmakers in "The Act of Killing" are interested in how their subjects perceive themselves and their own version of events. They ask Congo and others to reenact the killings as they wish for film, and this later leads to the creation of these elaborate film fantasies that reflect their troubled psyches.

"Stories We Tell" is a small film, a family history that one of Polley's sisters chides will probably be of no interest to anyone besides the people who appear in it. However, I found the film fascinating as it explores a family secret that has had a very different effect on all the different people who have been a part of it or were affected by it in some way. The subjects are interesting, lovely, and loving people, who it's easy to get attached to very quickly. It's not only the stories themselves, but the way they are presented, and the interrogations of the documentary form that continuously pop up during the narrative, almost like a running subplot. Many of Polley's family express doubts about the nature of the documentary and how she is going about it. One thinks that the inclusion of so many different viewpoints is completely unnecessary and questions why Sarah should be the one who gets to decide the shape of the story as it's presented to others.

The truth is not only a subjective thing in "Stories We Tell," but a shifting, amorphous one too. We can see this most clearly with Michael Polley, Sarah's father, who provides the bulk of the film's narrative and emerges as the central figure in the story. We see his views on some things change as the documentary progresses, and his version of events likewise adjusts as a result. New pieces of information are constantly being added, putting information we already knew if a different context. Different perspectives bring contradictions but they also present a fuller, richer picture of the whole. At first it seems odd that Sarah Polley's own version of the narrative hasn't been included until of course, you realize that the film is her version of the narrative, her attempt at finding a cohesion amongst all these different stories. The recreated video footage, appropriately aged so that it doesn't appear to be recreated at first glance, are her interpretations of what other people have told her. And of course, her editorial choices are vitally important.

"The Act of Killing," by contrast, only has one side of the story. With the victims long dead, it's only the perpetrators who can provide illumination on the events that took place during the purges. It's chilling, and often bizarre in the beginning, when we are introduced to these men, who have suffered no negative consequences at all for the their actions. On the contrary, many have grown rich and powerful over the years and are speak openly about the atrocities they committed. Initially there is no remorse, and hardly a glimmer of self awareness from any of the subjects. Anwar Congo demonstrates his execution techniques with horrific nonchalance. I've seen some debates regarding whether the film's subjects were perhaps misled into participating in the project, and didn't have a full understanding of what the documentary would entail. However, they're so open and so forthcoming about their experiences, practically all the filmmakers have to do is roll the cameras.

However, as the recreations are staged and Congo and the others have to face up to what they have done, they do begin to question the documentary's aims and their own perceptions of the past. One wonders how the public will perceive them after seeing the film. Others reveal that they understand that what they did was wrong, and have struggled with it. Congo himself only reaches an epiphany after Oppenheimer becomes more vocal in challenging his assumptions and engaging with him. Perhaps the most startling and memorable sequences are the fantasy film segments that are put together at the direction of the interview subjects to reflect their view of what happened. One has elaborate musical sequences with brightly costumed dancers. Another stages an interrogation like a scene from a gangster film. Congo fancies that he resembles Sidney Poitier.

"The Act of Killing" is a far more difficult watch, but it's unquestionably a powerful and important piece of work, presented in a way that is unique. It's also a film with potentially very serious consequences, as many of the people who appear in it are still very powerful in Indonesia. I've never seen a film where so many of the crew, including one of the directors, chose to be credited only as "Anonymous."

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Bechdel Test Boom

The Bechdel Test has been a useful tool for those of us who want to see more positive portrayals of women in media. It is a quick and easy way to get viewers to think about gender representation, by applying one simple criteria: do two female characters at any point in the story talk to each other about something other than a male character? Originally conceived by cartoonist Alison Bechdel back in the '80s, it has been a good way to point out not just the gender imbalance between male and female characters, but the relative weakness of female roles, the lack of agency, and the lack of character development. There have since been several alternate versions that add extra criteria, or use racial minorities or LGBT characters instead.

Of course the Bechdel test was never perfect, and was best applied to groups or types of movies to show systemic issues, rather than to single out individual ones for bad practices. "12 Angry Men" doesn't pass the test because all the characters are male out of necessity. "Gravity" doesn't pass because though Sandra Bullock gets the majority of the screen time, she spends most of it alone, with no one to talk to. But "Sucker Punch" passes in spite of its sexed up and exploitative main characters. Sure, it was fun to argue about technicalities like whether the Uhura and Gaila exchange near the beginning of the "Star Trek" reboot technically counted with Gaila's half of the conversation all about distracting from the fact that she was hiding a half-naked Captain Kirk in the room, but it makes a much stronger point to look at the big blockbuster action genre as a whole, which has been notoriously poor in its treatment of female characters.

The test has been doing its job though, getting more people to talk about gender issues in media and calling out creators. In some cases applying the Bechdel Test can be very helpful. There was a lot of good chatter about "Pacific Rim," for instance, which had a grand total of two named female characters who never exchanged words. Mako was certainly a good female character, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of male technicians, scientists, military personnel, criminals, politicians, and all but one other pilot. And if we have to argue about whether the giant robot's AI voiced by Ellen McLain counts as a character, that's pretty damning. So does this mean that Guillermo Del Toro sexist? As the director who made "Pan's Labyrinth," of course not. But he clearly got stuck in the mindset that so many other filmmakers have, that certain types of stories aren't the typical domain of women and girls, and left them on the sidelines.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what to make of the recent news that a small group of Swedish cinemas are going to give out a new category of movie ratings based on the Bechdel test, with the support of the Swedish Film Institute. As far as I can tell this is completely voluntary and aimed at raising more awareness toward gender equality issues in media. Activists and private companies rather than the Swedish government are behind this, and there's been no talk of instituting any kind of real, binding standards on new movies based on the Bechdel test. However, I'm still skeptical how much good this is going to do. The Bechdel test, as I've discussed, is a good conversation starter but not all that accurate or informative. It can be wildly inconsistent as to which movies pass and which don't. Surely there are better ways to grade movies for gender equality than this?

On the other hand, the announcement has already touched off a lot of discussion among film fans around the globe. There's been a lot of outrage, of course, but there's also been a lot of more serious, thoughtful conversation. A lot of people only learned what the Bechdel Test was this week, and are still processing and reacting to it. And so we have more people asking some fundamental questions: why is it that horror movies are so much better at passing the test than action movies? Why is is that superhero movies like "Man of Steel" and "The Avengers" fail so much more often? Why is television so much better at gender equality than the movies these days?

And once you start to ask those questions, then maybe we can talk about improving the landscape. We can talk about why girl-positive movies like "The Hunger Games" are so important and why so many people want a "Wonder Woman" movie. And maybe J.J. Abrams will keep the test in mind while he's writing that next "Star Wars" installment. And maybe Disney and Marvel will greenlight that Black Widow movie someday.

Or at least discuss the possibility.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

My Favorite Buster Keaton Film

Well, you can't talk about Charlie Chaplin without talking about Buster Keaton, so it's his turn his month. Keaton was a much harder director to pick a film for though, because I don't tend to think of his films as whole films, but rather the stand-out set piece sequences that they contain - the storm sequence from "The Navigator," for instance, or the bridge collapse from "The General," or the stunning movie theater sequence from "Sherlock Jr." Keaton was always the more technically inventive and proficient of the silent comedians when it came to gag construction, so it tends to be his gags I remember more than the narratives. I tend to enjoy his shorts more for that reason, and "One Week" is by far my favorite.

However, we're talking about features in this series. So I picked the Keaton film that's really just one long gag, that builds and builds over the course of its brief, fifty-six minute running time: "Seven Chances." Adapted from a stage play, "Seven Chances" presents the dilemma of Jimmy Shannon, played by Keaton, who discovers that he will inherit millions from his deceased grandfather if he gets married by seven in the evening that day. Jimmy rushes to pop the question to his sweetheart Mary (Ruth Dwyer), who has been waiting for him for years, but she turns him down after discovering his ulterior motives. This leads to a day-long search for a suitable bride. The "Seven Chances" of the title refer to the seven women that Jimmy attempts to woo into marriage, one after another.

As set-ups go, it's hard to find one more delightfully ridiculous. Romance was never Keaton's strong suit, though he often had love interests in his movies. Unlike Chaplin's Little Tramp, who was sentimental at the drop of a hat and wore his heart on his sleeve, Keaton's Great Stone Face was a much more standoffish character and seemed more unsure about the whole love business. So he was much more prone to focusing on the frustration and aggravation of romantic encounters. Jimmy striking out with one woman after another is hilarious, but it also presents Keaton at his most sympathetic and relatable. What modern man hasn't felt the same way at some point about trying to find a mate?

"Seven Chances" reaches its climax with one of the greatest comic sequences in silent cinema. Here it's not a runaway steam ship, a misbehaving locomotive, or a natural disaster that threatens our hero. Instead, we have something far more terrifying: a mob of women dressed as brides who turn up to help Jimmy out of his predicament at the behest of a newspaper ad thoughtfully printed up by one of Jimmy's co-workers. When it appears they will be thwarted in claiming their prize, they turn their wrath on hapless Jimmy, touching off a glorious chase sequence that is only resolved by the intercession of a full-blown avalanche.

The chase sequence is still jaw-dropping to watch. Keaton's athleticism is on full display, dodging boulders, climbing trees, and dashing all over the frame at astonishing speeds. And of course this was 1925, so there were no stunt doubles, no special effects, and hardly any trick photography to speak of. The boulders used in the avalanche were all paper mache creations, but there were over a hundred made for the occasion, and some were massive. Keaton's terror is palpable. The obvious fakery make the stunts no less thrilling or enjoyable.

And then there were the 500 female extras hired to play the would-be brides, a teeming mass of finery-bedecked feminine rage that become a seemingly unstoppable force of nature in aggregate. They chase Jimmy through the streets of Los Angeles, disrupting traffic, a football game, building construction, and more. The chase only lasts about four minutes, but it feels much longer because it's so intense and so much fun to watch. The sight gags just keep building and building on each other to absurd, giddy extremes.

Keaton would go on to engineer much more complicated and grand scale stunts in his more famous later feature films. But I don't think he ever came up with anything funnier than the chase sequence in "Seven Chances," or hit quite such a potent satirical nerve. And the film also makes for a great illustration of the big differences between his work and Chaplin's. Charlie Chaplin played characters downtrodden by society. The whole universe always seemed to be out to get Buster Keaton.

And so while Chaplin remains my favorite of the silent film greats, I will always have a great affection for Keaton's work too. You simply could not make a film like "Seven Chances" today (though somebody did try with a doomed remake in 1999), and that's a real shame. Sometimes all you want out of a movie is a good laugh, and Keaton always delivered.

What I've Seen - Buster Keaton

Three Ages (1923)
Our Hospitality (1923)
Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
The Navigator (1924)
Seven Chances (1925)
Battling Butler (1926)
The General (1926)
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
The Cameraman (1928)