Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Let Me Sum Up, 2013

2013 is almost over, and for my last post of the year, as is traditional for this blog, I'm recapping some of the highlights of my year in blogging along with some of the highs and lows in the media that I've written about.

The top three traffic-generating blog entries that I wrote this year, once you factor in the bots, were as follows: In third place, The Jonathan Rhys Meyers Post, where I looked at the career of the Irish actor and my brief time as one of his fans. The post was linked to by at least one of his major fansites, which helped to generate a good chunk of the hits. In second place, which came as a total surprise when I compared the numbers, is The Top Ten Cowboy Bebop Episodes, which I wrote in honor of the watershed anime series' tenth anniversary. There were no direct links that I could find, but this seems to be a pretty popular search, and there aren't many other Top Ten lists out there for the show.

The top entry though, by a vast margin, is Why Can't I Watch "Black Mirror"? which bemoaned the lack of US distribution for the British science-fiction anthology that began in 2012. The traffic really picked up when American reviews of the series started appearing in November in conjunction with DirecTV airing the series Stateside on its Audience Network. However, lots of viewers are still searching for alternative ways to watch it, which is why my post continues to rack up hits. No Region 1 home media or streaming release information has been made available yet, but it should only be a matter of time.

As I've said before, I'm a long, long way from seeing all the films of 2013 that I feel I need to see before making any kind of definite list of my favorites. However, I've seen enough that I'm comfortable putting out a preliminary list. If I had to pick the top ten films of 2013 today, they would be Before Midnight, Upstream Color, Stories We Tell, Leviathan, "Wadjda," Frances Ha, "The Selfish Giant," Museum Hours, The Place Beyond the Pines, and "The Spectacular Now." Some of those are titles I binge-watched over the weekend. Reviews are forthcoming. The Act of Killing is being counted as a 2012 film, and is currently the frontrunner for my saw-it-too-late "Plus One" spot on the eventual final version of this list

On to biggest surprises and disappointments. I wasn't expecting much from Monsters University, but PIXAR delivered a solid film I like a little better than the original. I also got a real kick out of Michael Bay's Pain & Gain. However, two of the big budget summer movies I had been anticipating, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Elysium, were duds. I knew J.J. Abrams had a mixed track record, but I'm really disappointed in Neil Blomkamp, whose sophomore feature was so bad, it made me rethink how much I liked his last film, "District 9." And then there was Nicholas Winding Refn's follow-up to "Drive," the deeply unsatisfying Only God Forgives. And I just don't understand the positive notices for This is the End.

I can't even attempt to be a completist about the television of 2013. There's way too much of it. My favorites include a lot of the old, familiar names: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, a much improved third season of Game of Thrones, Venture Bros., the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who, the Avatar Wan episodes of Legend of Korra, and the final (for now) episodes of Futurama. Newcomers that won me over include Orange is the New Black, Top of the Lake, Utopia, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I also want to single out Person of Interest for most improved show, not that it was too shabby to begin with.

The best surprise of the year in TV was Hannibal, which I didn't like as much as many other viewers, but turned out to be so much better than I was expecting. I'm firmly rooting for its success, and I'll continue to watch it to the bitter end. Netflix becoming a major new content producer was also something I don't think a lot of people saw coming. It wasn't just that the content was good, but that watching the new shows online was so quickly embraced by so many people. So far it's a trick that none of the other streaming providers have managed to pull off to nearly the same degree. Disappointments? Mostly avoided. I didn't have any real hope for dreck like Dads, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty much what I thought it was going to be. However, I regret giving that positive review to Under the Dome after only a few episodes. It went south in a hurry, and I didn't bother finishing the season.
Finally, I offer for your casual perusal some of my favorite analysis posts that I wrote this year. These weren't the most popular or the most topical pieces, but they were the ones that I thought came out the best, and that I enjoyed researching and putting together the most.

"21 and Over" is Two Movies in One
What's a Chick Flick?
Any Worthwhile New Streaming Services?
800 Words on the Boston Bombing Coverage
Kindle Worlds and Legal Fanfiction
Don't Sweat the Statisticians
Will Aereo Kill TV?
Are the Disney Princesses a Problem?
Worst Screening Ever
Let it Be For Kids

Thanks for reading, everybody. See you next year.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Reverie of "Museum Hours"

I've never found museums particularly inviting places, probably because I've never had enough time to really enjoy them as intended. I've always had to rush through them, getting only a few minutes with each individual piece of artwork. I learned to appreciate museums, but only managed to connect with the art itself very rarely, and then never for very long. I think that's why I got so wrapped up in "Museum Hours" which presents that ideal museum experience that I never managed to have. It follows the lives of two people, an elderly guard named Johann (Bobby Sommer) at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, and a traveler from Montreal, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) who has come to see a comatose relative in the local hospital, and needs something to fill the lonely hours of her vigil.

"Museum Hours" is not an especially long film, but its pace is slow and deliberate. There are long scenes of people simply talking about art and art history for several minutes at a time, including a lengthy digression where a lecturer (Ela Piplits) delivers a talk to a group of visitors on Bruegel's work that segues into a spirited debate. We learn Johann's views on his job, the various museum patrons, his co-workers, and his own favorite pieces through occasional, thoughtful narration that appears throughout the film, paired with cinematography that lingers on paintings, statues, architecture, and the silent winter landscapes outside the museum. The story of Johann and Anne's developing friendship feels incidental to the simple experience of seeing and observing the world that they inhabit. It's a lovely, rare film that is sure to be an infuriating bore to some viewers, but an entrancing, absorbing watch for others.

The subject matter may seem intimidating, but you absolutely don't need to know a thing about art to enjoy "Museum Hours." The movie is not about the art or the museum, but the ways in which two characters who are in the best position to benefit from them, perceive and are shaped by the museum visits. It's almost as fun to hear about Johann describing a series of humorous Arcimboldo paintings, and give his opinions on them, as it is to actually look at the paintings themselves. He's awkward talking about himself, but becomes far more comfortable when talking about paintings or music. Slowly, over the course of the film, art becomes not just a convenient topic to help fill in the empty spaces and long gaps of time, but something that the characters seek out and enjoy together. We see how it helps to define who they are and facilitates the growing connection between them.

Jem Cohen is not a name I was familiar with, and it's not a surprise that the director is known mostly for experimental and documentary films, video art installations, and multidisciplinary collaborations with other artists, particularly musicians. In this case one of his leads, Mary Margaret O'Hara, is better known as a musician than an actress, and contributed the few pieces on the film's minimal soundtrack. Cohen's background also has parallels to Johann's, who we learn managed rock bands in his younger days, and then became a teacher before taking up his position as a guard. This is an artist well versed in the culture and the atmosphere of museums, who can comment on them intelligently, and does a better job of sharing his enjoyment of them with the audience than I've ever seen anyone else manage.

The scenes that take place outside the museum tend to be the ones that move the plot along, mostly casual scenes that show Anne and Johann getting to know each other, visiting the hospital, and a few sightseeing trips. We hear snippets of their conversations, learn details of their lives, and watch them enjoy each other's company. These scenes feel intensely private, moreso even than the ones where we're hearing Johann's train of thought directly through his narration. There's a lovely, sad moment where Anne quietly sings to her cousin in the hospital that says more about their relationship than any of the dialogue does.

"Museum Hours" is one of those films that I nearly let slip between the cracks. It had a very small release over the summer that barely attracted any attention, but fortunately it came up on a couple of critics' top ten lists at the end of the year, and it's been readily available on all the usual streaming services for some time. Hardly anyone but the most highbrow film fans saw it, but I don't see why it couldn't appeal to a much wider audience. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a museum visit, or like me wishes that they could have gotten a little more out of their museum visits, should look into "Museum Hours."

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Miss Media Junkie vs. the Monoculture

Reading up on the writeups of television in 2013, it’s clear that it’s been a very good year. Critics have been gushing over the variety and quantity of quality television, though some have also bemoaned the fact that so many of the best shows were relatively obscure programs watched by only a handful of people.

There have also been a couple of pieces, notably the The Year TV Got Small by Andy Greenwald over at Grantland, that have noted the death of the television “monoculture,” which depends on millions of people all tuning into the same broadcast at the same time. Where once there were only three television networks and you could count on large segments of the American population to tune in to prime time, now there are only a few events that people watch live, like the Superbowl, or the final run of “Breaking Bad” episodes. So you can’t count on there being many major TV cultural touchstones anymore. The monoculture has given way to an increasingly fragmented multiculture.

And I couldn’t be happier. It’s only because of the fragmentation and smaller audiences that the new Golden Age of television is possible. Instead of only a handful of big shows that appeal to the mainstream, surrounded by mediocre second-stringers, we have dozens and dozens of shows with wildly different sensibilities, trying all kinds of different approaches to engage different audiences. There are so many of them, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all, and I don’t envy the new breed of television reviewers that have to wade through massive amounts of content to keep up with the ongoing critical conversations surrounding TV these days. The list of shows I’m interested in checking out never seems to end, and I frequently fall behind on the shows that I am watching.

There is always going to be event television, like sporting events, award shows, royal weddings, and election nights. Thus, there are always going to be the shared cultural touchstones, like Miley Cyrus’s twerking at the MTV Music awards a a few months ago. When something momentous happens in the world, people are still going to leave the televisions on, even if they’re simultaneously surfing the internet to search for more information. For the rest of television content, though, I admit I don’t see the point to having a monoculture. The most popular shows on the air right now are not ones I tend to watch. Of 2013’s highest rated television shows on network and cable, the only one I watch with any regularity anymore is “The Big Bang Theory.” And frankly, it’s not the kind of show I feel the need to discuss with people.

I certainly understand why Greenwald misses the water cooler discussions of yore, but there are so many different ways to fill that void now. Online there are all kinds of virtual water coolers filled with viewers happy to chat about every show you could think of, from “Mad Men” to “Adventure Time.” Because time shifting and binge watching have become so common, it’s no longer assumed that every viewer is following along with the live broadcasts. Conversations about specific episodes linger for weeks, and discussions about seasons go on for far longer. There are still fans out there dissecting “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” Rewatches are becoming a common phenomenon, where a group if viewers will go through an older show and discuss it episode by episode as if it were being broadcast.

I think I don’t miss the monoculture as much as many others do because I never felt like I was really a part of it to begin with. I grew up a nerd who was always watching fringe science-fiction programs and cartoons and cult shows that I couldn’t discuss with anyone until the internet came along. I often only became familiar with the most popular shows through their syndicated runs. “The Simpsons,” for instance, were ubiquitous in the 1990s, but I almost never watched the new episodes. My familiarity with them came almost entirely from watching older seasons years after they first premiered. So I never felt the urge to be up to speed with everyone else except for the few shows that I really cared about.

For me, 2013 was the year of the Red Wedding and “Ozymandias” and Don Draper’s Hershey pitch and Crazy Eyes throwing her pie for Piper Chapman. For others, it was the year Candice Glover won “American Idol” and Brian died (briefly) on “Family Guy” and the paterfamilias of “Duck Dynasty” became embroiled in controversy and “30 Rock” went out with a bang. And that’s fine. Ten years ago, half of the shows I listed wouldn’t even exist.

I’ll take having all of them over being able to share a communal viewing experience over a few of them any day.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Matt Smith Era

Spoilers ahead for the most recent episodes of "Doctor Who."

"The Time of the Doctor" was the swan song for the Eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith, so it's a good time to look back and take stock of the last three years of "Doctor Who" before we move into the Peter Capaldi era. 2010 brought a lot of changes to the show - a new Doctor, a new Companion in Amy Pond, and most importantly a new showrunner in Sthephen Moffat, who took over for Russell Davies. A lot of people have been disappointed in Moffat's tenure, since he was known for very strong single episodes in previous series, and he hasn't been responsible for many installments on the same level since. However, I don't think he was any better or worse that Russell Davies overall, though his strengths and weaknesses were different.

The biggest difference was that the over-arching plots got more convoluted, built on iffy logic and a lot of timey-wimey bluster that didn't really hold up if you looked at it too hard. The storylines with River Song, the Pandorica, the Doctor's death, and the Silence all had interesting concepts, but the execution was always a little lacking in dramatic heft. While Russell Davies often hit the emotional notes too hard, Moffat was often a little too cerebral. River Song, for instance, was an intriguing idea for a character, but she never quite came off as charismatic or as engaging as the creators wanted her to be. Fortunately, Companions Amy and Rory managed to supply the human element in spades for the first two years, and I was sorry to see them go. Clara, their replacement, has a lot of potential but hasn't been developed much beyond "The Impossible Girl."

On the other hand, this approach has removed a lot of what I didn't like about the Davies' tenure with the Tenth Doctor, namely the romantic feelings that developed with two of his three companions and the whole "Doctor as Walking God Complex" elements that cropped up so often. The Eleventh Doctor still retains a little of the ego, but his notoriety doesn't feel like something that really defines him, and he's much more sensible than his predecessor, at one point insisting that the Ponds stop traveling with him because he knows that it's going to end badly (which it does). I also liked that Matt Smith's take on the character was more eccentric and alien and he often felt older than either David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston in the role. His performance didn't result in the same emotional fireworks, but then he didn't need them. His final scenes in "The Time of the Doctor" were exactly what they needed to be.

The budget and the viewer numbers went down after Smith's first year, which was noticeable. However, I don't think it had much impact on the show. It certainly didn't feel like the "Doctor Who" universe got any smaller. I especially got attached to recurring alien characters like Madame Vastra and Strax, who I hope we'll get to see more of someday. One thing I especially appreciated about the Moffat episodes was that he wasn't afraid of time. Lots of time passed between episodes and within episodes. We got to see roughly three hundred years elapse from the Eleventh Doctor's first appearance to the last one, and another three hundred years in the last episode itself. We got to see years and years of the Ponds' marriage elapse, and one of my favorite episodes of this run was the Doctor having an extended stay with them over several months while he solved a mystery.

I've seen very mixed reactions to "The Time of the Doctor," but I thought it was a fitting way for him to go out. This time the tables are turned and it's Clara who sees The Doctor age and change the way he's had to watch so many people do the same. And he's not a god or a savior in this story, but one fierce protector of one small town, who has finally been forced to stop running away from his problems. As usual the plot contrivances to the get the Doctor into that situation were easily picked apart, but once you got to the heart of the matter, it was hard to care.

And while the Eleventh Doctor certainly had his ups and downs, this three-year run brought us the Van Gogh episode and the TARDIS becoming a real girl, and Stormageddon, and fish fingers in custard, and a fiftieth anniversary special that was well worth waiting for. I kept finding reasons to keep watching, and I'll keep watching when Peter Capaldi takes over as the Twelfth Doctor in a few months.

I already miss Matt Smith though. It felt like he came and went awfully quick.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Viewing Order Vexations

A couple of years ago, a "Star Wars" fan named Rod Hilton introduced the concept of the "Machete Order," which postulates that the best way to watch the "Star Wars" films is to watch Episodes IV and V first, skip I, move on to II and III, and then finish off with VI. This way a new viewer isn't spoiled for the revelations at the end of Episode V, gets to avoid the Jar-Jar, and gets to enjoy the meat of the backstory that the prequels provide. There are certain flaws with this approach - Episode III spoils several revelations in Episode VI, for instance - but I can see the appeal. Lots of "Star Wars" fans have latched on to the "Machete Order," to the point where it regularly gets brought up in just about every online conversation where someone recommends the series to a newbie.

I completely disagree with this whole approach. Personally, I think it rarely matters what order you watch a film series in. Sure, if you have access to all the movies at once, watching them in order of production or chronologically avoids a lot of confusion and lets you see a larger story unfold in a straightforward, step-by-step fashion. However, individual movies in a good series ought to be able to stand on their own, and watching a series out of the preferred order is rarely as much of a stumbling block as it seems. The film franchises that I became the most attached to as a teenager were invariably ones that I watched out of order. My family didn't go out to the movies very often, and didn't start regularly renting videos until I was in junior high, so I saw most of the popular trilogies and ongoing film series in very piecemeal, haphazard fashion.

My first exposure to "Star Wars" for instance, happened in 1992, when NBC showed edited versions of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return of the Jedi." My brother and I convinced our parents to rent "Star Wars" for us the following week, so we could see what we had missed. I actually like the original "Star Wars" the least out of the three movies. It was fun, but didn't have the emotional depth and more developed mythology of the other two. I went on to become a massive "Star Wars" geek in high school though, so the ordering clearly didn't hurt anything. Then there was "Back to the Future." Any 90s kid will tell you that the series was a mainstay of cable and syndicated television, but the rights to the three movies were held by different people at different times, so they were almost never aired together or in the right order. So I saw Parts I and III first, and then Part II several months later - another rental. The "Back to the Future" installments had plots that were much more tied together than "Star Wars," and I ended up finding the novelization of Part II at the library to help fill in some of the gaps. Still, I had no trouble at all following Part III, which works perfectly well as a stand-alone Western adventure.

"Indiana Jones"? I watched "Raiders" and "Last Crusade" from taped TV broadcasts constantly in junior high, but didn't see "Temple of Doom" until I was in college. "Star Trek"? Saw IV, II, III, and I in that order. Skipped V and VI entirely. "007"? I experienced the Connery, Moore, and Brosnan eras pretty much simultaneously. Frankly, the idea of choosing what order you want to see a set of films in still feels like a luxury. And looking at the more recent film series that have come along, I don't think following strict serialization would make much of a difference at all. All the "Harry Potter" movies feel pretty self-contained. It hardly takes much time at all to get caught up on what's going on in each "Lord of the Rings" chapter, and there's really very little that connects the Marvel movies when you get down to it. Sure, a lot of the fun of "The Avengers" is watching all these different heroes from different movies team up, but if you take that away you've still got a nice, shiny action movie with Joss Whedon dialogue.

Sure, it's fun to geek out and make mountains out of molehills about the tiny nuances of a viewing experience. To become a fan of a franchise, though, perfect viewing conditions aren't necessary. You can always go back and catch up on what you missed later. Sure, some things get spoiled, but then you also get little mysteries that other people don't - what was that disappearing fax message at the end of "Back to the Future Part III" all about? And how did Marty get back to 1955 at the beginning of the movie?

Someone who saw the trilogy in order just wouldn't understand.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Welcome to the iPad

Congratulations Missmediajunkie, you are now the co-owner of a brand new iPad, alongside your much more tech-savvy significant other. You had no particular desire to own an iPad or really any Apple product aside from the iPod shuffle that you listen to podcasts on. But you had no idea what to get him and he had no idea what to get you, so when he suggested getting an iPad jointly, it seemed like a perfectly good idea, so you said yes.

And you have no idea what you’re going to use this thing for. Oh sure, it’s handy to have around. Just today, you took it with you while visiting relatives so you could set up a Skype call with some other relatives on the other side of the country. And it sure is nice to be able to take your media with you wherever you go, without having to lug along your heavy, six-year-old laptop that barely squeezes into its laptop bag. However, you can’t imagine browsing the web regularly with the iPad because the keyboard input is so difficult to use, really no better than the smart phone that your SO already lugs around. And you definitely can’t imagine typing out blog posts or doing any significant amount of work with the thing. It’s just not practical. The mobile-friendly versions of popular websites that have been driving you crazy over the last few years certainly make more sense for an iPad or iPhone user, but they’re still infuriatingly compromised.

However, the iPad is a great time waster. All the most popular games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga are tailored for it. You’ve played through 33 levels of candy Crush Saga already, and it’s only been two days. Your SO has latched on to Plants vs. Zombies 2. You’ve started getting a pretty good look at the way these games are monetized. Some companies ask you to watch ads to build up the credits to continue playing some games. Others ask for subscriptions to turn off or reduce advertisements. The dollar amounts are small, and it’s so much more tempting to pay up to get more or better gameplay than it is when you’re on a regular computer. You’re already willing to pay a dollar or two for useful map and phone apps, so it’s not much a leap to pay a dollar or two for games. Or a dollar or two for other media.

The thing is, of course, you’re a cheapskate. Always have been. Always will be. You’re always extremely careful and selective about paying for anything entertainment-related online, so it surprised you that you were looking over the lists of cheap games, contemplating which ones might be a good buy. You realized that you were looking for something to do with this new iPad, a big shiny new piece of technology that seemed to be so full of interesting possibilities. However, the more you looked at it, the more you realized that the iPad is really designed as an entertainment consumption device. It’s difficult to create your own content or do much work beyond writing simple notes and text messages. You’re sure it would be helpful for education - Duolingo is one of the best regarded apps you’ve found - but the main event is clearly games and media. iPad is currently the only device you own that came pre-installed with the players for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant, the three streaming services that you subscribe to regularly.

To an extent you’re okay with that. You knew before you bought the iPad that it was most likely only going to be a toy, certainly not anything you planned to do anything specifically practical with. However, you can’t get past the nagging feeling that we probably could and should. You already consume plenty of media without the iPad’s help. Right now you’re still getting to know the device itself. You love that the battery life allows you to spend hours on Candy Crush Saga without having to worry about a recharge. The navigation still trips you up, but you’re getting the hang of the super-simple commands. You have yet to watch a movie or television episode on the iPad, but your SO has already gone through a few anime episodes on Amazon Instant without any trouble. The screen size is big enough that you think watching a full film on it would be fine - once you get a stand for it. You probably should have gotten one of those Smart Covers at the Apple Store.

Oh well. You did manage to do something really neat with that Skype call, and you’re sure you’ll find other ways to justify the purchase of the iPad in the future. It really is a nifty machine, and once you get better with it, you’ll probably find more things it can do for you.

Assuming you ever get it away from your SO.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The State of My To-Watch List

So we’ve got about a week left to go in the year, and if you’ve followed along with this blog at all, you’ll know that I don’t write my year-end movie lists until several months into the next year. This is because I’m a notorious completist, and I’m not comfortable making definitive rankings until I think I’ve seen everything that might possibly make its way on to my own list. To that end, I’ve always got a running “to-watch” list going. Currently, it’s at roughly sixty titles, compiled from critics’ top ten lists, awards chatter, festival reports, reviews, and news stories. I thought I’d share it with you, along with my notes on the more obscure titles, to give you an idea of where and how I’m finding these titles. People always seem to complain that they can’t find good movies to watch and I don’t ever seem to have this problem. So I hope to provide a little illumination.

Remember, I count 2013 by first release date in a film’s home country, so most of the foreign films aren’t making their way to the U.S. theaters until next year. And if you think I may be missing a few titles, there’s a good chance I’ve already seen the film in questions.

The Major Awards Contenders You’ve Probably Heard Of

“12 Years A Slave”
“All is Lost”
“American Hustle”
“August: Osage County”
“Blue is the Warmest Color”
“Blue Jasmine”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
“Inside Llewyn Davies”
“Saving Mr. Banks”
“The Butler”
“The Wolf Of Wall Street”

The Documentary File

“20 Feet From Stardom” - On the lives of backgound singers.
“After Tiller” - Examines present day state of abortion providers.
“At Berkeley” - From the legendary Frederick Wiseman, examines life at the university.
“Jodorowsky’s Dune” - About the most notorious sci-fi film never made.
“Let the Fire Burn” - Found footage doc of a clash between black activists and the Philadelphia police in 1978.
“Narco Cultura” - On the narcocorrida phenomenon.
“The Square” - On the events that took place at Tahrir Square
“Tim’s Vermeer” - Man deconstructs Vermeer’s painting techniques.

Interesting Indies

“A Single Shot” - Crime thriller starring Sm Worthington. Went totally under the radar after a limited release in September.
“Blood Ties” - Clive Owen and Billy Crudup crime drama. Not clear if this is a 2013 film.
“Computer Chess” - Described as mumblecore science fiction
“Enough Said” - Low key rom-com with small but steady awards buzz. James Gandolfini’s last screen role.
“Filth” - Already released and racking up awards in the UK.
“In a World...” - Lake Bell comedy about voice-over actors.
“Labor Day” - Jason Reitman switches gears for a drama-thriller
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” - With Idris Elba as Mandela.
“Museum Hours” - “Meditative” film about a museum guard and patron.
“Night Moves” - Latest Kelly Reichardt film.
“Short Term 12” - Highly regarded feature about a foster care facility.
“The Invisible Woman” - “Shakepeare in Love” with Charles Dickens.
“The Selfish Giant” - By far the most buzzed about UK film of the year.
“The Zero Theorem” - I haven’t missed a Terry Gilliam film yet.
“Under The Skin” - Sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johanssen.

The Foreign Legions

“A Touch of Sin” - A Jia Zhangke action film. Apparently that’s not an oxymoron.
“Borgman” - Dutch thriller described as “bizarre.”
“Gloria” - Chilean film about a middle-aged woman’s love life.
“Ernest and Celestine” - French animated film about a bear and a mouse.
“Heli” - Mexican coming of age story.
“I'm So Excited” - Pedro Almodovar made a musical comedy.
“Like Father, Like Son” - Latest Hirokazu Koreeda film. This is the one that was widely reported Steven Spielberg wanted to remake.
“Michael Kohlhaas” - Medieval action film that didn’t get great notices, but I’ll watch anything with Mads Mikkelson and Bruno Ganz.
“Mood Indigo” - Latest Jean-Pierre Jeunet film.
“Snowpiercer” - Bong Joon-Ho sci-fi epic. Currently in the middle of an editing fight with the Weinsteins.
“Soul” - Taiwanese horror film.
“Stranger by the Lake” - French LGBT film. Popped up on the Cahiers du Cinema yearly list.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” - Belgian romantic drama.
“The Dance of Reality” - Latest Alejandro Jodorowski film.
“The Past” - Latest Asghar Farhadi film.
“The Wind is Rising” - The final Hayao Miyazaki film.
“Wadjda” - First film by a female Saudi-Arabian director. Has been getting compared to “Bicycle Thieves.”

Studio Efforts You’ve Also Probably Heard Of

“About Time” - British rom-com. Final Richard Curtis film.
“Anchorman 2”
“Carrie” - Loved the original. Reviews were… interesting.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
“Thor: The Dark World”

And For the Sake of Morbid Curiosity

“47 Ronin”
“The Counselor”
“The Fifth Estate”

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Midseason is Almost Here

It used to be that the start of the TV midseason in January was for the premieres of the second-stringers, new shows that weren't good enough to premiere in the fall, and the return of existing ones that were solid but unspectacular performers. A few familiar titles might be held back to plug in expected holes in a network's schedule, and a few shows might be switched to different time slots, but there was nothing really big to look forward to.

Well, cable content changed all that with its vastly different year-round scheduling, and the rise of foreign television and the web-content have only made the change more pronounced. Now there's a lot of new television to look forward to each January, and this year looks like it's going to get off to a big start. Lots of new shows and lots of returing ones will hit the airwaves soon, giving February's Sochi Winter Olympics some serious competition for eyeballs. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most anticipated shows coming (back) our way.

"Community" and "Hannibal" - Both of these critical darlings were renewed by the skin of their teeth for NBC, and both are coming back shortly after New Years. Original recipe showrunner Dan Harmon is back for a course-correction after the not-entirely-disastrous fourth season of "Community," and there may be hope for a sixth season yet. The really interesting one to keep an eye on will be "Hannibal" though. The buzz for this show has only increased during its hiatus, and hopefully audiences have had a chance to catch up on the first season. It'll be taking over the Friday late night slot from "Dracula" in February.

"Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" - The fourth series of "Downton Abbey" ran from September to November of 2013 in the UK, and will be coming to PBS in January. Viewers regularly complain about the gap in broadcast dates, but that gap keeps getting shorter as the series progresses. "Sherlock" fans will have an even shorter wait. The much anticipated third series premieres on New Years Day in the UK, but will begin airing on PBS on January 19th, and hit DVD and Blu-Ray the week after that. And let's not forget the "Doctor Who" Christmas Special, which BBC America will air on the same day as its premiere in the UK.

"True Detective" and "Black Sails" - One of the most anticipated HBO originals in some time is its upcoming drama series that will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives on the hunt for a serial killer. Billed as an anthology of crime stories, the cast is expected to change with each season, so its high profile leads aren't locked into a multi-year commitment. It premieres January 12th. Two weeks later over on Starz, we'll see the premiere of "Black Sails," a pirate-themed adventure show following Captain Flint and his crew. This should not be confused with the upcoming NBC series "Crossbones," with John Malkovitch, which has yet to secure a premiere date.

"Flowers in the Attic" and "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" - Lifetime has latched on to event movies after the headline generating buzz of projects like "Liz & Dick." This January we'll be getting a new adaptation of the notorious V.C. Andrew novel "Flowers in the Attic," starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as members of a seriously dysfunctional family. And then comes "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe" starring Christina Ricci in the title role. Lifetime isn't exactly known for the quality of their TV films, the descendants of the once-popular network "Movie of the Week" franchises, but these both of these projects feature a lot of good talent and the trailers that have been released certainly make them look like a lot of fun.

"Space Dandy" - Almost entirely under the radar to everyone except us anime fans, "Space Dandy" is the newest series from Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the beloved "Cowboy Bebop" and "Samurai Champloo." The series will actually be premiering first in the US on January 4th, fully dubbed, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and then in Japan a day later. This isn't the first time a US broadcaster has made a deal like this, but I've never seen one for a series so highly anticipated. "Space Dandy" will be a science-fiction adventure comedy, following the adventures of a super-cool and super-perverted alien hunter.

Other January season premieres include "Girls," "Archer," "Justified," "Mythbusters" (which is kicking things off with a "Star Wars" special), "House of Lies," "Banshee," "Shameless," "Episodes," "Teen Wolf," "Pretty Little Liars," "White Collar," and "The Fosters," "The Americans," "Vikings," and "House of Cards" will be back in February.

On the network side, I'm still holding out hope for the Alphonso Cuaron-produced supernatural series "Believe," which is slotted for the mid-season, but had its premiere date pushed back after reports of production troubles. Also keeping an eye on FOX's "Rake" with Greg Kinnear" and the army-themed comedy, "Enlisted."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Franchise Fade-Out

I'm in no hurry to rush out and see "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," even though I had it on my list of films I was most anticipating this season. The skyrocketing cost of tickets in my area, the long list of awards contenders I want to see, and the middling reviews have convinced me that this one can wait for disc or streaming. Besides, I already more or less know how it ends. I also didn't rush out to see "Thor: the Dark World" last month. The first "Thor" film was one of the least interesting Marvel films, and nothing about this new installment indicated it would be any better. I expect I'm also going to sit out "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" unless the critical notices are really fantastic.

It's not that I haven't been seeing genre films. I went to "Ender's Game" and "Frozen" in the last few weeks, and rented "The Wolverine." I'm highly anticipating the next "X-men" film and about a half dozen original science-fiction projects coming in 2014. However, the franchises have slowly but surely started losing their grip, and the studios have only themselves to blame. I actually saw all the Phase One Marvel films in theaters, and enjoyed most of them. The "Iron Man" sequels, however, did almost nothing to progress the story of Tony Stark in any way, and they ultimately felt like disposable filler episodes of a television serial. Now if the Marvel films were made for television I would still be tuning in, because television is designed to play out over multiple installments, and the costs of watching it are tiny. But movies require much more commitment - going to the theater, plunking down ticket money that could be going towards a month of Netflix, and hoping the audience behaves themselves.

For me, it's just not worth it anymore. These big franchises puff themselves up as event movies, but the individual installments have stopped feeling like events and more like obligations. Well, you're a "Lord of the Rings" fan so you really ought to see "The Hobbit." The trouble is that I didn't like the first "Hobbit" movie and all the press suggests that the second one suffers the same problems. I want to see the Smaug sequences and Peter Jackson's take on the famous barrel escape, but I'm dreading having to sit through all the original, invented material that was added to the movie to stretch it out to epic length. "Iron Man" was a great movie, my favorite superhero story of the past decade, but between weak villains and a total halt to his character development, the sequels just felt like retreads. "Avengers" at least did something new and different, putting all these different Marvel heroes together and seeing what happened. That's why I'm also still curious about the Batman and Superman movie Warners is putting out. That's why "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-man" still look interesting. I don't know what to expect from them yet.

I mean, in spite of the increased tolerance for higher and higher numbered sequels, we still have the same problems with sequelitis that we always did. If a film is part of a series with a predetermined ending like "Harry Potter" or "Hunger Games," quality tends to be fairly constant because they're adapting already successful source material. If a franchise is open-ended, however, like most of the superhero series, there's usually a big drop-off in quality after one or two movies. It's only the very rare beast like 007 or "X-men" that can reverse course, and in that case it usually requires a reboot, changing creatives, or making drastic alterations to the franchise formula. "X-Men: First Class" essentially had to do all three, and its upcoming sequels are going to involve a lot of genre-switching. Time travel and post-apocalypse narratives are being added to the pile.

As other industry observers have pointed out, predictability is a dangerous thing for these big movies, and the fact that they're all starting to look alike is a very bad sign. Over the summer we were getting warnings of disaster fatigue and chatter about superhero overload. The fact that Sony wants to build a "Spider-man" universe and FOX is trying to expand the "X-men" universe, and practically every other studio in town is looking for other ways to mimic the Marvel model means the problem is only going to get worse. We've long been aware that the longer these series go on, the more difficult it is for newcomers to jump into these movies. But for the existing fans, the more the studios treat the franchises like television shows, the more likely it is that audiences will start treating them like television shows and watching them like television shows. For some of us, that means skipping the filler. For some of us that means waiting until the whole thing's done and binge watching.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Last Blockbuster Trip

I'd been through the cycle of a Blockbuster store closing down before, and had fun picking my way through their pre-viewed collections, paying a couple of dollars for films in white paper sleeves that I would never have bought otherwise. When the announcement about the majority of the remaining stores being shut down was made a few weeks ago, I knew it spelled the end of the last Blockbuster store in my area, which was conveniently right within walking distance. I went in once last month, looking for a discounted copy of "Star Trek: Into Darkness" for a friend's Christmas present. No luck. I did get a couple of the shelf liner art cards, but only about a dollar's worth. The ones for the most recent movies were smaller, flimsier, and the artwork was often cropped. I didn't look at the DVDs, all selling for $5-7.

Last Monday I dropped by again on a whim to find a drastically different scene. Where the closure of other stores had stretched out over multiple months, this one was liquidating fast. Prices on all the DVDs without cases had dropped to $1-2 dollars, and there were tables full of long, narrow cardboard boxes that held them like the index cards in an old library card catalog. Several people on their lunch breaks were browsing in the store, but only a few were going through the discs. It wasn't hard to see why. The DVDs were loosely alphabetized, but to find anything you had to dig through the whole mess disc by disc, often struggling to read faded print on the sleeves. I took a look for the hell of it, and found mostly what I expected. They were nearly all titles from a year or two ago, extra rental discs that Blockbuster was taking the opportunity to cull from their online service. Everything had multiples, and the better titles had the worst quality discs, covered in scratches.

And then I saw it. The first disc for the Criterion Collection edition of Francois Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player." And it was in perfectly good condition, without a mark on it. Sure, there was no case and the second disc wasn't there, but I was still holding a premium quality release of one of the great French New wave classics, on sale for $2. I put down my purse, set "Piano Player" aside, and kept going. Two hours later I had dug out the first discs of the Criterions for Kihachi Okamoto's "The Sword of Doom," Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville," and Gregory Nava's "El Norte." And a Kino release of Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice." Pretentious film buff that I am, I was practically dizzy. It made sense of course - obscure prestige films wouldn't get nearly as much traffic with the Blockbuster crowd, and Criterion never held much weight with non-cineastes. Of course the discs would have been overlooked.

"The Sacrifice" and "Alphaville" were in pretty bad shape, though, so I put them back. And though "El Norte" is a great film, I knew it was one of those pictures that I was never going to watch again, so it went back too. Instead, I plucked up regular old studio versions of Guy Ritchie's "RocknRolla," which I had been meaning to watch, and Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I had been meaning to watch again. I paid $10 for five movies, three of them Criterion discs. The clerks confirmed the store was in its final two weeks. I'd only gotten through about a third of the store's remaining inventory, so I came back a few days later. On that trip I found Criterions of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" and Carlos Reygadas's "Silent Light." On my third trip today I found Peter Davis's "Hearts and Minds," Lynn Ramsay's "Ratcatcher," and Milos Forman's "The Firemen's Ball." I only bought "Firemen's Ball." I admired the others, but didn't feel the need to own them.

I also refrained from buying discs for Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and the new version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," though I was tempted. I like both films very much. However, since they were both post-2008, their rental discs had probably been stripped of all the usual extras and I'd be better off picking them up for a few dollars more at an after Christmas sale if I really wanted them. So I paid for "The Firemen's Ball," thanked the clerk, and walked out. The last Blockbuster Video in my area closes in three days. The unsold inventory will be sent to another closing store a couple hundred miles away for more curious fans to comb through. And as they do, they'll listen to the other customers discuss their memories of coming to the store over the years, give their condolences to the employees, and talk about movies, movies, movies.
And say goodbye.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ah, "Frances Ha"

Director Noah Baumbach's films tend to be hit or miss for me, and it's often the same with the films Greta Gerwig appears in or contributes to. When I heard that they were collaborating on a new project about the travails of a twenty-something New Yorker in post-grad hell, I was a little skeptical. Their last film together, "Greenberg," was a difficult one to sit through, though I enjoyed Gerwig's performance in it. And between Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Gerwig's previous features like "Lola Versus," wasn't this already pretty well-tread ground? Well, I'm happy to report that "Frances Ha" is one of the hits for both Baumbach and Gerwig, and one of the best films I've seen all year.

Gerwig plays the titular Frances, an optimistic, but naive young woman who is barely getting by. At the age of twenty-seven, five years after graduating from Vassar, she is an apprentice at a dance company that only offers sporadic work. She's a little socially obtuse, with a tendency to overshare and ramble on at length about her personal failings. Her biggest piece of stability is sharing a Brooklyn apartment with her close friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), so when Sophie moves out unexpectedly to live with her boyfriend, Frances is left adrift, forced to figure out how to navigate life on her own. The rest of the film sees her go from one unstable living situation to another, her financial situation always getting more dire, her identity in flux, and her estrangement from Sophie more and more pronounced.

There's something very appealing about Frances, despite the fact that she's immature, self-obsessed, exasperating, and at times shows an alarming lack of self-awareness. Even though she's not getting the financial support that some of her peers are, Frances is an unmistakable child of privilege, chasing fantasies of being an artist that grow more unrealistic by the day. At one point, during a disastrous date, she blurts out "I'm not a real person yet" along with her apology. I like that she's smart enough to know she has a lot of growing up to do, and the fact she's clearly trying very, very hard to make something of herself. She literally fall flat on her face, but gets up and keeps on going. Greta Gerwig's performance is refreshingly sincere and funny, where in other hands Frances might be too aggravating to take.

Aside from some of the cringeworthy situations that Frances gets herself into, this doesn't feel much like any of Noah Baumbach's recent work. There are clear similarities to his 1995 debut, "Kicking and Screaming," but from a very different perspective. And "Frances Ha" certainly doesn't look like one of his films, shot in crisp black and white on digital film, conjuring memories of Woody Allen romancing New York. I think the biggest difference is that the central relationship is neither a romantic or a familial one, but really the friendship between Frances and Sophie. It operates a little like a broken romance one, with Frances in the role of the dumped ex, who hasn't gotten over the split, but this is clearly a platonic female friendship. And those are still rare enough in film that such a candid portrayal of one is a treat.

The film is a series of loosely structured vignettes, following Frances on her often aimless wanderings through various parts of New York, punctuated by trips to see her family and impulse visits to out of state friends. It can be meandering as a result, but the writing is so keenly observed and Gerwig's performance is so good, I never lost interest. There are many other characters in the film, mostly other young adults like Frances, mostly casual acquaintances that drift in and out of her life without really connecting in any meaningful way. From Frances's point of view they all seem to be in far better circumstances, their lives more ordered and meaningful, but we get just enough of her interactions with minor characters like Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) to understand that they're not much more mature than she is.

I also appreciate that unlike "Girls" or much of the other media about twenty-something existential malaise, Frances's limbo is finite. Oh, she's not out of the woods at the end of the movie and there's the all too real possibility that she's get her feet knocked out from under her again soon enough, but there's the sense that she does change and she does grow up a little bit. It makes her adventures far more satisfying to watch. There's hope for her, so there's surely hope for Hannah Horvath and all the others still stuck between jobs or between apartments, waiting to become real people too. I hope Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig will collaborate again soon.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Is "Die Hard" a Christmas Film?

Christmas movies are a time-honored tradition, and you all know the classics. "Miracle on 34th Street." "It's a Wonderful Life." "White Christmas." Multiple versions of "A Christmas Carol." However, one film has skyrocketed in popularity as a Christmas tradition in recent years - "Die Hard." Yes, the Bruce Willis action mainstay takes place over the holidays, and it's impossible to find a discussion of Christmas films these days where somebody doesn't bring it up. In 2010, it was even voted by "Empire" magazine as "The Greatest Christmas Film of All Time."

But is "Die Hard" really a Christmas movie? At first glance, the holiday just seems to be window dressing, the same way it is in movies like "Batman Returns," "Edward Scissorhands," and "Gremlins." "Die Hard" starts out at a Christmas party on Christmas Eve, includes a few carols on the soundtrack, and who could forget Mr. "Now I have a machine gun, HO HO HO" in the Santa hat? But a couple of festive decorations does not a Christmas movie make. Christmas movies should be about Christmas and all the things that traditionally come with Christmas like family bonding, spiritual renewal, goodwill toward your fellow man, and all that mushy stuff. "Die Hard" is a quintessential action movie, and the bits about John McClane reconnecting with his wife being in the spirit of the holidays is kind of a stretch.

I guess you could argue that "Die Hard" counts as part of the grand tradition of dysfunctional holiday movies that highlight the downside of the holiday. "Bad Santa," for instance, attacks the Santa Claus image with everything it's got. Or there's"The Nightmare Before Christmas," where Halloween ghoulies misunderstand Christmas completely. Or the "Home Alone" movie where the whole plot hinges on the family not being together for the holidays. These movies have a lot of fun poking fun at the holidays, though I think it's important to note that all of them end in a fairly traditional manner, with the central themes of hope and togetherness winning out over cynicism. Yes, the "Home Alone" burglars get thoroughly trounced, but then there's the whole subplot with the old man and his granddaughter, and Macaulay Culkin's family does make it home just in time for Christmas. More importantly, these films are still focused on the holiday itself. A movie like "Die Hard" is really only Christmas adjacent.

Then again, maybe I need to go deeper here. Note that that the biggest reason why "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie has to do with producer Joel Silver, who produced a similar action movie that took place during the holidays a year prior: "Lethal Weapon." Over the years we've learned that writer Shane Black loves setting his action films at Christmastime, including "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and even "Iron Man 3." He recently explained it like this: "“I think it’s a sense of if you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. There is something at Christmas that unites everybody, and it just sort of already sets a stage within the stage, that whatever you are, you’re experiencing this world together...It’s a time of reckoning for a lot of people, where you take stock as to where you’ve been, how you got to where you are now, and the lonely people are lonelier at Christmas,”

The story of John McClane can certainly be read as a redemption story. Here's a New York cop who only comes out to Los Angeles during his Christmas vacation to try and mend the rift between him and his wife, and because. It's supposed to be a season of joy and family, but he's only getting the cold shoulder. McClane gets a chance to prove himself though, when Gruber and friends show up to crash the party. Sure, the story wasn't originally Christmas themed at all, and doesn't need all the tinsel and Christmas carols to be effective. "Die Hard 2" also took place over the holidays, but the rest of the sequels dropped the theme, and nobody seemed to mind. Still, the Christmastime atmosphere undeniably does add something to the original film.

So yes, if you do some serious mental gymnastics, "Die Hard" can be counted as a Christmas film, though it's about as far away from a traditional Christmas film as you can get. I guess that's the point, as not everyone enjoys traditional Christmas movies about affirming faith and love and humanity. Some people prefer watching Bruce Willis beat up bad guys and tote around a machine gun no matter what time of the year it is. "Die Hard" is definitely a great Christmas movie for those people who don't usually like Christmas movies, and that's just fine.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Who's Missing From "Saving Mr. Banks"

Now before I get too far into this, I should make it clear that I haven't seen the new Disney film "Saving Mr. Banks" yet, about the contentious making of the 1964 Disney classic "Mary Poppins." However, I couldn't help but notice as I read over the cast list that an important figure from the "Mary Poppins" crew appeared to be missing from the new film. There were the credits for Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers, the Sherman brothers who composed all the songs, writer Don DaGradi, and actors playing "Poppins" stars Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. But where was that film's director Robert Stevenson? After checking early reviews and audience reports, apparently he's nowhere to be found in "Saving Mr. Banks." And that's a serious omission.

As you might have heard, iconic Hollywood Golden Age actress Joan Fontaine passed away over the weekend. My favorite of her films was the 1943 version of "Jane Eyre" that she co-starred in with Orson Welles. The film was co-written and (despite rumors that Welles was running the production) directed by Robert Stevenson. He began his career in the UK and was best known for action films and historical dramas like "King Solomon's Mines" and "Tudor Rose." He was signed briefly with David O. Selznick when he first transitioned to Hollywood productions, but his career faltered in the 40s and he kept being shuttled around among the major studios, and at one point went off to Europe to make war documentaries.

After two decades in film, he moved into television in the '50s, where he was especially prolific, overseeing dozens of productions. He returned to filmmaking when Disney hired him to direct "Johnny Tremain" in 1957. Stevenson subsequently spent twenty years with the studio, directing some of the most famous live-action Disney films including "Old Yeller," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People", "The Absent-Minded Professor," "The Love Bug," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," and of course "Mary Poppins," which earned him a Best Director nomination from the Academy. He developed a particular facility with effects-driven films, a skill that put him in high demand, but he never left Disney. Thanks to his association with the studio, he was one of the most commercially successful directors of the '60s, and one of the highest paid. When I first looked up his filmmography, I discovered I'd seen a dozen of his films and never realized it. And I don't think there's a single one I haven't enjoyed.

Was he one of the filmmaking greats? No, but Stevenson established the template for the family-friendly comedic fantasy feature that Disney and many others still use to this day, and his work is far more influential than most people realize. Despite this, he has remained sadly under the radar. Sure, Stevenson was inducted into the Disney Legends in 2002, and he got a very nice obit in the New York Times when he passed in 1986, but he's hardly discussed at all in cinematic circles. There are the usual explanations for this: his work was considered too mainstream and commercial, his best known films were aimed at children, and the Disney branding overshadowed his personal contributions to his films. However, even in discussions of "Mary Poppins," his name barely comes up. This makes his exclusion from "Saving Mr. Banks" especially frustrating, because he was clearly a major player in the creation of the film.

"Mary Poppins" was a massively complicated production, full of special effects, animation, and multiple dance and musical sequences. It was the largest scale film Disney had ever attempted at the time. It was also by turns funny and whimsical, adventurous and exciting, reflective, thoughtful, and in the final sequences with Mr. Banks, melancholy and dramatic too. Stevenson managed to balance all these things, delivering a film that has been universally praised. It retains such a sterling reputation and has held up so well over the years that Disney is still profiting handsomely from its success after five decades.

I'm sure the "Saving Mr. Banks" filmmakers didn't exclude Stevenson on purpose - the focus of the new film is on P.L. Travers and her meetings with Walt Disney before "Mary Poppins" actually went into production - but like too many others they were remiss in overlooking Robert Stevenson's contributions.

Or to quote Billy Crystal, "Did this film direct itself?"

With the release of "Saving Mr. Banks," many are taking the opportunity to revisit "Mary Poppins," and I'm hoping this will also spark more interest in its forgotten director. Walt Disney deserves plenty of credit for his close involvement in the filmmaking process, for spearheading the project, and for convincing P.L. Travers to sign over the rights to her character in the first place, but I seriously doubt that the finished film would have come together as beautifully as it did without Robert Stevenson.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Worst of Lists

It's that time of year when all the critics are putting out the "Best of" lists of all the great movies and films and music and books and webisodes and memes that have come out way since January. I love these lists, because they're a great source of recommendations and never fail to make my "To See" queue considerably longer every December. At the same time, though, "Best of" lists are often accompanied by "Worst of" lists, which I have far more mixed feelings about.

There's no denying that "Worst of" lists are a lot of fun. The critics get to rant about cinematic dreck like "Movie 43" and "A Good Day to Die Hard" and the reader gets to either share in the catharsis or be glad that they dodged a bullet. However, I'm not sure how useful these things are. "Best of" lists, even the ones that have been written by people who haven't seen more than a handful of movies in a given year, are a good way to become informed about films that you might have otherwise overlooked. "Worst of" lists, on the other hand, often depend greatly on how many and what kind of films a viewer has watched over the course of a year.

The trouble is that most dedicated movie fans do their best to avoid bad movies, and it's usually not hard to spot a stinker from a long way off. A Wayans brothers horror parody dumped in a January release date? A spinoff of a popular animated film made by a completely different studio that should have gone straight to DVD? The crumminess is obvious. Most critics who write "Worst of" lists write lists of the worst movies they happen to have seen that year, which avoids the real dregs. The more highbrow the critic, the fewer really awful films they're likely to have subjected themselves to. That's why you see so many "Worst of" lists featuring mediocre, but not awful movies like "Oz, the Great and Powerful," or "Identity Thief." Some of these lists are better described as "Most Disappointing" lists, or "Failed to Live To Expectations" lists.

Of the "Worst of" lists I've seen so far this year, not many have mentioned the notorious "Movie 43" or the similar, but lower profile "InAPPropriate Comedy," which were widely panned across the board by the people who actually saw them. Prestige pictures and foreign films generally seem to be excluded too, since most viewers are less likely to stumble across them accidentally. Critics will go out of their way to include obscurities on "Best of" lists, thus raising their profile and encouraging moviegoers to seek them out. Nobody bothers with the "Worst of" counterparts. This makes sense to an extent, as bad foreign and independent films don't tend to get distribution in the first place. However, a few clunkers do wrangle limited releases every year. One of the lowest rated movies of the year was that Winnie Mandela biopic with Jennifer Hudson, but nobody seems to have bothered to see it.

The long and the short of it is that the "Worst of" lists aren't really the worst films of the year by any reasonable measure. And honestly, it would be counterproductive for critics to really strive to catalog the most awful films of the year the way that they do with the best. We don't want them wasting their time digging up direct-to-video depravities or incompetent film festival rejects . We want their opinions on the films that we might actually be interested in seeing. And sure, there's potential for some nice schadenfreude or commiseration in reading about a poor critic having to sit through "Smurfs 2" or the Justin Bieber movie, but then it also feels kind of pointless. Hollywood puts these movies on three thousand screens across the country because there is a particular audience out there for them, and it doesn't seem fair to judge them the same way we'd judge something like, say, "The Counselor." There are still people out there who genuinely enjoy Adam Sandler movies, and the rest of us should have learned to avoid him long ago.

I've never written a "Worst of" list because I've never been able to quite reconcile these different competing interests. Also, because this isn't my real job, I don't see most of the movies I'm likely to hate anyway. I'll single out a few really disappointing movies and television shows in year-end posts, but worst? I'm just not qualified. I do like reading these lists though, especially from those movie viewers who don't bother trying to be objective at all, but instead use it at an opportunity to vigorously vent their spleen about their worst cinematic experiences of the year and take the time to call out Hollywood on their bad habits.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Happy Awards Season

The Golden Globe nominations came out this morning, and something that I can't ever remember happening before has occurred. Ever since I started paying attention to awards season and seriously weighing the contenders against each other, the Golden Globes could be counted on to deliver a couple of nominations that felt like they came totally out of left field, and could only be explained by their wacky categorization rules (film nominees are split between Drama and Comedy or Musical categories) or their infamous reputation for being easily persuaded by aggressive campaigners.

Well, this year that didn't happen. Every single nominee in the film categories looks like an actual contender for the Oscars in a few months. The Comedy or Musical categories usually feature much slimmer pickings and often outright laughable choices like "The Tourist" and "Alice in Wonderland," but this year we've got "Amervian Hustle," "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska," and "The Wolf of Wall Street" in the Best Picture mix, the strongest group of nominees I've ever seen here. Even if you argue that some of the picks are dark horses, like "Philomena" or "Rush," these are pictures that have their supporters this season. Going through the acting categories, I couldn't find a single name that didn't deserve to be there, and quite a few I'm happy to see weren't overlooked, like Daniel Bruhl for "Rush." The "Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical" is often a mess, but this year it's full of great work from smaller films: Julie Delpy in "Before Midnight," Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha," and Julia Loius-Dreyfuss in "Enough Said."

The Golden Globes have definitely been getting more discerning and more serious about their choices in recent years, but it has to be said that we're look at a very good year for motion pictures. It's hard to feel bad that "Fruitvale Station" or "Blue is the Warmest Color" got shut out when you're looking at so many, many more good movies that did get recognition. Obvious studio awards bait like "the Butler," "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" have been losing traction as the season progresses, though they're still in the conversation. A recent Variety article estimated that there are at least twenty films with possible Best Picture Oscar chances this year, and the Best Actor race is the strongest in years. It's been a running joke that Leonardo DiCaprio is overdue for an Oscar win, but it's not clear if he's even getting a nomination this year. The various Critics Circle awards have started coming out, and there's been a wonderful variety in the top picks. Boston and Washington D.C. picked "12 Years a Slave." New York picked "American Hustle." Los Angeles declared a tie between "Her" and "Gravity."

2013 has come up with such a bumper crop of good choices, it's difficult to make a bad one. The AFI Award nominations usually have one or two obvious older-skewing legacy picks that have no Oscar chances whatsoever. This year, the only weak link on their Top Ten list is "Saving Mr. Banks," which can be assured an Oscar nomination for Emma Thompson for Best Actress, and is very much in the running for a Best Picture nomination, considering the Academy's usual penchant for films about filmmaking and populist crowd-pleasers. And though there are certainly frontrunners this year, notably "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle," there's a nice lack of consensus that's making it difficult to tell who's likely to end up with a spot - especially since the Academy pulled out five nominees for "Amour" last year. We're going to end up with longer lists of snubs than nominees this time for sure.

This year I'm way, way behind on the contenders, so I'm not really invested in who wins and who loses. I'm just enjoying the ride, and looking forward to lots and lots of good movies coming my way very soon. I love award seasons like this because none of the films feel like obligations. Even titles like "The Butler," which look like such by-the-book prestige projects to the cynical eye, are firmly on my to-see list. Lee Daniels of "Precious" directed this one, remember, and Forest Whitaker just snagged himself a Screen Actors Guild nomination. Mediocre movies like "Diana" and "Jobs," which might have elbowed their way into the conversation with some good campaigning in previous years had their hopes dashed months ago. It's no wonder less visible prestige pics like "Grace of Monaco" and "Monuments Men" opted to delay their release dates and get out of the way of the scrum.

A competitive year also tends to make the awards themselves more fun too. At least, they're more fun for a movie geek like me who does still care about who wins and loses.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Feeling Out "Frozen"

There are so many expectations that have been heaped on the latest Disney CGI feature, "Frozen," that I feel obligated to start out this review by addressing some of them. Yes, the marketing campaign featuring Olaf the Snowman was terribly misleading, and "Frozen" is really much darker and more interesting than the slapstick-filled trailers made it look. Yes, it is a musical in the grand tradition of Disney musicals.

Unlike "Tangled," which was light on song numbers, "Frozen" boasts nine on its soundtrack, and for the first half hour more is sung than spoken. No, the movie is not a "Tangled" clone, though the designs are similar and it's clearly intended for the same audience. And finally, no, "Frozen" is not as good as the A+ Cinemascore and big box office returns would seem to indicate. It is very good as animated features go, and worth seeing, but expectations need some tempering.

So what is "Frozen" all about? A few elements from the Hans Christian Anderson classic, "The Snow Queen," are incorporated into a largely original, modern-minded fairy tale about two royal sisters. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are born princesses of the Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. As children they are very close, but Elsa has magical abilities to summon ice and snow that get away from her one day, and cause a terrible accident, harming her little sister.

For everyone's safety, and particularly Anna's, Elsa shuts herself away from the world, and tries to control and suppress her powers. Anna is puzzled and hurt by the rejection, but Elsa maintains the distance between them, even after their parents tragically perish. However, another accident on Elsa's coronation day causes disaster for the kingdom and prompts Elsa to flee into the wilderness. Anna goes after her, with the help of a mountaineer named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) that Elsa inadvertently brings to life with her magic.

At first glance, "Frozen" looks like a very typical Disney fairy-tale adaptation. You have the Broadway musical story structure, the goofy sidekicks, the bickering love birds, and not one, but two doe-eyed Disney heroines who sing about their feelings. However, "Frozen" actually subverts parts of the Disney formula, particularly some of the more troubling old conventions about love and romance. There are villains, but very different from the kind we typically see in Disney films. It's not clear at first whether Elsa is meant to be bad or good, as she's made to be extremely sympathetic, and when she acts like a villain, we understand why. She gets the film's showstopper, "Let it Go," a thrilling self-affirmation anthem that Idina Menzel knocks out of the park.

Moreover, while "Frozen" does have a lot of romance in it, the most important relationship is really between Elsa and Anna. Their sisterly bond is given far more attention and development than anything else in the film, and handled with considerably more thoughtfulness than the similar mother-daughter dynamics of last year's "Brave." Also, the treatment of Elsa's magic, referred to repeatedly as a "curse" has shades of the Beast's condition in "Beauty and the Beast." There are some very complex emotions and motivations in play that might go over the heads of the smallest members of the audience.

So luckily there's Olaf the Snowman, who is not nearly as precious or as cloying as he looked in the previews. Instead, he's a good reminder of why movies like this have comic relief, because that's exactly what he brings to the story, When things get too dark or grim, there's sincere, sweet-natured, dim-witted Olaf to jump into the fray and lighten the mood for a few minutes here, or ten seconds there. He and Sven the reindeer are extremely well deployed, mostly staying on the sidelines but pitching in when appropriate. Olaf in particular is a great character, a subtle manifestation of Elsa's softer side.

Given all the things that "Frozen" does right, it feels stingy to point out that the movie is far from perfect. The music is hit-or-miss, an acceptable approximation of the work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the earlier Disney musicals, but not at the same level. The three acts that are all very well plotted and well written, but tonally might as well be three different movies. Elsa, despite being the most interesting character by far, gets an abbreviated arc that doesn't really deal with the impact of her transformation. And then there's Anna, perfectly likeable, but also clearly Rapunzel-lite.

The film was made on a very short timeline, and I expect a lot of these problems could have been ironed out if the filmmakers had a little more breathing room. At the same time, what they managed to accomplish in that span is astonishing. The visuals are a clear step up from "Tangled," full of gorgeous snow and ice effects, and still retaining that ineffable Disney atmosphere. The heroes are an unusually well-rounded bunch, with Kristoff and Anna's princely suitor Hans (Santino Fontana) making for a nice departure from the usual Disney love interests.

I'm glad to see Disney Animation's fortunes on the rise again. "Frozen" makes for a strong addition to their library, more promising than fulfilling ultimately, but definitely another big step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trailers! Trailers! The 2014 Anticipation Edition

It's high time I caught up with the influx of new trailers for next year's biggest box office hopefuls, which have been showing up regularly throughout the fall. I've chosen to highlight a mix of mainstream spring and summer titles in this post, though by far the best trailer I've seen in recent months has been the one for Wes Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's so delightfully Wes Anderson-y, I really have little else to say about it. But the trailers linked below leave bigger question marks, so let's get started. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 - I didn't see the first "Amazing Spider-man" back in 2012, but the new teaser for the sequel is making a great sales pitch. It's got Emma Stone! And Dane DeHaan as a much more interesting-looking Harry Osborne! New villains Rhino and Electro are on screen far too briefly to make much of an impression, but the further delving into Peter Parker's family legacy looks very promising. I might just skip the previous movie and watch this one next.

X-Men Days of Future Past - Dark, somber, and hardly shows anything, but it does nicely present the fundamentals of the premise: time travel, different versions of familiar characters meeting, and hints of the apocalyptic future they're all trying to avoid. Also, there's the fun viral video The Bent Bullet currently in circulation, which suggests Magneto killed JFK in the films' alternate history. Fox's marketing has certainly improved this time out. Let's hope they deliver on the movie too.

Boxtrolls - This one doesn't reach theaters until September, but the marketing has been well underway for months. I love the approach here, showing off LAIKA's painstaking behind-the-scenes efforts to create an animated stop-motion world inhabited by friendly, funny trolls who live in boxes, and have adopted the film's human hero into their ranks. LAIKA's track record has been fantastic so far, with "Coraline" and "Paranorman," so "Boxtrolls" has a spot very high on my to-see list.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Humorous banter establishes that we're in the Marvel universe, but it quickly gives way to a more coldly militaristic thriller narrative where Robert Redford makes sinister, morally complicated pronouncements. It'll be interesting to see the patriotic Cap grapple with the dark side of the modern military industrial complex. I have some serious doubts about the villain though, who just looks silly in the more realistic environs.

Noah - The Biblical epic is back! Well, at least that's what Paramount is hoping for with Darren Aronofsky's latest, an ambitious, big-budget take on the Noah's Ark story that promises lots of IMAX-worthy spectacle. There have been reports of the filmmaker and studio battling over final cut of the film, and it's easy to see why. With the caliber of the talent involved," Noah" looks like it could be a big crowd-pleasing event picture, but Aronofsky's work tends to skew more challenging and unorthodox.

Maleficent - It's far too early to say if Disney's attempt to tell "Sleeping Beauty" from the villain's point of view is going to be successful, but the teaser sells us on two key points. One, that Elle Fanning makes for a lovely Disney princess, and two, that Angelina Jolie is picture perfect as Maleficent. Now, if those two are going to get a move that actually makes use of that potential is the real question. The first time director gives me pause, but hey! Paul Dini co-wrote the script!

Jupiter Ascending - The Wachowskis are back with another ambitious-looking science fiction parable, this time about some kind of interstellar soldier played by Channing Tatum in elf ears protecting Mila Kunis, who is some kind of secret royal MacGuffin. It's hard to work out the details from the trailer, but the whole thing looks spectacularly campy and weird and full of good possibilities. This one may turn out to be a mess, but I expect that it'll at least be an interesting mess.

Godzilla - Yep, the big guy is back for more monster mayhem. This teaser was just released today, and while it doesn't show much of Godzilla himself (Herself? Itself?), the movie already looks considerably better than the last attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise back in 1998. I think this is going to be a lot of silly fun, but then I'm a fan of kaiju and giant monsters. I don't know how well the new "Godzilla" is going to go over with mainstream audiences, especially after the performance of "Pacific Rim" last year.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - And finally, a brief reminder of this teaser, which premiered over the summer. I like that it doesn't say a thing about story or plot, but just gives you a glimpse of Hiccup and Toothless doing what they do best. It's only at the very end that they clue you in that there have been some changes since we saw the pair last. This is going to be the film to beat this summer, and I can't wait to see it.


Monday, December 9, 2013

What to Do About Wonder Woman?

Good grief, I don't think I've ever seen a casting announcement stir up this much controversy. Last week it was announced that Gal Gadot, most recently seen in the "Fast and Furious" franchise had been tapped to play Wonder Woman in the yet untitled Batman and Superman team-up movie. There were all the usual fanboy complaints about Gadot being wrong for the role - too skinny, too slight, and so on. However, the real debate was about the inclusion of Wonder Woman in the team-up movie at all. Shouldn't the biggest female superheroine be introduced in her own movie?

I have no opinion on Gadot one way or another. She wasn't my first choice, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't have the opportunity to prove what she can do. The other potential candidates who we heard rumors about hardly seemed any better. And as others have pointed out, she could bulk up and the right costume makes a lot of difference. Gadot didn't leave much of an impression from what I saw of her in the "Fast and Furious" movies, not that she really had much of an opportunity to do much in the first place. Frankly, I don't know if her acting chops are really going to make all that much difference since Zack Snyder is most likely going to be directing the team-up movie, and he has a abysmal track record with young actresses. See his complete inability to do anything with the cast of "Sucker Punch," for starters, and his bungling of Silk Spectre in "Watchmen." It took the involvement of multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams to bring some spark to Lois Lane in "Man of Steel." To be honest, Zack Snyder is about the worst choice I can think of to be handling the introduction of Wonder Woman.

Should she be getting her own movie? Of course. Wonder Woman has always been counted way past due to return to the spotlight. I understand she's a tough character to modernize and the studios are terribly squeamish about female-led superhero movies, but to keep shutting out heroines as the Marvel and DC film universes keep expanding is becoming less and less excusable every year. I don't object to introducing her in a big ensemble movie, if that's what it takes to allay some fears in the financiers. However, my biggest worry is that Wonder Woman will be consigned to supporting status permanently, the way that Black Widow of "The Avengers" has been. Despite all the talk of potential spin-off films for her and Nick Fury, there's no sign that Marvel is going to be putting either of them in the spotlight any time soon, or any other female or minority heroes for that matter. Instead, they've been relegated to sidekicks and love interests, as usual.

I don't think the possible diminishment of Wonder Woman going to be doing the new DC film franchise any favors either. If she's going to be a major player, she's going to need all the time and attention she can get. The upcoming Batman and Superman movie is already going to have its hands full introducing us to Ben Affleck's take on Batman, and now we know it's going to be introducing Wonder Woman too, and potentially other superheroes like the Flash. I think the best case scenario is for Wonder Woman to only make a brief cameo as a lead-in to her own story, in which case it would have been better if DC had kept this under wraps and made it a surprise. However, the casting announcement suggests that this isn't the case, and Wonder Woman will be playing a significant role in the new movie. That's going to complicate things considerably, and I worry that she's going to end up being shortchanged.

Frankly, the more I hear about the new team-up movie, the more worried I get. And the more I hear about the plans for the bigger DC live action franchise, or rather the lack of them, the more it seems doomed for failure. None of the chief creatives are the ones I'm happy are driving this bus. David Goyer has been stuck in grim and gritty mode for ages, and I don't know if that approach is going to work for the broader comic book narrative that a real "Justice League" team-up is going to need. Zack Snyder's idea of faithfulness to source material is "Watchmen," which is just depressing. And the promise of Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck's involvement seems to be limited - both are busy working on their own projects after all.

It sounds cynical, but in spite of all the fan adoration and all the potential the DC universe holds for great movies, it doesn't feel like anyone at Warner Brothers is really invested in making these movies the best that they can be. The Wonder Woman announcement is just the latest in a long string of questionable decision.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Say It Ain't So, Spill.Com

In a recent study on who younger moviegoers trust for recommendations about which movies to see, the top choice was their friends. There was no group of critics out there who came closer to that than the guys of Spill.com, led by animator Korey Coleman. Hailing from Austin, Texas, the Spill gang was most well-known for their Flash animated movie reviews, where Korey and his real-life friends, known under the names Leon, Cyrus, Carlyle, and the Co-Host 3000 would discuss recent movies in very down-to-earth, unpretentious, and often hilariously off-color, R-rated terms. The highest grade a film can receive is "Better Than Sex," and the lowest two grades incorporate expletives. There is no doubt that these guys are professional critics with good taste and years and years of experience doing this - Spill is the continuation of their long-running Austin public-access television show, "The Reel Deal" - but they're also far more casual, personable, and relatable than the majority of critics out there. And that's why it comes as such a shock to hear the news that Spill.com is shutting down at the end of December.

Of all the new media style film reviewers out there, I thought that Spill had the best chances of long term success. They have a small but loyal fanbase, and produce massive amounts of content. In addition to the video reviews, they also do longer audio reviews for all the major releases, and some of the limited releases in the Austin area too. They have several long-running weekly podcasts featuring various combinations of the hosts. I tune into "A Couple of Cold Ones" every week, which involves about an hour of Korey and Leon shooting the breeze and talking about whatever is on their minds before delivering commentary on the past weekend's box office winners. They've also recently started doing "The Daily Spill," which presents their take on the entertainment news, and "Spoiled!" which morphed into a "Breaking Bad" reaction podcast for the duration of the show's last season, and has now turned its attention to "The Walking Dead." There have been call-in shows, convention coverage, awards season heckling, and loads of specials. And then there are their real-world events, like the yearly Spill Dot Con, international gatherings, and bar crawls.

The details have been sparse, but it looks like the difficulty in monetizing Spill's fanbase spelled its end. The site was bought by entertainment news and ticketing company Hollywood Media Corp in 2009. There were several major changes, including the removal of Spill's video game content and the cancellation of several podcasts, including the long-running "The League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen," devoted to geek culture. I found Coleman remarkably candid and about all the changes. Many of the sites users were angry, but he set up a series of call-in shows for everyone to vent, including himself. After the news broke about Spill being shut down, he's been doing call-in shows every night. What I've found really remarkable about Coleman is the way he's been so open and willing to talk. Whenever he's had doubts about his career or the site, he hasn't hesitated to discuss it in great depth and detail. I've never met Korey Coleman, but listening to him share so many personal stories and private thoughts week after week make me feel like I know the guy, and I've grown to like him very much - even though he does cop-out too often, letting mediocre movies slide with a "Matinee" grade."

I'm not the target audience for Spill.com, which is young, male, and very sophomoric. There have been a couple of podcast discussions, particularly about the skeevier side of the guys' bar-hopping bachelor lifestyle that have been uncomfortable to listen to, and I didn't last a week on the site's forums, which can get downright female-unfriendly. Still, I found myself listening to more and more of the Spill.com shows as time went on. I had just started getting hooked on "The Daily Spill," which may not be very current with its news items, but I liked hearing them discussed and dissected by a couple of passionate nerds who have been around long enough to offer some real perspective, and irreverent enough to find the humor in anything. I can't think of anyone else out there like these guys, with their multicultural mix, with their backgrounds, and with their attitudes.

I'm really going to miss them, and my only consolation is that Korey Coleman is far too talented and too big a personality to stay down for very long. He's bound to pop up again somewhere, and I expect the site will continue to live on in some form. There are already rumors and rumblings about what might be next after Spill.com closes up at the end of the month. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out.

Friday, December 6, 2013

My Favorite Satyajit Ray Film

Movies that want to make social statements can very easily be tedious affairs, especially if they are specific to an unfamiliar culture. It can be difficult to grasp all the little nuances of how a different society works, the historical context, and other information that can be vital in penetrating the narrative. That's why the greatest directors are often the ones who can tell very culturally specific stories in very universal terms. India's greatest director, without question, is the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who made many, many films about life in India, but in such a way that you hardly need to know a thing about India to appreciate them.

Ray's best known films are the ones that make up his famous "Apu trilogy," which follow the ups and downs of the dramatic life of their title character from boyhood to adulthood. The story is very simple and easy to grasp. Apu's family is loving, but poor. The parents must make sacrifices to provide for their children. You could transplant the bare skeleton of the narrative into a dozen other cultures, and it would still work. I'm not sure you could say quite the same about my favorite Satyajit Ray film, "Mahanagar," or "The Big City." It presents the audience with a universal problem and characters in a way that's very easy to understand, but also reflects a very particular time and place and mood in Indian history.

Bank clerk Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) is having trouble supporting his family on a single income, and looks for an additional part-time job. His wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) decides that she will also take a job to help out, though women working outside the home was still a relative rarity at the time. Her traditional father-in-law Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher, is entirely against the idea, but Arati prevails. She wins a sales position at a sewing machine company, and is soon bringing home enough money to make a real difference to the family. However, her success has other consequences that she did not foresee, and the family continues to struggle with her decision.

"The Big City" was Satyajit Ray's first contemporary film, and is quite pointed in its commentary on changing gender roles, class, race, and generational differences. However, it is also remarkably gentle and even-handed with all its characters, showing everyone's point of view and the validity of their concerns. While Subrata and Arati stay at the forefront of the film, as we might expect, a major subplot is devoted to Priyogopal, who decides to go visit his most successful students for financial help, but these visits end up shattering many of his illusions about himself. Arati learns to value her job and all the opportunities that it brings her, but what to do when her child misses her? Or falls sick?

I appreciate the film's commitment to realism, the way that nearly every development comes up organically and is handled with great care. One of my favorite scenes is one where Subrata spots Arati in a cafe one day with another man. He hides himself nearby to listen in on their conversation, and years of bad Hollywood comedies had me expecting some misleading exchange that would create a terrible misunderstanding. Instead, the other man is a customer who Arati briskly conducts business with, and when he asks after her husband, she lies to make Subrata seem more important, downplaying her own job. Subrata, chastened, never mentions the conversation to his wife.

Ray's point of view is remarkably progressive, and the matter-of-factness with which he portrays Arati's transformation from housewife to working woman completely floored me the first time I saw it. She's easily one of the best Ray characters, who grows from a timid figure, initially very unsure about the tasks her job requires of her, to a self-confident, and even bold woman who makes the hardest moral decision at the end of the film without hesitation. And the film would not have worked without focusing so much of the narrative on Subrata, who is initially encouraging of his wife's desire to work, then doubtful, and ultimately comes to terms with her new status on his own.

I find myself often comparing Satyajit Ray's films to Yasujiro Ozu's. Their filmmaking styles are quite different, but their subject matter and their approaches to that subject matter are often similar. Both made many films about ordinary life, about typical middle-class and lower-class families undergoing changing times and momentous events. Ray's films were darker, sometimes tragic and upsetting. The later ones became more cynical in their worldview. However, like Ozu's films, they remained remarkable in their ability to reflect real life and demystify an unfamiliar country. I suspect no one has ever done more to make Indian culture and society seem more wonderfully ordinary and familiar to the world than Satyajit Ray.

What I've Seen - Satyajit Ray

Pather Panchali (1955)
Aparajito (1956)
The Music Room (1958)
The World of Apu (1959)
Devi (1960)
Charulata (1964)
Nayak (1966)
The Big City (1968)
Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)
Distant Thunder (1973)