Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Top Ten Classics I Saw in 2014

And now in no particular order, here is a list of my favorite older films that I saw for the first time in 2014. 

The Pawnbroker (1964) - A great example of the work of Sidney Lumet, a gritty, socially conscious, and deeply personal portrait of an elderly Holocaust survivor who now runs a pawn shop in Harlem, and spends his days loathing everyone he interacts with.  Rod Steiger plays the title character with heartbreaking intensity.  Though it no longer comes across as raw and groundbreaking, the film still manages to deliver some significant punches.

Autumn Sonata (1978) - I adore the pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman's exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.  I've grown more appreciative of Bergman's smaller, intimate domestic dramas over time, and this one is spectacular in its use of music and the interplay of its troubled characters.  Though not Bergman's final screen credit, the role she plays here serves as the perfect capper to her legendary career.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998) - There's something so wonderfully life-affirming and delightful about the films of Emir Kusturica.  Initially I was a little put-off by the nutty characters and topsy-turvy magical-realist worldbuilding in this one, but as the film chugged along and all the pieces of the story started to come together, it completely won me over.  I can't think of anything else I watched this year that was so funny and sweet and that I'm so happy exists. 

The Quince Tree Sun (1991) - Also known as "Dream of Light."  I don't know what it is about the creation of art that I find so fascinating.  The bulk of this film is devoted to watching Antonio López García paint his quince tree and talk about his life and work.  It's very slow going, but also very engrossing, and ultimately rewarding to see the whole process from start to finish.  Even if García doesn't achieve what he wants, there's no better example of the journey being worth the trip.

Demon Lover Diary (1980) - The chronicle of amateur filmmaker Donald G. Jackson's attempts to make a horror movie, "The Demon Lover," and all the drama and chaos that resulted from its troubled production.  The documentary was pieced together from footage shot by one of the cameramen, who was eventually forced to flee the scene with other members of the crew.  It's a wonderful, bizarre cautionary tale that is as timely as ever in the DIY filmmaking age.

Miracle in Milan (1951) - It took me ages to track down a copy of Vittorio DeSica's whimsical fantasy tale about the poor inhabitants of a shantytown on the edge of Milan.  The film seems to have fallen out of favor since it contains some seriously non-PC and culture-specific elements.  However, I found that the low-budget effects sequences have some real charm to them, and the neo-realist social satire is still sharp and very funny.  It was certainly worth the effort to find. 

Boogie Nights (1997) - I first saw parts of this one as a teenager, but was too intimidated by the subject matter to appreciate the comedy or the humanity of Paul Thomas Anderson's characters.  Upon finally viewing the whole film, I could at last appreciate the magnificent ensemble lead by a resurgent Burt Reynolds, and the daring of a filmmaker who found so much to sympathize with and celebrate among those making their living on the seamier side of the tracks.   

Stroszek (1977) - The American immigrant experience has been the subject of many movies, but nobody's done it quite like Werner Herzog, who happily punctures the myth of the American Dream with a little help from Bruno S. as the title character.  With no shortage of absurd humor, Herzog and Bruno S. explore the heartland and all its promises of comfort and joy, before coming inexorably to the hard truth and the end of their adventures.

Le Beau Serge (1958) - Though it has an important place in the history of cinema as one of the first titles of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" still holds up beautifully on the strength of its narrative and performances.  I got completely caught up in the story of a pair of young men, one successful and one a deadbeat, who reconnect after a long separation, and discover that they have grown too far apart for their friendship to survive.

Feherlofia (1981) - The title translates to "Son of the White Mare," referring to the central character in Marcell Jankovics' beautiful animated fable based on Eastern European legends.  The art design of this feature is unlike anything I've ever seen, a fantastic mix of traditional forms with painstaking hand-drawn animation techniques.  It serves as a good reminder that great films come from everywhere, and that masterpieces like this fall into obscurity every day. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bye Stephen, Bye Craig

I felt a little guilty watching the final episodes of "The Colbert Report" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."  Both were programs that I used to watch regularly back in college and grad school.  I distinctly remember the first seasons of each, and watching the hosts experiment with their formats and voices before settling on the familiar forms we know today.  Little by little I gave them up, went to bed earlier, and would occasionally circle back to catch clips of the highlights on Youtube when those went viral. 
I admired Colbert's verve, even if I found his fake pundit routine wearing too thin after a few years to keep me watching regularly.  When he would pull stunts like creating his own SuperPAC, I cheered him on.  I liked Ferguson better, who pretended to have no agenda and no regard for his own position in late night, but then systematically carved out a unique, kitschy little place for himself full of toys and puppets and silly costumes, and then invited Desmond Tutu for a chat.  Ferguson was simply on too late.  After staying up to catch his monologue for years, I finally had to give him up when I got a real job that required getting up before 7AM.  And now suddenly it's a decade later and both gentlemen are moving on. 
Far more loyal and knowledgeable fans than I have eulogized the show and written at length about why these two were so important.  However, I think their final episodes spoke for themselves.  Colbert was flashier and more fun, lining up interviews with President Obama, Smaug the Dragon, and finally the Grim Reaper.  He organized a sing-along that included Big Bird, George Lucas, and Henry Kissinger crooning "We'll Meet Again," from the ending of the greatest satirical American film ever made, "Dr. Strangelove."  Befitting his alter-ego's massive ego, the show ended with Colbert becoming immortal and joining the pantheon of pop culture icons, including Santa, Abe Lincoln, and Alex Trebek.  And at the very end, most poignantly, he threw the baton back to Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show," framing the entire nine-years as just an extended segment on the show where Colbert's blowhard character first originated. 
Craig Ferguson had far less of a budget and far less polish, which has been par for the course for his show the entire time it's been on.  He opened with the big, star-studded musical number, but it was almost entirely pre-taped, cutting in the end to Craig rocking out on his sparsely populated studio set.  He finally got his band, though.  The opening number also replaced his usual lengthy monologue, so after trading a few barbs with Geoff Peterson (far more articulate both physically and verbally since I saw him last), we got to the meat of the hour, which was a fairly serious conversation on life after talk show hosting with a shaggy Jay Leno.  There were a few fun in-jokes - Secretariat was revealed to be Bob Newhart all along - and then Craig closed with a clumsily executed bit with Drew Carey that parodied the famous endings of "Newhart" and "St. Elsewhere."  And it felt exactly right, except for being over far too quickly.
Both of the hosts will still be around, of course.  Stephen Colbert will be taking a break and then heading over to CBS Late Night to take over for David Letterman after Dave has his own sendoff in a few short weeks.  it won't be the Colbert persona we've known and loved, though, but a kinder, gentler, mainstream-friendly Colbert who will stay largely apolitical.  Craig Ferguson has yet to commit to any particular project, but he's bound to pop up again somewhere, doing something interesting.  Maybe he'll write another book or go back to scripting movies.  Remember "Saving Grace"?  Or I'd love to see him pull a Jon Stewart and direct something.   
It'll never be the same, and of course, it shouldn't be.  Ten years is quite long enough for anybody to do anything.  Still, I'm sad to see these gentlemen go.  2014 has been a year of hard goodbyes, from Robin Williams to the "Mythbusters" build team, and the laughs have felt fewer and farther between.  Colbert and Ferguson are some of the most dependable late night comics we have, and I'll miss their contributions terribly. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Fifth Annual Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

I know this is cutting it close, but this year for Christmas, I want:

For a speedy end to Sony's troubles. Enough is enough already, and the studio needs to get back to business. There are movies and shows in production that I want to see, and talented creatives that should get back to work. The longer the hackers keep toying with them and dragging this whole mess out, the longer it'll take the company to rebuild, regroup, and rehabilitate. I have no particular interest in seeing "The Interview," so let's just write it off, shift gears, and worry about the next James Bond film, huh?

For the Warner Bros. DC films and Dreamworks animation's new features to find some success. As much as I enjoy Disney's Marvel films and PIXAR films, I worry that they're becoming too dominant lately. There's no doubt in my mind that 2015 is going to be great for the Mouse House, but a healthy industry is a competitive one, and I'd be happier if their rivals were real challengers rather than the afterthoughts they are now. Dreamworks in particular has gotten themselves into a bad spot, after a run of lackluster originals and sequels that fewer and fewer kids want to see. And honestly, they don't deserve half the bad press they've gotten.

For "Mad Men" to stick its landing. Of all the television that's coming up in 2015, the end of "Mad Men" is the biggest event that I'm anticipating. Though its popularity has cooled over the past few seasons, I think it's stayed remarkably consistent. Sure, AMC splitting the final season was a dumb and desperate thing to do, but it didn't hurt the quality of the episodes that were produced. Robert Morse's goodbye musical number was one of my favorite moments from last year. In the television realm, I'm also looking forward to HBO's "Westworld," BBC's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," and more "Game of Thrones."

For the continued improvement of the indie, foreign, and documentary selections on VOD and streaming services. The iTunes and Amazon selections have gotten so much better over these last few years, but there could still be some considerable improvements. Now that I'm relying on these services more and more, I've realized how much better they could be. It's such a big opportunity to meet the needs of niche audiences. Sure, there's not much demand out there for Frederick Wiseman's highly acclaimed four-hour documentary on the University of California, Berkeley, but you'd think it would be available to stream somewhere by now, right?

For a better year for science-fiction at the movies. While 2014 did offer some nice surprises like "Under the Skin," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "Edge of Tomorrow," most of the sci-fi titles I had been looking forward to either got shuffled over to 2015, like "Ex Machina" and "Tomorrowland," or turned out to be disappointments like Wally Pfister's "Transcendence" and Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem." Now I haven't seen "Interstellar" yet, but it won't be enough to make up for the rest of the year, and it won't be enough to kickstart more original sci-fi projects the way I had been hoping these movies would. Oh well. There's always next year.

For the continued rise of women directors in film. With the end of the year awards conversations going on, it's been nice seeing Angelina Jolie, Ava Duvernay, Jennifer Kent, Laura Poitras, and Gina Prince-Bythewood coming up again and again in connection with "Unbroken," "Selma," "The Babdook," "Citizenfour," and "Beyond the Lights." And it's such an eclectic bunch too. And with Michelle MacLaren recently attached to direct "Wonder Woman," they're finally moving into the realm of big budget superhero movies too. Slowly but surely those walls are coming down.

For all the shows that disappointed me this year to do better, and for the good ones to keep up the good work. And for the passel of sequels in the movie theaters to offer some surprises. "Jurassic World" can't be as bad as it looks, right?

For a fun "Doctor Who" Christmas special. And a good, creepy "Black Mirror" one too.

And J.J. Abrams, please, please, please don't screw up. I can't take another "Phantom Menace."

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The December 2014 Follow-Up Post

It's been a while since we've had one of these, hasn't it? If you're new to the blog, these are posts where I write up brief additional comments updating pieces that have been previously posted, specifically where I don't feel I have enough to say about the matter to justify writing an entire new post about them. And here we go:

The MoviePass Math - MoviePass has turned out to be a viable business, so AMC has decided to get in on the action, announcing that they're testing out monthly subscription plans that will allow theatergoers to watch a movie a day for a flat fee. With theater attendance dropping and similar subscription plans gaining popularity in other countries, I expect that we'll see other chains follow suit, hopefully with more competitive pricing.

They're Calling the Movie What? - Well, it's finally happened. We have a major studio that has changed the title of a movie after its theatrical release. In this case, the Tom Cruise action movie released as "Edge of Tomorrow" is being marketed for home media under "Live. Die. Repeat.: Edge of Tomorrow." "Live. Die. Repeat." was initially the tagline. Apparently the crummy marketing campaign confused potential viewers who mixed up the two. It's a shame because the movie was a lot stronger than most of Tom Cruise's recent efforts. And I still prefer the source material's title, "All You Need is Kill," proper grammar be damned.

My Last Blockbuster Trip - It turns out you don't need a physical Blockbuster store to rifle through their inventory. The discs that couldn't be sold during the liquidations have been dumped in bargain stores. I found more pre-viewed Criterions of Jean Renoir's "The River, " Yasujiro Ozu's "Floating Weeds," and Oliver Parker's "The Importance of Being Ernest" in a display at a local Grocery Outlet, for $3 a pop. This could turn into a terrible habit.

Say It Ain't So, Spill.Com - Spill is no more, but its members have created two new sites to carry on its mission. Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas rounded up the Spill fanbase, went to Kickstarter, and created, releasing podcasts pretty close to the same format as what they had on Spill, though I miss A Couple of Cold Ones. Chris Cox and Brian Salisbury started, which celebrates geek culture. Alas, the Co-Host 3000 has been MIA, but I'm still holding out hope he'll be back someday.

What to Do About Wonder Woman? - The best news to have come out of the Warners camp about their slate of DC films is that Michelle McLaren, veteran of "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," has been attached to direct "Wonder Woman." That means the Zack Snyder nightmare scenario I had been dreading won't come to pass. McLaren has been a geek favorite for a while now, and I'm happy to see her making her film debut. However, the Wonder Woman property is such a minefield, I'm a little worried that this could all fall apart and impact her filmmaking career badly before she even gets started.

Dubious Days for Dreamworks - The bad news just refuses to let up for Dreamworks. "The Penguins of Madagascar" didn't exactly bomb at the box office, but it's falling well short of expectations. Its domestic numbers are actually worse than "The Rise of the Guardians" at the same point in its theatrical run. Foreign numbers are helping, but not very much. At the time of writing, the total gross is $175 million, and the film cost $132 million. If a dependable franchise like "Madagascar" can't attract audiences anymore, Dreamworks looks to be in deep trouble. It's no wonder they moved "Kung Fu Panda 3" to 2016, to avoid the competition from "Star Wars."

Greta Gerwig is Starring in What?! - Though its creators are holding out hope for a resurrection in the future, "How I Met Your Dad" didn't make CBS's fall schedule and Greta Gerwig has yet to make her television debut. Thank goodness. Meanwhile, none of the "Wizard of Oz" themed television shows I wrote about in TV's "Oz" Overload have gotten anywhere. The closest was NBC's "Emerald City," which was ordered straight to series, but never got past the script stage.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Lucy" and "Under the Skin"

I never would have guessed at the beginning of the year that one of the biggest names in science-fiction films would be Scarlett Johanssen. She's starred in no less than four genre films that made a big impact in 2014: "Her," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Under the Skin," and "Lucy." I thought I'd take a little time here and talk about the last two.

"Lucy" was a particularly noteworthy title because it topped the box office based on little more than her star power coupled with a nutty, high-concept science-fiction premise. Director Luc Besson's had a rocky track record lately, mostly telling and retelling stories of aging hit-men trying to hold dysfunctional families together. There are certainly antecedents in Besson's work for "Lucy," including his celebrated "La Femme Nikita" and the more recent "Columbiana," but it's been a long time since Besson has worked with this kind of protagonist and such an out-and-out fantastic premise. Scarlett Johanssen plays the titular Lucy, an American party-girl who is roped into becoming a drug mule, and gains superpowers when the drugs in question allows her brain to operate at higher and higher percentages of its capacity.

There's a nice simplicity to "Lucy." Though it's billed as an action film, the fisticuffs are really only a stepping stone to get us invested into the transformation of the main character from an ordinary woman to, essentially, a god. Besson is having a lot of fun here, framing the story like a nature documentary, with explanatory narration provided by Morgan Freeman's professor character, and occasional intercutting with wildlife footage so we can draw parallels. The appeals to science are utterly ludicrous, of course, but as a storytelling device it's very effective. Though "Lucy" became more and more outlandish the longer it went on, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Johanssen doesn't have much to work with, but she manages to avoid the Barbie-doll badass cliches and give Lucy a few poignant moments as her humanity gradually slips away. The visuals are trippy and a lot of fun. And Choi Min-Sik plays the bad guy, because, well, why not? Though we root for Lucy to use all of her brain, the movie requires the audience to leave theirs at the door. And that's okay.

If you're looking for headier, more thoughtful science-fiction fare, look no further than "Under the Skin," a chilling, atmospheric tale of two alien visitors who disguise themselves as human beings with stolen bodies. Their objectives are unknown, but it involves luring and capture of human beings by one of the aliens, using the body of a beautiful woman played by Scarlett Johanssen. Little exposition is used, and the aliens are largely non-verbal when they're not interacting directly with humans, so we can only glean their intentions through their actions and behavior. We follow the nameless alien in Johanssen's skin as it looks for victims. We see how its interactions with various men play out, and how its behavior starts to change. Initially cold, emotionless, and predatory, the continued exposure to Earth and its inhabitants creates attachment, and eventually new feelings and wants in the mysterious creature. No cinematic alien being has been so compelling in ages.

Director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer allows "Under the Skin" to unfold slowly, to reveal its horrors and its wonders incrementally. His goal is to establish a mood as much as it is to tell a story, and so there are lengthy, sinister shots of unidentified objects of possibly alien origin, and a long sequence shot with a dashcam where the Johanssen alien is posing as a lost tourist, driving through the darkened streets of Glasgow. The natural world plays a big part here, the rocky seashore heightening the cruelty of a tragedy that occurs in the waves, and a tranquil forest of snow-landen trees emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of our main character. Then there's Mica Levi's score, an extraordinary electronic thing full of lulling rhythms and pregnant pauses.

And Johanssen? She gives one of my favorite performances of the year, one that is largely physical in contrast to her work in "Her," which was limited to her voice. Where Lucy lost her humanity, the alien visitor gains a semblance of it, and "Under the Skin" allows that transformation to be a far more harrowing and soulful one. Johanssen's ascension to the A-list has been gradual, but very rewarding to see. And I hope she keeps picking more great genre roles in the future.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Potty-Mouths of the "Galaxy"

I just can't get over the amount of swearing in "Guardians of the Galaxy." I was looking forward to the movie for months, was ecstatic when the good reviews started rolling in, and hyped by the high box office totals and "I am Groot" becoming a catchphrase. And there's so much in the movie I did enjoy, from Chris Pratt's star-making performance as Star Lord to the grungy lived-in cosmic setting to the nostalgic '70s soundtrack. I thought director James Gunn did a fantastic job setting up stakes and juggling a cast of very strange characters in a very, very difficult genre. If this had been an original property with an R-rating, I would have adored the movie wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a Marvel film and part of the massive Marvel cinematic universe. And the rule up until this point has been that Marvel movies are kid-friendly even though they're not aimed at them directly. I know four-year olds who dressed up as Captain America and Iron Man for Halloween this year. "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be inevitably watched by lots of kids, because it's associated with the Marvel universe. Disney is counting on it, and in the process of readying a "Guardians of the Galaxy" cartoon for their Disney XD channel, and lots of action figures for Christmas shoppers as I type this. And I can't help feeling queasy about it because Star Lord casually curses like he's in a Judd Apatow flick, and at one point Drax calls Gamora a whore - and it's played for laughs.

Part of me knows that this is a generational thing, that language has slowly been getting stronger in movies over the years, and it's now perfectly acceptable to have PG-13 action films throw out a couple of s-words and occasionally an f-bomb. A lot of kids have grown up with Michael Bay's cheesecake shots in the "Transformers" films and violence several orders of magnitude greater than the stuff that used to prompt rants from Siskel and Ebert in the '80s. Bad language has lost a lot of the sting it once did to the younger segments of the U.S. population. However, I still associate it with being rude, lewd, crude, and a surefire way to get written up or sent to the principal's office, dude. And because there is still a good chunk of the older population that will react badly to a casually dropped expletive, warning for this kind of thing is still a very legitimate concern.

Parents of young kids who want to avoid media with strong language already have their work cut out for them, and "Galaxy" must have felt like being ambushed. None of the previous Marvel films had this amount of harsh language in them, and from the marketing, "Galaxy" looks perfectly safe for an eight-year-old. It's got a talking raccoon! Goofy, colorful aliens! Crossover characters who showed up in the last "Thor" and "Avengers" movies! With G and PG movies becoming scarce, "Guardians of the Galaxy" and other big PG-13 action films are inevitably some of the most popular summer viewing with the anklebiters, but the amount of potentially awkward conversations you'd have to have with a kid in order to get through this one is daunting. The movie starts with a parental death scene, for pete's sake.

And that's why I can't embrace "Guardians of the Galaxy" the way I really wish that I could. It's nice to see the Marvel films branching out, into space opera and broader comedy. This almost felt like a spoof on other recent blockbusters, before the predictable third act "save the world with explosions" business. if the villains had been a little better, this would have been the year's best genre comedy (a title currently still held by the glorious "Lego Movie.") It's a fantastically fun film - for adults. And I'm afraid that makes it a poor Marvel movie.

And now the success of "Galaxy" worries me. What does this mean for the next Phase of Marvel movies? The "Galaxy" gang are inevitably going to cross over with "Avengers" gang at some point - does that mean they're no longer going to be safe viewing either? Summer movies are turning into a mindful parent's minefield.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sony Hack Scrum

The situation has been changing so fast, I've had to rewrite this post multiple times. If there are any inconsistencies I've missed, apologies in advance.

When Sony Pictures Entertainment's computer systems were hacked, resulting in the leak of massive amounts of sensitive data, initially it seemed like a minor matter. So a few screeners got leaked, Hollywood accounting tactics were thwarted, and sensitive employee information got out. Though a lot of people were affected, it seemed like something that would blow over in a few days or weeks. Sony would have to cough up money for better security, to settle a few lawsuits, and maybe chip in for some credit monitoring for its employees. Big corporations have been hacked often enough that these situations are becoming fairly common. Much of the stolen data seemed fairly benign - a marketing presentation for "After Earth" and E-mails from various employees griping about Adam Sandler. It was embarrassing, but hardly seemed damaging.

And then the "Jobs" E-mails came out. And the insensitive Obama exchange. And the MPAA's anti-piracy strategy. And then the Spider-man reboot plans. And a screenplay for the next James Bond film is floating around now, along with some meeting notes that suggest the production may be massively over-budget. Then last week, the hackers started threatening Sony employees and their families. When the first rumors about the attack being connected to North Korea and the Seth Rogen comedy "The Interview" started circulation, I ran across several snarkers dismissing the whole thing as a publicity stunt. With the latest threats against movie theaters and the release of "The Interview" cancelled, everyone's taking it seriously now. I agree with Sony's decision here - averting a potential tragedy is worth taking the financial hit, but I'm also disturbed by the precedent it's setting. What happens when a movie or television show depicting something really controversial is targeted by future hackers?

There's also the question of how we process the information from the leaked E-mails. Aaron Sorkin penned a strong reproach to the gossipmongers for the New York Times a few days ago, pointing out that people's lives and careers are being ruined. Of course he's absolutely right. And I confess I've been ignoring him completely. I haven't watched any of those leaked screeners and wouldn't touch any of the stolen employee data with a forty-foot pole. I know Sony chief Amy Pascal said something about Obama she shouldn't have, but I don't know exactly what, and I do not care to. However, the inside baseball stuff has been fascinating. Being able to glimpse some of the candid negotiations and the politicking that goes on behind the scenes to get movies made, and seeing how the studio big shots conduct business is too much for me to resist. The E-mails detailing Sony's attempts to get a Steve Jobs biopic off the ground have been the juiciest since they involve so many big names, but some of the lower-profile exchanges have been just as dramatic. There's the way CBS and the NFL screwed over "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" this year, for instance. Or the whole business with the gender pay disparity for the stars of "American Hustle."

I know. It's wrong to be reading these stories. But I've only ever read about exchanges like these second-hand, years and years after the movies in question have come and gone, and somebody wants to write their memoirs. Getting to follow the conversations first-hand, some dated only a few weeks ago, is a rare thrill. And learning that the power players are human beings with often horrendous spelling and grammar is a thrill too. It's one thing to hear about Scott Rudin's attitude, and another entirely to read the insults he casually lobs at A-listers. There is no film obsessive who hasn't secretly dreamed of having this kind of access, to be able to confirm that the people who were responsible for "Grown Ups 2" disliked it just as much as its critics.

The price of that access, though, is a movie studio that has lost the ability to operate. This is a severe blow to Sony. These leaks are going to have serious repercussions for years, and may change how the entire film industry operates. Major projects are in jeopardy. Several of the Sony top brass will probably be going down in flames. It will take the company a long time to recover, and they will lose more than money before it's all over.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Trailers! Trailers! The 2015 is Almost Here Edition

It's December, which means that 2015 is just around the corner. This promises to be a pivotal year for Hollywood, with a slate chock full of big franchise films - though not as full as it was a year ago. Since the holiday movie season is in full swing, we've been getting lots of trailers for some of next year's biggest titles. Some of the highlights below. All links lead to Trailer Addict:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Let's get the big one out of the way first. We're still more than a year away from the release date, but this is a reassuring peek at the next "Star Wars" film. The visuals are right. The sound design is right. The music is bliss. Of course, a scant ninety seconds is too little to tell anything, and we all remember the raves that accompanied the first "Phantom Menace" trailer, right? For all we know that little soccer ball droid may be the next Jar Jar Binks. I'm staying optimistic though, because so far J.J. Abrams has been doing everything right.

Jurassic World - Isn't this the plot of "Jaws 3," but with genetically engineered dinosaurs? I think some of the concepts presented here are promising - theme park visits gone wrong are always fun - but this is a terrible trailer. The last half in particular, that switches to a horror tone and tries to make the "Jurassic Park" theme sound sinister, is just a bungle. The only bright spot in the whole thing is really Chris Pratt, and the "Jurassic World" creators were very, very lucky to be able to capitalize on the great 2014 he's had.

Tomorrowland - What I love about this teaser is that I still have no idea what the movie is about. I don't know who George Clooney's character is. I don't know what the mysterious "Tomorrowland" is. However, there's such a great sense of wonder and mystery conveyed here. I've been hearing about this project for ages, and Brad Bird has a track record that few can match up to, so I'm very curious to see the final result. At the time of writing, this is definitely my most highly anticipated blockbuster for next year.

Pan - I like so many of the people involved in this movie, but I'm not sure about this. I'm not opposed to origin stories, but the premise of Pan and Hook once being allies never sat quite right with me. Also, there's the Tiger Lily problem. I understand that Joe Wright did colorblind casting and a few of the major characters are dark-skinned - but none of them feature in the trailer or in any of the marketing. Instead, we have a lily-white Tiger Lily played by Rooney Mara everywhere. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, guys.

Inside Out - Formerly known as "The Untitled PIXAR Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind." The first teaser trailer was too brief for my tastes, so it's good to see the concept fleshed out a little with a domestic situation playing out between the main character and her parents, as seen through the eyes of their anthropomorphized emotions. It loses a few points for the stereotypical parents, but this is only a brief glimpse, so it's way too early to be drawing any conclusions yet. And you gotta love that tagline.

Cinderella - I was disappointed when Mark Romanek left the director's chair, but was faintly hopeful about Kenneth Branagh taking over. But I can't see Branagh anywhere in this trailer, which is just relentlessly Disney, Disney, Disney. Cate Blanchett's evil stepmother looks great, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother should be a treat, but otherwise this looks like exactly what you'd expect yet another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic to look like. Do we at least get talking mice?

Terminator: Genisys - I was intially skeptical, and I still think the title is blah, but boy is it great to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in this franchise again. "Terminator" is one of those franchises that can be credibly rebooted since there's so much time travel and timeline rewriting in the premise itself. I'm not thrilled at having Jai Courtney fronting this, as he's been underwhelming in everything I've seen in him to date, but I'm excited about Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, who we all know is the real lead anyway.

Chappie - Neil Blomkamp's last movie "Elysium" looked great but was ultimately an unfortunate bust. It's hard to say if "Chappie" will be more of the same. This trailer doesn't offer many plot details, so it's essentialy an effects reel. The robot looks fantastic, but I'm wary that he's being voiced by Sharlto Copley, whose performances have just gotten more and more bizarre lately. But on the upside there's Hugh Jackman and Die Antwoord. Put this one in the "wait and see column."

Avengers: Age of Ultron - I'm linking the preview clip shown during "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." here instead of the actual teaser because, let's be honest, it's so much better. You've got the humor, the checking in with all the old characters, and the villain making a splashy entrance. What does the teaser have? Random ballerina shots and a creepy version of "I've Got No Strings" from "Pinocchio." Seriously, what is it with trailers lately trying to make completely non-creepy songs sound creepy?

Mad Max: Fury Road - Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!


Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top Ten 3rd Rock From the Sun Episodes

I miss "3rd Rock From the Sun." It was the last sitcom of the '90s that I really loved, where each and every member of the ensemble was a joy, and I never missed an episode if I could help it. More silliness than science-fiction, it nevertheless appealed to the geek in me, and certainly the alienated teenager in me that didn't feel quite like she was cut out to be part of the human race for a few years. Below are a sampling of fondly remembered episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. As usual, I will cheat and count two-parters as single entries - and there are a lot of them this time. It's been at least a decade since I've watched any of the episodes, but I'm pretty confident about these picks. Once I started reading over synopses, there wasn't an episode I didn't remember.

"Dick's First Birthday" - Or as I remember it, the one with Dick in the amazing tight leather pants. A big part of why the series worked was the performance of John Lithgow as the High Commander Dick Solomon, and this episode is the reason why I committed to becoming a regular viewer. It's so rare to find a performer so committed to such a ridiculous performance, and I loved every second.

"Body & Soul & Dick" - Dick is recruited to deliver the eulogy for a colleague who everyone hated, prompting all the Solomons to think about their own mortality. I greatly preferred the show's earlier seasons because they tried more earnestly to examine the big questions about the human condition. They weren't always successful, and some attempts were downright cringeworthy, but this was one of the good ones.

"Dick Like Me" - The aliens exploring race and ethnicity could have been a total misfire, but the writing manages to strike a balance between irreverence and pointed commentary, and the actors sell it. There are lots of great little character moments too - Harry dancing, Nina's exasperation, and each Solomon's reaction to being declared Jewish. Alas, later episodes returning to the topic weren't nearly as successful.

"See Dick Continue to Run" - The second season opened with two episodes devoted to my favorite character in the entire series run: Evil Dick, who replaced regular Dick in the first season finale cliffhanger. Evil Dick had Lithgow was firing on all cylinders, smarmily wooing Professor Albright, subjugating the other aliens, and being an all around... well... Evil Dick. Lithgow won the Emmy a few days before this first aired and famously ended his speech by quoting this episode: "God bless television!"

"Fourth and Dick" - A good example of the show's formula working at its best. Dick dismisses homecoming activities as fuss and nonsense, only to be completely swept up in school spirit by the end of the episode. The other aliens have their own subplots, and everyone comes together at the end to discuss what they've learned. In this case, all the parts work, even the completely unrelated business with Tommy crushing on a choir teacher and Sally befriending Nina.

"Jolly Old St. Dick" - It might be because it's so close ot the holidays, but I love the way that the Solomons take on the madness of Christmas, especially the retail horror and gift-giving side of things. Dick of course plays the Scrooge, who learns to embrace the season after bah-humbing his way through most of the episode. I especially enjoy some of the bits with his students, who were a minor but always amusing part of the show.

"A Nightmare on Dick Street" - This was heavily promoted as a special two-parter with sequences presented in 3D. Even without the gimmick though, I thought this was lots of fun. The aliens have dreams for the first time, which they naturally panic and overreact to. We get to see the dreams too - neat little jaunts into the surreal. My favorite is Harry's musical number, written and co-starring Randy Newman.

"36! 24! 36! Dick!" - The Superbowl two-parter where a group of highly attractive newcomers, all played by supermodels, come to Rutherford and quickly have all the men in town entranced. Of course, they're a rival alien invasion force. The guest stars are well utilized, Sally gets one of her funniest turns when she plays infiltrator, and who knew that Cindy Crawford and French Stewart would have actual chemistry with each other?

"Dick's Big Giant Headache" - One of the greatest casting coups of all time is William Shatner as the Big Giant Head. Because of course he is. Shatner is a great sport, playing a caricature of himself as a boozing, womanizing egomaniac who sweeps Vicki Dubcek off her feet, to Harry's consternation. It's no wonder he made multiple return visits to Earth to compound the havoc in later seasons. Also, there's the epic "Twilight Zone" in-joke.

"The Loud Solomon Family: A Dickumentary" - A spoof on the "An American Family" docu-series, which uncovered the dysfunctions in an average family's lives. When they discover they're the subject of Professor Albright's project, the Solomons let the attention go to their heads, and make up all sorts of shocking revelations to generate more drama. This one was before its time, as reality TV hadn't really taken off yet, but boy did it stay relevant.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Ghibli Princess

Isao Takahata is the other founder of Studio Ghibli, alongside the much more renowned Hayao Miyazaki. His masterpiece "Grave of the Fireflies," is an indisputed classic, but otherwise his films have had far less press and attention than Miyazaki's work. This isn't surprising as Takahata's films tend to be less accessible, and often involve very specific aspects of Japanese culture that can be difficult to translate. He's also less prolific, and much harder to categorize as a director. While most fans can identify a Miyazaki film within a few minutes, Takahata's style seems to change for every production. None of his Ghibli features have the same art style, and some are wildly different from each other.

His latest, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," is a good example. It resembles no other Ghibli film, and I'm hard pressed to think of any other animated project that looks or feels quite like it. Retelling the Japanese folk tale of a bamboo cutter who finds a magical baby girl in a bamboo stalk, the whole film is designed to look like Japanese ink brush paintings. All the line work and the color palette reflect this, especially in the occasional pauses that the film takes to let us simply look at and enjoy the natural scenery. The princess herself, called Little Bamboo as a child and Kaguya when she's older, has the eyes and face of a typical Ghibli heroine, but her expressions and her movements are rendered so much more artfully. The amount of detail in the deceptively simple visuals, especially the sequences that feature a lot of quick motion, is extraordinary.

The film follows the life of its heroine from a laughing baby to a conflicted young woman, who struggles against the social expectations of being a noble. Her adoptive father believes Kaguya's happiness is dependent on rising to a high station, but she wants to remain free from the many suitors who vie to win her hand. A thoughtful character study of a popular figure from Japanese legend, the focus on her inner turmoil helps to carry the lengthy film through an episodic structure with a lot of loose ends. Kaguya may be a fairy tale princess, but her woes are deep ones about love and loss and family. And they are dealt with seriously, resulting in great empotional impact.

At the same time, this is one of the funniest and most lighthearted Ghibli films, with a lot of emphasis on caricature and physical humor. Aside from Kaguya and her childhood sweetheart Sutemaru, all the characters are wildly exaggerated in form. Kaguya's adoptive parents are squat, dumpling-shaped, and look like they'd be more at home in Takahata's domestic comedy "My Neighbors the Yamadas." The flaws of the noble suitors are immediately revealed in the way certain features have been emphasized. My favorite character is Kaguya's chubby little maid, who never says much, but provides plenty of comic relief.

I love a film that can show me something I haven't seen before, and that's why "Princess Kaguya" is my favorite Ghibli film in years. I admired "The Wind Rises" and "Arietty," but they were both well-tread ground for the studio, and too many elements were very familiar. There are certainly some familiar bits of design work and story themes in "Princess Kaguya," but I've never seen anything like Kaguya's flight from the capital, done in a frenzy of rough charcoal lines that emphasize pure speed and motion. And the character animation in the joyous sequence where the baby princess learns to crawl, and then walk within only a few minutes.

Though he's made no announcement, it's likely that this is Isao Takahata's last animated film. It took him over a decade to complete "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," and at the age of 79 he's older and has had a longer film career than Miyazaki. I'm grateful that he managed to leave us with a final feature that hit ever so much harder than I expected it to. And has left absolutely no doubt in my mind that Studio Ghibli truly was built on the work of two auteurs, who have both done so much to advance the art of animation.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Little Down on "Doctor Who"

Spoilers ahead for the latest series.

First things first. I love Michelle Gomez as the newest incarnation of The Master. I bought her as the character immediately, and thought her appearance in the finale episodes was a blast. I really hope that she comes back for more episodes in the future, and says the word "bananas" a bunch more times. However, her performance highlighted for me how much I've been struggling to accept Peter Capaldi as the newest Doctor, and after a whole season I find that I'm not quite there yet. I find Capaldi a tremendous performer, and he's delivered some great moments over this past series. The man has a wonderful facility with ridiculous speeches. However, Capaldi's Doctor has been so much grimmer and morally gray than his most recent predecessors that I'm having trouble thinking of them as the same character. And though he's shown a sillier side on occasion, I miss the goofiness of Matt Smith and David Tennant. This series of "Doctor" Who" has been plenty compelling, but it just hasn't been as much fun.

Look at Danny Pink, for example, played by Samuel Anderson. As Clara's love interest he was a major part of this year, and received lots and lots of character development and screen time. However, he was such a sourpuss every time he appeared, angsting over his past as a soldier, getting hostile with the Doctor, or suggesting that his relationship with Clara was an jeopardy. And what a relationship. They seemed to have about five minutes in total of happy, flirty, enjoyment of each other amidst endless scenes of awkward bungling, Clara being evasive, Danny being suspicious, and the threat of separation dominating nearly every scene of them together. For these two, the finale was all about sorrowful partings and somber declarations of love and loyalty. It was difficult to really root for their relationship when the relationship just seemed to be an endless source of unhappiness for both of them. It certainly helped to flesh out Clara as a character, but I couldn't help feeling frustrated with all the doom and gloom.

Part of the issue was that here weren't as many comedic episodes this year, but the few that were in the mix like "Robot of Sherwood" and "The Caretaker" were promising. I like the Doctor as a grump, who is sometimes a few steps behind where human nature is concerned as opposed to being the near-omniscient alien smarty-pants he's been in the past. However, the level of grumpiness hasn't been consistent, and there have definitely been some transitional bumps. The best episodes have ended up being the more horrific ones. My favorite of the year was "Mummy on the Orient Express," one of those high concept, big idea shows where all the pieces fit just right. This year's scripts have been notably ambitious - even the installments that have fallen flat like "Listen" and "Kill the Moon" haven't lacked for daring. The series' big arcs have also featured some real substance, hinging on a more thoughtful, more personal examination of the Doctor's character through Clara's relationship with him. But did it have to be so morose?

It might just be that I haven't watched any of the older "Who" episodes with a more mature actor playing the Doctor, or that this kind of character drama is not what I've grown to expect from the program. Sure, it's been hinted that many of the Doctor-Companion relationships haven't been very healthy, but this is the first time I've seen the show really dwell on the issue, and I think it may have been too much for the format to handle. "Doctor Who" is still a kids' show in my mind. Or it might be because there's been relatively little connection to earlier series this year. The Paternoster Gang showed up in the premiere, but otherwise there hasn't been much carryover of characters aside from Clara - and she was such a nonentity in the Matt Smith series, it felt like we were starting over from scratch. So it was great to have the Master and UNIT and the army of Cybermen in the finale, both for the injection of goofy fun and for the connection to the rest of the "Doctor Who" canon.

I'll certainly keep watching though, for Nick Frost as Santa Claus at Christmas and for potentially better to come. I hope that Clara's love life brightens up a bit in the future and that Capaldi's doctor can be a bit more a grumpy adventurer and a bit less of an introspective bundle of doubts. After his big speech in the finale, I hope some of those questions about his morality can be put to bed for a while. And we can get back to the business of exploring and saving the universe unhindered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Favorite Mike Nichols Movie

I've avoided commenting on the deaths of famous celebrities and artists, but every so often I have the opportunity to post something timely that could function as such. And so we come to Mike Nichols, one of the instigators of the New Hollywood era, who made small scale dramas and comedies that were wonderfully reflective of their times. He's best known for "The Graduate," the landmark 1967 coming-of-age film that launched the career of Dustin Hoffman, my favorite actor. "The Graduate" was very much a film of the '60s though, and as funny and touching as it is, I never related to it the way I did to some of Nichols' other films. Like "Working Girl," which was such a time capsule of the '80s. Or "Primary Colors," which provided an uncomfortably close look at the Clinton years. Then there's "The Birdcage," which wouldn't have worked nearly as well if it hadn't been made in the mid-90s, right as the culture was starting to change and become more accepting of LGBT folks and their relationships. I love it to bits, and it's my favorite Nichols film because it always makes me laugh.

"The Birdcage" is such a deceptively simple movie. A gay couple pretend to be straight in order to meet the conservative parents of their son's fiancee. Miscommunications cause mix-ups and misunderstandings, leading to beautifully executed comedic farce. Though very open about the homosexuality of the main characters, the movie was such a universal crowd-pleaser, even when it was released in 1996. Armand and Albert were two of the first explicitly gay characters I remember headlining such a mainstream comedy, and while I didn't have much exposure to gay relationships, I understood who they were immediately - loving parents willing to upend their lives and compromise their identities out of love for their son. "The Birdcage" is also, we must remember, a remake. "La Cage aux Folles" was first a 1973 French play, which was adapted into a 1978 French-Italian film and a 1983 American musical, both very successful. "The Birdcage" was based on the film version, which I've seen and enjoyed. It's a lovely feature that originated many of the best bits of character work and dialogue, but it has absolutely nothing on "The Birdcage," which boasts a collection of comedic greats at the top of their game.

Mike Nichols was an actor's director, and his films are all about showcasing the performances he was able to get out of his ensembles. Though a constant presence in Hollywood movies over the past twenty years, Nathan Lane never had a screen role as memorable as Albert. He's such an extreme caricature, but also such a loving one, who could be offended? Hank Azaria is monstrously talented, but has proven difficult for many creatives to use effectively. Not here, where Nichols helped him turn Agador (Spartacus!) into a scene stealer. And then there's Robin Williams, so restrained in this role compared to everything else he was making at the time, he's practically the film's straight man (so to speak), but he gets the little moments to break out when appropriate - the immortal "eclectic celebration of the dance" scene, for instance. And there was Gene Hackman in a rare comedic role. And the underappreciated Diane Wiest. And Christine Baranski at her cuddliest. And even a very young Calista Flockhart, showing off burgeoning comedic skills.

I miss comedies like this one, that were okay with being a little risque instead of hitting you over the head with vulgar content. That could take a stand for gay relationships without being a message movie. That could discuss politics but somehow never felt remotely political. That tossed a few ancient Jewish jokes into the mix just because it could. Best of all, I love that it could have a great big heart, one revealed not through a saccharine love scene, but in a wistful conversation between two middle-aged men, and when their son finally works up the courage to introduce his mother to his future in-laws. It hurts to lose Mike Nichols, who seemed to make movies like this effortlessly, and very funny, touching ones to boot. I'm not knocking iis dramas, which are consistently excellent, but to me Nichols will always be the man who knew "The Graduate" had to end with Benjamin and Elaine becoming their parents, and "The Birdcage" had to end with Gene Hackman in drag.

What I've Seen - Mike Nichols

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Catch-22 (1970)
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The Fortune (1975)
Silkwood (1983)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Working Girl (1988)
The Birdcage (1996)
Primary Colors (1998)
Angels in America (2003)
Closer (2004)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)


Monday, November 24, 2014

A Peek "Over the Garden Wall"

There are some shows that seem destined to slip through the cracks, that are so unique and ephemeral that it's difficult to believe that they really exist. Billed as Cartoon Network's first miniseries, "Over the Garden Wall" is one of these curiosities, telling one complete story in ten serialized ten-minute episodes. At first glance it looks like exactly the kind of content you'd expect from "Adventure Time" veteran Patrick McHale. Two young brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) are lost in the woods and trying to get home. Their designs echo vintage illustrations from old volumes of children's stories, though their patter is very modern. Other characters they meet include a talking bluebird, Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), an intimidating Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), and a genial horse (Fred Stoller). The villain of the piece is a sinister creature known as The Beast (Samuel Ramey).

What sets "Over the Garden Wall" apart is how beautifully realized its universe is, and the way the storytelling is handled. Each episode neatly parcels out a little information at a time, gradually revealing larger stakes and character details. Initially all you know about Wirt and Greg is that they wear funny hats, they're brothers, and they're lost. By the end of the last episode, there are satisfying explanations for everything, including a lot of the odd little conceits that abound in children's shows - like why Greg is always lugging around a frog and starts out the journey with his pants full of candy. There's also the atmosphere, which is never inappropriate for children, but mixes whimsy with a darker, more foreboding undercurrent of dread. It's fairy-tale like in the best sense, evoking both wonder and horror. I was surprised how dark and psychologically fraught the series got. At the same time it maintains a good balance of fun and silliness. Some installments are much lighter and more comedic, and even the grimmest ones will have a good laugh or two.

As an animation fan, I love the multiple references and homages to the older comics and cartoons of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the designs look like like they came straight out of old Max Fleischer "Betty Boop" shorts or early Disney "Silly Symphonies." One episode features a dream sequence that borrows heavily from "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Jazz and ragtime songs are incorporated into the narrative now and then, several with vocals by Jack Jones, evoking the era even further. The illusion isn't quite perfect, as the actual animation is very much the same quality as Cartoon Network's usual output - well designed, but a little static and a little flat. Though the characters have rubber hose limbs, they don't move like proper rubber hose characters. That's not to say that "Over the Garden Wall" isn't lovely to look at, but the budget constraints are very evident.

Aesthetics aside, the show's sensibilities are very modern, particularly the characters of Wirt, an insecure teenager who keeps questioning things that don't make sense to him, and Beatrice, the helpful bluebird whose slightly acerbic attitude doesn't quite match her cuddly exterior. Initially I thought they were a way to inject some self-aware, ironic dialogue aimed at amusing parents, but "Over the Garden Wall" actually makes the incongruity part of its story instead of just pointing it out. Picking up the little clues and foreshadowing from their asides and offhand comments is a lot of fun. On the other hand, my favorite character is the younger brother Greg, an eternally optimistic little boy whose behavior is completely universal and timeless. He makes up songs, changes the name of his frog every five minutes, and has an infectious never-say-die attitude that diffuses a lot of the creepier material.

Best of all, "Over the Garden Wall" feels exactly the right length. The running time is roughly the same as a feature film, but the episodic structure and the serialization give the creators a lot more space to explore the show's intriguing universe while digging into its secrets. Much of the same crew worked on "Adventure Time," and I've enjoyed the way that show has slowly built its mythology over the course of multiple seasons. However, the payoff has been extremely slow in coming. "Over the Garden Wall" wraps up everything in 100 minutes while still giving the viewer the feeling that they've come a long way with the characters.

I hope that Cartoon Network tries more experiments like this, and I hope that "Over the Garden Wall" manages to stick around in the public consciousness and reach a broader audience over time. Miniseries and special event programming like this can get lost in the shuffle because it doesn't fit any of the usual programming categories - you have to go back to things like "Clone Wars" or MTV's "Liquid Television" to find similar animated projects - and "Over the Garden Wall" is one that deserves to be remembered.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Television Talk Shows in the Internet Age

I was waiting for my lunch order in a restaurant a week ago, a little mom and pop place that had a flatscreen in the back corner. It was playing Maury Povich's talk show, which I hadn't seen in a long, long time. I hadn't seen any of the syndicated talk shows in ages, having had no reason to watch daytime television since the internet gave me a more preferable option with which to kill brain cells. But I didn't have a laptop or phone with me, and the batteries were dead in my MP3 player, so I spent about twenty minutes watching "Maury" and marveling at how the show had changed since I last saw it.

I watched the daytime talk shows on occasion when I was a teenager in the '90s and stuck at home for one reason or another. They were mostly variations on the same formula, with Jerry Springer's show on the trashiest end of the spectrum, and "Oprah" on the classiest. All of them picked a topic of the day, brought out a few rounds of guests to be interviewed, and fed on the energy of a live audience. "Oprah" might build shows around specific celebrities or products, but it always fell back on sensationalized human interest topics. "Maury" definitely leaned toward the "Springer" model, reliant on the freaks over the glamor. Paternity tests, alternative lifestyles, dysfunctional families, and interventions were all regularly trotted out on stage for our amusement.

I don't remember what the topic of the day was on the episode of "Maury" that I glimpsed last week, though there was a caption at the bottom of the screen indicating what it was. That wasn't the content that was on the screen. Instead, I found that I was watching a significant portion of "Maury" that had been set aside for viral videos. Apparently this is a regular segment, with its own presenter to provide commentary and context for the clips: footage of a robbery, a home video of a woman backing over a disabled man's scooter, and so forth. I recognized one of them from a post that had appeared on Reddit a month earlier. I'd noticed a couple of viral video programs like this had popped up on television in recent years, mostly time-fillers that local stations would run to patch gaps in their schedules. But what were these videos doing on "Maury"?

I kept watching. It was near the end of the hour, and the show was wrapping up with various announcements and messages. They were looking for participants for future shows on such-and-such topic. Tickets for future tapings could be obtained at such-and-such phone number. And then there was a push for viewers to connect with the "Maury" show online through Twitter and Facebook. As I watched the social media icons flash prominently on the screen, one after another, it clicked. Viral videos weren't just a cheap and easy way for the show to obtain content. "Maury" was showing them because that's what the target audience for these talk shows have been watching instead of "Maury." If you want to find a freak show, after all, the internet has an endless supply, and presented in a far more accessible way than the clunky daytime talk show format, interspersed with inane commercials.

The mainstream culture has inevitably shifted away from television and toward the internet. Twitter followers and Youtube views have become the new metrics of success, and it's rare that you can find anything on television that you can't find online within a few hours. The bigger talk shows and interview shows have responded by becoming part of the internet culture. Kimmel and Fallon create content intended to go viral on the internet. The hosts of "Good Morning America" and "Today" discuss whatever's trending on Twitter. However, the modus operandi of Maury Povich is to shovel schlock, and when his brand of schlock isn't selling any more, the only thing he can do is regurgitate the stuff that is getting attention - "shocking" acts "caught on camera" that most of us with any internet savvy have already seen circulating online.

I suspect the only ones left to watch "Maury" are the dwindling number of viewers who aren't savvy or aren't connected. Or have been stuck waiting for an order of fish tacos for a little too long. I don't think I'll be going back to that restaurant. And I doubt I'll be seeing Maury again for a long time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Gone Girl" Goes For the Throat

It's been long enough that I think a spoiler-filled review is appropriate. A quick review up front though, if you haven't seen the film yet. Just stop reading at the end of this paragraph. David Fincher's latest film, "Gone Girl," is a domestic thriller about a woman's disappearance that takes some wild turns, and features some good performances. Rosamund Pike completely steals the show as Amy Elliott Dunne, the missing woman. Ben Affleck is no slouch either as her very imperfect husband Nick, who is not prepared for the media attention that the case attracts. "Gone Girl" is an intensely cynical, smart, and involving film that plays on all our fears about relationships and intimacy. It's the best crime film, and one of the best psychological thrillers made in years.

And Amazing Amy instantly joins the ranks of Alex Forrest from "Fatal Attraction" and Annie Wilkes from "Misery" as one of the great female screen villains. She's the embodiment of everyone's worst fear about their romantic partner, a woman who goes from picture perfect to destructive and psychopathic when things don't work out the way she wants them to. Amy is also a manipulator, who goes to extreme lengths to create a perfect sob story, and uses the voracious cable news entertainment industry to persecute her husband in her absence. Her false narrative is so convincing because it's so easy and familiar. We want to believe the wronged, victimized woman, and hate the careless, cheating man. David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn do a terrific job of playing on these tropes and leading the audience to just the right place to get the rug pulled out from underneath them with maximum force. I understand that the "Gone Girl" novel painted Nick in a much less flattering light, and the reader could conclude that he and Amy deserved each other. However, I don't mind that he's more of an everyman in the film, because it just makes Amy that much more effective and memorable.

Rosamund Pike is an actress I'm familiar with for minor parts in genre films, but I never saw her in any really substantial roles before this. Here she's got the spotlight, and there's no question that she's a star. She remains sympathetic and attractive even when she's at her worst. The second half of the film where we follow her misadventures as "Nancy" are so effective because Pike and Fincher continue to largely present her as the vulnerable, underdog figure that Amy has cast herself as in her own mind. It's only very, very late in the movie that the mask is completely off and we understand what she's fully capable of. Ben Affleck's performance doesn't have nearly the same complexity, but he does solid work and he's perfectly cast. Affleck's public persona and history with the media give Nick's encounters with the media some added impact. As Nick learns to become a public figure, it's hard not to think of that point in Affleck's career when he was better regarded for being part of the Bennifer super couple than for his artistic endeavors.

After the oddly sanitized version of "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," I was worried that David Fincher was losing some of his verve. But after "Gone Girl," that's clearly not the case. This is one of his darkest, most intense films, and he does it with very little graphic imagery or content. His style is unmistakable, but it's the tone and the mood that mark this as a Fincher film. The amount of psychological and emotional violence in play here is staggering, and far more gripping than the few instances of physical violence. That's not to say that these moments aren't handled well. Consider the jolts of Nick's fairly mild assaults on Amy and the tension created during the robbery where the perpetrators barely touch her. However, he's reduced the scale of the larger conflict down to such a personal level, while hardly sacrificing any of his usual brutality.

I also love all the little subtleties in how the "Gone Girl" universe has been constructed, especially its self-awareness about its own messages, and the way that it highlights the dangers of the media. Surely aware of the way Amazing Amy would invite discussion of its gender politics, the filmmakers offer two positive female characters, Margo (Carrie Coon) and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) to support Nick. More familiar actors - Neil Patrick Harris, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, and Tyler Perry - are used in ways that play off of or go against type. And though the scrum around Nick is reprehensible, none of the actions of any individual characters feels exaggerated or unrealistic in the slightest. Everyone, even the Nancy Grace stand-in who leads the charge against Nick, gets their moments of humanity, even if that humanity is ugly stuff.

"Gone Girl" is the kind of movie that doesn't arrive at the theaters very often anymore - a serious contemporary adult drama, chock full of issues to debate over (though not an "issue" film), and massively entertaining to boot. The closest thing I can think to compare it to, ironically, is "Gone Baby Gone," which Ben Affleck directed not too long ago. When I first heard about this project, I hoped that a little of Fincher might rub off on Affleck. Now, I'm not so sure it wasn't the other way around.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Joys of "Drunk History"

It's taken me a little while to warm up to "Drunk History," which originated as a series of Funny or Die shorts and is currently in its second season on Comedy Central. In the first year, each episode told three stories from a particular city or region. The second has expanded to particular topics like First Ladies and sports heroes. I liked the sound of the premise and the promos at first. Inebriated "storytellers" - no credentials are offered, so they could be paid actors for all I know - are recruited to tell the stories of famous figures or events from America's past. Their drunken ramblings are paired with with historical recreations acted out by haphazardly cast comedians in period dress. However, the first episode rubbed me the wrong way. The poor man trying to recount the particulars of the Watergate scandal was so drunk, I was more worried for him than amused. Also, as a lifelong nerd, I was actually interested in the stories that were being relayed, and found that the drunkenness was getting in the way of the storytelling, which was very annoying.

Subsequent episodes, however, have won me over. Though I still don't find the drunken narrators as funny as other people do, I love the way that the reenactments are staged, with the actors lip-synching the modern, off-the-cuff dialogue and all the little ways that the show finds to send up the talking-head documentary format we usually see in history-themed programming. History has always been associated with pompous ivory tower academia to some extent, and thus often viewed as unapproachable by the common man. The introduction of alcohol cuts out all the pretension immediately, but not the passion of the storytellers who are eager to tell us about the wackier exploits of Abraham Lincoln or Billy the Kid. And I love the way that Great Moments From History have essentially been reframed as drinking anecdotes, bringing untouchable icons back down to a human level. Drinking to excess can be dangerous and morally murky territory, but we could all use the reminder that quite a bit of early American History took place in and around taverns and bars.

Pains have been taken to ensure the drinking is less of an impediment, too. The featured stories tend to be a little off-color, and often they're obscure tales that don't usually come up in schoolbooks. The showrunners seem to have quickly figured out that their narrators can't be so drunk that they're incoherent and unable to finish the stories. Interruptions and mixed up words come up regularly, but you rarely see them impact the storytelling. I've even noticed a couple of instances where the narration over the reenactments sobers up a bit for the endings, possibly thanks to some good editing. This was particularly evident in the Hawaii episode, where a pair of less well-known heroic figures were spotlighted in their own segments, who the show clearly wanted to do right by. The show has gotten downright informative, though I'd hesitate to call it educational considering how incomplete and chaotic a lot of the stories are.

The reenactments are far and away the best part of the show. Where else could you have Stephen Merchant as Abraham Lincoln or Kevin Nealon as a Grand Dragon of the KKK? And we must have more Jack Black, who has played Elvis and Orson Welles so far with glorious abandon. It's a shame that the majority of the time the actors don't actually get to speak any of their dialogue, but the pantomime is more than enough to get laughs. The production values are self-consciously a little rough - fake facial hair quality varies greatly from segment to segment - but they're just good enough that you can treat them as legitimate reenactments. Some have been so well produced that I legitimately got wrapped up in the story and forgot that I was watching "Drunk History" instead of an actual historical program. Well, until we cut back to a plastered historian anyway.

I hope that "Drunk History" goes on for a long time, because there's certainly no shortage of history for them to retell. And I hope that they expand their horizons, so we can get some international stories. I want to see the Defenestration of Prague! William the Conqueror's funeral! Caligula! You'd hardly even need to be drunk at all to tell a fun story about him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Chef" is Pretty Boss

One of the basic questions I ask when unpacking my reaction to a movie is, what audience was this movie meant for? Jon Favreau's new film "Chef" is not a family film, even though the most important relationship is between the main character, Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) and his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Though the humor is gentle, it's a little too ribald for younger audiences. Is "Chef" for foodies? To an extent. The main character is a chef who has become complacent in his life and work, and must set out to reclaim his identity. A big part of this is cooking the food that he wants to cook on his own terms, and rebuilding his reputation from the ground up. But though it makes good use of food culture to tell its story, I don't think this is the film's primary audience either. No, "Chef" is aiming quite a bit broader. It's a feel-good film for guys, the male equivalent of all those Meryl Streep movies about bonding and self-discovery and starting the next chapter of your life. And it's a pretty good one.

And how appropriate that it should come from Jon Favreau, whose track record making big studio films has been rocky lately. After "Iron Man 2" and "Cowboys & Aliens," it's nice seeing him working small scale and simple again. And it's hard not to draw parallels between Favreau and Carl, who lands himself in hot water after getting into a social media-fueled tiff with a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), and trades in a steady gig as head chef of a restaurant for a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches with Percy and their sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo). There's definitely a wish fulfillment fantasy aspect to "Chef," where Carl's ex, Inez, is played by Sofia Vergara, and a Twitter marketing campaign managed by a ten-year-old is enough to draw crowds to greet Carl at every stop on his cross-country tour. At the same time, so much of the story has a ring of authenticity to it. Clearly Favreau took pains to get the food and the food preparation right, even spotlighting the contributions of one of the real chefs who worked on the movie during the credits. There's also an emotional honesty and vulnerability to Carl Casper that 's refreshing to see, that keeps him sympathetic and worth rooting for.

If "Chef" is a foodie movie, it's one that takes pains to be accessible to the common man, where Carl is frequently engaged in lightly vulgar banter with Martin, and father-son bonding has the highest priority. Kitchen culture gets the focus, rather than the more hoity-toity dining culture that we see more commonly. That puts "Chef" in closer company with older family restaurant dramas like "Big Night" and "Eat Drink Man Woman." At the same time it's very much a product of the current internet age, where the plot hinges on Carl misusing Twitter, and a bad interaction going viral. Part of his learning curve is getting comfortable with technology, and appreciating its uses. The way that social media is depicted in the film is fanciful but mostly realistic, and a good sign that we're getting away from the sensationalist portrayals of life online that have been a bothersome fixture of mainstream cinema for far too long.

Though this has been billed in some circles as Jon Favreau's return to his indie roots, "Chef" is far too slick and star-studded for that. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johanssen were recruited for brief appearances in minor roles, and there are some instances of corporate branding that can't help but stick out. This feels like an indie by default, the kind of smaller scale movie that the studios are wary of making anymore, which is a shame. "Chef" is clearly a passion project for Favreau, a charming, low-key, big-hearted crowd-pleaser that has had no trouble finding a receptive audience. It's a little trite and very indulgent, but it's easy to forgive those flaws when you have a movie so personable and so eager to simply entertain. More big-budget films are surely in Jon Favreau's future, but I hope he keeps making the time to make a few more small ones like "Chef."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Utopia, Year Two

Spoilers ahead for the first series of "Utopia," and light spoilers for the first two episodes of the second series ahead.

There's always a great conundrum when you reach the end of a conspiracy mystery show that has shown all its cards and told the audience all its secrets: What do you do next? A big part of what made the first year of Channel Four's "Utopia" such a satisfying watch was that it was never stingy with information and the big mysteries weren't drawn out. Instead, perfectly satisfactory explanations were presented in a well timed fashion, and the series never lost any of its momentum. For year two, there was a cliffhanger or two to resolve, but where would "Utopia" go now that we knew the identity of Mr. Rabbit, the purpose of Janus, and where Jessica Hyde was? Other shows would have given us new mysteries, perhaps revealing that there were villains higher up the chain that we hadn't known about, waiting in the wings. The second series of "Utopia" chooses the opposite tack, morphing into a different kind of show as it reveals more information and grapples with the fallout of the events of the first series.

I knew that we were on the right track in the premiere episode, which is entirely a flashback episode to the 1970s. It spells out the sordid history of The Network, created by Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) and Milner (Rose Leslie), and the origins of Arby and Jessica Hyde. The violence is gut-wrenching, the personal tragedies of the characters are engrossing, and the extremism on display is presented as scarily plausible - "Utopia" at its finest. In a single episode, we see how the Network destroyed Philip Carvel's life, which sets up the central questions of this series: what are the characters willing to sacrifice in the name of what they believe? Though everyone from the first series is back, there are two clear figures who take the leads: Pietre, who is working to shed his old persona of Arby, and Wilson Wilson, who made the decision to side with the Network last series and is now figuring out how much involvement he's willing to have in their plans. The Network is on the move again, and closer than ever to seeing their plans come to fruition.

The second series is far more character-based, giving us people to root for on both sides of the story. As we learn more about the Network and how it operates, its members are humanized. Milner, the architect of so much horror, is made sympathetic to a certain degree without losing an iota of her brutality. The ideas and aims of the Utopia project are depicted as strong enough to create fanatical devotion and loyalty in some of its followers to the point where they are willing to commit atrocities. They believe they are saving the world as strongly as those who are trying to stop them. It's a fascinating thing to see depicted through the comic-book fantasy lens of "Utopia," still rife with color coded environments and whimsical hitmen. The characters are all clearly exaggerations, but their behavior rings true at its core. It's simple enough to compare the actions of the Network with religious extremists, or terrorist groups, or any number of fringe organizations.

The continuing adventures of our original gang of heroes - Ian, Becky, Grant, Jessica and Dugdale, are less compelling this time around without a rabbit to chase down. The writers give them plenty to keep them busy, though, including an addled old man named Anton (Ian McDiarmid) who knows an awful lot about Becky's disease, more fun with sleazeball Christian Donaldson (recast as Michael Maloney), and of course Pietre, still the most fascinating of the show's lineup of psychopaths. There's some rehashing of the same bits of business from the first series, but there's always enough new material in play to keep the pace brisk and the mood tense. Violence is employed as effectively as ever, graphic and upsetting. While some of the characters may become desensitized to violence over time, the "Utopia" creators never allow the same for the audience.

The production values are as strong as ever, particularly the visual composition and cinematography. This remains one of the most distinctive looking television shows I've ever seen. I haven't worked out what all the different colors mean but I never feel like I have to. Performances are mostly strong all around, with a few exceptions. Oliver Woolford hits a few bumps, having clearly aged a great deal more than his character during the interval between the series. Ian McDiarmid and Geraldine James stand out as the MVPs, and it was a brilliant idea to cast Rose Leslie as the younger version of Milner. The score is still wonderfully unsettling, and I've finally figured out what it reminds me of - Susumu Hirasawa's electronica soundtrack for the anime mystery series "Paranoia Agent."

I don't think that this series is ultimately as strong as the first, but it's a good continuation that works on its own terms and fleshes out the "Utopia" universe a great deal. I appreciate the way that it takes the time to explore what felt glossed over too quickly in the previous finale, and how it really has something to say about violence and extremism. This feels like a transitional year more than anything, and sadly we'll never see how certain things will play out, since the series won't be returning for a third year. I was satisfied with this ending, though, and hope to see more from the creators soon.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Superhero Era

After the recent announcements by DC and Marvel about their plans for their upcoming comic book superhero film franchises, you've probably seen the schedules and infographics of all the superhero films that are planned for the near future - at least thirty in the next six years from four major studios are planned. There have been plenty of other bloggers happily providing analysis film by film, but I'm more interested in the bigger picture here. With Marvel Universe films having dominated the worldwide box office charts for the past several years and nearly everyone in Hollywood eager to try and replicate their success, the popularity of superhero franchises has exploded. The big question is, will audiences embrace the trend and make superhero films a long-lasting and lucrative new fixture in cinema, or are we looking at a bubble that will burst sooner rather than later?

There have been many pieces by film lovers trying to make comparisons between the relatively young superhero genre, and genres that were popular in the past like westerns and musicals. John Heath's Why Superhero Movies Aren’t Like Westerns (and Probably Won’t be the Next Great Chapter in Genre Filmmaking) is a good one, pointing out the many weaknesses of the current crop of superhero films, the biggest being that there's so little variation in the stories that superhero movies have been telling. Because the films are so expensive, only the risk-averse major studios have been able to make them, resulting in a lot of cookie-cutter films that all largely follow the same familiar patterns. There have been a handful of projects that have criticized common superhero tropes, such as "Super," "Watchmen," and "Chronicle," but these have done little to expand the scope of mainstream superhero films. Despite Marvel touting their recent titles mixing superheroes with other genres such as space opera, in "Guardians of the Galaxy," and political thriller, in the latest "Captain America," deviations from the standard formula of self-discovery, mild romance, and bombastic action have been slight. Some of the most intelligent and thoughtful entries in the genre, ironically, have been animated films ostensibly aimed at younger audiences: "The Incredibles" and "Megamind."

The films coming from the big studios in the immediate future promise more of the same. It's nice to see some diversity finally being embraced with the upcoming "Cyborg," "Black Panther," "Captain Marvel," and the long awaited "Wonder Woman," but it also begs the question why it took Marvel and DC so long to greenlight these films. Sony's "Sinister Six" and DC's "Suicide Squad" will shine the spotlight on anti-heroes and villains, a potentially interesting subgenre, but it's doubtful that the narratives will really stray all that far from what we've already seen. Plenty of successful superhero films already have protagonists with darker origins and redemptive arcs. Note that FOX is also readying "Deadpool," a feature that will star a foul-mouthed, meta-loving mercenary who is currently one of the most popular comic book anti-heroes. However, it's likely that his feature will carry a PG-13 rating, undercutting a lot of elements that gave the character so much bite. Past attempts to franchise more adult-oriented titles like "The Crow," "The Punisher," "Watchmen," and "Kick-Ass" have had mixed results at best.

However, with so much competition, the studios will be forced to start taking some risks, just to stay ahead of the pack. The current strategy that everyone has latched on to is to try and follow in Marvel's footsteps and create shared universes that link a series of superhero films. However, they're doing this in different ways. Warner Bros., after stumbling with "Green Lantern" and landing a moderate hit with "Man of Steel," will be skipping the preliminary character introduction films, and launching straight into "Batman v. Superman" for 2016, and then "Justice League." FOX is doing the MCU model in reverse, spinning off specific characters for their own features after they appear in the "X-men" films. "Wolverine" will be followed by "Deadpool," and there's been talk of films for Gambit and Quicksilver on the way. FOX will also be attempting to launch a new "Fantastic Four" franchise separately, and then figuring out if they can fit together with the "X-men" films at some point.

Will the superhero onslaught slow down anytime soon? Are audiences going to burn out on them? Culturally, I don't see superheroes losing their appeal, but it's going to be a lot harder to stand out from the crowd with so many players jostling for space. Marvel has established a good enough track record that they'll be insulated from poorer installments for a while. I can definitely see a landscape where there's the MCU continuing its success and everyone else fighting to get the audience's attention. FOX's "X-men" films are also in a good place, and the franchise is one of the few that could sustain multiple spin-offs and a cinematic universe. Warners has ambitious plans laid out, but an awful lot is hinging on some iffy projects, and the lukewarm success of "Man of Steel" doesn't inspire much confidence. As for Sony, they definitely need to reevaluate what they want to do with "Spider-man," because the property is sinking quick.

Superhero movies have achieved the kind of massive popular success that's going to leave an impact on cinema, whether the actual movies themselves endure or not. Honestly, I think that the genre is just getting started, and the financial success of the next crop of films is beside the point. While few of the films that have actually been announced interest me, I am very interested in how other filmmakers are going to find variations on these stories, and the films that are made as reactions to them. I'm interested in the spoofs and the satires and the subversions that are inevitably going to come along. I want to see what other kinds of movies the "shared universe" trend might spawn. And I'm dying to see if "The Dark Knight Returns" or anything like it ever comes to the screen uncompromised. And will I finally get my "Sandman" movie, thanks to the momentum of so many other comic-book projects?

Imagine the possibilities of what comes after 2020.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I'm Sick of These Common Movie Discussion Questions

Once a year I fill out a movie survey for fun. Past entries have included a Halloween horror movie quiz, the AICN Butt-Numb-a-Thon entry form, and a Movie Confessions questionnaire. This year I'm taking a different tack. I've spent the past few months collecting some of the common ice-breaker questions that commonly come up again and again in movie discussion groups and forums. Most of these are just asking "what's your favorite movie?" phrased in different ways. I figured it would be interesting to dissect the premises of some of these questions and then answer them with that in mind.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what [insert number] movies would you bring with you?

I've also seen the desert island substituted with apocalypse scenarios, where it would be more plausible to still be able to screen movies, space voyages, arctic treks, or just long hospital stays. This is the epitome of the kind of question that's just asking for a list of favorites with high rewatchability. The variation in scenarios usually wouldn't impact my choices, with the exception of the apocalypse. If the zombies were coming and I could only save a certain number of movies, those movies would be different from the ones I'd take along on a trip to Mars for my own amusement. In the case of the desert island, I'd bring along the films that I've already watched a million times and know I wouldn't get bored of: "Muppet Treasure Island," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Sound of Music," "The Princess Bride," and "Amadeus." These are not my favorite movies, but I would be able to watch any of them near infinitely without losing my marbles. For the specific case of zombies, however, I'd swap out "The Sound of Music" for "Zombieland" for the survival instructions.

What movie would you watch again for the first time?

This question has never made any sense to me, because my initial viewing of a movie often isn't the one I enjoy the most. Sometimes it takes two or three viewings to really get attached to a movie, and part of the fun for me is anticipating the good bits coming up, or the bad bits to be mocked. I've found this to be true even for many of the films with shocking twists or clever reveals that completely change the viewing experience upon subsequent rewatches. And if a movie like that isn't strong enough to hold up with its secrets spoiled, would I really want to watch it again anyway? However, there are exceptions. One that's always intrigued me is the case of "Dark City," which was originally released with studio-mandated opening narration that gives away several of the big reveals. Director Alex Proyas managed to get this narration removed for later releases, and I always wondered how my initial experience with the film would have changed if I'd seen the story play out as originally intended. "Dark City" is already one of my favorite films, and one I revisit frequently.

If you could show one film to someone who had never seen a film, what would it be?

Sometimes the question involves time travel, which completely ignores that this is a scenario that can and has happened in the modern day. There have been several examples of screenings set up for people in remote villages, far from the rest of civilization, who had never seen movies before. Evangelicals have done this with various Christian films as part of conversion efforts in Africa and Asia. Eli Roth showed Amazonian villagers "Cannibal Holocaust" a few years ago, which they thought was hilarious. However, a popular choice for these screenings is Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," as captured in a Cuban documentary short, "For the First Time," about a screening of the movie that was set up for Cuban villagers in the '60s. Chaplin's comedy is universal, enduring, still relevant, and I can't think of a better title to start with.

What recent movie will be a classic 10/20/50 years from now?

I have some strong feelings about the misuse of the word "classic" which I've already gone into great detail about previously, so I won't rehash the whole thing here. Let's just assume a "classic" movie is a movie that is widely praised and remembered long after its release, like "The Godfather" or "Star Wars" or "The Wizard of Oz." These are movies that have withstood the test of time and often have become cultural touchstones. There are a lot of different factors that go into why a film becomes a classic, including quality, hype, nostalgia, accessibility, and social relevance. "It's a Wonderful Life" probably would have remained an obscure box office disappointment if it hadn't become public domain and then a staple of Christmas television programming for decades after. It's impossible to tell which recent films are going to become classics because it's impossible to predict how the audience will grow and change in the future, and what may help or hinder a specific film from getting more time in the spotlight. However, I think children's films like "The Lego Movie" and "Frozen" tend have a better shot at immortality because of the nostalgia factor. The movies we love when we're kids tend to stay with us, even if they're terrible in retrospect.