Friday, February 28, 2014

The In Memorium Mash

Yes, I heard about Harold Ramis. Terrible news. And yes, I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Shirley Temple, and Sid Caesar, and Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole right at the end of the year. I also heard about the passing of a few names you probably won't recognize, like Miklós Jancsó and Jimmy Murakami. I love all their work, but I've refrained from writing about them on this blog. I only write up full posts for the figures who really meant something to me personally, and by my account that's only happened three times to date, for anime director Satoshi Kon, for Ray Bradbury, and for Roger Ebert. As awful and tragic as losing some of the others were, writing about their deaths wouldn't be the same.

I decided on this policy a long time ago, because to set the bar any lower would mean making judgment calls I'm not particularly inclined to make. Just look at what's happened to the In Memoriam segment at the Oscars, where there's a full-blown battle every year over who gets on the list. Every year someone notable gets left out, leading to lots of grousing. Every year there are calls to just do away with the whole thing because the process has gotten so acrimonious. This year things have even taken on a political dimension, with a petition going around to include Sarah Jones, the second assistant director of "Midnight Rider," who was killed in a terrible accident during the film's production, in this year's montage. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler announced his support a few days ago. I don't think they have much of a shot, considering how jam-packed the list of potential honorees is this year. There's a good chance that Ramis isn't going to make it in this year because his death came so close to the date of the Oscar ceremony.

When the first "In Memoriam" montages started appearing in award shows in the 90s, I found them a highlight. It was a nice break from the awards show banter, and pointedly injected some real gravitas into the Hollywood spectacle. Sadly, all too soon they became criticized and compromised, as inclusion in the montages became a status symbol. Suddenly it was a big deal if a famous name was left out, even if the justification for adding them was iffy. People got emotional and nitpicky. Campaigns and petitions started appearing at the end of every year. For a while there were the complaints over the varying applause levels that different honorees would attract, which lead to requests that all applause be held until the end of the segments. Ironically, cutting the applause often made all the honorees seem less important. I've found the recent practice of inviting famous performers to sing something melancholy during the segment is awfully distracting. A few years ago the Emmys got The Canadian Tenors for theirs, which was pretty dire.

Want to add more names? That usually means that the In Memoriam segment gets stretched out to untenable lengths in an already lengthy awards ceremony, or that individual honorees get less time. The Emmys tried to mitigate this somewhat by specially spotlighting six notable figures, which didn't turn out so well. Cory Monteith got one of the special tribute spots over other beloved TV figures with far longer and more accomplished careers, which predictably brought out the complainers (me included). The Oscars have already posted a hefty list online of every Academy member who died last year to emphasize that they haven't been forgotten - simply that there isn't enough time for everybody in Sunday night's montage. Of course, not every notable or semi-notable figure from the film community who died last year was a member of the Academy.

The basic idea behind the In Memoriam segments and the sentiment that fuels their popularity remain perfectly legitimate. I still get a chill every time I spot someone in the lineup who I didn't realize was gone, or had forgotten had only passed recently. However, the major memorial montages have transmogrified over the years to stand for things that they were never meant to. In the eyes of many they're just another industry recognition to be fought over, bargained for, and dissected for motes of meaning by observers. What will it mean if Sarah Jones gets included in the montage over Maximilian Schell or Richard Matheson? What about if Paul Walker gets more applause than Joan Fontaine? What does that signal? Probably not much except the prevailing sentiments of the hour.

I have my own little list of names in my head of people that I hope the Academy doesn't forget, but honestly enough of a fuss has been made about this. And if I look at my own blog, there's really only one person I cared enough about to try and honor myself - Roger Ebert.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Carnivàle," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

I initially pegged "Carnivàle" as a slow-moving, atmospheric supernatural show that didn't concern itself overmuch with plot. Well, in season two the plot showed up with a vengeance. While the complicated series mythology remains largely unexamined, it soon becomes inevitable that our two protagonists, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin will have their destined confrontation by the last episode of the season, and the series becomes a much more goal-oriented, focused piece of work in order to get them there. Instead of waiting for the apocalypse to arrive, now key characters are actively in search of it.

Spurred by newfound purpose, Ben puts his doubts aside and becomes a hero the audience can really root for, while Brother Justin descends into the depths of villainy in pursuit of power. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown's performances really kick into high gear, and are a lot of fun. However, the effect of putting so much focus on this pair is that for much of the season the rest of the cast gets sidelined. I wouldn't say they're neglected since there there are strong subplots and character arcs for most of the regulars, particularly the Dreifuss family, Jonesy, Samson, and Sophie, but we see far less of the little character portraits and backstory that was prevalent in the first season. It's also very noticeable that the cast has been reduced by several members.

A few new characters and some strong guest stars help to pick up the slack. Notably there's a new villain, Varlyn Stroud, played by John Carroll Lynch, who Brother Justin sets on Ben's trail like a bloodhound. However, the ones who make the most of an impression tend to be the ones with the least amount of screen time. I love how "Carnivàle" consistently manages to create these fully-formed characters who only appear for a few minutes, some who are totally incidental to the plot. A German hotel clerk and a nameless old man on the road who Ben gets information from are as memorable as some of the major players. There are so many I wish we could have spent more time getting to know.

This season is more fulfilling from a writing standpoint. Though the the pace remains fairly slow, there are far more frequent payoffs to the various storylines, and the status quo changes irrevocably several times. What the series loses in simmering mystery, it gains in strong plotting and a bolder narrative. I found I got much more attached to characters like Jonesy and Samson when they were put in a position to be more active and make more important choices. Meanwhile, those left treading water with dead-end developments like poor Ruthie were more frustrating to watch. Easily the character I found the most improved was Amy Madigan's Iris, whose motivations are much better defined this year. With much of Brother Justin's inner struggle resolved, the spotlight turns to his devoted sister and her myriad sins.

There were some things in this season that came off as rather contrived - someone's gambling problem materializes out of nowhere, the fallout from Lodz's absence is a distraction that doesn't really come to much, and Sophie's existential crisis gets awfully convoluted - but eventually the show finds its groove again when it counts. The back half of the season is one of the most enjoyable runs of episodes I've seen in a long time, finding ways to get all the characters involved in the final battle and building up the suspense to terrific heights. After seeing so many similar supernatural genre programs fail to stick their landings, it's incredibly gratifying to see "Carnivàle" execute a properly epic and apocalyptic showdown so well.

The world of "Carnivàle" remains a source of fascinating horrors. More than once I was reminded of Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comics, with their abundance of uniquely American grotesques. Ben Hawkins runs across several varieties of them in his travels, and of course Brother Justin is one as well. The second season had to undergo some budget cuts and it shows. The carnival scenes are scaled back and crowds are thinner. Still, the effects and makeup work remain top of the line, and the production design of the Depression Era setting is consistently gorgeous. You can see the dust and grit in every frame. And I just love the little details like Libby Dreifuss's bleached hair starting to show its roots in a later episode, and that Lila uses a single curler for her beard. After a decade the series doesn't look like it's aged a day.

I'm not particularly upset that "Carnivàle" ended after this season, because I knew it was going to be truncated from the start and the finale was strong enough and decisive enough that it left me satisfied. "Carnivàle" feels like a complete story even though I know that more was planned. This is certainly one of the best HBO productions I've seen so far, and the most unique.

Looks like it's on to "Deadwood" next.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The "Wolverine" and "Thor" Sequels

Now that I've gotten through the backlog of prestige pics, it's time to catch up with some of last year's superhero films. 2013 wasn't a very good year for superheroes, though they were among the top box office moneymakers, as usual. I found both "The Wolverine" and "Thor: The Dark World" pretty underwhelming, so I'm covering both in a single post.

First there's James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a perfectly noble second attempt at building a feature film around Hugh Jackman's "X-men" character. This time Logan is summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who Logan met during WWII is dying of old age. He wants Logan's help in extending his life, and out hero quickly gets himself entangled in the messy affairs of the Yashida family. He falls in love with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), becomes allies with her mutant foster sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a precognitive, and gets on the bad side of Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a new femme fatale, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

"The Wolverine" mostly avoids the pitfalls of the 2009 "Wolverine" feature, delivering some decent action scenes and delving into Logan's past. It also does an admirable job of addressing the fallout from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears in several dream sequences. It's refreshing to see a superhero film that isn't afraid to slow down a little and really delve into some character drama. However, I'm sorry to say that as with most American action films set in Japan, the Orientalism is laid on pretty thick, and the Yashidas aren't a particularly compelling bunch. Tao Okamoto as Logan's new love interest is a bland presence, and the movie doesn't do enough to sell the romance. I liked Rila Fukushima's Yukio, though, and hope she carries over to future "X-men" movies.

It's hard to escape the film feeling very perfunctory, a story that was necessary to get Logan from point A to Point B, in light of the mid-credits sequence and the new "X-men" movie coming this summer. As a stand-alone adventure it works, but there's not much in it that is particularly memorable or stands out. It's hard to see where a third "Wolverine" movie could go from here, since so little of consequence seems to have happened in his solo films so far. Still, compared to some of the other superhero films this year, at least "The Wolverine" managed to make good use of its central character and tell a coherent, fully-formed story.

I wish the same could be said of "Thor: The Dark World." I found the first "Thor" film to be a terribly flawed piece of work, and among the worst of the Marvel superhero movies. The sequel is better in some ways, but overall about on par. It builds on the existing characters and character dynamics to good effect, but at the same time it wastes an awful lot of potential and the plotting is about as slapdash and messy as the first.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still keeping the peace in the Nine Realms while his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been locked up by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his shenanigans on Earth in "The Avengers." Soon enough a new threat, the Dark Elves lead by a baddie named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) are invading Asgard and threatening Earth too. Thor's human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the mess when she accidentally becomes a vessel for a destructive power called the Aether that Malekith wants. Thor and Loki have to team up, as you might expect, to defeat the new foe.

"The Dark World" relies on a lot of energetic chaos to make it feel like important things are constantly happening, but it's all very shallow and unsatisfying. The villains are utterly one-dimensional, and Malekith has no discernible personality whatsoever. I felt bad for Eccleston, buried under all the make-up with little to do except posture in an intimidating manner. Natalie Portman gets a little more autonomy this time out, but Jane's relationship with Thor remains largely unexamined, which would be all right if it had been properly established in the previous film, but it wasn't of course. A possible love triangle with Jamie Alexander's Sif is alluded to, but nothing comes of it aside from people exchanging meaningful looks at opportune moments.

So the heart of this Thor movie is once again Thor's relationship with his wayward brother Loki, and thank goodness because Loki remains the only interesting villainous character in the entire run of Marvel movies so far. Tom Hiddleston is not onscreen for nearly long enough, but when he does show up he plays a big part in keeping the film's momentum going and making it feel like there are actual stakes to the story. Also, his performance is a lot of fun, as usual, and Hemsworth's Thor tends to work better in his vicinity too. At this point I'm convinced that Loki is more vital to the "Thor" movies than Thor is.

Alan Taylor takes over directing duties from Kenneth Branagh, and he's fine. There's not much to say about the action or the effects, except that they are very competently executed. There are some nice visuals, like a floating truck and some spiffy monsters, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The comic relief, in the form of Kat Dennings' Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard's Erik Selvig are more emphatically comic this time out, which won't be to everyone's tastes, but I thought they were fine. And at least they are properly identified this time as Jane's intern and mentor respectively.

I'm sure there will be a third "Thor" movie, but I'm not especially excited for it. These movies have gotten so episodic that it feels like I'm tuning in to a television series. And "Thor: The Dark World" was mostly filler.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Another Youtube Playlist

And now for something completely different again.

For fun, I've put together a second Youtube playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips that have a strong musical element involved. It’s a mix of clips from movies and television shows, a couple of shorts, various obscurities, tie-ins, and one fan video. They have absolutely nothing in common except that I enjoyed them and thought they were saving the links to and worth pointing out for recommendation. Hopefully, you'll find something in the mix that you’ll enjoy too.

Flash Gordon Opening Titles - Still one of my favorite opening title sequences to any movie, that pays homage to the “Flash Gordon" comics while revving the audience up for oncoming action and fun. The theme song by Queen is, of course, immortal, and I was thrilled when it popped up in “Ted" as part of their extended “Flash Gordon" homage.

Science Fiction: A Montage - Initially I was wary of putting any fan-made videos into this list, but I couldn’t pass up James Van Fleet’s tribute to science-fiction cinema, set to the Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst’s Planets suite no less. Unlike most of these tribute videos I’ve seen, there’s lots and lots of clips from older films like “Forbidden Planet" and “Metropolis," and a real focus on the science-fiction elements instead of just action or effects shots.

The Adventures of Chip ‘n’ Dale - Back in 1959, an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney" was devoted to Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoons, which included specially animated intro segments and an incredibly catchy theme song. I’ve included the opening number here, which shows off some nifty integration of the 2D animation with a real world environment.

Signal in the Sky - Former kids of a certain age will remember the Cartoon Network “Groovies," a series of shorts in the form of music videos, each devoted to a particular cartoon on the Cartoon Network roster. The best of them, and the one that they seemed to play the most often was “Signal in the Sky," featuring The Powerpuff Girls and music by Apples in Stereo. Though the girls appear in their usual animated forms, most of the short was actually live action and puppetry, created by the Will Vinton studios.

That Steve Martin Number From “Little Shop of Horrors" - I’ve refrained from using the more famous title of the song in case you’ve never seen it before, because it would spoil the surprise. The first time I saw “Little Shop of Horrors" I had absolutely no idea what was coming, laughed so hard I missed half the jokes, and I still can’t watch this without a ridiculous smile on my face. It’s my favorite thing that Steve Martin has ever done in his entire career.

Broken Circle Breakdown - A quick teaser trailer featuring the most wrenching number from the film. The full version has been posted up in a few places, but there are some major spoilers that come with it, and I think it really needs the context of the rest of the film to get the full effect. Still, I do want to acknowledge one of the best musical moments in film that I’ve seen this year, so the teaser will have to do.

Please Mr. Kennedy - From “Inside Llewyn Davis," this is the other entry from a current film on the list, and frankly it’s a shame the song wasn’t eligible for the Oscars.

Time Warp vs. Shake Your Groove Thing - “The Drew Carey Show" remains much beloved by its fans though sadly forgotten by most TV viewers. They had a particular love for elaborate musical numbers, such as this one, where “Rocky Horror Picture Show" loving Drew and his pals have a standoff with mortal enemy Mimi Bombeck and her “Priscilla Queen of the Desert" minions. It’s a camp-off of pure delight.

Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight - It’s a shame that the opening sequence of the “Lodoss War" television series is really the best thing about it. You can really get a sense of the scope and the grandeur that they were going for, but failed to achieve. Thanks to the Yoko Kanno’s “Sea of Miracles" and some really killer high fantasy imagery, this remains one of the best bits of the whole franchise, and I’d put it up there with the best anime openings of all time.

That’s About the Size - Bud Luckey is one of the great unsung animation greats. He’s currently a character designer at PIXAR, but had a long career in commercials, and during the ‘70s created many beloved animated segments for “Sesame Street," writing, animating, composing, and providing voices and songs for “Ladybug’s Picnic," “The Alligator King," and “Penny Candy Man." His “That’s About the Size" remains one of my favorites.

Noi Siamo Zingarelle - I saw this gorgeous stop-motion short on PBS when I was a kid in the early ‘90s, when it was used as a time filler between programs, and spent years trying to track it down. Finally, after I got to college, success. It’s one of the segments of “Opéra Imaginaire" a European animation anthology, where all the shorts are set to pieces from famous operas.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Because I can’t think of a better way to end anything in all of cinema.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Interrupted Sweeps

February was a weird month for television. Normally February is a sweeps month, which means that the networks usually pull out all the stops in order to attract viewers, because the ratings during sweeps set the advertising rates for the next few months. This year, because NBC's Olympics coverage coincided with a big chunk of the sweeps period, the competition mostly didn't bother to try. For the last two weeks prime time network television has almost been a dead zone outside of NBC. New episodes of anything have been scarce since the Superbowl and midseason premieres have been pushed back. If all you've been watching are the Olympics you may not have noticed that all there is to watch is pretty much the Olympics.

The thing is, I haven't been particularly inclined to watch the Olympics this year. I got sick of NBC's lackluster coverage after the London Games in 2012 and I've pretty much sat out this round. I suspect I haven't been alone. NBC's ratings for the Sochi Olympics have been down overall from the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Some point to the fact that the Americans haven't been particularly strong contenders in the major events, and there were few breakout stars to follow. And of course there have been the constant complaints about the state of the coverage, with plenty of the usual grousing about not being able to access anything live. Notably the biggest story to have come out of Sochi has been the infamous Bode Miller interview botch.

That doesn't mean that the Olympics haven't still been a ratings juggernaut though. FOX premiered the latest season of "American Idol" last Thursday, which was completely crushed by the Sochi coverage, attracting only 9.2 million viewers in its worst showing since its first season way back in 2002. The Olympics easily doubled that with 20 million viewers. Network ratings have been in decline overall recently, and major sporting events like this are some of the only programming that is still guaranteed to draw in large audiences. NBC has paid a hefty chunk of change to maintain exclusivity, and with results like this, it's not hard to see why. So it's no wonder all the other networks pretty much decided not to try to compete and have been filling their slates with reruns, saving their new content for the coming weeks. Even the Oscars were pushed back to March this year to avoid the Olympics.

I've been happy to occupy myself with Jean Renoir films and the backlog of episodes of shows I haven't gotten around to until now - expect a write-up on the second season of "Carnivale" soon. I'm nearly done with that one, finally. However, I do miss having any of my regular shows in rotation. I think the last current episode of anything that I watched was the pre-Valentines Day episode of "The Big Bang Theory." Cable shows don't seem to be as affected, because there's plenty of chatter about the current seasons of "The Walking Dead," "True Detective" and "Girls" going on - not to mention the new batch of "House of Cards" episodes - but after the past few months of content overload it feels unusually quiet out there.

The late winter and early spring months are traditionally slower times in the media world, with the box office still in the doldrums and little of interest going on the music and gaming spheres either. February television has traditionally been the exception, so this disruption has been more noticeable. I admit that it's been nice to have the break to play catch-up. However, I'm looking forward to things getting back to normal. Pretty much every major network show that was on hiatus will be out of reruns this week for the final few days of February sweeps and a good chunk of March. I'm looking forward to the new season of "Hannibal" and the return of "Community" in particular.

As for the Olympics, I think that the shine has officially worn off for me permanently. I used to look forward to the Games every time they came around, but the way they've been presented these last few years, watching them has become too much of a hassle and I'm not willing to put up with the aggravation of ads and puff pieces anymore. I just follow the post-mortems and highlights in the regular news now. This year I don't feel like I really missed anything by not watching the nightly broadcasts. Plenty of my friends and family have still been watching though, so NBC has nothing to worry about.

Ironically, my favorite thing to come out of Sochi was some decidedly non-NBC Olympics coverage: Stephen Colbert sending Scott Thompson's fabulously gay "Kids in the Hall" character Buddy Cole to Russia as an Olympics correspondent for "The Colbert Report." I've missed him.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014

The ceremony is next weekend and I've seen nearly all the big contenders, so let's get down to predictions and "If I picked the winners" for the major categories. It's been a fun, if overlong season full of drama and controversy, and there's some real ambiguity as to who is going to walk away with the top prize this year. Let's start from the top.

Best Picture - "Gravity" took home the BAFTA a few days ago, and there are still rumblings of a potential "American Hustle" upset, but I think the Academy is going to go with "12 Years a Slave." The narrative is just too good - the fiftieth anniversary of Sidney Poitier's Best Actor win, the first major film about slavery from a black director, and a bumper crop of prestige films about African-American this year that didn't get much attention like "Mandela," "Fruitvale Station," and "The Butler." Who ought to win? The only two nominees I feel strongly about are "12 Years" and Spike Jonze's "Her." I'm going with "12 Years a Slave."

Best Director - Alphonso Cuaron has won most of the early races, and considering what he went through to get "Gravity" made, he's certainly got a lot of points in his favor. Also, last year the Academy gave the award to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," a similar technical marvel. "Gravity" doesn't have a shot at any of the other non-technical awards, besides Cinematography, so I'm guessing the recognition for "Gravity" will come here. Cuaron's biggest competition would be Steve McQueen, who would be the first black Best Director winner, but I think it's more likely that Best Picture and Director are going to be split this year. McQueen would be my pick if I chose the winners, though, for that hanging sequence if nothing else.

Best Actor - Matthew McConaghey's comeback is a great story, and he's done so well this season that I think the momentum is going to be with him. I could see Chiwetel Ejiofor or Leonardo DiCaprio winning too, but McConaghey has had a great run these past few years that the Academy will probably take into account. Personally, while I think McConaghey was the best thing about "Dallas Buyers Club," I don't think he was as good and Chiwetel Ejiofor or Bruce Dern in "Nebraska." My choice would be Dern.

Best Actress - I don't see anybody but Cate Blanchett going up to the podium to collect the statuette for "Blue Jasmine" and she deserves it. In fact, the conversation seems to have turned to how she should acknowledge Woody Allen in her acceptance speech, considering the controversy surrounding him these past few weeks. Sadly, it's not a very strong field this year, with too many appearances by old regulars like Meryl Street and Judi Dench. Amy Adams is a strong runner up though, in one of her best roles.

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto has been winning everything, so I don't see why he wouldn't continue to. The category is, sadly, something of a mess, missing Daniel Bruhl, Sam Rockwell, and a couple of others who could have really made the race interesting. While I thought Leto did a perfectly fine job, my pick would be Michael Fassbender from "12 Years a Slave" in one of his most terrifying performances. Oh well, I guess I should be glad he was nominated at all. Really, what is Bradley Cooper doing here?

Best Supporting Actress - It's down to Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence won last year so the Academy will be wary of handing her two in a row, though she was one of the best things about the deeply problematic "American Hustle." Nyong'o has won her share of the preliminary bouts, enough that I'm going to call this in her favor. And I wouldn't be surprised if this is the only acting trophy "12 Years a Slave" ends up winning. My pick? June Squibb for "Nebraska," who totally knocked my socks off.

Best Original Screenplay - I haven't been keeping up with the writing races, so I'm going to take a shot in the dark here. I think we can rule out "Dallas Buyers Club," which is a pretty standard social issue film, and "American Hustle," where the screenplay seems to have been mostly ignored. That leaves "Blue Jasmine," "Her," and "Nebraska." I think there's too much heat on Woody Allen this year, so "Blue Jasmine" is out. Between "Her" and "Nebraska" I preferred "Her." I think the Academy voters will too.

Best Adapted Screenplay - "12 Years a Slave" is going to be the frontrunner here simply because the film is a frontrunner for Best Picture. I think its only real competition is "Wolf of Wall Street," as "Captain Phillips" and "Philomena" were much more performance-driven films, and "Before Midnight" is a dark horse. If I had my way though, I'd love to see an upset here with "Before Midnight" taking home the prize. The film was one of the best of the year and it deserves all the recognition it can get.

As a final caveat, I have proven to be notoriously bad at these predictions in the past. We'll see how I did on Oscar night.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The "Fantastic Four" Cast is Awesome

Oh, the wails and lamentations going around the internet today! The cast of the new reboot of "The Fantastic Four" was just announced, and reactions have been less than stellar. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimes, The Thing. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Kate Mara as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. Why is the Human Torch black while his sister is white? Why are all the male member of the cast under the age of thirty? They're all supposed to be these super competent scientists, right? Why on earth is skinny Jamie Bell playing the team's hulking bruiser, Ben Grimes? What are FOX and director Josh Trank thinking?!

Well, the film isn't due in theaters until 2015, and Miller and Bell are still in negotiations, but I think that if the casting reports are correct, this movie is looking much more promising now, and potentially could be a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 and 2007 "Fantastic Four" movies. This is a great collection of up-and-comers. Teller is coming off of "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash," which picked up the major awards at Sundance this year. Michael B. Jordan carried "Fruitvale Station," and already worked with Trank in "Chronicle." Jamie Bell is still best known for "Billy Elliott," but has been doing solid work in smaller parts for well over a decade now. And Kate Mara? She's done mostly TV work but that includes two seasons as a major player on Netflix's "House of Cards." It's a lineup that more than matches up to what we had in the previous films, which featured Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and a pre- "Captain America" Chris Evans as The Human Torch.

Best of all, this looks to be a major departure from the established conception of the "Fantastic Four," which was always a little goofy and retro with a very 1960s vibe. The movie versions handled by Tim Story didn't help much, offering silly, forgettable B-movie action and sub-par visuals. Comic book fans bemoaned the fact that they wasted some of the Marvel Universe's most beloved villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus, never mind that we were somehow expected to be taking villains with names like Dr. Doom and Galactus seriously. This time around, we've been getting rumors that the new movie will be based on the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" a comic-book series that significantly modernized and reworked the characters, and introduced an entirely different origin story. So why not a more progressive movie version with a black Human Torch and a trimmer Thing? And adoption or remarriage easily accounts for the Storms having different skin tones.

The stakes have been raised for superhero movies in recent years, as comic book characters have become valuable commodities. FOX may have started the trend of modern superhero movies with "Blade" and "X-men," but they've fallen behind Marvel, are less visible than Sony or Warners, and have been struggling to catch up for a while now. "Fantastic Four" is one of their most promising properties, but if they don't make it into a hit, they may have to let the rights revert back to Marvel, whose films show no sign of slowing down. FOX has announced some big plans, potentially connecting "Fantastic Four" to their "X-men" movie universe, so there's a lot riding on this movie. The choice of Trank as a director is a good one, since he helmed one of the best superhero movies in recent years, the found-footage action film "Chronicle."

Is there the risk of alienating existing "Fantastic Four" fans? Sure, but it's not exactly a healthy franchise at the moment. Unlike the Batman and Spider-man movies, the most recent "Fantastic Four" films were critical busts and audiences didn't like them much either, which is why only two were made. Many older fans have fond memories of the comics and cartoons, and the characters enjoy a lot of name recognition and pop culture clout, but it's mostly of the nostalgic variety. The new film will be targeting younger audiences, and there aren't many under the age of twenty-five who are particularly familiar with the source material anymore. Nobody was fantasy casting The Thing. In short, it's one of the comic book properties that could probably most benefit the most from some vigorous reinvention.

The "Fantastic Four" reboot had barely been on my radar before this, but I'm much more interested in where it's going now. It's got a good group of people attached who deserve a shot at making this work. I can understand the trepidation from viewers who have only seen Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan in "The Awkward Moment," or got attached to Michael Chiklis, but this could turn out to be something really interesting. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Lackluster Superbowl Movie Ads

I've sidestepped talking about a lot of major media-related news items that have been circulating lately. For instance, I didn't bother writing a Superbowl post this year because I didn't see the game. I did go online afterwards and watch all the ads, but I didn't see much that was worth writing about. The movie spots in particular were lackluster, and none of them were for films I had much interest in seeing. Not many big summer films made an appearance. The biggest exceptions were "The Amazing Spider-man 2," which gave us a two-part look at one of the action sequences and "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which confirmed that Mark Wahlberg is indeed taking over hero duties from Shia LaBeouf. Neither were all that interesting.

So may bigger titles failed to make appearances, there's no point listing them all. Most of the movie ads were for spring releases like the new "Robocop" and "Captain America," and smaller action films like "Need for Speed," "3 Days to Kill," and "Pompeii." The most successful of them was for "Muppets Most Wanted," which had some funny digs at quote mining and Twitter users. Nobody was really using the Superbowl to launch a campaign or to show off anything really new. As a result there wasn't much buzz about any of these spots online after the game, the way there was about the 360 shot in the Superbowl ad for "The Avengers," for instance, or that one for "Independence Day" back in 1996 where Roland Emmerich sent a UFO to blow up the White House. Still remember that, don't you?

So why didn't Hollywood come out to play this year? Well, you just have to look at the premier of the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer yesterday on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Within an hour of broadcast it was all over the internet and the buzz for the movie went through the roof. Consider that the asking price for a 30 second Superbowl spot this year was $4 million. Consider that the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer ran well over two minutes and likely didn't cost anything to air, because Marvel and ABC, which airs Kimmel's late night show, are both owned by Disney. Consider that though Kimmel's audience is only a fraction of the audience for the Superbowl, the trailer has since been seen by exponentially larger numbers since it has gone viral on the internet.

Many marketers have decided that instead of piggybacking off of a bigger media event like the Superbowl or an awards show, they are better off being an event all by themselves. The internet has opened up marketing possibilities in recent years, and many film enthusiasts are more likely to see a new trailer online before they see it in theaters or before the ads appear on television. Not all films have the clout to do this, but when you're highly anticipated tentpole like a new Marvel movie, then the benefits of reaching the Superbowl audience may not be worth paying a premium for, especially as the price tag continues to climb higher every year.

Also when you're a movie with unfamiliar characters, a high concept premise, and a very particular sensibility like "Guardians," you need more than 30 seconds, or even a full minute to sell it to a broad audience. if you look at the new trailer, it spends the bulk of the time having John C. Reilly carefully introduce the five main characters. I suspect this is also why upcoming May releases "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" sat out this year's Superbowl. They're franchise films, but potentially too narratively complicated to get their pitches across so quickly. With "Spider-man" and "Transformers," all you really need is action shots and explosions.

A few weeks ago I wrote about movie theaters cracking down on lengthy trailers, where guidelines were put forward that suggest trailers shouldn't run longer than two minutes. I don't think there are many previews that need to be longer, but you could make a case for some of them. Despite its length, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer is all intro and has no spoilers to speak of. However, you could edit it down to two minutes easily enough and keep the longer version online for those who are curious to see more. Extended internet-only previews are already fairly common. "Cloud Atlas," for example, released one that was nearly six minutes.

In short, the internet has had a big effect on the way movies are releasing new footage, and I expect that it will continue to. As marketing costs go up, television and theatrical previews will still be important, but they're being supplemented in a big way by internet previews, which may end up overtaking them in the long run. We'll always see some movies willing to pay for Superbowl ad space, but there are other ways to make a similarly big splash these days.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "Carrie" and "Oldboy" Remakes

My position on remakes has always been that they are not inherently a bad idea. There have been some great remakes over the years, where filmmakers have put their own spin on old plots and characters to wonderful effect, sometimes even surpassing the originals. However, too often you get remakes that fail to deliver, where the material proves too outdated, where the filmmakers don't bring anything interesting to the table, or where the execution just falls short. Worst of all are the remakes that are little more than retreads of the originals, where everything plays out almost the same, except in a modern, local milieu that is easier for mainstream audiences to connect to. Sadly both the recent "Carrie" and "Oldboy" remakes fall into this category.

Both of these were projects that sounded like they had potential when they were first announced. "Carrie" was in the hands of Kimberly Pierce, who made the well-regarded "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss." The story had been revisited a few times already in recent years with a sequel and a TV remake, but this new project had attracted a stronger cast, including up-and-comer Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. "Oldboy" was a more high profile project that had been in development for years, at one point connected with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith before it ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Lee's track record hasn't been great lately, but he was coming off of the solid indie feature "Red Hook Summer," and had made very strong genre films in the past like "Inside Man."

Sadly, it's hard to think of two remakes with less justification for existing. They're both perfectly decent films, and even manage to do a few thing better than their predecessors. Some of the action scenes in the new "Carrie" are stronger, and the hotel sequence in the new "Oldboy" is a lot of fun. However, both clearly follow the templates of the prior movies, to the point where shots and dialogue are recycled verbatim. No attempt seems to have been made to go back to the source material, Stephen King's "Carrie" novel and Garon Tsuchiya's "Old Boy" manga. The influence of each director is fairly minimal, and what changes have been made are fairly cosmetic. It's hard to see Spike Lee's hand at work in "Old Boy" aside from the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role and some of the set decoration.

I found "Carrie" the more egregious offender because it's so utterly rote. Aside from the introduction of cel-phone videos and internet bullying, almost nothing has been updated from the 1970s version. Also, much of the content has been toned down and the characters undermined. Moretz's Carrie is more assertive, which makes her less pitiable. Moore's religious fanatic mother is more humane, which makes her less monstrous and much less entertaining. The film is rated R, but it's fairly tame, and none of the horror is properly horrific. Pierce's direction is disappointingly workmanlike, and I found myself missing De Palma's campiness. The remake is such a toothless, lifeless piece of work, that stinks of good intentions and a total lack of guts. The last thing we need is a kinder, gentler "Carrie."

Now Spike Lee at least got his "Oldboy" off to a good start, giving his protagonist a little more depth and delivering some good early sequences. However, the Korean "Oldboy" was a pulpy, over-the-top action film with a really haphazard story that only worked because Park Chan-wook and his star, Choi Min-Sik were so committed to the high octane style and escalating insanity. Lee never manages to hit the same level of no-holds-barred energetic mayhem, try as he may, so the narrative in the new "Oldboy" doesn't work at all. Brolin plays it way too sane. The female lead played by Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do anything that makes sense. Sharlto Copley's nutball villain seems to be operating at about the right level of crazy, but since no one else it, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Both films seem hampered by expectations and an unwillingness to depart from formula. They're both determined to give the audience what I guess the filmmakers and the executives thought the audience wanted. A new version of the hammer fight from "Old Boy." A new version of the bloody prom scene. Never mind that both end up feeling perfunctory and unsatisfying because they're so beholden to the originals. I would love to see what an uncompromised Spike Lee Joint version of "Oldboy" would look like, one where Samuel L. Jackson isn't just stuck playing a secondary tough guy with funny hair. Or a "Carrie" that really tackles modern high school bullying and religious fanaticism.

Because the remakes that Hollywood gave us are just a shameful waste of good material.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Can No One Stop Comcast?

I finally managed to ditch Comcast internet service a few months ago because I had moved into an area where a local provider offered competitive prices and I was no longer in an apartment that had made a deal with them for service. I didn’t have too much trouble with Comcast, probably because there were always several local options that kept them on their toes. Still, they did manage to cause their share of headaches. I’ve moved around a lot the past couple of years and had to disconnect and reconnect service repeatedly. At one point I could only access my current bill by going to an old account number and pulling up the electronic statements online - though customer service swore that the old account had been terminated.

Other people in the U.S. don’t have it so lucky, stuck with Comcast or Charter or Time Warner or Cox as their only real option in a geographic area for internet service, and their customers tend to hate their guts. These are consistently among the lowest rated service providers in consumer satisfaction polls. Constant complaints of poor service, high prices, and crummy broadband speeds have been lobbed at them from all sides. The United States currently has average internet speeds that are less than half of what you find in countries like South Korea and Romania. Some put-upon tech geeks are so frustrated by the limited options that they’ve been pinning their hopes on Google Fiber, which has been ever-so-slowly rolling out service that is exponentially faster than the average broadband speeds offered by the big companies.

So surely the announcement that Comcast is buying Time Warner Cable for $45 billion should set off the anti-trust alarm bells, right? These are two of the largest internet providers in the country. And with so many people already complaining about the near-monopoly these companies have in some places, surely the Justice Department and the FCC aren’t going approve this merger, are they? Well, Comcast and plenty of financial analysts are betting they will. Comcast has announced that it’s willing to let go of as many as 3 million subscribers in order to make sure the new company has less than 30% of the broadband market, the maximum market share that a single company can control before it runs afoul of antitrust regulations. They’ll probably do this by selling off part of Time Warner’s cable business to another company.

They’re still facing a steep uphill battle though. The merger is deeply unpopular, and public interest groups have been up in arms about the impact on consumers. They predict higher prices, service disruptions, and little incentive to fix the problems that customers have complained about for years. Moreover, the merged company would potentially have the clout to affect content providers and other media companies. Apple TV and Netflix are among the potential losers here, content platforms that were trying to negotiate deals with Time Warner before the merger was announced. Now that the courts have dealt a blow to Net Neutrality, Comcast and Time Warner controlling up to a third of the market reduces the VOD services’ leverage and could put them in a very bad position. Time Warner shareholders aren’t happy either. One of them has already filed a class action lawsuit trying to put the brakes on the deal moving forward, though it’s not expected to be much of a hurdle.

Comcast insists that the merger will be a benefit to consumers, that the efficiencies of scale will allow them to build faster networks and offer new products. However, single companies controlling large market shares tend to do the opposite. I can’t help thinking of the monopoly Comcast affiliate NBC currently has over the coverage of the Sochi Olympics, and the utterly appalling job they’ve been doing. No live broadcasts. Not nearly enough hours devoted to coverage. Horrible editing and obnoxious packaging of events. And, of course, invasive, inappropriate reporting tactics that reduced a bronze medalist to tears over the weekend. The NBC coverage was so bad at the London Olympics two years ago, I haven’t even bothered to try watching any of it this year, catching a few of the CBC and BBC highlights on Youtube instead whenever something newsworthy comes up.

If you want the full coverage, though, it’s NBC or nothing. And if you want broadband internet in some parts of the country, it’s going to be Comcast/Time Warner or nothing. Internet access is such a major necessity in my life now that I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this situation plays out. There are rumors that Charter might be going after Cox if the Comcast and Time Warner merger is approved. And if I move again in the future, having a choice of service providers may end up being one of the deciding factors.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Favorite Abbas Kiarostami Film

It's tempting to want to pigeonhole Abbas Kiarostami as a Middle-Eastern filmmaker. He got his start making documentaries and simple narrative films about everyday people in his native Iran, particularly children. Then in the '90s his films became more experimental and unconventional, full of meta, self-references, often combining fiction and non-fiction elements. His Koker trilogy, for example, is a series of films where the characters in each successive film are aware of, and often participated in the making of the previous installments. The best encapsulation of this approach is 1990's "Close-Up," the story of a peculiar imposter.

"Close-Up" was initially intended to be a documentary about Hossain Sabzian, a film enthusiast who manages to convince the unwitting Ahankhah family that he is the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Through a series of visits, he becomes close with the family, telling them that he's like to use their house for his next film and that he will feature them as actors. Eventually the ruse is discovered, of course, and this is where the story gets interesting, because Kiarostami becomes part of the narrative, as does the act of documenting Sabzian's case. The film is ultimately something far more complex and ambiguous than an ordinary documentary, unfolding like a fictional narrative, with all the real-life participants playing themselves re-enacting past events, including the director. After a certain point it's hard to say what is being caught on film in real time and what is a staged facsimile.

Even without the benefit of the unconventional storytelling, Hossain Sabzian is a fascinating figure, a man who so loves films that he feels compelled to assume the identity of one of his favorite directors in order to participate in that world. He doesn't do it out of malice or for greed, though he does use his leverage with the family to acquire some funds for pre-production of his nonexistent film. Rather, as he explains to the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he's tired of being himself. In his recreations of the scenes with the Ahankhah family, Sabzian is enlivened by the attention and emboldened by his perceived celebrity and authority. Though not a professional actor, the performance he puts on is a wholehearted and committed one. After he's apprehended, he seems reluctant to give up the persona.

Sabzian's journey could not have been so successfully explored without the intervention of Kiarostami. It is Kiarostami who arranges the meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, which provides the film with its moving conclusion. More importantly, the act of turning Sabzian's story into a film allows Sabzian to fulfill his promises to the Ahankhahs. They do become actors and their house is used in the film. And though Sabzian can never be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he does become a filmmaker in a way, because his actions are responsible for the creation of "Close-Up." The judge in the courtroom does not understand the point of filming the proceedings, as it's only when you see them as part of the film that they become significant.

Kiarostami's films always have very lived-in universes, where you could imagine following any minor character off into entirely different stories at any moment. "Close-Up" begins not with Sabzian or Kiarostami, but with a reporter investigating the story. He takes a cab ride to the Ahankhahs' house with two police officers in tow to confront the imposter. We spend ten minutes listening to their conversations with the driver as they look for the right street, occasionally stopping to ask pedestrians for directions. When they arrive at the house, the camera stays with the driver waiting outside, who kills time by picking flowers out of a heap of garden trimmings. It was only on rewatching the film that I realized this was a recreation too.

So it comes as no surprise that Kiarostami has occasionally revisited stories and settings from different POVs, and at least once has built an entirely different film around a minor character who appeared in an earlier one. The cab driver may only have a very incidental part to play in the story, but Kiarostami gives his viewpoint its due - the driver has no idea who Makhmalbaf is or why the reporter is so excited about the story, making him a good stand-in for the audience. The whole sequence in the cab is wonderful, relaying exposition, situating us in the universe, and playing out its own small dramas. Similar conversations in cars and vehicles recur in Kiarostami films again and again.

Kiarostami's films have gotten more polished and more sophisticated in recent years, and his last two films were made in France and Japan respectively, with actors from those countries. Fortunately, he's largely managed to retain the spontaneity and structural looseness of his earlier work. However, he's never happened upon quite so serendipitous a series of events as the ones depicted in "Close-Up," that have allowed him to create such a fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself.

What I've Seen - Abbas Kiarostami

Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987)
Homework (1989)
Close-Up (1990)
Life, and Nothing More... (1991)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Ten (2002)
Certified Copy (2010)
Like Someone in Love (2012)

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Top Ten "Friends" Episodes

It's hard to get across just how much of a cultural touchstone "Friends" was to my generation. I offer this anecdote: when I was in my mid-20s, while waiting in line at a sandwich shop, I overheard a conversation between two people about my age, discussing how strange it was that they were now the same age as the characters on "Friends" when the show began. I overheard almost the identical exchange multiple times over the next few years as the '90s kids started having their quarter-life crises. "Friends" remains one of the most successful and recognizable sitcoms of all time. So it's about time I wrote a Top Ten for it.

As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate. Lots of Chandler and Monica, and not much Joey. Sorry Dr. Ramoray fans.

"The One With the Lesbian Wedding" - In 1996 this episode caused an uproar for its then controversial subject matter, and two NBC affiliates refused to air it. And it's a shame because it is a fun episode, with Joey's first soap opera success, Ross finally getting over his ex-wife, and the wedding itself. I especially enjoy the guest appearance of Marlo Thomas as Rachel's mother, who gets to deliver some of the best lines.

"The One with the Prom Video" - The lobsters, fat Monica, Ross's perm - it's the first of the show's traipses into the past, and the most successful. It so wonderfully captures the embarrassment of early love and adolescence, while showing us a different side of the familiar characters. Ross and Rachel's romance always struck me as a little tedious, but this was one of the few times I found myself rooting for them to get together.

"The One with the Chicken Pox" - It's rare that you get an episode with multiple storylines going on simultaneously where all of them hit the mark. Monica stresses when Richard doesn't have any weird quirks. Joey starts working at Chandler's office and assumes the personality of a raging jerk as acting practice. And, my favorite, Phoebe and a sailor beau played by Charlie Sheen contract chicken pox and have to resist physical contact.

"The One Where No One's Ready" - A great example of a bottle episode, where the gang needs to rush to a museum function, but one calamity after another delays their departure from the apartment. Joey and Chandler have an epic fight over a chair. Phoebe has a wardrobe malfunction. Ross and Rachel have a spat. It's twenty minutes of character interaction and wacky wardrobe changes, resulting in some of the show's best moments.

"The One with the Football" - Thanksgiving was the holiday that "Friends" always had the best handle on, when relationship issues and old history would inevitably rear their heads. This time out it's sibling rivalry, gender relations and a spirited game of touch football that take center stage. Everyone's little disagreements and rivalries get amplified when they have the excuse to get physical, particularly Monica's legendary competitive streak.

"The One with the Embryos" - Phoebe is off contemplating surrogate motherhood, so she misses out on one of the greatest trivia showdowns in television history, with Ross as the inexplicable well prepared quizmaster and everyone's living arrangements at stake. The trivia quiz itself is riot. Weekend at Bernie's. Viva Las Gay-gas. Big Fat Goalie. Miss Chanandler Bong. And did anyone ever figure out what Chandler does for a living?

"The One With Ross's Wedding" - Two parter in London! Another wedding episode and an excuse for lots of mayhem. This one's a lot of fun to revisit now that I recognize more of the guest stars - the cranky passenger on the plane is Hugh Laurie, and Emily's bridesmaid is Olivia Williams. And of course the ending is a killer, where we see the start of the Monica and Chandler relationship, and the worst (or best) mistake that Ross ever makes.

"The One Where Everybody Finds Out" - Monica and Chandler are still trying to keep their couplehood under wraps, but Joey found out a few episodes ago, and now Rachel and Phoebe know too - and are determined to get Monica and Chandler to admit it. Cue the farce, with Joey in the middle, and lines like "They don't know that we know they know we know!" I also like the oft forgotten Ross subplot with the mini-muffins and Ugly Naked Guy's apartment.

"The One with the Cop" - The Joey and Monica subplot is fairly forgettable, but the other two storylines are a lot of fun. Phoebe cracks down on the inconsiderate with the help of a mislaid police badge that she found, eventually attracting the attention of a real cop. Meanwhile, Ross is too cheap to pay the delivery fee for his new couch, so he and Rachel have to move it up the stairs - his howls of "Pivot! Pivot!" still echo in my head to this day.

"The One with the Proposal" - Another two-parter, where the return of Tom Selleck's Richard and screwed up proposal plans put the Chandler and Monica relationship in jeopardy. The second half is what makes this for me, where Chandler is put through the emotional wringer, and when the proposal finally does happen, it feels more than earned. The show could have ended right there and I'd have been happy - and considering how little I remember of the last three seasons, maybe it should have.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Greta Gerwig is Starring in What?!

I thought we'd gotten to the point where movie actors taking on television work was no longer something to get worked up about. I mean, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are currently headlining HBO's "True Detective," Kevin Spacey is on his second season of "House of Cards" for Netflix, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in circulation for a Showtime series, one that a lot of the TV critics were buzzing about. Television has gotten a huge boost in artistic credibility in recent years thanks to a flood of highly regarded prestige projects. So it no longer seems like a risky move when you hear that an established movie star has agreed to lead a new cable drama, or a budding young talent is working on a comedy pilot. Everybody wants to be the next Lena Dunham.

But then the news came in this week that Greta Gerwig, veteran independent movie actress and queen of the mumblecore movement, has signed on to star in CBS's new sitcom "How I Met Your Dad," the follow-up/spinoff of their long-running "How I Met Your Mother," which is currently in the middle of its final season. Gerwig is expected to write and produce the series as well as play the lead character, Sally. The role is described as a "female Peter Pan who has never grown up and has no idea of where she’s going in life," which is a description that could apply to most of the characters that Gerwig has played recently in films like "Frances Ha" and "Lola Versus." This could be a great opportunity for a promising young actress who has won a lot of praise this year, snagging her first major awards recognition for "Frances Ha."

What worries me is that "How I Met Your Dad" is not an HBO or FX or Netflix project. It's going to be a pretty typical prime time network sitcom, patterned off of a mostly agreeable, but unambitious hit show that CBS kept going for nine years. Fans of "How I Met Your Mother" tend to have a love-hate relationship with it, and most concede that it probably should have ended a couple of seasons ago. There's certainly room for creativity, but not the kind of bold, boundary-breaking stuff that characterizes a "Girls" or a "Louie." Gerwig's talents are probably not going to be very well served by the constraints of network television, especially on CBS, which is one of the more conservative networks. Occasionally FOX or NBC will turn out something idiosyncratic and unique, but CBS is the home of mostly formulaic meat-and-potatoes stuff like "Two and a Half Men," meant to appeal to very broad audiences. Sure, "How I Met Your Mother" takes place in New York, but it's not the same New York of Hannah Horvath and Frances Halladay.

Of course Gerwig being on a network show doesn't mean that her film career is over, or even on hold. "How I Met Your Mother" stars Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, and Cobie Smulders have both done a ton of film work during their tenures. Radnor has written and directed two films while Segel has worked his way up to comedic leading man status after "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "I Love You, Man." Gerwig's fellow mumblecore alum Mark Duplass also juggles acting duties on FX series "The League" with directing his own films and appearing in others. So there's no reason that Gerwig couldn't keep collaborating with Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman during her breaks, and pursue other projects. Plus, having a higher profile from "How I Met Your Dad" would probably lead to bigger parts. Currently, the most mainstream film she's done has been the Russell Brand remake of "Arthur," where she played the major love interest but was bumped off all the posters by Jennifer Garner.

CBS should get the kudos for pursuing someone like Gerwig for "How I Met Your Dad," and it is heartening to see the ranks of female creatives in television grow. When I first heard about the project, I was expecting that it would be a spinoff starring Cristin Milioti, who plays the titular "Mother" on "How I Met Your Mother." Instead, while the details are still pretty sparse, it looks like we're going to get something much more original, something I might actually want to watch once in a while. Part of me is still expects this will be another "Friends" clone, and we'll only be getting Gerwig-lite, but another part of me wants to hope for the best and root for the show to be a real showcase for her talents. Who knows? Maybe CBS has its eye on capturing a little of the prestige being showered on the cable networks.

And if Greta Gerwig wants to aim for being the next Tina Fey instead of the next Lena Dunham, that's certainly a worthwhile endeavor.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

All in on "All is Lost"

2013 could be called the year of the survival film in American cinema, from action films like "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" to the less obvious period dramas like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." "All is Lost" is perhaps the most representative of the trend, an absolutely bare-bones, stripped down, man vs. nature story that gets to the core of the struggle to stay alive in a way that none of the others manage to.

Our protagonist is an unnamed man on a sailboat, the Virginia Jean, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The man is played by Robert Redford, and has only minimal dialogue. We learn absolutely nothing about him, not why he's on a boat in the middle of the ocean, not where he came from or where he's going, and nothing about his personal life. All we know is that at the beginning of the film, a drifting shipping container filled with shoes collides with and tears a hole in the side of Redford's boat. His radio is not working and he's very far from land and civilization. The rest of the film follows his efforts to repair the vessel, weather a series of storms, and find help. And that's it. And it's phenomenal.

J.C. Chandor made his directing debut last year with "Margin Call," which was about a group of Wall Street stockbrokers and financiers realizing over the course of an eventful night that they were on the brink of financial collapse. "All is Lost" is not entirely different, a tense character study of a man trying to stave off impending disaster and find a way to save himself from doom. This time, of course, the disaster is far more immediate, and the narrative is simplified to the absolute basics. It's one man on a boat battling the forces of nature, and Chandor does a terrific job of capturing the rising tension as one crisis after another keep compounding on each other, escalating the danger and pushing the hero to further and further extremes.

I went into the film completely sure that Redford's character would survive his experience, but by the halfway point of the movie it wasn't clear at all how things would end, and the title of the film was weighing heavy on my mind. The story plays with our expectations, systematically closing avenues of escape and subverting many tropes that are common in other survival movies. The usual narrative safety nets get slashed left and right, to great effect. Also, the film stays on a slow burn from start to finish, with little of the artifice that intrudes on even the most well-meaning studio films like "Captain Phillips." The music is as minimal as the dialogue, the cinematography stays close and tight, and the editing doesn't stray far from the subjective experiences of the hero.

This creates a very different tone that removes many of the usual assurances that everything will be okay. Even the opening scene, where Redford's character is seen writing a letter during a moment of calm to some unknown loved one, explaining what happened, sets a tone of uneasy foreboding. There are several twists that that seem to come out of nowhere, often triggered by the smallest mistakes or pure, dumb, bad luck. The protagonist is clearly an experienced sailor, capable of handling the boat by himself, and proves resourceful time and time again. However, this is a different, harsher universe than what we typically find on theater screens, where things always go wrong in the most damaging ways, and the odds are not in his favor.

It's startling to see Robert Redford starring in a project like this after a steady stream of stately political thrillers in recent years. The role is intensely physical, requiring the beloved 70-something actor and director to clamber about on the rigging of the sailboat, hang precariously above the ocean surface while repairing the damage to his vessel, and repeatedly subject himself to the misery of the elements. The performance he delivers is an absorbing one, but difficult to watch as the situation steadily gets worse and Redford's character faces exhaustion, despair, and hopelessness. This is the first time I've seen Redford truly look his age on film in a long time, those fabled good looks largely not a factor here for once.

This all adds up to a surprisingly intense piece of cinema that I found to be more visceral and more suspenseful than many similar films I've seen from 2013. I wasn't expecting much form the film beyond Redford's performance, but Chandor has proven that he's not just a one-hit wonder, and he's got the chops to tackle a wide range of subject matter. I look forward to seeing him moving on to bigger, more high profile projects in the future.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Breathtaking "Broken Circle Breakdown"

Belgian Best Foreign Film nominee is not about bluegrass music, as it has been widely billed. Yes, the two main characters are bluegrass musicians and there are several musical performances that feature in the film, but you could substitute the bluegrass elements with any number of different things without having much of an impact on the film itself. Rather, "Broken Circle" is a particularly brutal love story about two people who suffer through enormous hardship that tests their commitment to each other and their deepest held beliefs.

We first meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) visiting their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in the hospital. Maybelle has cancer and has to undergo difficult treatments. Then we flash back seven years to when Elise and Didier were a pair of carefree young artists just beginning their courtship. The narrative continues to switch back and forth between past and present, revealing the course of their relationship throughout the years. Though they remain very much in love, they have fundamentally different approaches to life, and have very different - though equally destructive - reactions to a series of traumatic events.

There are a lot of parallels between "Broken Circle Breakdown" and "Blue Valentine," another recent film that juxtaposed the happy beginning of a romantic relationship with its later decline and breakdown after marriage and children. However, "Blue Valentine" is largely about how the central relationship proves to be unsustainable as the two people who share it grow and change. In "Broken Circle," it's outside forces that wreak havoc on a happy, stable marriage. This provides the impetus for a much swifter disillusionment with far more damaging results. The possible split is anything but inevitable for Didier and Elise. The drama is so involving because the couple always seems capable of pulling through together, and clearly have a relationship worth saving. "Broken Circle" is one of the most emotionally grueling films I've sat through in some time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I found the film's spiritual themes were handled particularly well. Didier is an atheist who struggles to explain death to Maybelle. Elise is not especially religious but she finds comfort in spirituality. The film doesn't make a case for either for either of their worldviews, but rather extends sympathy for both sides. Both of the characters find their beliefs challenged, and neither are immune from self-doubt and anger, lashing out and looking for targets to blame in the wake of Maybelle's illness. They threaten to turn on each other and themselves, clashing over how to handle the emotional fallout in fairly realistic fashion. Both of the leads deliver utterly wrenching performances. Heldenbergh is the standout though, especially in the quieter moments. Didier initially seems steadier and better equipped to handle the situation, which makes his subsequent breakdown all the more affecting.

The use of the bluegrass music initially seems a little incongruous, but it provides some nice aesthetic and thematic touches that recur throughout the film. Elise and Didier connect through the music, and many of the songs about lost love and bad times make for a fitting soundtrack to their present-day woes. The actors do their own singing for the musical numbers, all of it in English, no less. Otherwise the film doesn't really get into the bluegrass culture much beyond showing the characters in American flag-patterned clothing, so the music largely stays in the background. It certainly helps to make "Broken Circle" distinctive, but doesn't define it. It's only near the very, very end of the film that the music briefly becomes a truly vital part of the story.

As with far too many foreign films, I'm completely unfamiliar with the talent involved. This is Flemish director Felix van Groeningen's fourth film, and it's a wonderfully self-assured, gorgeous looking piece of work. I especially like the way that he flashes forward and backward repeatedly to certain events that only make sense with the context of other events that are revealed gradually. That way the audience has some sense of what's going to happen without losing the impact of the actual moment when we reach that point in the story. There's some stylization of the visuals, mostly in the editing, but nothing overly indulgent or distracting.

In a jam-packed year, this is one of my favorites, and I was a little miffed to discover that it is technically a 2012 film according to the way I count release dates. And I'm not prepared to give it the "Plus One" spot on my upcoming 2013 ten list, usually reserved for the best films I saw too late to qualify, because "The Act of Killing" has that all sewn up. So I have to leave it out of the usual year-end passing out of kudos. However, I give the movie the highest possible recommendation, for those of you who can stand a trip through the emotional wringer, and need a little more bluegrass in your life.


Monday, February 10, 2014

"Luther," Year Three

Minor spoilers ahead.

I'm doing some catching up on my British crime dramas. The second series of "Luther" felt like a big step down form the first, because the overarching story simply wasn't as compelling and the new characters were less interesting. Fortunately the third series is a big improvement on both fronts. Luther gets a major new antagonist in DSI George Stark (David O'Hara), who with the help of DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is secretly investigating Luther for corruption and misconduct, a thread that carries through the whole series.

Like the last round, we get four episodes this time out, which can be neatly split into a pair of two-parters. Unlike last time, though, this series is much better paced and more cohesive. The first half has Luther juggling a pair of cases simultaneously, the murder of an internet troll, and multiple attacks by serial killer with some peculiar fetishes. His partner Ripley (Warren Brown) is contacted by Stark and Gray, who want his cooperation with their investigation of Luther, casting doubts on Ripley's loyalty. Luther also gets a new love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), who gets roped into the action in the second half of the series, where Luther is pitted against an attention-seeking vigilante killer who likes going after criminals he doesn't think have been punished enough.

"Luther" has always been bloodier and more gruesome than your average television crime drama, and that's certainly the case in this set of episodes, where we meet some pretty memorable, depraved perpetrators. There's about one gut-churning, avert-your-eyes moment per episode and plenty of high tension thrills throughout. Fortunately for the squeamish, this is well balanced by the character drama of the more thoughtful investigation storyline. Previous series have questioned how far over the line Luther can push before going too far, but the way the investigation story is framed, Luther is invariably shown to be in the right, and the focus is largely on Ripley and then other characters grappling with the decision of what side they'll come down on.

Luther himself has gotten cuddlier as a character, his demons still in residence but further beneath the surface. He has a few flares of temper when met with hurdles during his cases, but few moments of the truly uneasy ambiguity that made his morality such a puzzle in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the series plays out fine with Luther as a more typical good guy, but it makes the character and the series undeniably different from what came before. Idris Elba remains charismatic and appealing and so John Luther is still easy to stay invested in. If we take show creator Neil Cross's claim that this is the last series of "Luther" at face value, then I think it's perfectly satisfactory to have our hero close out the series on the side of angels for good.

"Luther" is not particularly sophisticated stuff, still dependent to a large extent on action and thrills, but the performances are good, the production values remain very high, and the writing is much stronger this year. The second series' sore thumb damsel in distress, Jenny, has been replaced with Guillory's Mary, who seems an unlikely love match for John Luther, but at least she's a more logically sound character with a good sense of autonomy. Warren Brown gets a good amount of the spotlight this year and sells several big moments. I also want to highlight the work of guest stars, Kevin Fuller and Elliott Cowan, who play this year's two most colorful murderers. I still miss Indira Varma and Saskia Reeves from the first season, but not nearly as much.

And what about Alice Morgan, Luther's serial killer associate who remains one of the show's best creations? There's been some talk of spinning her off for her own show, which I'm behind 100%. However, "Luther" stays mum on the subject. Let's just say that she has a part to play in the new series, but how big a part and the nature of the part is a big spoiler. Ruth Wilson has been busy with film roles lately, so I'll caution fans of Alice not to expect much. The new series is a perfectly good watch without her contributions in any case.

The next we'll see of "Luther" is reportedly a theatrical feature, which sounds like a great idea. The character is in a good position to jump to the big screen, and a feature would be a great vehicle to push Idris Elba's profile higher. The recent series have been so short, they feel like features already to a great extent. If the show ends here, though, I wouldn't be all that upset. "Luther" has had a good run and the third series ends in a very satisfying way.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

2014 Films I'm Anticipating, Part II

Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Films I'm Anticipating, Part I

Okay, no waiting until March this year. Sundance and the Superbowl are behind us, and I've got a pretty good bead on the titles I'm looking forward to. Like last year, I'm splitting this topic up between the bigger, mainstream releases, and the smaller, artsier prestige titles. And if previous lists have been any indication, several of the latter are probably going to be delayed until 2015. Since I've already covered them in previous posts, I will not be talking about foreign options that are only getting their U.S. releases this year like "Mood Indigo" and "Snowpiercer." Also, I think I've said enough about "X-Men," "Interstellar," and "Transcendence" in past entries. Here we go. Big titles up first:

"Godzilla" - I can't help it. I love big destructive action movies and kaiju-big-battle movies in particular. My biggest criticism of last year's "Pacific Rim" is that there weren't enough monsters. The newest attempt to revive the "Godzilla" franchise in the west is being directed by Gareth Edwards of "Monsters," and if I had any worries about his relatively thin filmography, they were quashed by the excellent teaser trailer that we got last year. It doesn't hurt that Frank Darabont contributed to the screenplay, and the cast is stacked with names like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" - Let's be honest. The Marvel universe films feel like they've been on autopilot lately with three sequels in a row. Fortunately they've got more interesting titles coming up, including "Guardians," which is going to be a major departure for the franchise in terms of style and subject matter. Call this a superhero film if you must, but from where I'm sitting this is a space adventure movie, about a rag-tag team of aliens doing battle with the forces of evil. Observers have warned that the premise may be too out there for general audience to take - one of our heoes is a talking raccoon - but it looks to me like exactly the kind of creative shot of adrenaline that the Marvel films need to keep going through Phase 2 and into Phase 3.

"The Boxtrolls" - Laika's last two stop-motion animated films, "Coraline" and "Paranorman" have been excellent, so of course I'm looking forward to their next one, "Boxtrolls," about an orphan boy who has been raised by a tribe of friendly trolls who live in cardboard boxes. The villain will be an evil exterminator voiced by Ben Kingsley. Really, how can I say no to this? There have already been two delightful teasers released for the film, the most recent one focusing on the laborious process of stop-motion animation. It looks like it could be a very good year for cartoon features, with the "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel, the Lego movie, and the next title on this list.

"Big Hero 6" - Disney Feature Animation has been on a roll these past few years, and it looks like they've worked out a good long-term strategy for themselves. Instead of trying to transition away from the girl-centric fairy-tale films that have been their biggest hits, toward more boy-friendly action features, which got the studio in trouble in the past, instead they're taking turns between both kinds of stories. So after the princesses of "Frozen," next holiday season we're getting a wacky superhero movie set in an anime-inspired universe full of giant robots and Japanese food puns. This will also mark PIXAR's first collaboration with Marvel, which is providing the film's source material.

"Annie" - The 1982 version of "Annie" directed by John Huston (yes, really) was one of my favorites when I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to the updated version starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the new Little Orphan Annie and Jamie Foxx as Benjamin Stacks, this version's Daddy Warbucks. Director Will Gluck hasn't handled a musical before, but I have liked some of his previous films, especially "Easy A." Jay-Z is handling the music, and after the fantastic job he did with "The Great Gatsby," I have a lot of confidence he'll be able to pull this off too. "Annie" will be Columbia's big Christmas release this year, but it's going to have to compete with a certain Disney musical that's also on its way.

"Into the Woods" - Now this could turn out to be terrible. All the movies on this list easily might be. However, I just love the idea that somebody is finally bringing Steven Sondheim's musical about fairy-tale characters facing the consequences of their fanciful adventures to the big screen. And because it's Disney, we're getting an all-star cast including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, along with a few others who can actually sing. Rob Marshall's directing career has been very hit or miss, but he's a good fit for this material and I'm looking forward to the end result.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Buying Into "Dallas Buyers Club"

This is the last 2014 Best Picture nominee on the big fat list, which means that this is the first year I've managed to cover all of them, plus a few of the runners-ups. I'm glad that the Academy Awards are happening later this year, because there have been a lot of interesting contenders to catch up on. I'll definitely have a prediction/"If I picked the winners" post soon, but on to today's movie.

We're just starting to see narratives centered on the 1980s AIDS epidemic emerging in the popular culture, helped along by the recent advancement of LGBT rights. There were a handful of prominent documentaries last year that addressed this period, notably "How to Survive a Plague" and "We Were Here," and it's some very compelling stuff. "Dallas Buyers Club" is the first fictional dramatization that I can recall in recent memory, and approaches the subject from a very different angle.

Avoiding the LGBT rights struggle almost entirely, the focus here is on the very heterosexual Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rodeo worker who contracts AIDS in 1985 and is given a prognosis of only thirty days to live. There was no treatment for AIDS at the time, Woodroof manages to survive on illegally acquired AZT drugs, which were in clinical trials at the time. Unsatisfied with the way the FDA and the drug companies are handling matters, Woodroof starts importing unapproved drugs and treatments from outside the US, setting up a "buyers club" for AIDS patients in the Dallas area to get around existing drug laws. He recruits a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) to help him run the club, and wins the grudging support of one of the doctors conducting the AZT trials, Eve Saks (Jennier Garner).

"Dallas Buyers Club" takes some considerable dramatic license with the facts, demonizing the AZT drug and the FDA, and painting Woodroof's transition from a redneck homophobe to a more enlightened social crusader in simplified terms. Like most "man agains the system" social issue films, it depends very heavily on its performances. Fortunately the performances here are great. Matthew McConaughey's Woodroof is a stubborn pragmatist who is only interested in his own survival, and has a very simple and direct outlook on life. He starts the buyers club to make money and befriends Rayon and other AIDS patients for his own benefit. The fact that he's helping people doesn't really enter into the equation until very late. McConaughey spends much of the movie looking increasingly frail and anemic, but also unwaveringly vital, displaying the familiar McConaughey charm that it's hard not to be won over by.

Jared Leto's Rayon is arguably an even more difficult part, who could too easily have been another sassy drag queen caricature. Fortunately he walks a fine line between comic relief and tragic figure, and the script gives Rayon some big personal flaws and interesting angles for Leto to work with. Jennifer Garner is stuck with the straitlaced lady doctor who becomes Woodroof's platonic love interest. Like Rayon, her character is a composite of several real life people, but more obviously so because of the demands of the plot. She's one of the weaker elements in the film, but certainly not because of Garner's efforts.

Frankly, beyond the performances, I can't think of much to recommend "Dallas Buyers Club." The screenplay avoids most of the usual clichés, but it's pretty rote, and there are some glaring moments of forced profundity that don't land very well. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does a decent job, but doesn't manage to find many moments of real human drama that could elevate the film above the typical search-for-a-cure narrative. It isn't nearly as engrossing or as effective as the documentaries that cover the same subject matter, because the impact of Woodroof's efforts never really comes across all that well.

I can certainly understand the appeal of using Ron Woodroof's life as the anchor of the film. He's a very good entry point into the era, much easier for the general audience to identify with, and presents an interesting set of apparent self-contradictions. However, there's still a certain sense of squeamishness about the subject matter that seems to indicate we really haven't progressed much in the portrayal of homosexuality onscreen since "Philadelphia" twenty years ago. It's hard to ignore that there's only one major gay character in "Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon, and she's essentially a martyr figure.

I know I'm putting too many outsized expectations on a film that's really perfectly fine for what it is, and McConaghey and Leto deserve all the praise for their work that they've been getting. However, I can't help thinking that "Dallas Buyers Club" could have been so much better, and could have done so much more. And that makes it a very hard movie to root for.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Your 2014 February Follow-Up Post

And we're back with another semi-regular Miss Media Junkie Blog follow-up post, to provide you with updates on topics I've previously written about, but that I don't believe require an entire new post to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.

The State of My To-Watch List - I'm down to about 30 films left for 2013. Several of the indies like "Under the Skin," "Night Moves," and "Narco Cultura" have been reclassified as 2014 films because their theatrical releases have been pushed forward to this spring. Of the remaining ones on the list, it's mostly foreign films like "Stranger By the Lake" and "Like Father, Like Son," which are only getting theatrical releases now, and some of the studio pictures I haven't prioritized like the new "Hobbit" and "Hunger Games" movies. Expect reviews eventually, but not until they hit the in-flight viewing or rental rotations.

"Batman" without Batman? - Oh dear. Looks like "Gotham" is going to be a more a "Batman" prequel than we thought. At a recent TCA press tour panel, Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly confirmed that a twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne will regularly appear in the "Gotham" series, and early versions of Joker, the Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman are among the "Batman" villains we can expect to show up too. This means that we're going to be hammered over the head with references and allusions to the future "Batman" continuity, exactly what I was hoping "Gotham" would try to avoid. Prequels only work if they can stand independent of the originals, and it's only going to be harder with so many familiar faces.

Making Peace With the Rumor Mill and The Obligatory Ben Affleck is Batman Post - And while we're on the subject of the DC comics universe, I suppose I'd better say something about the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. This is one of the only positive bits of news about the new movie I've heard so far, a really daring choice that indicates the "Batman v. Superman" creators are trying to move in a different direction. Luthor was always the embodiment of the evil businessman villain of the 80s. The 2010s equivalent of that would be someone more akin to Mark Zuckerberg, and Eisenberg was pretty good at playing him. Nearly everyone else involved still has me worried, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Is This the End of Facebook? - And speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, let's check in with Facebook. The video ads I discussed previously finally rolled out in December, and honestly they haven't been too intrusive. I've been on Facebook more often lately, and though the bandwidth drain has been noticeable, the actual ads are fairly easy to skip over in the newsfeed. This week marks the tenth anniversary of Facebook, and there have been a new round of doom-and-gloom articles discussing the company's dimming future prospects. Younger users are abandoning the site in droves, apparently. However, Zuckerberg being Zuckerberg, I wouldn't count them out yet.

The 2015 Showdown Looms - Despite the "Batman v. Superman" movie, "Independence Day 2," "Pirates of the Caribbean 5," "The Adventures of Tintin 2," and "Finding Dory" moving to 2016, and a couple of other projects with indeterminate status, the 2015 slate has gotten even more crowded. New entries into the fray include the delayed "Fast & Furious 7, Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland," and PIXAR's "The Good Dinosaur." Plus the "Poltergeist" and "Mad Max" reboots, Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella" "Fifty Shades of Grey,"and Neil Blomkamp's "Chappie." At least the summer slate looks more manageable at the moment, with the big titles more spread out over the year.

An All Female "Expendables"? - This one looks to be in limbo. There's been no news about the project since August, when it was announced that "You're Next" star Sharni Vinson was joining the cast along with Gina Carano and Katee Sackhoff. Considering that these are the biggest names that the project has managed to land so far and there's no director attached, don't expect to see this one in theaters soon. Also, there's now a competitor project with the same premise, "The Expendabelles," from Millennium Films, the production company behind "The Expendables." They're aiming much higher, having landed Rob Luketic as a director and trying to court Meryl Streep.

My "Adventure Time" Problem - Finally, I've been watching more of "Adventure Time," and wanted to put down a few follow-up thoughts that don't merit a full post. My position hasn't changed. I like the series and admire what it's accomplished, but it's not one of my favorites. I do like Finn and Jake much more as characters, though not quite as much as their distaff counterparts. One thing that bothered me about the Fionna and Cake episodes was that they were so romance-heavy, but it made sense after going back and seeing all the episodes about Finn's relationships with Bubblegum and Marceline. I've also done a 180 on Lumpy Space Princess. A little of her goes a long way, but when she's done right, she's priceless.