Monday, March 31, 2014

Here's To Television Without Pity

Another chapter of online media fandom is about to end, fellow media junkies. The beloved website Television Without Pity (TWoP), that had a big hand in creating the TV recapper culture we know and love today, is scheduled to be shut down in April, with its famously boisterous forums following at the end of May. It's an old, familiar story by this point. A media website attracts a loyal, fervent following for a few years, they're acquired by a major company that doesn't really know what to do with them (in this case NBC Universal via their Bravo unit), the original folks responsible for the early success moved on, and the site slowly withered away until the plug was finally pulled.

I wasn't a very consistent visitor to TWoP, but I did visit fairly regularly for a few years. A lot of people did. What drew me to the site wasn't the recaps, which have now become industry standard, but the forums. I have a long history of loving obscure little genre shows that have almost no fandoms to speak of, and no matter how obscure a show was, the TWoP forums could be counted on to have a thread for nearly everything you could think of. Even if it was a single one-season reality show, late night time-filler, or a foreign cult import, if it was airing somewhere on American television, someone on TWoP was talking about it. On the other hand, it was also the only place I regularly found a decent level of discussion going on for shows that didn't really attract traditional media fandoms - the crime procedurals, the family sitcoms, and even news programs.

So the TWoP forums were where I went to look for reactions to new episodes of dubbed late night anime (from viewers who weren't part of the usual anime crowd), "Law & Order: SVU," "Project Runway," and occasionally even "60 Minutes." It was where I went when I first started working my way through older shows, because I could follow along with the archived discussion threads simply by keeping track of when posts were made relative to the original airdates for the episodes I was watching. I always preferred old fashioned message boards to social networking based sites for media discussions for this reason. It was so much easier to find things. And, of course, there were always far fewer technical glitches than with "talkback" style comments like Disquis.

I also appreciated that the participants were mainly casual viewers like me. There were certainly big fandoms on the forums, often with their own separate subforums and subcultures that generated lots of activity, but I tended to stay away from those. Certain media fandoms are notorious for generating drama, and I was always wary of getting too involved with them. I also knew where to find forums and message boards devoted to specific shows, like "Project Runway," but they tended to be more insular and myopic about their particular fandoms. The TWoP crowd could be counted on to be a more laid-back, more eclectic crowd that was interested in a variety of different shows.

Most of the write-ups I've been reading about the end of TWoP have focused on the recaps, naturally, on the snarky, obsessive, yet refreshingly self-aware brand of criticism they helped to popularize. It helped the mainstream to realize that there is an audience for good television writing, and that even the most heinous pieces of pop culture detritus could be good material for serious dissections. There have also been some inches devoted to the site's brushes with fame over the years, as various TV showrunners have dropped by to engage with their audience directly over the years, with mixed results.

The obvious successor to Television Without Pity has been the A.V. Club, which takes a more curated approach to television recaps and reviews, and has also nurtured a great little community. However, it hasn't got quite the same verve or the same breadth of coverage as Television Without Pity. Few media sites do. That's why there are still a significant number of regular users on the site, and they're debating over where to migrate the community next. This is a common occurrence now, fandoms moving from platform to platform and site to site as the internet chugs along.

I can't say I'm going to miss Television Without Pity. Though I had the site bookmarked for ages, I haven't been by in years. I'm far too busy to follow along with message board discussions of the shows I watch anymore. However, in its own way TWoP was an institution, one that gave TV fans a place to be TV fans for well over a solid decade and changed the way a lot of us watch and engage with television.
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Friday, March 28, 2014

A Surprising "Touch of Sin"

I'd seen two of Chinese director Jia Zhangke's films before, "Platform" from 2000 and "Still Life" from 2006. It was enough to get a good sense of his style and his aims as a director, which is to explore modern Chinese life and society with a more critical, nuanced eye than many of his predecessors were able to. His work is definitely art house fare, meditative dramas full of slow, quiet scenes. So it was a shock to find his latest film, "A Touch of Sin," is a crime movie with several jarring moments of violence.

The two-hour film is an anthology of four different stories with very different settings and protagonists. All of them are based on real life crimes that highlight a variety of socials ills. In the first story, a man, Dahai (Wu Jiang) attempts to bring to light the corruption of a group of village officials who have profited handsomely from the sale of the local mine. In the second, we follow a migrant worker, Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), who is visiting home for the New Year but not received warmly by his family. The third is about Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), a woman who works at a spa and is conducting a secret affair. Finally, the last story is about a young factory worker, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who falls in love with a prostitute, Lianrong (Li Meng).

There are few connecting threads between each story, aside from the thematic goal of exploring different forms of sudden violence and their causes. At first glance all four stories appear to follow a similar pattern. We are introduced to our protagonist and his or her circumstances, following the ordinary course of their lives and witnessing the slow burn of simmering tensions that eventually boil over at the end of the story. However, these characters are quite different from each other and their paths to violence are not the same. One is clearly disturbed from the beginning, another is frustrated by a perceived lack of other options, and another is gradually desensitized to violence after repeated exposure in everyday life.

Jia does not focus on the violence, though it is portrayed bluntly enough that the Chinese censors have condemned the film for graphic content. Each story ends almost immediately after each incident of violence occurs, and we are not shown reactions or consequences, with one exception. Rather, Jia is concerned with the systems and culture that seem to foster violence. We get these wonderful snapshots of the various communities and oppressive social structures that the affect the characters through incidental conversations and interactions with minor players. The introspective leads are often isolated on the screen, brooding silently as part of the long, beautiful shots of busy city streets or empty country roads. In the final story, the cramped factory dormitories and luxurious nightclubs serve to emphasize the alienation and hopelessness of the final protagonist.

How much of the responsibility for these tragedies should be borne by the individual and how much should be blamed on society? Jia doesn't give a straightforward answer, and the circumstances are different enough in each little morality tale that they point to different answers. However, he does single out various societal forces as contributing factors: apathy towards the abuses of the elites, weakened familial ties due to working conditions, and a lack of opportunities for the young, among others. This is all conveyed fairly subtly, in terms that would never get "A Touch of Sin" mistaken for a more typical social justice picture, but I still find it remarkable that Jia Zhangke is able to be so candid in his examination of Chinese social ills.

Of the four stories, I think the first with the corrupt officials is the strongest and the one that makes the most lasting impression because it is so dynamic, and the tragicomic performance of Wu Jiang is a lot of fun. It comes the closest to the usual template of a bombastic action movie, and is the least like Jia Zhangke's other films, which is probably why I found it such a great surprise. I also like the third one featuring the director's wife and longtime muse, Tao Zhao, though the climax feels a little tacked on. The other two have their strengths, but they're less successful and contain some puzzling ambiguities I'm not sure were intentional. The psychopath story in particular needed some fleshing out and I'd love to see a longer version.

I wouldn't be disappointed if Jia Zhangke went back to making his more subdued social dramas, but it's always exciting when a good director tries to experiment a bit, and I hope he considers more genre outings in the future - especially if they come out as well as "A Touch of Sin."

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Heinous "Marry Harry"

I try not to get too worked up about bad reality television shows. I understand that they cater to the lowest common denominator and that they're as much of an embarrassment to their viewing audience as they are to the participants or the network or the production company. It's in my best interest to ignore them and pretend that they don't exist, because ultimately they don't matter and don't deserve any extra attention, even if it's as the subject of scorn. But once in a while I hear about one of these shows that just gets under my skin and I can't stop thinking about. So I am compelled to rant.

I guess I was too premature in hoping that the FOX network had turned over a new leaf in my recent "Cosmos" post. I thought that they had left behind the most awful reality competition shows like "The Swan" (a plastic surgery show masquerading as a makeover show) and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" (a woman's entire innocent family is subjected to a fake nightmare fiance). And then I heard about their new summer reality matchmaking show, "I Wanna Marry 'Harry,'" which has one of the most horrendous premises I've ever heard of. The more I think about it, the more it makes my blood boil.

Twelve American women are shipped off to the UK to spend a few weeks vying for the affections of an eligible man who they think is Prince Harry, actually a lookalike recruited to fill the role. It's a hoax show of course, in the same vein as "Joe Millionaire." You have to be exceptionally badly informed or gullible to think that a member of the royal family would consider participating in a crass American "Bachelor" style reality show to find potential mates. It's akin to George Clooney joining Match.com. This points to the contestants being an exceptionally dim bunch, or willing to play along and humiliate themselves for a chance at fame and fortune. I'm not sure which possibility is worse.

The appeal to that certain demographic is obvious. The show is taking advantage of the hype over the royal wedding and parlaying the acceptance of Prince William marrying a commoner into the possibility that anyone now has a shot at his eligible bachelor brother. It's also playing that age-old game of shame the gold digger. The unspoken assumption is that it's fine to laugh at the contestants because they're stupid enough to fall for the ruse and if they're on this kind of dating show then they're probably terrible people anyway. It's another spin on the freak show, similar to "Honey Boo Boo," "Real Housewives," or "The Kardashians." The audience gets to watch their antics with disgust and feel safely superior in the knowledge that they would never stoop so low.

In the case of "Marry Harry," however, that's clearly not true. There are many women out there who would jump at the chance to fulfill the princess fantasy we've all been spoon-fed since childhood and marry into royalty. Think of all the princess-themed junk aimed at little girls and the Prince Charming narratives that still work their way into so many romance stories. Well ladies, this is where all that leads. You end up a poor, deluded dupe on a reality show being exploited and mocked in prime time for taking to heart all those movies and shows where any ordinary girl can land herself a royal with enough pluck and determination. Generally I enjoy seeing princess fantasies subverted and their adherents set straight, but this is just cruel for the sake of being cruel.

I can't help wondering how the show's producers are going to try putting a positive spin on "Marry Harry." Most of the hoax shows try to soften the blow, often handing out large sums of cash to help assuage their victims' embarrassment. And Joe Millionaire did become a proper millionaire on the show's last episode. Will the producers try to suggest that true love blossoms between the winning wannabe royal and the fake Prince Harry? Will they declare her a real princess in all the ways that matter and hand over a shiny tiara for her trouble? I'm fantasizing about the last girl calling out the faux royal and the scumbag producers, but that's not going to happen.

It's depressing that shows like this are still being made. I can only be glad that this is the kind of scenario that can only be pulled off once. No other royal out there has the same draw as Prince Harry, and other shows have already put forth fake millionaires and fake tycoons, so the basic idea is already pretty played out. Also, I take heart that this is one of the last shows to be ordered by FOX's departing Director of Specials, Mike Darnell, who is leaving the network in May, hopefully to go wreak programming havoc somewhere less visible. Let's hope shows like "Marry Harry" are likewise on their way out the door.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Theaters Are Losing the Target Audience

Worrying news out of Cinemacon, the The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) convention, this week. The MPAA has released movie attendance statistics for 2013, revealing that the number of frequent moviegoers (who go to the theaters once a month on average) in the 18-24 year-old age group has fallen 21%, and 12-17 year-olds are down 15%. Most other age groups are also down, though kids and older viewers saw boosts in their numbers. However, the younger demographics are the important ones to Hollywood, who the vast majority of movies are made and marketed for. The drastic reduction in their attendance is a very bad sign.

Though these are dramatic numbers, this doesn't come as much of a surprise to most industry watchers. Theaters have been seeing declining numbers for years due to a variety of factors: rising ticket prices, new technology, the shrinking amount of time a new movie plays in theaters exclusively, piracy, lackluster theater experiences, and competition from other entertainment options like Netflix. Some point to the content being an issue, and indeed 2013 was a pretty lackluster year in terms of the big commercial blockbusters aimed at youngsters, though it was a great year for prestige films that tend to skew toward older viewers. And some point to the recession, which has heavily impacted younger moviegoers, who now have less disposable income to spend on tickets.

You can see priorities starting to shift a bit in response. Animated family films have been the most consistent moneymakers, and NATO chief John Fithian has long been calling for more of them, year round, to appeal to that growing audience of kids. Minorities tend to go to the movies in greater numbers, with African-American and Latino audiences seeing gains last year. In the wake of surprise hits like "Instructions Not Included," "Ride Along," and "Best Man Holiday," there's been a good amount of chatter about more movies made to appeal to them. And this has been the first time in recent memory that I've seen anyone address the rising cost of tickets, with the proposal of more regular discount days, a tactic that has apparently been very successful in other countries.

As one of those viewers who is probably going to go from a frequent moviegoer to quitting theaters almost entirely this year, it feels like too little too late. While there are still plenty of movies being produced that I want to see, it has become far too convenient to watch new movies by alternate means with only minimal delays, and the hassles associated with a theater trip seem to grow with every visit. The average movie ticket now costs over $8, and it's far more in many places. Meanwhile, Redbox prices are still under $2, and comparable online rentals are under $5. Watching the "Veronica Mars" movie on VOD at home through Amazon Instant was a buck less than the cheapest matinee in my area. And this isn't even taking into account the ability to avoid endless ads, parking madness, and overpriced concessions.

Still, I did go and see a lot of movies over the last Oscar season, including smaller titles like "Nebraska" and "Philomena." I still love the theater experience and think it's worth it to experience really great movies like "The Master," "The Artist," and "The Tree of Life" on the big screen with a full sound system and an audience of likeminded cinephiles in attendance. The latest "Thor" movie? Not so much. I wouldn't mind if we saw fewer of the big, sprawling multiplexes, but I'd really miss my run-down old art house theater. Sadly, I expect that if we start seeing theater numbers shrink, the arthouses are probably going to be the first to go.

It'll be a while before that happens, though. Movie theater revenues actually hit record highs in 2013 thanks to all those surcharges on 3D films and advertising sales, but it's been coming from fewer and fewer paying customers. The most sobering statistic in the MPAA report is that nearly a third of the U.S. population didn't see any movies in theaters at all last year. The movie business as a whole is still going strong thanks to rapidly expanding overseas markets, and 2015 is expected to be a record year with all the tentpoles coming up.

But when the movie-loving boomers age out of the customer base, and if the current crop younger viewers don't take the next generation of kids to see movies in theaters, what then? If day-and-date simultaneous multi-platform releases become more commonplace, and VOD really starts eating into ticket sales, where does this leave the movie theaters? Is there going to come a time when seeing a Malick or P.T. Anderson film on the big screen won't even be an option? If so, it'll be an awful shame.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rank 'Em: The PIXAR Movies

As noted previously, 2014 is the first year since 2005 where there will be no new release from PIXAR animation studios. So it's time to take stock of the fourteen features that the studio has produced so far. Here's my ranking of the PIXAR movies from greatest to least. Due to concerns about length, I'm going to cheat a little, as you'll see below.

1. The "Toy Story" trilogy - I prefer the second to the first and wasn't really sold on how the third one ended, but it's hard to argue that the "Toy Story" movies aren't the studio's greatest achievement. The first film was an instant animation landmark when it premiered in 1995, and the sequels miraculously matched it on every level. The technology kept improving, but what was really impressive was that the storytelling and the fidelity to those wonderful characters never lagged for a moment.

2. "The Incredibles" - "PIXAR does human beings," was the big selling point, but the real accomplishment was telling a story that skewed a little older and more mature while not losing the sense of adventure and fun that characterized the best PIXAR work. Director Brad Bird joined the studio to bring a fascinating world of superheroes and supervillains to life. I especially love the '60s design touches and all the little bits of superhero terminology that make the "Incredibles" universe feel so alive.

3. "Ratatouille" - Reportedly a difficult production for the studio, which lost one director and had to work on a much shorter schedule than some of the others. However, the end result is a charmer, proving that PIXAR could make a great movie out of the most unlikely subject matter, in this case a rat who becomes a chef. Disney struggled to market and merchandise the film without an easy hook like "monsters" or "toys" or "superheroes." Personally, I always thought the hook was obvious: foodies.

4. "Monsters University" - Yep, I'm surprised to see this one so high too, but I really appreciated what PIXAR did with the "Monsters Inc." prequel. They got me to care about Mike, a character I never really connected to, and delivered a difficult message in a careful, thoughtful way. This may be the only college life movie I've ever really enjoyed, because it is actually about the meat and potatoes stuff of the college experience that the raunchy teen comedies aren't interested in talking about.

5. "Up" - The opening sequence of "Up" is so strong that I feel it takes away a bit from the rest of the movie, which never gets close to finding the same emotional power. Sure, it's a fun adventure movie about a group of misfits, but the underlying melancholy of the main character's struggle with his regrets suggests that so much more was possible. So "Up" remains a conundrum for me, a movie that I admire very much, but with enough weak spots that I can't quite bring myself to count it as a favorite.

6. "A Bug's Life" - PIXAR's sophomore effort does not get enough credit. It remains one of their most gorgeous with some of their most memorable characters, including the evil grasshopper voiced by Kevin Spacey and the ladybug with gender issues voiced by Dennis Leary. Yes, the "Yojimbo" plot is old and full of cliches, but it works. And I still think this is one of PIXAR's most gorgeous-looking movies, especially the way they use light and color in a world centered around plant life.

7. "Finding Nemo" - I love Dory. I love the seagulls. I love the jellyfish and the turtles and everything involving the whale. However, I find the movie as a whole a little on the lackluster side. There are some major parts of the story and major characters that struck me as pretty by-the-numbers, and I never felt that Marlin and Nemo and their relationship got nearly as much development as they needed to really give the movie the proper stakes. "Nemo" is a lot of fun, but feels like PIXAR treading water.

8. "Brave" - This one really didn't hold up as well on rewatch as I was hoping it would. I still adore Merida and the whole relationship with her mother, but when you hold "Brave" up against the rest of the PIXAR films, the worldbuilding is awfully slight and the plot is awfully thin. This is one of those cases where the offscreen struggles over the film's direction really shows. The whole movie feels rushed, haphazardly pieced together, and not quite sure of what it's doing. I'd love a sequel, though, to help fix a few things.

9. "Monsters Inc." - There's something about the "Monsters" world that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it was the lukewarm satire on the energy crisis, the jokey handling of corporate culture, or just one monster pun too many, but it didn't work for me. And aside from the Sully and Boo relationship and the last chase scene with the doors, not much else in the film did either. The irony is, of course, that I really enjoyed the prequel, "Monsters University," which didn't live up to this film for many viewers.

10. "WALL-E" - I got some fun out of the first half of the movie, but the second half on the spaceship with the chubby vestiges of the human race was full of missteps that "WALL-E" never recovered from. I disliked it so much that I haven't revisited the movie since I first saw it in theaters. Taken by itself, the first half of the movie would probably rank solidly in the middle of the PIXAR features, since it's so uniquely dark and conceptually bold. I wish the movie had continued in that direction, but oh well.

11. The "Cars" movies - Even the least likeable PIXAR films are works of art, full of beautiful imagery and clever ideas. I don't mind the first "Cars" movie much, even though I'm not a fan. It's clearly PIXAR's work even though it's not the studio at its best. The sequel, however, has all the earmarks of the superfluous sequels that PIXAR promised that it would never make, and for that reason "Cars 2" is on the very bottom of the rankings.
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Monday, March 24, 2014

Exploring the "Cosmos"

I'm too young to have seen the original "Cosmos" series hosted by Carl Sagan, which ran on PBS way back in 1980. However, I saw my share of nature and science programming in a similar vein as a kid, and enjoyed them. Lots of "Nova" and "Nature," and various educational documentary shorts screened in school or on museum trips. So I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new "Cosmos," which is inexplicably airing Sunday nights on the FOX television network, and being produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane.

Well, maybe McFarlane's involvement isn't so inexplicable. "Cosmos" stands out from the rest of the crowd for its use of lots of CGI special effects, and there have been animated segments in each of the three episodes that have aired so far. The visual spectacle goes a long way in helping to keep my interest in the science lessons delivered by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Though Tyson makes for a very engaging lecturer, the American television audience wants shiny CGI, and boy do they get it. Gorgeous shots of celestial bodies are constantly displayed for us to marvel at. In the second episode, prehistoric creatures and microscopic structures are rendered for us in loving detail with computer animation. There's lots of green screen work, as Tyson interacts with a spiffy looking "ship of the imagination" and takes a walk on a giant "cosmic calendar."

So far the material has been great. The first episode covered a lot of astronomy concepts I was already pretty familiar with and had seen other programs cover in a similar, though less snazzy fashion. The second and third were more interesting for me because it was my first exposure to some of the concepts and ideas. I especially liked the use of the domestication of wolves into dogs as the lead-in to the discussion of evolutionary mechanisms and the development of life on Earth. I assumed from the title that "Cosmos" was only going to cover space exploration, but it looks everything related to science is going to be fair game, with outer space serving as a jumping-off point to get into all kinds of different topics. Personally, I'm hoping that we get into the climate change debate in future episodes.

I have a few nitpicks about the production, most of the them pretty minor. The longer 2D animated segments done with Flash look a little cheap next to all the CGI. Last night's program used a lot of it to relate the history of Isaac Newton's writing and publishing of the "Principia Mathematica," and the famous coffeehouse wager between Edmond Halley and Robert Hooke regarding planetary motion. In shorter doses these segments are all right, but the longer ones just highlight how stiff and limited the animation is. Also, the show tends to get carried away with the pageantry. This is especially evident with the full blown orchestral score, composed by Alan Silvestri, which tends to sound much too concerned about being big and impressive. They could stand to tone down the fireworks a bit.

"Cosmos" stands out as an anomaly on network television because it is so high-minded and so ambitious. I don't think there's been anything comparable since the "Planet Earth" documentary series, and even that didn't have the same pointedly educational aims. While I've been enjoying "Cosmos" and applaud its creators and the FOX networks for airing it, I can't help but be mystified as to how the new show managed to happen in the current television landscape. Is Seth McFarlane's leverage so great that he get a thirteen-part science documentary on primetime solely as a passion project? Is someone at FOX purposely trying to pursue loftier programming choices as a new tactic in light of their "American Idol" numbers cratering?

I have to bring up the fact that FOX's news organization has traditionally been very right-wing and anti-science. And of course, the new "Cosmos" is already drawing fire from anti-evolution folks, particularly after the second episode which devoted a good amount of its screen time to laying out the case for natural selection and directly addressed some anti-evolution positions. The cognitive dissonance going on is pretty breathtaking, even though FOX News and the other FOX subsidiaries have always had very little to do with each other. I have to say it's nice to get something so pro-science in a year where we're seeing a resurgence of Bible epics at the box office and the culture war shows no signs of abating.

But I'm getting off track. If "Cosmos" does well, will it mean more prime time documentary series in the future? Will the networks be inspired to create more educational programming? I'd love to see the production values of "Cosmos" or "Planet Earth" applied to history and culture programs. Or more regular science and technology programming, focused on current developments in a variety of different fields. There's been a lot going on recently that could use more attention and support.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Do I Have to See "Nymphomaniac"?

There's usually a film or two every year that I feel obligated to watch because it's very high profile and making waves in the critical community, so I feel that in order to stay informed I ought to see it despite having no interest in doing so. Past titles have included things like "Dreamgirls," "The Road," and "Cyrus." 2013 was a great year and there was a flood of good features that I was happy to tackle with relish. I couldn't watch everything, of course, but the things that got left off my "To Watch" list were super obscure titles like Claire Denis' "Bastards" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which weren't really part of any major conversations about film that I was aware of.

In 2014, however, there's at least one film that I know I'm going to have to figure out how to address one way or another, and that's Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac." It's being released in two parts, totaling somewhere north of four hours of screen time uncut. There's going to be a lot of explicit sexuality that I'm not looking forward to, particularly as it's coming from Von Trier, who seems to delight in making sex as cringeworthy as possible. "Volume I" opens in selected cities in the U.S. today, so there have been plenty of reviews in circulation - some good some bad, and some indifferent. However, Lars Von Trier is a major cinema auteur, and I've seen a good chunk of his work, enough to know that I really should see "Nymphomaniac" and form my own opinion about it.

I've had mixed reactions to Von Trier films. I enjoyed and fully endorse "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves," and "Melancholia." "Dogville," and his earlier films like "Europa" were middling. I flat-out detested "Antichrist," "Manderlay," and "The Idiots." I have no idea which category "Nymphomaniac" is going to fall into, but the premise just sounds unbearably tedious, and this is from someone who just finished watching the six-hour Mosfilm version of "War and Peace." The length doesn't phase me. The content does to some extent, with the promise of lots of kinky business going on, though I've been assured that there's nothing as gruesome as the final scenes of "Antichrist." Von Trier himself claims that the film is not pornography, and that there is nothing particularly titillating about the copious amounts of sex that he depicts.

Maybe it would be easier if "Nymphomaniac" were just empty, gratuitous sex for four hours, or the trashy erotica that I'm expecting the "Fifty Shades of Gray" adaptation to be. Then I could dismiss it more easily. However, "Nymphomaniac" is supposed to be taken seriously as the newest work from a major filmmaker, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that. All the marketing and all the chatter around the film that I've seen so far point to the movie being another Von Trier exercise in shock and awe rather than a mature, grown-up examination of sexuality like, oh, "Last Tango in Paris" or "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Lust, Caution." Sex in Von Trier films tends to turn into a horror show - rape and sex as degradation are way more common than healthy sexual relations - and I don't have much confidence in him changing his approach here, where sex is going to be front and center the whole time. Even if it's not "Antichrist," I expect "Nymphomaniac" to be a difficult watch, to say the least.

I have to say that I am curious about the participation of so many familiar names like Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, and of course, The Beef. Von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier will be in the mix too. And of course there's Charlotte Gainsbourg as the female lead, Joe. This is her third collaboration with Von Trier, and she seems to be one of his few leading ladies who actually enjoys working with him. And I know that I'll probably get something out of seeing "Nymphomaniac," just as I usually get something out of seeing most of the other films I've had these kinds of doubts about.

Watching difficult and challenging movies is good for us. It gets us to examine and push past our prejudices, to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and the emotions that they stir up. Lars Von Trier films disturb and alienate me because they're provocative and dangerous. And that's why I love some of them too. That's why I keep watching them, and that's why I keep watching films from similar directors like Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine, and Nicholas Winding Refn. These are artists who don't play by the rules, and they're important to acknowledge and engage with.

So I will see "Nymphomaniac." All of it. Eventually. Doesn't mean I have to like it though.
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Thursday, March 20, 2014

The McConnelling

I didn't see last Thursday's edition of "The Daily Show" until last night, so I'm a little behind on the newest political meme that has apparently taken the internet by storm - well, at least in certain circles. House minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently released what's essentially two-and-a-half minutes of B-roll footage, just shots of him looking patriotic and competent without any dialogue or narration. The intention was for any pro-Republican PACs and super PACs out there he's not supposed to be coordinating with to to use the footage to generate supportive ads independently. More on that in a minute.

Anyway, "The Daily Show" found the footage and had so much fun setting the bland, boring visuals to a variety of pop songs, including Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” that they devoted a whole segment to it. Then Jon Stewart put up a "#McConnelling" hashtag and invited his audience to join in the fun. The internet hasn't disappointed - my favorites so far include ones set to The Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy," and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" theme song. McConnell does look strangely like cartoon turtle from the right angles. Another tactic has been to stick McConnell into the credits of old TV shows as a featured guest star. I expect we'll be getting a compilation of the best videos when "The Daily Show" comes back from break next week.

Media reactions have been fairly muted. The meme is silly and tame enough that it would come across as pretty ridiculous to try and take any offense. McConnell's people have embraced McConnelling, even adding links to some of the blander mashups on the Congressman's official website. I'm not sure that he understands that he's being mocked, though. Most of the successful McConnelling videos are playing on the total incongruity between McConnell's milquetoast appearance and songs full of sex and angst and ninja turtles. And I don't think that many of the participants really understand the full implications of what McConnelling has done.

The internet, at the instigation of "The Daily Show," has essentially appropriated the footage meant to be used for some fairly shady campaigning and made it impossible to take any of it seriously. I don't know that I'll be able to watch at any ad using this footage with a straight face. And there's a pretty good likelihood that future Mitch McConnell ads are just going to be mined for more material if this meme sticks around through the next election cycle. However, I don't feel too badly for the guy because he essentially brought this on himself by putting the original footage out there, and making it pretty obvious what it was intended to be used for. He can't really complain about McConnelling being appropriate because the ads they were intended for are hardly appropriate in the first place.

There have been lots of spoofs of political ads over the years, and election seasons practically demand them. One of my favorites to emerge from the internet was a fake John McCain ad from back in 2008, where a couple of clever filmmakers put together a campaign spot as if it had been directed by Wes Anderson, complete with a Bowie song and captions in Futura font. However, I think it's telling that McConnelling happened almost spontaneously, outside of the context of any serious campaigning going on. Most McConnelling videos are almost aggressively apolitical, and I expect that any attempt by either side to inject any politics won't be well received.

Consider the wider implications of this. The internet culture is now moving so fast now that we're essentially spoofing political ads that don't exist yet. This should be a good wake-up call for everyone that was scoffing about President Obama doing the "Between Two Ferns" appearance on Funny or Die last week. It doesn't matter if you don't engage with the Millennials because the Millennials are eventually going to engage with you, and good luck trying to keep control of the message when that happens.

I don't think that McConnell is going to be too successful if he tries to capitalize on his newfound fame with the meme-generating set. Fortunately, I don't think he has much interest in doing so. Responses in interviews regarding the McConnelling phenomenon have included the usual requests for help with fundraising, but mostly his people have been pretty quiet, which is probably for the best. Politicians who have tried to capitalize off of memes haven't had a very good success rate.

Remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" sketch from "Saturday Night Live"? Yeah, now do you remember the "Janet Reno Dance Party" fundraiser when she was trying to run for governor of Florida back in 2002? Not the best idea, as it turned out.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Candy Crushin'

That damn owl. No matter what I do, I can't get past "Dreamworld" Level 101 without odious Odus the Owl and his little moon scale tipping over and ending my games. Usually I'm pretty good about keeping the colors even, but this level requires using lots of combos to remove lots of pieces at once, so it's nearly impossible to keep them in balance. I have plenty of boosters in reserve, but they're not very helpful. What I really need is some kind of booster that knocks the bug-eyed little twerp out for a couple of moves so I can execute my combos without worrying if I'm going to knock out too many candy pieces of the wrong color. Sorry, I'm rambling.

Yes, readers, I've succumbed to Candy Crush Saga addiction. If you read my previous iPad post, you'll know that I started playing the beloved match-three mobile game just after Christmas and I've been at it ever since. Whatever bug was preventing me from using the Facebook version finally resolved itself so I've been using it to play the online version. I've currently worked my way through two hundred of the regular levels, and I'm waiting out the multi-day timer to move on to the next section of the game. You can either pay or bother your Facebook friends to move ahead without the waiting period, neither of which I've been inclined to do. I've also beaten one hundred of the recently released Dreamworld levels that essentially puts you through levels you've already played but adds restrictions governed by that damn owl. No timer on those yet. I'm just stuck playing Level 101 over and over.

So I've been on Facebook daily, crushing those candies, usually for about an hour in the evenings or longer on weekends. I've gotten good enough at it that I can play a level while simultaneously watching "The Daily Show" or "The Big Bang Theory." I've given up my previous casual gaming addiction, Pepper Panic, though I've tried the new Pepper Panic Saga on Facebook and liked it. However, I've beaten all the available levels and the game developers aren't releasing new ones fast enough to get me to really invest much attention. Candy Crush Saga, however, has been another matter. The most recent levels I've been playing don't depend on skill to beat them, but often dumb luck. The only way to solve some of the puzzles is if you get the right configuration of candies from the start, which can take dozens of attempts. I've been stuck on some levels for days, particularly in Dreamworld because the margin for error is so much smaller. However, the illusion that skill might affect the outcome of a game keeps me playing.

I've seen other players rant about elements of Candy Crush that don't bother me much. I honestly don't mind the timer restriction that only lets you attempt to pass a level five times before you have to wait a half hour for another turn - it's actually what has gotten me to put the laptop down and do something else in a few cases. The level advancement timer isn't much of a hassle either, though I wish the wait times weren't so inconsistent. I also like that the vast majority of the time there's no timer for the actual gameplay. I can abandon a game to go eat dinner or answer the phone and pick up right where I left off an hour later. The Flash player that runs the game occasionally crashes, eating one of my lives, but it doesn't happen very much.

I'm also not at the stage yet where I'm obsessing over tips and strategies, though I find the culture that has developed around the game is fascinating. I admit that I've browsed through Etsy more than once looking at all the Candy Crush inspired merchandise. It's a lot more fun than the paltry selection of official items I've been able to dig up. Frankly I'm stunned that we're not seeing striped candy pieces and color bombs emblazoned on everything the way we are with the Angry Birds. We're only just starting to see actual Candy Crush branded candy in circulation. I'd consider buying a stuffed Odus toy just to be able to pummel him when I get frustrated.

Oh well. In a couple of days Level 201 on the regular game should be available and I can spend some time playing levels that don't involve watching that little purple punk freak out after every other move. And eventually I'll luck out and have a good game where everything goes right and I can finally move on the Dreamworld Level 102. Maybe by that time they'll release another set of Pepper Panic Saga levels or some other mobile game will have attention. Even though I'm a Candy Crush devotee now, these infatuations have proven to be all too fleeting.
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More PIXAR Sequels on the Way

I was debating about what to write about to today, and considered a "Rank 'Em" post for the PIXAR movies. 2014 is going to be the first year in a while that won't have a PIXAR release, and honestly it's something of a relief after their last few films. Since "Toy Story 3" in 2010, the quality has noticeably slipped, most obviously with "Cars 2." I liked "Brave" and "Monsters University" more than most, but I understand why others have been underwhelmed. By embracing franchises, it feels like PIXAR has fallen a step or two behind and lost some creative momentum.

So Bob Iger's announcement today that two more PIXAR sequels are in development has raised some mixed emotions. These are "Cars 3" and "The Incredibles 2," which we know almost nothing about except that Brad Bird is apparently writing the new "Incredibles" movie, and the earliest we'll see either of them will probably be 2017. After "Cars 2" and the spinoff "Planes" series, there wasn't much enthusiasm for a "Cars 3," but the response to an "Incredibles" sequel have been fairly positive, since original creator and director Brad Bird is going to be involved. "The Incredibles," celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is one of the few PIXAR movies where there has actually been vocal demand for a franchise.

I'm not so convinced that it's a good idea. "The Incredibles" ranks very high on my list of favorite PIXAR films, and is the last one I was entirely happy with. Moreover, Brad Bird maintained for years that he would only return to the "Incredibles" universe if he came up with a good enough story to warrant a sequel. He very well may have been struck by inspiration, but I have to wonder about the timing. If you look at the list of PIXAR movies, the sequels are coming in roughly the same order as the first movies. 2001's "Monsters Inc." was followed by 2002's "Finding Nemo" and then 2004's "The Incredibles." Looking at the sequels on PIXAR's current slate, 2013's "Monster's University" will be followed by 2016's "Finding Dory" and then either "Cars 3" or "The Incredibles 2." Bird may not have been pushed to come up with new "Incredibles" story, but he was almost certainly nudged.

Also, it was particularly shrewd to announce the two sequels together, because it takes the attention off of "Cars 3." The "Cars" franchise is regarded as a necessary evil by PIXAR fans these days. Nobody really minded the first movie, though it wasn't recieved with much enthusiasm, but "Cars 2" received the worst reviews of PIXAR's entire history by a large margin, and less than impressive domestic returns. However, PIXAR and Disney have made a killing on "Cars" merchandise, and the sereis remains very popular worldwide. Globally, "Cars 2" outgrossed "Brave" and "WALL-E." "Planes," made on the cheap by former direct-to-video outfit DisneyToon Studios, also made a healthy profit on ticket sales alone, in spite of very mixed reactions. A "Planes" sequel is due out in theaters this summer, less than a year after the first. To put it bluntly, the decision to make a "Cars 3" is as financially driven as the decision to make those "Planes" movies, but if PIXAR uses those profits in part to make more original films, you won't hear many complaints.

The pressure has been turned up for PIXAR to release more films, increasing from one film a year to one-and-a-half. Consider that Dreamworks Animation has been releasing two a year since 2010, and is increasing to three starting this year. What effect this has had on the quality of their films is debatable. However, PIXAR is moving to close the gap a bit. The current plan, announced by Ed Catmull last year, is to release an original film every year and a sequel or prequel every other year. However, that's not going to be an easy schedule to keep to. The next two features coming up, "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur," are are both originals and both due in 2015. "The Good Dinosaur" was supposed to be the big 2014 summer film, but it was beset by delays over reported story problems, so it was pushed back a year, "Inside Out" was moved up, and "Finding Dory" got bumped to 2016.

Ultimately I'm happy an "Incredibles 2" is going to happen, but I'd be much happier if I didn't know about all the financial considerations behind the scenes that were driving it. I would have been much happier to hear about a "Ratatouille 2" or an "Up 2" honestly, because those were weirder, more idiosyncratic films that didn't do quite as well, and a sequel probably only would have happened because somebody at PIXAR really, really pushed for one to happen. No sequels at all is probably too much to ask for these days - but maybe not. Look at how the tables have turned when you compare PIXAR to their once greatest competitor. After the mess with all the DTV sequels, have you noticed that the newly resurrected Walt Disney Feature Animation hasn't made or announced a single sequel since the "Winnie the Pooh" movie?

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Kicking it To "Mars"

So the long-awaited "Veronica Mars" movie finally appeared in theaters and online this weekend, to the delight of "Mars" fans everywhere, and to the fascination of industry watchers curious to see what a Kickstarter-funded movie was capable of. "Veronica Mars" is not destined to be a blockbuster hit, being far too much of a love letter to its existing fanbase to be very accessible to new viewers unfamiliar with the former teen-detective television show.

After a quick exposition dump to fill in for any brave newbies what the premise of "Veronica Mars" is, we learn that Veronica (Kristen Bell) is living in New York, fresh out of law school, and on the verge of landing a lucrative job with a prominent law firm. She's in a steady relationship with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), and steadfastly refusing to acknowledge her upcoming ten-year high school reunion. Then she gets the fateful phone call from her high school bad boy ex, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has been accused of murdering his high profile pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to the sunny, corrupt town of Neptune, California to help save Logan's skin, reconnect with old friends, and get herself thoroughly tangled up in a big mystery once more.

As a fan of the show, the "Veronica Mars" movie gave me exactly what I wanted. There's lots of snarky banter, updates on the lives of all the familiar characters, Veronica getting her sleuth on again, and some pretty big questions about her future that get definitive answers. I didn't mind the fact that the whole thing felt more like one of those old reunion TV movies that they used to do for shows like "The Brady Bunch," or the pilot for a new "Veronica Mars" series than a proper stand-alone movie. And I didn't mind that it was clearly made on the cheap with very TV quality production values, with a soundtrack full of indie acts that seem to have been chosen by lottery. It felt like we were comfortably back in the universe created by Rob Thomas, even if Veronica could throw out a few unbleeped expletives now.

What did concern me was the parade of cameos. At times it felt like every minor recurring character whose actor was willing to return was shoehorned into the story somewhere. I understand why time was devoted to Veronica's besties Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), and sometimes ally Weevil (Francis Capra), but did we need to check in with the high school principal (Duane Daniels)? Or Veronica's long-ago crush, Deputy Leo (Max Greenfield)? And that's not even getting to the actual celebrities who make appearances, whose identities I won't spoil here. At certain points the movie feels like a game of spotting the famous and familiar faces, and it gets pretty distracting. Oh, and there are in-jokes galore for fans to catch and for newbies to feel self-conscious about not getting.

Fortunately there is a strong story to keep the whole thing together, and Veronica is still as fun and watchable a heroine as ever, who works fine on the big screen. The case has some good twists, landing Veronica in serious peril. The sheriff's department of Neptune has gotten even more corrupt since we saw it last, making it even harder for Veronica to conduct her investigation. The Veronica-Logan-Piz love triangle is inevitable, of course. The major conflict of the film, however, is actually the question of what Veronica wants to do with her future. If you were left unsatisfied, as I was, with how the ending of the television series played out, and where we left Veronica Mars as a character, the movie does a great job of giving us some resolution as she confronts some demons and gets her priorities in order.

Veronica remains one of the best female characters to come out of TV in the past generation, and I'd love to see "Veronica Mars" get a sequel, either on film or on television. Heck, I'd settle for that rumored spinoff series featuring Ryan Hansen as the doofusy surfer bro Dick Casablancas, who is deployed as much-needed comic relief throughout the film. Or one for the movie's MVP, Enrico Colantoni, as Veronica's father Keith Mars. If there's any character who I wanted to see more of in the "Veronica Mars" movie, it was him.

There's been a lot of drama around the film because of the Kickstarter campaign, but I can't imagine that many of the backers could be too upset with the film itself, which is absolutely made for them. And while I don't have a non-fan perspective, I think that the film is a good enough watch on it's own to potentially hook a few viewers who were unfamiliar with the "Veronica Mars" series. I don't know if Kickstarter is a good option for many cancelled shows, but I'm happy with the results here.
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Franchise Inertia

I recently watched "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2," which was pretty bad. Going into it I knew it was going to be pretty bad, but I watched it anyway. If thy make a third one, I'll probably watch that too. Animated films are a weakness of mine, and I've sat through all the "Shrek" and "Ice Age" movies, despite not really enjoying any of them aside from the first "Shrek." I expect I'll be sitting through "Muppets Most Wanted" at some point, even though from what I can tell it's got more or less the same plot as "The Great Muppet Caper," and the recent reboot was pretty mediocre. And I'll be seeing more "Fast and Furious" movies and more "Expendables" movies as they come down the pipe, though the most recent installments struck me as only meh.

As I look ahead to the movie slates for the rest of the year, I've found that there are very few movies that I'm actually anticipating, but a bunch that I'm probably going to end up watching just because I've seen previous installments that were okay, and I have some idea of what I'm getting myself into - "22 Jump Street," "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," "Night at the Museum 3," "Expendables 3," and maybe even the next "Transformers" movie since it'll sort of of be a reboot and promises to aim for a slightly older audience. Is this franchise loyalty? No, because I don't really have any expectations that these movies are going to be any good, or any fondness for the properties that would carry me through a few bad installments. I'm going to call it franchise inertia, which is about gravitating toward familiarity more than actual enjoyment.

Even though I like to think of myself as a discerning cineaste with higher standards than most, the truth is that I'm usually game for slick Hollywood product of just about every stripe. I'll watch anything that they can shoehorn Jason Statham or Arnold Schwarzenegger into, anything with a decently large budget and lots of CGI action scenes, and pretty much anything animated that doesn't look too unbearably pandering to small children. "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" and the recent "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies failed that test, but not that much else does. Franchise movies require almost no thought for me at all - as long as I got some amount of enjoyment out of a previous movie from the same series, I'm willing to give a new installment a chance, no matter how awful I suspect it's going to be. Hence why I paid to see "A Good Day to Die Hard" last year.

Most of the time I know exactly what I'm going to get with a sequel, so even though the reward isn't great, there's almost no risk associated with it. I can't say that about an original film, even when it has all the right names attached. "The Lone Ranger" wasn't any worse than the last "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, but I understand why audiences were more reluctant to see it, since there were a lot of uncertainties about what changes to the formula would have to be made to switch gears for a western. "Pacific Rim" was considerably better made and more kid-appropriate than any of the "Transformers" movies, but because it required buying into a whole new set of characters, terminology, and universe, it was a much harder sell. Branding carries an awful lot of weight, so even if you change almost everything from one installment of a franchise to the next, including actors, directors, and continuity, people will still come out for "The Amazing Spider-man."

Logically I know that I'm more likely to find a good film if I dig through older or foreign or independent movies, but that often requires a lot of time and effort I'm not willing to put in. Often it's just easier to grab the latest blockbuster available. And honestly, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to watch a really strong, challenging film. Most Hollywood movies let me be lazy, and don't require my full attention. Sequels don't even require me to learn the characters' names or the basic premise of the story because I already know what they are from the first movie. Watching franchise films often feels like watching new episodes of a television show in that respect. And as with television shows there are franchises that do wear out their welcome and that I've given up on - I dropped "Saw" after two movies and "The Pink Panther" after three. I still love "The X-files," but could never bring myself to watch that last movie.

It's usually harder to drop a movie franchise than a TV series, though, because movies are still positioned as events and have much bigger budgets. And there's always a chance that one of them will pull a "Madagascar 3" or an "X-men: First Class" and turn themselves around unexpectedly. It's rare, but it happens. And sometimes, it's worth sitting through all the mediocre parts to get there.
---Franchise Inertia

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Biggest Problem With Anime

We've been hearing a lot of complaints recently about how women and girls are still underrepresented on the big screen even though they've been making a killing at the box office. I've stumped some of the same talking points before, but I've been happy to stay out of the conversation this time. Things may not be improving quickly, but I'm satisfied that they are improving and more importantly the right people are aware of the issues.

And really, when you see the gender problems that are still running rampant in other, more niche segments of the entertainment universe, Hollywood movies don't look so backward after all. As a former anime fan, I've seen much, much worse when it comes to sexism and gender inequality onscreen. In fact, I have to admit that it's one of several reasons why I fell out of love with the genre a few years ago. Now talking about gender representations in anime is always going to be difficult because it's a reflection of a foreign culture, and we don't want to be insensitive to the Japanese. However, I don't think that makes the basic criticisms any less valid, when you get down to it.

First, let's acknowledge that there are anime creators who get it right, most notably Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, who is known for his strong heroines, to the point where they're regularly pointed out by parents as good examples of the kinds of female characters we want to see more of from Hollywood. I've also been very happy with franchises like "Ghost in the Shell," which despite incorporating some occasional female nudity, places a strong, capable, mature woman in the central role, Major Makoto Kusanagi. And then there are the Rumiko Takahashi series like "Ranma 1/2" and "Inuyasha." Or Haruka Takachiho's "Dirty Pair." If you know where to look, there are a lot of good, positive, female anime characters out there.

On the other hand, these days you really have to look for them. Anime has always been a very male-dominated sphere, full of fantasy action shows and supernatural romances aimed at teenaged boys. There are whole genres devoted to guys dealing with "magical girlfriends" or "harem" scenarios where they have to juggle potential relationships with multiple love interests. There are shows specifically aimed at women and girls, but audiences have been shrinking and these days shows for female demographics are vastly outnumbered by the ones aimed at men and boys. These days, a "shojo" or girls' show will also try to appeal to male fanboys, often including characters or particular scenarios that appeal to male sensibilities.

Much of the current anime landscape has been overtaken by romantic comedies and slice-of-life shows about relationships. These often star "moe" girls. "Moe" roughly translates to "cute," and refers to female characters who embody youth and purity. They're not typically sexualized, but are intended to provoke feelings of protectiveness and affection from the male audience, similar for what they might feel for a younger sister. Moe girls tend to be sweet, quiet, shy, and passive. There's been a bit of a backlash to this type recently, with the rising popularity of "tsundere," or uptight, aggressive girls, who start out as hostile but gradually become friendlier to a male main character over time. And despite the asexuality of both types, they're all inevitably fetishized to an alarming degree.

I don't think this would be so bad if there were more variety in the types of anime girls you see, but moe and tsundere girls have crowded out most of the others, and they make for poor main characters. Few are actually in roles that have any agency. I stuck mostly to action and adventure anime for years, and what always drove me crazy was the way that they kept sidelining female characters from the action. Girls are not allowed to get into serious fights, unless it is with a female villain, and these clashes are usually very minor, preliminary bouts paving the way for the hero's big battle later on. Even when they are the main character, guys usually do the fighting for them, or girls battle through proxies like dolls or pets. They tend to get a lot of lip service abut being brave and smart and strong, but little opportunity to prove it.

The prime example? Sakura from the immensely popular action show "Naruto." She's the main character's love interest, a ninja trainee who is supposed to be learning to fight on the same level as her two male teammates. The whole show is centered around battles and showdowns between various opponents. Sakura and most of the other female ninja almost never get physical. They only display a handful of flashy moves and special techniques among them. Sakura is apparently gifted in certain areas applicable to combat, but we never see her do anything impressive. The bulk of her training takes place offscreen during a time-skip. And like so many other female characters before her, eventually she opts to train as a healer and leave the bulk of the fighting to the boys. But if there's anything involving love and angst - suddenly she's got plenty of screen time.

Commonly you see female characters limited to being girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers, and spiritual guides. If they have power, it's only symbolic and depends on the backing of a more powerful male figure. Or else, their power is compromised by being neurotic, emotionally unstable, and immature. Grown women are constantly depicted as childish in order to make them more sympathetic. It wasn't just one or two shows, but a consistent trend across nearly every anime I saw in the last few years I was actively part of the fanbase. It was particularly noticeable in the children's programs. You don't realize how careful Western cartoons are about balancing depictions of girls and boys, including strong girl-power messages, and promoting female role models, until you see anime that ignore this completely.

I see the same problems in Hollywood movies, which are mostly aimed at young adult male audiences these days. Actresses are too often stuck in minor, inconsequential roles, limited to being pawns or existing solely to give the male main character a reason to act heroic. However, they do tend to be more well-rounded, more assertive, more aggressive, and more interesting. The biggest problem is really that we don't see enough of them. There are plenty of anime girls, but they tend to be terrible characters with very limited parts to play. The best anime girls I've seen lately have been the comedic ones, who get to break out of the boundaries a little bit.

So sure, gender representation in Hollywood could be better, but it could also be a lot, lot worse. I may find superhero films terribly low on heroines, but at least they're not skewed to the point where I've gotten disenchanted with the entire genre. And little by little they are getting better. Anime? The only positive thing I've heard lately on the gender front is that they're remaking one of their most successful girls' shows soon - "Sailor Moon."
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Friday, March 14, 2014

My Top Ten "Twilight Zone" Episodes

The original "Twilight Zone" that aired from 1959 to 1964 remains one of my fondest media touchstones. I watched the marathons every year at New Years, borrowed the companion book from the local library multiple times, and freaked out classmates by recapping my favorite episodes for them while waiting in the lunch line. So here's a very overdue Top Ten list of my favorite episodes. As always, entries are unranked and listed in order of airdate.

"Time Enough at Last" - Burgess Meredith starred in four different "Twilight Zone" episodes, but Henry Bemis, the little man with the big glasses who just wants some time to read, is by far the most memorable. Like so many of these episodes, the story is simple but the execution is magnificent, delivering one of the cruelest ironies in all of science-fiction. It also made it clear to the audience that the series had teeth from very early on.

"Mirror Image" - A young woman at a bus depot waiting for her ride out of town spots a perfect doppelganger of herself. It's a wonderful, paranoid scenario that hints at sinister forces in the universe just waiting to take advantage of us in a vulnerable moment. Where the more high concept stories have lessened in effectiveness for me over time, I've noticed it's the simpler, more universal episodes like this that tend to stick with me.

"The Eye of the Beholder" - Everyone knows the famous twist ending, and even if you don't I'm sure it's pretty easy for modern audiences to guess. However, that doesn't take away from how wonderfully the reveal is handled, and the horror of this all too familiar dystopian world where conformity is so highly prized. I love the long, tense buildup to the climax too, something that few shows are brave enough to do anymore.

"It's a Good Life" - What is the point of this episode? That small children are really monsters? That innocence can be as awful as knowing evil? There is no point, except for the series to present us with a particularly potent nightmare scenario that continues to make me squirm at the thought. The version of the story in the "Twilight Zone" movie is even more sadistic and terrifying, though it famously bungled the bleak original ending.

"The Midnight Sun" - Scientifically, it's easy to dismiss the story as complete bunk, but of all the apocalypse scenarios that "The Twilight Zone" featured, this remains my favorite. We often hear about the world theoretically burning up in a fireball, but to see the effects of of such a disaster unfolding in slow motion, and to see the psychological effects on the desperate populace up close really helps the idea to hit home.

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" - One of the simplest and most existential episodes with a charmingly sentimental ending. I don't think this one works for everybody because it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the reveal may be too twee or too incongruous with the rest of the story for some. However, I liked the mystery and appreciated the completely out-of-left field explanation for the characters' state of limbo.

"Nothing in the Dark" - An old woman afraid of Death secludes herself in her home, determined to keep him out. As good as the show was at scaring and disturbing its viewers, I always appreciated that occasionally it could deliver an installment as touching and humane as this one. "Nothing in the Dark" is also notable for featuring two acting greats of different eras: Golden Age actress Gladys Cooper and a very young Robert Redford.

"To Serve Man" - When you think about it, the whole premise is based on a very silly pun that has been thoroughly lampooned over the years by everyone from "Naked Gun" to "The Simpsons." Still, the episode is a lot of fun with the big goofy Kanamit aliens (hey, it's Richard Kiel!), the recycled props and effects footage from famous period sci-fi movies, and a story that delivers a big old wallop to humanity's collective ego.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" - That's a young William Shatner freaking out at the "thing on the wing," in one of the undisputed "Twilight Zone" classics. Anyone who has ever been nervous about flying understands his character's terror, which director Richard Donner ramps up to terrific heights. This was another story remade for the "Twilight Zone" movie by Geroge Miller with John Lithgow - and their take is actually better than the original.

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" - Often shown together with "Eye of the Beholder" to underline the criticism of our looks-obsessed culture, "Number 12" seems to get more relevant every year and you can see its influence all over the media landscape. The ending of this one always got to me, not because our heroine ends up physically conforming with everybody else, but because she ends up thinking like everybody else too, which is far scarier.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Getting Over "300"

Seven years ago, Zack Snyder's "300" came out in theaters, did summer blockbuster numbers at the box office, and reaped some big rewards for all involved. Gerald Butler was promoted to Hollywood leading man status. Zack Snyder was hailed as a visionary and handed gigantic budgets and famous franchises for follow-up projects. Adult-oriented comic-book properties were mined for more material. And, of course, the sword-and-sandals epic genre saw a spike in numbers. And now with the release of the "300: Rise of an Empire" the long-delayed sequel (prequel? midquel?) starring somebody else and directed by somebody else, we can look back at all that the first "300" has wrought and realize that Hollywood still has no idea why it was a hit.

Clearly, it wasn't Gerard Butler. He's been handed multiple chances to distinguish himself in multiple action films ("Machine Gun Preacher," "Olympus Has Fallen"), thrillers ("Law Abiding Citizen"), and romantic comedies ("The Ugly Truth," "The Bounty Hunter"), but his most successful role since playing King Leonidas has been as the viking dad in the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. Butler belongs to the class of the "stand-in" leading men like Sam Worthington who have made their name in big effects pictures, but have failed to parlay the success into better parts that really showcase their talents. Butler at least has more name recognition thanks to playing a more distinctive, iconic character, but it's all too easy to get him confused with other, similar actors.

Everybody knows who Zack Snyder is, but that may not be a good thing. After the success of "300" and his earlier "Dawn of the Dead" remake, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to direct whatever projects he wanted. This lead to the deeply flawed film version of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" graphic novel and then the greatly reviled "Sucker Punch." Both movies barely made their budgets back and landed Snyder on shaky ground. Last summer's "Man of Steel" didn't really help matters, making his flaws as a director painfully clear. Snyder has his fans and his apologists, especially among the fanboy set, but he's proven himself to be a very niche director with mainstream-unfriendly tastes, and his involvement threatens to put the entire DC film universe in a very bad position.

What about the swords-and-sandals subject matter? Did that account for the success of "300"? Well, between the original "300" and its sequel we've been subjected to "Clash Of The Titans," "Wrath Of The Titans," "The Legend Of Hercules," "Immortals," "Pompeii," and a new "Conan," none of which have been particularly well received. "Clash" made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the rest did not. Television fared better with the "Spartacus" series, but similar projects have been scarce. There's been no great demand for action films set in ancient times, and the upcoming 2014 slate reflects that. There's still Brett Ratner's "Hercules" with The Rock coming up, but attentions have shifted away from Rome and Greece to Biblical stories like "Noah" and "Exodus."

Did the adult comic-book origins of "300" have any effect? The film was based on a violent Frank Miller graphic novel after all. With the "Sin City" sequel delayed to later this year we haven't had another film based on Miller's source material, but there have been plenty of similar projects including "The Losers," the two "Kick-Ass" films, the "RED" movies, "2 Guns," and of course "Watchmen." Well, considering how these films performed in comparison to the PG-13 superhero movies aimed at younger audiences, it doesn't look like that was a winning tactic either. The most successful adult comic adaptation has been AMC's "The Walking Dead," which has fairly adult content, but has much less leeway than a feature film to really utilize it.

So what made "300" a hit? The Dissolve pegged it - neat graphics and special effects work, which made "300" look different from all the sword-sand-sandals movies that preceded it. There's not really much special about the movie otherwise. The performances are solid, but unspectacular. The story is sexed up, but follows the template of a sword-and-sandals adventure pretty closely. Zack Snyder's style is impressive, but the novelty of it wore off after subsequent films where it didn't prove a good fit for more nuanced material. The grim and gritty design is actually starting to look a little dated after so many other action films of recent years adopted the same approach.

Personally, I though "300" was a decent movie, but its outsized impact on the blockbuster landscape always puzzled me. I guess its success was such a surprise and it presented so many elements that looked easily reproducible that Hollywood was duped into thinking that they just had to reuse its basic elements in the right ways to achieve the same results. Of course Hollywood has been making this same mistake for as long as there has been a Hollywood. The only surefire way to capitalize on a movie's success, of course is, to franchise it. And sure enough "300: Rise of an Empire" is busy beating up the competition at the box office as we speak.
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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Obama 'Tween the "Ferns"

Funny or Die is not part of my usual media consumption rotation. Sure, I watch their videos occasionally when they go viral and I get linked to one. I've seen a couple of installments of "Between Two Ferns" too, the site's no-budget anti-talk show hosted by comedian Zach Galifianakis where interviewer and interviewee exchange insults with each other in stark contrast to the love-fests that most celebrity interviews have become. Actually, I've seen more memes spawned by the show than the actual show, particularly the one with Jennifer Lawrence mocking Galifianakis's weight.

And then yesterday, President Obama (identified as a "Community Organizer") showed up and took a seat between the ferns and everyone went nuts. He was plugging the Affordable Healthcare Act and Healthcare.gov, of course, and specifically targeting the young internet-loving demographic that comprises Funny Or Die's core audience. And the great thing was, he was in on the joke. He and Galifianakis lobbed some relative softballs at each other, but there were still a few zingers on sore subjects - birth certificates, basketball, and "Hangover 3" among them. The tone was right, the comedy wasn't compromised, and both the site and the president came away from the outing looking great.

Here I should add all the usual disclaimers that though I voted for Obama last time around, I do not agree with all of his positions and policies, the actions of his administration, and certainly not his approach to handling some very serious issues. As a campaigner, however, he's rarely made a wrong step. From a marketing standpoint the "Between Two Ferns" appearance was a shrewd move, right up there with Richard Nixon's cameo on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." There aren't many other politicians I can imagine going toe to toe with Galifianakis. When they do feature in comedy bits like this, it's usually something like Stephen Colbert unleashing absurdity on a member of Congress in a "Better Know a District" segment of "the Colbert Report," where the politician plays the straight man (or woman). Or Ali G. maneuvering poor Pat Buchanan into making an idiot of himself.

This also signals a big moment for new media. Sure, Twitter has become a default talking point, and a Reddit IAMA session has become a regular stop on press tours, but you rarely see the mainstream really participate in the internet culture of viral videos and mash-up parodies made way outside the bounds of the traditional production system except to point it out or comment on it. Funny or Die might be considered a borderline case, as it has many famous contributors and backers, employs a professional writing staff, and recently partnered with HBO briefly to produce a short-lived sketch. However, by and large it has remained largely a web-based phenomenon that follows the anarchic, DIY, bare-bones aesthetic of most user-generated web content. In fact, the last time I checked the site, a good chunk of the Funny or Die website's content was still user submitted.

I'm right at the upper age limit of the intended target audience here, so I can appreciate what Funny or Die is doing while recognizing how alien the approach is to outsiders. The rules and the expectations of web content are very different. The set of "Between Two Ferns" consists of the two ferns, a few chairs, and a table, and the graphics package that looks like a relic of the early '80s, purposefully evoking the feel of an old public access show. The celebrities who appear don't behave they would on a regular talk show, engaging in ironic self-mockery with the understanding that they're playing to a very different audience. We're starting to see the same kind of humor appear on late night talk shows and in commercials, but there's still a significant divide between web culture and the mainstream media. That divide got a whole lot smaller when Obama dropped in for an interview. The President of the United States is about as mainstream as it gets, and exudes legitimacy.

It's been fascinating to look at the reactions to the appearance. Right wing pundits have been predictably outraged, though past presidents have employed similar tactics in the past. Capitol Hill stalwarts have been confused and worried about whether the appearance was appropriate or the best use of Obama's time, considering everything else that's going on in the world right now. The general public doesn't seem to care all that much one way or the other, and many remain completely unaware that the POTUS deigned to grace a lowly comedy website with his presence. However, the results are clear. Healthcare.gov got a healthy boost in traffic thanks to the "Ferns" interview after millions of people watched it on Funny or Die, and some of the visitors signed up for plans.

I have to wonder if a traditional marketing campaign would have been remotely as successful.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"True Detective" Pairings I Want to See

I have yet to see a single episode of HBO's crime anthology series "True Detective," but that's not going to keep me from speculating and fantasizing about the acting team-ups I'd want to see for future seasons. With Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson setting the precedent, I think we're finally at the point where A-list movie stars are truly free to tackle a television project like this without worrying about the effect on their film careers. Heck, Halle Berry's starring in a limited series from CBS this year and Philip Seymour Hoffman had a pilot in the bag for Showtime before he left us. So the sky's the limit as far as casting goes. Below are a few possible pairings I'd love to see for a future season of "True Detective."

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro - If these two screen legends were willing to team-up for something as bottom-of-the-barrel as "Righteous Kill," surely they could do it for "True Detective." Pacino and HBO have been on good terms over the years and DeNiro hasn't exactly been choosy about his roles lately, having been drafted in "Grudge Match" with Sylvester Stallone, for instance. These two have certainly slowed down since their heyday in the '70s, but I still love seeing them onscreen and they've done great work together. Tommy Lee Jones and Dustin Hoffman would also make good alternates here.

Edward Norton and Ryan Reynolds - These two have been knocking around Hollywood for ages, almost making the A-list but not quite. Both have almost landed major stardom through superhero movies, but not quite. I've been itching to see Norton do something more substantive than his appearances in Wes Anderson films for a while now, and it's clear that under the movie star exterior Ryan Reynolds has some pretty serious acting chops. These two need a stepping stone to get their careers back into gear, and a high-profile run on "True Detective" just might be what they both need at this point. Mark Ruffalo for an alternate.

Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain - It's rough being a lead actress in the movies, especially when the parts just aren't there anymore. That's why so many of our most celebrated leading ladies have moved into television work. I doubt that the creators of "True Detective" would want to address the show's gender issues by going whole hog with a female-female lead pairing, but both of these ladies are currently in ascendency and need major parts to sink their teeth into. The show could easily give that to them. Other possibilities for female leads include Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Connelly, and Michelle Williams.

Will Smith and Forrest Whitaker - Similarly to the previous entry, it would be a little too obvious for the show to do a season with entirely minority leads, but I definitely hope they consider them. Whitaker has already tried a television series with the "Criminal Minds" spinoff, which gave him very little to work with. I think he needs to take another shot at it with better material. As for Will Smith, he's in desperate need of some career rehab right now, and I'd much rather see him try something ambitious like a dramatic TV role than go down the path of endless blockbuster sequels that he seem to be on right now. Mos Def or Idris Elba for alternates.

Zach Galifianakis and Sam Rockwell - These are two funny guys who have both done some great dramatic work that tends to get overlooked. Galifianakis turned in one of my favorite underseen performances this year as the main character's bitterly sarcastic dad in "Kings of Summer," and has the potential makings of serious screen heavy if he wants. Rockwell's been one of our most dependable character actors for a while now, and he's got a fantastic range from comic to bleak. I think that these two would do great shouldering lead roles in a crime drama and would go especially well together.

James Franco and Sean Penn - What these two have in common is that you can't predict what they're going to do. Franco's gone through some major ups and downs in the last few years, seeing his profile rise and fall and rebound wildly as he's taken on a bunch of different projects. Penn has seen a similar trajectory, though his recent work has been quieter and more low-profile. Why would they want to do an HBO series? Well, why wouldn't they? The only issue is that I think both would try to wrest some of the creative control away from showrunners Cary Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto. Ed Norton might too, now that I think about it.

Nicholas Cage and Michael Shannon - No particular reasoning here. I just always wanted to see these two get into a scenery-chewing showdown.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

My Favorite Fritz Lang Film

Fritz Lang remains one of the most successful and influential German directors of all time, who not only created some of the most indelible masterpieces of silent era German Expressionism in the 1920s, but successfully made the transition to sound films in the '30s, and went on to enjoy a long and prolific Hollywood career specializing in crime dramas and film noir all the way through the '50s. In fact his first sound film, "M" is considered the prototypical film noir, the story of a child murderer who terrorizes Berlin.

What sets "M" apart as a thriller is its psychological effectiveness. There is very little onscreen violence, in spite of the subject matter. However, Lang's ability to conjure suspense and horror is fantastic. It takes only brief shots of a lost ball and an escaped balloon to tell the audience that the worst has happened to little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), but it's the juxtaposition of the frantic reactions of her poor mother (Ellen Widmann) that really drive home the impact of the loss. So disturbing are the crimes to the Berliners, we learn, that public outrage spurs the efforts of the local police to new extremes to find the culprit. Their efforts become unbearably disruptive to the criminal underclass, and they too join in the hunt for the murderer.

The monster of the piece is Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre in one of his first major roles. Lorre both began and ended his career as a chiefly comic actor, and often played colorful supporting characters, but in "M" he's the central figure of both sinister menace and pitiful insanity. Beckert is revealed to the audience as the murderer very early, and we follow his progress in parallel to the manhunt. What makes him so frightening is the fact that he appears so ordinary, and is able to hide in plain sight. There is nothing about his outward manner that instantly pegs him as a villain. However, he reveals himself unconsciously through one of the first cinematic musical leitmotifs - he whistles Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" as he stalks the children, a habit that a blind man eventually uses to identify and point him out. His looming shadow gives form to the creeping danger he poses to his victims. Then the tables turn and it is Beckert who becomes the target of an entire city that is out to get him. When Beckert is finally caught, his mental unraveling, revealing the depths of his madness, is one of Lorre's finest screen moments.

I love the subversive edge to "M," the way the police investigation lead by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is mirrored by the efforts of the criminals conducting their own manhunt under the direction of The Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens). In Lang's Berlin, even the beggars and the pickpockets depend upon a certain framework of social order that its members won't hesitate to protect from an outside threat. The police employ the newest crimefighting techniques like fingerprinting, but it's the criminals who find Beckert first through their citywide network of petty crooks and derelicts. They subject him to their own brand of justice, a raucous kangaroo court that threatens to become a lynch mob, until the police finally intervene. Though anarchic, the criminals' judgment feels more satisfying than the one ultimately passed down by the official courts.

"M" bears all the hallmarks of German Expressionism, full of eerie shadows and reflections that hint at the unseen depths of its characters and foreshadow their ultimate fates. The visuals are ambitious, featuring a camera that is constantly moving, and technically complicated shots. In the restored print that I saw, when one lengthy shot moves from the exterior to the interior of a building through a window, you can actually see the pane of glass being slid out of the way to allow the camera to pass through. High angle, POV, and even aerial shots are employed, heightening the mood of dread and suspense as paranoia takes hold in the city.

Lang uses similar techniques with the soundtrack. Sound film was still in its very early, rudimentary stages, so there are long periods of silence, and the execution of the sound effects is very rough. However, "M" was one of the first films to have a complex soundscape, using a mix of ordinary incidental noises - footsteps, ticking clocks - to create anticipation. Dialogue rises in volume to delirious heights in the climactic scenes to match the dramatic visuals.

"M" remains one of the most influential movies ever made, a key precursor to so many films and films genres that its presence still looms large in cinema today. However, it's my favorite Fritz Lang film for the way that it got me to sympathize with Peter Lorre's hapless killer even as I rooted for his capture, for its vision of a city that rises up to combat an evil that the people will not tolerate, and for the way a chill still runs up my spine when I hear "Hall of the Mountain King."

After 80 years, "M" is still a thrill to watch.
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What I've Seen - Fritz Lang

Destiny (1921)
Dr. Mabuse, King of Crime (1922)
Die Nibelungen (1924)
Metropolis (1927)
Spies (1928)
M (1931)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Fury (1936)
You Only Live Once (1937)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
Scarlet Street (1945)
The Big Heat (1953)
Moonfleet (1955)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
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Friday, March 7, 2014

"Catching Fire" Stays Alight

The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutsherson) had been crowned the co-victors of the Hunger Games, the yearly gladiatorial deathmatches used by the leaders of their dystopia to oppress the downtrodden populace. Katniss learns the corrupt Capitol is far from done with her, especially since her victory has been seen as a gesture of defiance, spurring signs of an uprising. She and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, and ordered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continue the ruse that they're young lovers, though Katniss is actually smitten with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, Snow and a new Gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare for the next Hunger Games, which they plan to use to eliminate Katniss permanently.

Last time, it was everything going on outside the actual Hunger Games, the reality show spectacle, the distorted celebrity culture, and the not-so-subtle mass media critique, that delivered the most entertainment, while the Games themselves were fairly mediocre. This time the film is more competent as an action movie, but the good stuff is still mostly the maneuverings that are going on outside and around the Games. We get much more focus on the political climate and the social unrest this time, as Katniss struggles with a life in the spotlight she can't escape. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a strong performance, as Katniss's survival-oriented worldview begins to shift towards rebelliousness. She really sells the paranoia and the moments of blind panic early on, which make Katniss's later bravery all the more affecting. Her would-be screen beaus can't keep up with her, though Hutcherson improves quite a bit.

The budget was noticeably increased for this film, thanks to the series' newly minted blockbuster status. The talent level of the incoming actors reflects this too. In addition to Hoffman, new characters include other former victors Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who may be new potential allies or enemies for Katniss. Donald Sutherland gets much more screen time and much more to do, cementing him as the real Big Bad of "The Hunger Games." He's a lot of fun bringing on the malevolence here, as are returning cast members Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson in supporting parts. More importantly we've got an action movie director onboard for this round, Francis Lawrence, best known for "I am Legend." No more shakey-cam, and though the action remains firmly in PG-13 territory, not so much squeamishness about the violence either.

All in all this is a much more comfortable, self-assured outing. In many ways the plot retreads significant portions of the first movie, but now the commentary is more pointed, the action more impactful, and the narrative much more focused. Stakes are raised across the board. The sinister tyrant who watched the first Games from afar is now right across the table from Katniss, and threatening her directly to her face. Where media manipulation was a clever strategy in the first movie, now it's a matter of life and death with both sides constantly debating ways to use Katniss's image to their own advantage. Concepts are better fleshed out, characters have more depth and definition, and it's much easier to get swept up into this universe.

I do miss some of the roughness of the first "Hunger Games," with its bluegrass infused score and gloomier, more atmospheric depictions of Katniss's impoverished home town. "Catching Fire" is much more polished, and its wilder conceits are easier to swallow because of better execution, but as a result it comes across as a little more generic. However, "Catching Fire" is much more accessible and delivers on all fronts a lot more consistently. It also does a great deal of heavy lifting to widen the scope of "The Hunger Games" to accommodate a four-film franchise. I'm much more interested in the seeing the rest of the films now than I was after the first one.

In fact, when you put it up against all the other big budget action franchises out there right now, "The Hunger Games" is one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. It does have some real substance to it, features a compelling narrative with strong ideas, and is terribly entertaining too. Let's hope they keep it up.
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Almost Human," Year One

Minor spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far

After thirteen episodes, I feel like I'm still waiting for "Almost Human" to drop the other shoe. Despite setting up a lot of mythology and all these different little mysteries that point to longer arcs and more substantive stories, there hasn't been a whole lot of progression for any of the show's major ongoing conflicts since the pilot. Remember the traumatic shoot-out with the Syndicate and John Kennex's missing ex-girlfriend? They're referenced a few times, to assure us that the storyline is still alive and well, but the developments are only incremental. What about the mysterious memories that Rudy found in Dorian? No answers, but plenty of fretting over them. Any more information on Dorian's past or the circumstances of his decommissioning? Not really.

Instead, "Almost Human" quickly slipped into being yet another crime-of-the-week police procedural, except set in a future version of Pittsburgh. The special effects are still a notch above the norm, and it's fun to see the show play with concepts like a genetically-engineered class of humans called Chromes, souped-up security systems run amok, and upgraded plastic surgery. Sadly, the writing isn't anything special, and there's nothing that matches up to the promising first two episodes. Instead, it pings as awfully similar to the all the middling science-fiction shows that I was watching on FOX back in the '90s like "Sliders" and all the "The X-Files" clones. I was especially puzzled at how the show so rarely delves into the question posed by the show's title - what are the larger consequences of creating androids like Dorian, who are almost human, but not quite? The show touches on Dorian's day-to-day struggles with living as a synthetic being in a human world, but never very deeply. I don't think Kennex's status as a cyborg officer has been brought up since the third or fourth episode.

I still like the pairing of Michael Ealy and Karl Urban very much, and it's enough to keep most of the filler stories on track, but the show clearly isn't using these two to their full potential. The rest of the cast is in even worse shape. Mackenzie Crook's Rudy has gotten a lot of screen time and makes for decent comic relief, but Lili Taylor is stuck spouting tired exposition as their supervisor, Michael Irby's Detective Paul remains infuriatingly two-dimensional, and though Minka Kelly got one good episode as Detective Stahl, I still can't take her seriously as a police officer, especially as the show insists on dressing and coiffing her like a network morning show hostess and she's frequently more plasticine than the show's android characters. Compare how another network genre show, "Person of Interest" has steadily developed its cast of minor characters, and the problem becomes obvious.

What I liked so much about the early episodes of "Almost Human" was the worldbuilding, that nice mix of retro-futuristic elements with more contemporary technological advancements. However, this has gotten increasingly generic over time. Hackers apparently still take their fashion cues from the outdated 90s alternative scene last seen in "Hackers" the movie. The plots to "Repo Men" and "Untraceable" have already been rehashed, along with the usual runamok androids, misappropriated high-tech weaponry, and medical advances gone wrong that inevitably show up on every similar science-fiction show. The problem is that "Almost Human" hasn't provided much to distinguish itself. It still feels like the show is referencing other science-fiction media instead of making a cohesive whole out of all the different bits of technology it's introduced.

Detective Kennex and Dorian could be really compelling characters if they were handled right, and the show is in a position where it could tackle much headier and more interesting material, but the desire to do so clearly isn't there. I keep finding myself comparing "Almost Human" to the first season of the "Ghost in the Shell" series, which was also a procedural about law enforcement operating in a technologically advanced near-future filled with cyborgs and androids. The difference is that despite being animated, "Ghost in the Shell" wasn't afraid of complex ideas and difficult characters. It had no interest in trotting out the old tropes and pandering to their audience, even if it meant alienating the more mainstream viewers. "Almost Human" is often painfully safe and formulaic.

Oh well. Maybe I expected too much. "Almost Human" is still a perfectly watchable genre show and continues to display a lot of potential to be better than it is. However, I'm not going to be too disappointed if this turns out to be its only season. It produced a few good episodes and created some interesting characters. It's just too bad that it never took advantage of everything it had going for it, and produced anything really great.
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