Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Episode VII" Has a Cast

I feel a little guilty writing this post, because casting news is really pretty speculative stuff, and there's really not as much controversy to talk about the way there was with the "Fantastic Four" cast a couple of months ago, which touched off a good debate about racebending and diversity. But good grief, the newly announced cast of the next "Star Wars" movie seems to be all anybody is talking about. The list of names was released yesterday, along with a picture of everyone gathered together for a script reading. The internet happily went bonkers over the news, so what the hell. I'm as much of a "Star Wars" nerd as anybody. I should get to enjoy this moment too.

And my reaction to the announcement is overwhelmingly positive. I love that the new cast is comprised of mostly unknowns, or at least actors who have been under the radar to the general public. I'm familiar enough with most of them - John Boyega from "Attack the Block," Adam Driver from "Girls," Domhnall Gleeson from "About Time" and many other things, Oscar Isaac from "Inside Llewyn Davis" and many, many other things, and Daisy Ridley as the new female lead who hasn't been in a single feature yet. There's also Andy Serkis and Max von Sydow, beloved cinema veterans bringing years of experience to the table. And returning cast members include Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and even grumpy ol' Harrison Ford has been coaxed back into the mix.

I'd caution eager "Star Wars" fans that the cast is far from everything. For the prequels George Lucas had a slew of talented actors, including Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan MacGregor, and we all remember how those movies turned out. I remain far more heartened at the involvement of Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote for the original trilogy. I remain non-committal about J.J. Abrams as the director. I liked his first "Star Trek" movie fine, but the second one seriously has me questioning his abilities. The fact that Hamill and the other leads from the first trilogy are coming back as major characters, and not just cameos, points to a potential repeat of some of the same problems that franchise reboot suffered under Abrams' watch. However, considering how Disney has been handling the Marvel films, and Abrams' notoriously jam-packed schedule, I doubt he'll be directing more than one or two installments.

But back to the cast. Right now, the biggest talking point that much of the internet has latched on to is that there's only one actress among the new cast members. Add Carrie Fisher, and that's a grand total of two. "Star Wars" always suffered a serious gender imbalance, with Natalie Portman's character the only major female figure in the sequels, but for whatever reason the skewed ratio pinged as more heinous this time around. There have been a lot of opinion pieces about female fans getting shafted. However, J.J. Abrams and others have pointed out that casting isn't done yet, and there is another major female role that still needs to be filled (rumors about Lupita Nyong'o were circulating recently), so any debate of the topic is operating without a complete picture. We can't connect the actors to specific roles either. Adam Driver is probably playing a villain, but we can only speculate about how large or small the other roles are.

Personally, I'm willing to wait and see. Even if we aren't getting more female characters, how they're used will trump how many there are. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the cast reflects some very positive strides in other areas. On the subject of racial diversity, I'm thrilled at the inclusion of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Boyega in particular is one of those young actors who has been on the verge of stardom for a while, and I'm so happy he's getting his shot. Even if he turns out to only be playing a supporting character, another Lando or Mace Windu, this is going to raise his profile into the stratosphere. We're going to have to see how Daisy Ridley fares, but this is a very strong group of talent, and I don't see any of the youngsters becoming the next Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, or Ahmed Best.

It's finally sunk in that the new "Star Wars" movies are really happening, and I find myself excited about the franchise for the first time in a very long time. I was so disappointed by the prequels, I forgot how much fun "Star Wars" hype can be. While I'm fully aware that this could all turn out badly, today I'm just going to put the cynicism aside and enjoy the possibilities. I can't wait for 2015 and "Episode VII."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Attack on Titan" is a Scream

It's been a long time since I ventured into the anime sphere. After going cold turkey since 2008, I thought it was time I took a look at some of the shows that have been getting attention recently. One of the most buzzed about, which will premiere on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim over the weekend, is last year's action series "Attack on Titan." It's been available on Netflix and Hulu and all the usual anime outlets for a while now. I've worked through ten episodes so far, enough to get a fairly good bead on the show. I intend to finish it, but frankly, my impressions are mixed.

"Attack on Titan" is not about the largest moon of Saturn, and not a science-fiction series at all. Instead, it's a post-apocalyptic steampunk show, that takes place in a future with a very medieval European aesthetic. The Titans are giant naked humanoids that have exterminated much of humanity. Their origins are a mystery, but their sole purpose seems to be to hunt down and eat human beings. The survivors now live in a vast walled settlement under a feudal system of governance with very limited technology. One day, after a hundred years of relative peace, the Titans attack the outer wall and destroy a major city, Shiganshina. Three children among the survivors vow to grow up and join the fight against the Titans.

I found the first two episodes depicting the return of the Titans underwhelming. The production values were gorgeous, the design work was fine, and I liked the basic premise of humanity being under the heel of these creepy, brutal fairy-tale giants. But at heart this is a very typical fantasy anime, with all the usual tropes you'd expect - and some particularly grating ones. The chief one was the main character, a hotheaded brat named Eren Yeager whose personality is driven almost entirely by self-righteousness, and is prone to bouts of angry ranting. I've noticed this type of protagonist has become pretty popular lately. Lelouche from "Code Geass" and Light Yagami from "Death Note" are other examples of similarly frustrated young egomaniacs. I find them terribly off-putting.

However, they're common in shows like this that want to establish that they take place in particularly brutal universes. The Titan attacks involve lots of explicit violence and gore. The Titans have no private parts, but they still make for wonderfully disturbing visuals, especially when they're eating hapless humans by the handfuls. Of course, the humans aren't particularly nice either, and the series shows that they're at their worst in a crisis. While the nihilism is refreshing to a point, I wish it were accompanied by so much oveheated melodrama. When people get upset in certain action anime, they have a tendency to start screaming all their dialogue, and "Attack on Titan" is especially prone to this. The first two episodes eventually devolve into so much screaming and crying and carrying on, I hit the mute button a few times to spare my ears.

Fortunately subsequent episodes tone down the most egregious problems. Eren is aged up quickly to become a cadet in training, and his brattiness is turned way, way down. The show transitions to a character-driven military story, following Eren and his friends Mikasa and Armin as they become cadets and then join up with the army. Their primary means of combat is the Gear system, which combines steam-powered grappling hooks, parkour, and big honking swords to let the soldiers become these crazy samurai Spider-men. The action scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and eventually the series builds them up to some great crescendos. There are still intermittent screaming matches, but far fewer of them.

But as entertaining as "Attack on Titan" is, it's not really doing anything new or better than similar series have done before. Its worldbuilding is good so far, but it's starting to lean pretty heavily on the old tournament fighting show formula. The characters, the scenarios, the discovery of game-changing new powers - it's all awfully familiar. There's the female second-in-command with the glasses and the uptight demeanor. There's the sweet ditz with the food fixation. There's the absent father with too many secrets. There's the convenient amnesia. The nice production values, climbing death count, and high intensity count for a lot, but whenever things slow down, the weaknesses of the show's construction are plain to see.

I'm not surprised that anime fans who enjoy shows like this are eating up "Attack on Titan." It's a shiny new variation on a lot of old favorites. However, it doesn't strike me as a classic or a game-changer, not the way that "Evangelion" or the first "Full Metal Alchemist" series were - unless the bar for quality has seriously come down since I took my long break from anime.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Hello "Archer Vice"

Catching up on some TV here, I recently polished off the most recent season of "Archer," the one where the secret spy agency of ISIS is shuttered and its staff left in limbo with a terrifying amount of cocaine on their hands. So, logically, they decide to form a drug cartel. And the creators renamed the show "Archer Vice," created some nifty new key art, and modified the opening sequence just a bit. According to interviews with "Archer" creator Adam Reed, the only reason the reason they did this is because they were bored. Moderate spoilers for the season ahead, but none of the big reveals from the last few episodes.

So what happens when you take Archer and Lana and the rest of the gang out of their usual roles as ISIS agents and enablers, and introduce them to a life of crime? Well, you get a show that's much more plotty and structured, but that retains its usual level of violent, high octane hijinks and casual obscenity. "Archer Vice" is a more serialized show, with several big storylines driving each episode, and nearly every character dealing with ongoing subplots throughout the season. Most of the year sees them living out of one of the Tunt mansions, coming up with various schemes to sell the cocaine and get rich, ultimately wrapping up with a four-part finale in San Marcos that ties back into the espionage world. Otherwise, they're being the same collection of loons that they always were - just broke, short on resources, and under a lot of new pressures. It's an awful lot of fun.

Without the constraints of the office hierarchy, characters get shifted into new roles and we get to see different sides of them that we haven't before. And surprisingly, it becomes clear as the time goes on that the gang actually does have some attachment to each other beyond the fact that Malory is paying them, or at least promising to pay them eventually. This is not to suggest that the show is getting all mushy on us, but more than any other season we find the ISIS crew banding together in tough times, and that their shared personal history does have an impact on their interactions. Archer has also become less of an irresponsible ass - though he's as thick-headed about some things as ever. It takes a while to notice, though, because "Archer Vice" sees the entire premise of the show rebooted, Carol/Cheryl starts a country music career and renames herself Cherlene, Pam becomes a coke addict, Lana's pregnant, Malory's separated from Ron, and Cyril eventually goes mad with power in circumstances that are far too funny to spoil. Heck, even Krieger gets some pretty compelling new issues to deal with.

I found I didn't miss the spy missions at all, as Archer's cocaine dealing adventures are mostly in the same vein as his work for ISIS, and the new dynamics allow the supporting characters much more of an opportunity to participate in the action. Also, keeping them in close quarters always leads to a lot of good friction. Initially I had my doubts about where the show was going, especially the Cherlene business, which seemed so out of left field that I didn't know how they could integrate it with everything else going on. But integrate it they did, leading to some of the season's funniest scenes with special guest stars Kenny Loggins and Fred Armisen. Now I hope Cherlene sticks around next season in some capacity, because her new schtick is at least as much fun as her old schtick, and there's a lot of mileage left in the concept. In general, it was nice to get a break from the regular "Archer" formula, and I'm a little sorry that the show is going to un-reboot itself for season six and send everybody back to the office.

Of course, there are things that happened this year that can't be un-rebooted, involving Lana and Archer and their relationship. Adam Reed and crew have really set up some promising possibilities for next year. Will Sterling Archer's gradual maturation continue, or will he backslide into his old ways once ISIS is up and running again? What kind of mother will Lana be, and what part is the father going to play in her life? I never thought of "Archer" as having much depth to it, but the hints of growth and change that have popped up in the last few seasons coalesced nicely this year, and I expect we may be moving into ever-so-slightly more serious territory next year.

Well, as serious as you can get on an animated action sitcom where they just devoted a whole season to running a drug cartel, staging coups against foreign governments, and a former HR lady finding ever-more-creative ways to ingest cocaine. Seriously, those cocaine cupcakes looked yummy.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Feeling Out "Mood Indigo"

Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Survival "Snowpiercer" Style

I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.

I expect that Bong Joon-ho's science-fiction action film "Snowpiercer," is going to be pretty divisive. For one thing, it's one of those social allegory films like "In Time" or "Equilibrium" that has a really half-baked premise that is completely implausible when you think about it. And then there's the dark tone, the two-dimensional characters, and the fairly heavy-handed messages about class and persecution. There are plenty of action sequences to keep the momentum going, but they're not the point of the movie, and the director refuses to follow the usual formulas for the action spectaculars his audience may be expecting.

"Snowpiercer" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has wiped out most of life on earth. What remains of humanity live on a train, the Snowpiercer, which perpetually circles the globe. The elites live at the front of the train and the poorest passengers are kept in the tail compartment, downtrodden and oppressed by the agents of the train's mysterious creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). After some of the tail compartment children are taken away by the cruel Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a rebellion is organized by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans). He and a group of the passengers intend to fight their way to the front of the train, seize the engine, and overturn the system. The first step is breaking an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), out of prison.

The first thing you'll notice about the film is that in spite of the Korean director and crew, nearly the entire cast is made up of recognizable Western actors, In addition to Evans, Swinton, and Harris, there's also John Hurt as Curtis's mentor figure Gilliam, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer as other members of the rebellion, and Alison Pill as a teacher they encounter further up in the train. Most of the dialogue is in English, though Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) converse almost entirely in Korean. "Snowpiercer" was clearly intended for Western audiences, and borrows lots of tropes from Hollywood action films. You have the small band of scrappy freedom-fighters rising up against a corrupt system, the loathsome totalitarian thugs, the madman visionary, and snazzy gun battles galore.

That's why the departures from the Hollywood template have more impact here. Ideas and story are given particular emphasis, while the action is a secondary concern. Violence has consequences, usually very bad, and the world of "Snowpiercer" is much harsher and more cynical than the bulk of similar American dystopia films. Bong Joon-ho doesn't flesh out its characters as well as he should, with a few exceptions, but he does a great job with the worldbuilding. If you're willing to suspend some disbelief, exploring the little microcosm of human society aboard the Snowpiercer is a lot of fun. Each lovingly designed train compartment reveals new details of the hierarchy, and helps piece together its history. The visuals are a real treat, incorporating CGI as well as any summer blcokbuster I've seen in recent years.

I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the lead role, playing the gloomy, bearded freedom fighter Curtis who pings about ten years older than Captain America, pre-defrost. However, he grew on me, and delivers a utterly ridiculous monologue in the last act with such sincerity, that he ultimately won me over. He's playing a fairly cliche character in a film full of over-the-top caricatures and larger than life personalities, but grounds him enough to pass muster. Other performances are hit or miss, but I loved the bureaucratic awfulness of Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason, and Ed Harris's benevolent madman. The Korean characters had potential, but they weren't given much to do, and often felt like an afterthought.

For me, the worldbuilding and the simple narrative were enough to keep me entertained and engaged, but I can easily see others being infuriated by the illogical nature of how of the "Snowpiercer" universe is constructed, the lack of depth to the characters, and some of the underlying philosophical ideas. This is sure to be a nitpicker's nightmare, starting with the idea of the train being powered by a perpetual-motion engine that can somehow sustain an entire self-enclosed ecosystem. I appreciate the film being so willing to grapple with big themes and being so ambitious in its scope, but the execution is far from perfect, and I sympathize with those who expected more from the film.

Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A WHAT Movie?

I have always been of the opinion that a good movie can be based on any source material. The first "Pirates of the Caribbean" was a lot of fun, and its theme park ride origins were barely apparent in the movie. "Clue" is one of my favorite 80s comedies, despite being based off of a board game. I haven't seen "The Lego Movie" yet, but the raves and the box office success its enjoyed suggest that being a giant extended toy commercial didn't mean the movie couldn't also be fun and entertaining and artistically ambitious too. Time and time again I've come across movies with completely absurd premises that have somehow managed to make the best of them and be great.

Then again... an awful lot of movies with unlikely origins have come out about as badly as you'd expect them to. And there are dozens of announced projects based on more rides and games and toys have never made it off the drawing board. For every "Lego Movie," there's a "Stretch Armstrong" languishing in development hell. Back in 2008, Hasbro and Universal Pictures signed a deal to create a series of board game movies, only one of which was ever made - the disastrous "Battleship." And then there are the Disney rides. Lot of projects have been announced, from "Magic Kingdom" to "Adventureland," but nothing has move forward except a TV project based on "Thunder Mountain Railroad," which didn't get past the pilot stage. In the past couple of days there have been a flurry of announcements for a new crop of these tie-in films. Let's take a closer look at their prospects.

The Barbie Movie - There's been a long-running series of CGI animated direct-to-video Barbie movies for little girls, but this one is going to be a live action theatrical feature. After the success of "The Lego Movie," there's been renewed interest in building franchises around toys. Sony Pictures announced this one yesterday, and their plan for it actually sounds pretty promising. The Barbie character will be a do-gooder polyglot whose overstuffed resume (is there a profession she hasn't tried?) gives her the skills to become "a modern-day Mary Poppins." The script is currently in the hands of Jenny Bicks, the showrunner of "The Big C." Lots of variables are still unknown, but I can see how this could be an interesting project. Barbies were never my favorites, but I did play with them and retain some fondness for them, as I'm sure many women and girls do.

The Peeps Movie - I actually know the world of the marshmallow Peeps better than most because I have a friend who collects them. Seriously, he's got an ever- growing Peeps collection that features all sorts of seasonal variants, stuffed toys, related merchandise, and fan-created work that ranges from the impressive to the somewhat disturbing. But even with a healthy appreciation of the creativity swirling around the beloved Easter candies, I'm having trouble wrapping my head around a Peeps movie. At this point the project is one writer, Adam Rifkin, who optioned the rights and is working on a script for an animated project, involving a Peeps diorama contest. He's certainly got his work cut out for him. Peeps are iconic, but there are no real characters, no semblance of a story, and the point of Peeps boils down to eating too many of them and trying not to feel too guilty about it. I thought "Angry Birds" was iffy enough, but this one really takes the cake.

The "It's a Small World Movie" - Anyone else's eye starting to twitch at the mere thought of That Damn Song wafting out of multiplexes to invade our helpless ears? This is the latest of the aforementioned Disney theme park ride projects, which have mostly been duds after "Pirates of the Caribbean." Jon Turteltaub of the "National Treasure" movies has been attached to direct. No story details have been announced, but I'm guessing there's probably going to be some kind of globe-trotting element, a la "Around the World in 80 Days." I hope that they don't entirely drop the underlying philosophy of the ride, which was to promote peace, love, understanding, and all those other 60s hippie ideals, but that is probably asking too much. I expect this is probably going to be in development for a long time, and doesn't have nearly as good a chance at getting a greenlight as some of the other ride movies currently in the pipeline.

The Mrs. Doubtfire Sequel Movie - Finally, because this came totally out of the blue and there's been such a negative reaction to it, let's talk about the "Mrs. Doubtfire" sequel. I liked the original. It's one of those gentler family comedies that I wish they made more of these days. Fox is behind this one, and is all set to reunite director Chris Columbus and star Robin Williams. Note that neither are at a particularly good point in their careers right now, much like former 90s stars Arnold and Eddie Murphy, who are subjecting themselves to similar head-scratcher sequel projects. My worry is that in trying to modernize the concept, we're in for a more typical, cruder, lazy cross-dressing comedy in the vein of a bad Adam Sandler movie. And we have enough of those.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Amazon Prime is Gaining Ground

It's been a while since I've checked in with the state of internet streaming services. Last time around I was bemoaning the state of Hulu, which has become so user unfriendly and clogged with commercials that I took it out of my streaming rotation. Netflix suffered some setbacks after splitting their service, but they got a boost by successfully launching original content, notably "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." Amazon, Hulu, and a few others have tried to follow suit, but their series haven't attracted nearly as much attention. Netflix looks to be back on top of the streaming game and entrenching itself ever more firmly into the media landscape while the traditional networks continue to decline.

I'd mostly ignored what Amazon Prime was up to, having concluded that most of the content mirrored what was on Netflix. Their movie selection in particular hasn't been impressive. However, a couple of recent incidents have changed my mind. First, my significant other got himself hooked on FX's "Justified," which just finished its fifth season. Amazon Prime has exclusive streaming rights to the series, and currently offers the first four seasons. He's been marathoning them all month. Amazon Prime is also the only place where you can catch up on "Orphan Black" and "Hannibal," two shows in their sophomore years that are quickly moving up my list of current favorites. Netflix has its own exclusives, notably Disney movies and the AMC shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," but Amazon Prime is quickly stepping up its game in the content arms race.

And then the bombshell hit today. HBO, which vocally refused to have anything to do with Netflix in the past, announced that they have licensed a nice, big chunk of their older programming exclusively to Amazon Prime. Soon you can go binge on all the episodes of "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and "The Wire" you like. Alas, no "Deadwood," which was the next show on my "To Watch" list. For those hoping for a standalone HBO Go service, no such luck either. New content is strictly off limits, so don't expect the ravenous hordes of "Game of Thrones" fans to flock to Prime for their fix. Still, this is a big win for Amazon, and a clear sign that the studios are becoming more and more willing to do business with the streaming services.

Full disclosure - I still own a couple of shares of Netflix stock, but as a media junkie, I couldn't be happier that they now have a real competitor in Amazon Prime. It keeps both companies healthy and on their toes. I don't expect Netflix is going to make another mistake like Qwikster anytime soon, because the stakes have gone up so high. Amazon will also have more incentive to make some much-needed improvements. Their user interface and queuing features remain pretty atrocious. Just look at the way they've both been handling pricing announcements. Amazon Prime recently bumped up its yearly fee by $20 a year, making it slightly more per month than Netflix currently. And Netflix just announced that their prices will go up a dollar or two per month in the near future, but for new customers only.

I'm happy to continue subscribing to both services, which together cost less than half of what I was paying for basic cable five years ago. I do miss Netflix's streaming and DVD combo plan, but swapping out between one and the other has been working pretty well for me. Keep in mind that I'm still watching mostly films on these services, and most of the big deals that have been coming down have been geared toward securing licenses of television shows, so their impact on me has been fairly limited so far. Ironically, the only time that I've really gotten excited over new content being available through a streaming service was back when Hulu landed a big chunk of the Criterion Collection. However, Hulu's treatment of it has been so poor that I'm now biding my time, waiting for the license to expire and for the titles to go somewhere else when Hulu inevitably folds.

That's the biggest fallout I can see from Amazon becoming a big streaming player. Netflix won't be going anywhere, having established themselves so firmly. Amazon has the ambition and the deep pockets to compete with them on even terms. However, Hulu is owned by a collection of the networks, and they have consistently been unwilling to give their customers not only what they want, but what they have come to expect from online streaming content. The fact that they're not only still running commercials on Hulu Plus, but have increased them to the point where the service is almost indistinguishable from regular television, is maddening. I really don't see them lasting much longer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Going to be Quite a Summer

Good grief, it's nearly the last week of April already. As previously announced, this blog is going on hiatus for most of the summer while I take care of Real Life Business, so I'm not going to be around for the bulk of the summer blockbuster season. I'm a little sad about that, because this is definitely going to be an interesting one. 2014 has its share of sequels and franchise movies, but it can also be viewed as the calm before the storm that will be the summers of 2015 and 2016, when the really big franchise showdowns are scheduled. This summer actually features a lot of original projects and a fair amount of lower budgeted titles that could become potential sleepers.

These are the kinds of conditions that could lead to a bust at the box office, where multiple would-be tentpole projects fail one after another. More likely we're going to see the trends from 2012 and 2013 continue, where we get a mix of big hits and big underperformers. 2014 has had one major flop already, the Wally Pfister directed "Transcendence," with Johnny Depp, which doesn't bode well for all the other original science-fiction movies coming our way soon. Most of the expected heavy hitters are frontloaded in May, as usual, but there are also some major franchise films scattered throughout the summer that should keep the momentum going through mid-August. Watch out for last year's bout of mid-summer blockbuster fatigue making a comeback though.

Most of the box office winners are easy to guess. I expect to see the new "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Transformers," and "How to Train Your Dragon" films at the top of the list. "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be up there too, because of its Marvel pedigree. Though it's been dismissed sight unseen by so many, I think "Teenage Mutant Ninja" stands a good shot at being a hit because the offerings for kids are pretty paltry this year. The absence of a PIXAR feature is noticeable. As a result, the "Planes" sequel is probably going to make a good chunk of change too. Smaller franchise films like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Expendables 3," "22 Jump Street," and "The Purge: Anarchy" should also at least turn a profit. The only sequel I think has iffier prospects is the long-delayed "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," which is coming in late August, and nearly ten years after the original. Still, the "300" sequel didn't do too badly, did it?

The big question marks are the star-driven vehicles and original projects. Will people show up to see Angelina Jolie play "Maleficent"? Or Melissa McCarthy in "Tammy"? What about Tom Cruise in "Edge of Tomorrow? Adam Sandler's new comedy "Blended" seems like a sure bet, but what about Duane Johnson in "Hercules"? Or Scarlett Johanssen in "Lucy"? If that one does well, does that increase the chances of a Black Widow movie? Does Godzilla still have enough notoriety and cultural cachet to headline his own movie? Does the underperformance of similar kaiju movie "Pacific Rim" last year mean anything? Will pitting Seth Rogen against Zac Efron sell people on "Neighbors"? Is putting Seth McFarland in western spoof "A Million Ways to Die in the West" a good idea? How about the pairing of Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz for "Sex Tape"? And what are we supposed to make of Channing Tatum in elf ears for the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending"?

And then there are the smaller films. There seem to be a lot of non-traditional counterprogramming this year for older and less blockbuster-inclined audiences. Right smack in the middle of May we're getting Jon Favreau's foodie feel-good comedy "Chef," and Disney sports biopic "Million Dollar Arm." Fox is putting out a low-budget romantic drama "The Fault in Our Stars," starring Shailene Woodley in June. Then comes Clint Eastwood's screen adaptation of the "Jersey Boys" musical on the same day as "Think Like a Man Too." In August, filling the traditional feel-good picture for older women berth, Disney has "The Hundred-Foot Journey" starring Helen Mirren. And of course there are a slew of art house pictures to look forward to, including Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" and Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."

I don't have any particular stake in any of these movies doing well, though I'm looking forward to several. What I'd really like to see is the big franchise films not entirely dominate the top spots this year. I'd love to see any of the smaller films break out, or even one of the star or director driven projects. Ideally, there should be more of a balance among all these different types of films, which would help to encourage more variety at the box office. Otherwise, there aren't going to be many more summers as potentially interesting as this one in the future.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Year Five of "Community"

I never get tired of writing about this show, and as we say goodbye to the fifth season, the big question is, did Dan Harmon and the other creators get away with it? Did they manage to course-correct after that disastrous fourth season and bring back the show that its fans wanted? I'm willing to say yes. Clearly year five was better than year four, and I'd even go as far as saying that it was better than a lot of the third season, when Dan Harmon started getting a little too carried away with the metatextual madness. And yet, despite gaining some vital ground, there are some big problems with Season Five.

The season started out well enough, with Jeff becoming the newest Greendale educator and the whole gang reuniting as the Save Greendale Committee. I thought Troy and Pierce's departures were handled about as well as they possibly could have been, and that the amped up part for John Oliver's Professor Ian Duncan and the introduction of Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks, were pretty good at helping to fill the void. However, neither are quite fleshed out well enough yet to really be replacements. But then, sadly, nothing was really done with Jeff's new position. We never saw him in a classroom again after the first time and his status as a teacher was never explored at all. More time was devoted to Abed getting a girlfriend and even Hickey's cartooning efforts.

I suspect the limited number of episodes was probably responsible for this. The truncated thirteen episode season meant that there wasn't a lot of space to devote to character development in general. What bits and pieces that we did get just didn't cohere as well as they have in the past. The two-parter ending that explored the possibility of Greendale ceasing to exist felt wholly unconnected to anything that had been set up earlier in the season. Character arcs were set up that didn't really go anywhere, and others have been quietly dropped. At least all the characters feel like themselves again, with the exception of the reformed Jeff, who I'm still not sure about. Annie and Abed benefited the most from this, and Chang has been thankfully de-emphasized. Alas, Britta was sorely underused.

Individual episodes hit some impressive bullseyes. I've already talked about the farewell to Troy in "Geothermal Escapism," that turned the whole school into a post-apocalypse spoof thanks to a game of "The Floor is Lava." However, my favorite of the crazy theme episodes this year was definitely "App Development and Condiments," where a new social netwoking app known as MeowMeowBeenz is tested on the campus, leading to Greendale becoming a '70s sci-fi dystopia spoof with lots of references to "Logan's Run," and Starburns in Sean Connery's outfit from "Zardoz." There was also the entirely animated "G.I. Jeff," that took on Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials, plus another round of Dungeons and Dragons.

And while they're a little nuttier than they used to be, the regular school life episodes like "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" and "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" also did a good job of establishing new group dynamics and making use of the campus setting. I could easily see "Community" continuing in this vein for another season or two, improving on the groundwork that was laid this year. However, like many other reviewers have pointed out, I'm also starting to feel like "Community" has run its course. This year spent so much time getting us back to the old "Community," and then trying to maintain the status quo that it didn't do enough to push forward into new territory. There's a clear sense of the writers trying to patch too many gaps at once, reacting to format changes by doubling down on the old formulas instead of trying to find new ones.

The goal of six seasons and a movie is in sight, and considering NBC's fortunes, there's a good chance we'll get another thirteen episodes next year. However, all the drama and the cast changes and the shuffled creatives have taken their toll on the show, and will probably continue to. Season Five had some similar problems with Season Four, ironically, which is that it was trying too hard to backpedal to the point where the show was at its best. I'll continue to watch it weekly as long as they keep running it, but my enthusiasm for "Community" is starting to go south. I'm having a hard time seeing where the creators can take things from here, with most of the big arcs from prior seasons wrapped up and the new ones sputtering as they try to get off the ground.

There have been more than a few episodes in the last batch that I loved, but I'm starting to think that it might have been better for everyone involved if the show had just wrapped up after three strong seasons and didn't try to push its luck.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Favorite George Cukor Film

It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. And it's especially rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.

My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.

What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.

And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.

This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.

Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.

George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.

What I've Seen - George Cukor

Dinner at Eight (1933)
Camille (1936)
Holiday (1938)
The Women (1939)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Gaslight (1944)
Adam's Rib (1949)
Born Yesterday (1950)
A Star Is Born (1954)
My Fair Lady (1964)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Yes We Cannes

I can’t help staring at the poster for this year’s international Cannes Film Festival. There’s young Marcello Mastroianni, from Federico Fellini's “8½,” staring out at us from over his sunglasses, still an unquestionable icon of cinema.

And so is the festival itself, which over the years has become the most high profile and most prestigious of the international film festivals, and its prize, the Palme d’Or, one of the most respected. Past winners have included “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Tree of Life,” chosen by juries of respected filmmakers and artists. The list of Palme d’Or recipients looks like a survey of the most influential directors of the past six decades. Stephen Spielberg presided over last year’s jury, which gave the top prize to “Blue is the Warmest Color.” And though there are the usual controversies and politicking, the festival retains a sterling reputation and remains an important yearly showcase for international cinema.

And that’s why any pretentious film lover worth their salt, including yours truly, gets so excited about the lineup of premieres every year. Last year’s lineup of films in competition included “Nebraska,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Behind the Candelabra,” and Foreign Language Oscar winner “The Great Beauty.” It usually takes months and months for these films to make their way Stateside, and there are a couple on last year’s list like James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” that are only reaching theaters this spring. Some titles, of course, all but vanish into obscurity as soon as they’re done screening. Still, the early reviews and reactions are a great preview of what’s in store for audiences, especially since most of the competing films are from well known, high profile directors.

Every year you hear the speculation over which films will be having premieres at Cannes. This year there the possibility of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” being in the mix got a lot of people worked up. It didn’t show, most likely still in post-production, but there are a lot of other titles to get excited about. We’ll be getting new movies from the Dardennes brothers, who have already won the Palme d’Or twice, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, Michel Hazanavicius, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Jean-Luc Godard, who is bringing his first 3D feature. Of particular note to American film fans is Bennett Miller’s delayed “Foxcatcher,” and the Tommy Lee Jones western, “The Homesman.” Few remember Jones is a director, but this is his third theatrical feature.

Films that aren’t part of the main competition still benefit from participating at Cannes. The Un Certain Regard competition was created in 1998, a parallel to the main awards for “original and different” films. It’s already generated its share of major international classics, including past winners “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Dogtooth.” Last year’s contenders included two of the other Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees, “Omar” and “The Missing Piece,” and the indie darling “Fruitvale Station.” This year, Un Certain Regard will include a version of Ned Benson’s “Eleanor Rigby” double-film, and the directing debut of Ryan Gosling. And screening out of competition entirely are the new Zhang Yimou film “Coming Home” and the world premiere of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The latter film may seem out of place, but it’s become the norm for a few Hollywood blockbusters to premiere at Cannes every year.

There’s no question that many of these films are the ones we’ll be talking about when awards season rolls around again. Though Cannes and the Oscars very rarely see eye to eye, the festival’s influence is inescapable. Films that make a major splash at Cannes or one of the other major festivals are guaranteed a certain amount of attention by the art house crowd, so they inevitably become part of the awards conversations. Because Cannes is invitation only, and extremely selective, it’s much harder to influence their decisions through marketing or other tactics, which gives the results a much greater sense of legitimacy. Though I’ve never seen a film at Cannes, there are several films I know I’ve seen largely because of Cannes.

This year I’m looking forward to several titles. Ken Loach’s last film, “Jimmy’s Hall,” will be part of the competition. Wim Wenders’ latest documentary will be in Un Certain Regard. And I love finding out about films I had no idea existed - for instance, one of the out of competition screenings will be for the Danish film “The Salvation,” a western from a couple of Dogme 95 alumni that stars Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. It’ll probably be a year before I get to see it, but I know to watch out for it now. And sometimes, that’s the most important part of being a movie fan.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Prisoners" and "Enemy"

I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Go "Joe"

"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What I Want From the Last Season of "Mad Men"

It feels a little disingenuous to be writing up this post now, because "Mad Men" isn't going to be premiering its last batch of episodes until next spring, thanks to this business of splitting Season 7 into two chunks of seven episodes apiece. But if AMC can cheat, so can I. The season premiere aired last Sunday, and the exiled Don Draper is facing 1969 and the end of the '60s. What do I want to see happen to him and the rest of the ad execs in this final year? I did a "what if" post looking at possibilities and predictions last year, but this time around I want to get more concrete.

"Mad Men" has been all about examining and poking holes in the iconic '60s image of masculinity personified by Don Draper in the early seasons. From the start he's always been a facade, and over the course of the last six seasons that facade has been slowly chipped away bit by bit until we find it in a state of total disrepair at the start of the seventh. Don is left feeding ideas to Freddy Rumsen and resisting the lure of Neve Campbell, having been burned too many times by previous affairs. The episode's final, haunting image finds him alone, unable to sleep. At the same time the show also tackles other familiar figures like the ascendant working woman, in this case Peggy Olsen. For all of Peggy's talents and all her drive, we find her in a place not much better off than Don, her work compromised and her personal life all but nonexistent.

This isn't where I want these two to end up. Oh, I'm not rooting for some kind of fairy tale ending where they pair up romantically and go off to found their own advertising firm of Whitman and Olsen, but I do want them to both survive the decade and make it to a place where they're prepared to tackle the next one. The internet has been full of speculation that Don is going to die in the final episode, but I'd be much happier with a metamorphosis, from Draper back to Whitman, perhaps, or from Draper into someone new. Peggy, I suspect will either claw her way to the top or simply walk away from Sterling Cooper and the world of the mad men in the end. Both could be read as victories, and I'd be happy to see either outcome.

Betty and Sally didn't appear in the premiere. Though her part in the show has been drastically reduced, I still identify with and root for Betty. I doubt that there's more narrative space left to really explore her world, but the Betty and Sally relationship deserves some more attention. I hope these two can figure out to connect with each other, or at least reach some kind of mutual understanding, now that Sally has become disillusioned with her father. From their last encounter, Betty may still have some maturing to do, but she's grown up enough to get over Don. I'd like Sally to be able to do the same, maybe mirroring the scene with Roger and his daughter next week.

Speaking of Roger, I honestly don't see much hope for his redemption at this point, so I can only hope that his decline continues to be spectacular. The possibility of Joan becoming a real wheeler-dealer at the firm was raised this week, however, and suddenly I want her to be a successful account woman very badly. Pete Campbell showed up amusingly tan and happy, and though the little rat has caused a lot of grief over the years, I've grown fond enough of him that I hope he finds a way to stay happy and put all the bitterness behind him - though I know he probably won't. At the same time, I want something really nasty to happen to Teddy Chaough.

Among the minor characters, I'm still rooting for Ken and Ginsburg to make it out of Sterling Cooper with some dignity intact. And then there are all the other supporting characters who were left by the wayside as the show rolled on. I love that we got to see glimpses of what happened to Midge and more amusingly, to Paul. But whatever happened to Sal? And Abe? Does Harry Crane get any more time this year? And what of Bob Benson and the man named Duck?

Finally, 1969 will bring the Apollo 11 moon landing, My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family murders. And even if Megan Draper isn't supposed to be a analog of Sharon Tate, I still stand by my original assessment that she's not going to be a part of Don's world for much longer. I think the relationship has run its course, and I'd rather see it over sooner rather than later.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Captain" On Deck

I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" roughly even with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.

We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.

While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.

Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.

Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.

"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.

There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Now 2016 is Getting Crowded

2015 was billed as the year that we were going to be overloaded with major event movies. Summer was going to be a showdown between some of the biggest names in blockbusters, including a potential "Avengers 2" face-off with "Batman vs. Superman." In a post I wrote up a year ago, I listed over two dozen major titles expected to debut in 2015, but also noted that we were probably going to see many of these projects delayed or cancelled. I was right. 2015 is still going to have a lot of big movies from big franchises, including "Fast & Furious 7," "Avengers 2" plus Marvel Universe film "Ant-Man," two PIXAR movies, a James Bond movie, "Jurassic World," "Terminator 5," "Bourne 5," "Mission Impossible 5," the last "Hunger Games" movie, and of course "Star Wars: Episode VII," but a lot of the biggest potential moneymakers have been pushed back to 2016. And now the 2016 schedule is starting to look crazy.

May and June are battlefields already. May 6th has "Batman vs. Superman" pitted against "Captain America 3," which is suddenly looking like a much more even match-up since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has cleaned up at the box office and received sterling critical notices to boot. Memorial Day pits "Alice Through the Looking Glass" against "X-Men: Apocalypse." Two weeks after that comes "The Amazing Spider-Man 3." And then a week later, "Finding Dory" is somehow scheduled to open on the same day as "How to Train Your Dragon 3." Later in the season comes "Independence Day 2," "Ice Age 5," "Planet of the Apes 3," and another Marvel universe movie that we don't have the details for yet. Not on the schedule yet but certainly still in play are "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" and "Avatar 2." As usual, we must provide the caveats that many of these projects are going to shift dates or be delayed, and there's no way that the three showdowns I've listed won't result in some of these movies getting bumped a few weeks earlier or later.

Still, we're looking at another packed year in the making. It's scary to think of it, but the overstuffed 2015 roster may have been the start of a trend. With the exception of that last "Hunger Games" movie, all those titles I listed for 2015 will spawn sequels if they do well enough, and the studios have every expectation that they will. Four of the movies jockeying for prime release dates in 2016 are direct sequels to films that are coming out in the next few months of 2014. That means that we can expect sequels to most of those 2015 films coming in 2017 and 2018. Considering how much they've invested, Disney will be pressing on with more "Star Wars" movies no matter what the response to the first one is. And we can expect more Marvel movies on the way, at the rate of at least two per year. And two to three animated Dreamworks movies. And the goal is three yearly releases from PIXAR and Disney Animation combined. And remember that WB, Sony, and Fox want their own comics-based movie franchises following the Marvel model, built around the DC, "Spider-man" and "X-men" universes.

Can anything stop the inundation? Well, yes. The studios keep making more and more big films because there is the demand for them, but we're reaching a point where the market may not be able to sustain them all. The disastrous "implosion" of the film industry predicted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas last year hasn't come about, but too many crowded movie seasons like 2015 and the summer of 2016 certainly appear to be setting the stage for it. Eventually we are going to reach a point where making so many movies this way becomes unfeasible. Some big, expensive projects are going to go down hard, and create losses too big to be absorbed. Disney's more notorious misses like "Lone Ranger" and "John Carter" are made up for by their profits from hits like "Avengers" and "Frozen," but the prediction is that one of these days, one of the major studios will have one bomb too many, and get wiped out.

And honestly, that may not be such a bad thing. The current practice of dragging some of these franchises on to fourth and fifth installments and beyond, rebooting old properties that should have stayed dormant, and pumping out way too many gargantuan movies based on little more than good branding is far too prevalent. If audiences keep shrinking the way that they have, and the release calendar gets more and more crowded every year, diminishing returns are inevitable. Until that happens, though, moviegoers are in for some wild times as event movies go bigger and bigger, and the studios pit them against each other in increasingly high stakes matches. Here's to the upcoming battle for the summer of 2016.

May the best movie win.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Peek Into "Creature Shop"

"The Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge" sounded like a concept to good to be true to a Henson geek. Syfy's new reality show gives ten special effects artists a shot at working for the much beloved Jim Henson Creature shop, best known for creating elaborate creature suits and puppets for movies and television. It follows the "Project Runway" competition template, having the contestants build a new creature every week, and evaluating them via a screen test. The show is a very much a Jim Henson Company affair, hosted by "Farscape" actress Gigi Edgley, and featuring mentors and judges who are effects industry veterans. The head judge is Brian Henson, current president of the company, who looks more and more like his father with every passing year.

As a Muppet geek, I had to get a look at this thing. So I watched the first two episodes, and came away with somewhat mixed but mostly positive reactions. The contestants are all clearly talented and experienced, capable of turning out incredibly impressive work. It's a lot of fun to watch them build their creatures. We're not at the stage where more than a few big personalities have emerged, but the weekly projects are strong enough to carry the show. Also, the folks behind the scenes are still working through some bumps in the show's formula. "Creature Shop" hews to the "Project Runway" formula a little too closely, and sometimes it's not a good fit. The judges aren't the type to drop one-liners, and the contestants' array of creative skills are more interesting than the usual manufactured drama you can sense is being played up. I wish the design and fabrication portions of the show were longer than the judging portions.

The two rounds so far have been promising. I wasn't thrilled with the first, which asked the contestants to design a deep sea creature that had to lurk along the ocean floor, and resulted in some pretty unappealing entries. The second challenge, however, was great. The contestants were given the much more complex task of creating their own villainous Skeksis character from "The Dark Crystal," which included puppeteering it for the screen test. The results were far more impressive, and I could imagine the characters actually appearing onscreen, unlike the contenders from the first round. It didn't hurt that Hensons furnished "Dark Crystal" props and shared trivia about the film, which was very gratifying to this 80s fantasy geek. And there was much more shop talk about the business of effects work, which I hope continues.

However, it's hard to escape the sense that the show is really one big promotion for the Jim Henson Company and its work. I've loved these guys and their output for decades, so I'm very receptive to the hero worship many of the contestants have shown in these episodes, but at the same time I think they lay it on a little thick. The most familiar Muppet characters like Kermit and Piggy have been notably absent from the installments I've seen so far, but with a new movie in theaters, I'm sure they'll show up eventually. I recognized plenty of other material from the Henson archives, though, including lots of clips and artwork from "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," "The Storyteller," and "The Jim Henson Hour." Of course, we have to keep in mind that this is what the Hensons have the rights to.

Still, in the back of my mind I can't help noting that so few of the featured examples of the Creature Shop's work are very recent. It's a sad reminder that the visual effects industry has largely been taken over by CGI, and a practical effects operation like the Creature Shop has become a rarity. They're surely one of the best at what they do, but the demand has been steadily dropping off for a long time. I stumbled across a reel of their recent work, which mostly consisted of character puppets for obscure ad campaigns. Their last really big project that I know of was creating the Wild Things for 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are," and even those characters ultimately had CGI faces.

As thrilled as I am to watch the show and see the way that it celebrates all the different crafts that go into creature creation, it also feels a little like it's operating in a different world. I can imagine similar reality shows built around the finding the next great PIXAR animator or the next great Nintendo game creator, but those are big companies that are part of thriving industries. Would the PR be worth it for them to commit so many resources to something similar? I don't think so. Meanwhile, "Creature Shop Challenge" feels sadly a bit like it's pitching for its own relevance.

Those Skesis sure looked impressive, but what film would actually use them in this day and age?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Colbert Rising

I admit that I wasn't expecting this, and certainly not so soon. CBS only waited a week after Letterman's retirement announcement to name his successor to the "Late Show. The lucky comedian is Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," whose contract with Comedy Central will be up in 2015. I'd seen various rumor pieces peg Colbert as a frontrunner, but I didn't take any of them seriously.

I mean, I love Colbert's work and I think he's a supremely talented satirist, but he didn't seem to check enough of the right boxes. The network late night shows are helmed by comedians with very broad, mainstream appeal. Colbert always struck me as a bit of an acquired taste, especially when you put him next to some of the guys who have been described as an awkward fit for the job, like Craig Ferguson or Louis CK. Sure, Ferguson and CK are a little more experimental and off-kilter than the average late night host, but they haven't spent the last nine years playing a fake version of themselves lampooning right-wing news pundits.

Speaking of the other Stephen Colbert, it's been announced that the persona that Colbert uses on "The Colbert Report" will be retired when he makes the move to CBS next year. The real Stephen will be back, but good grief, I barely even remember him from his eight-year stint on "The Daily Show" anymore. I know that he filled in for Jon Stewart a few times, but for the most part his hosting and interviewing performances have all been through the filter of this satirical construct, and who knows how he's going to perform without it? Okay, I'm being alarmist here. Stephen Colbert has spent nearly a decade successfully putting out his own award-winning comedy program, and has clearly been honing his skills during that time. There are a few of his excellent non-satirical interviews floating around the web that suggest he'll be find without the egomaniacal blowhard routine.

And as a fan of Colbert, this is a great opportunity for him. As much as I enjoy and admire "The Colbert Report," I don't want to see him doing it forever. In fact, to be quite honest, I'm surprised that he's managed to keep it going for as long as he has. I still tune in occasionally, but I grew weary of the fake right-wing schtick a few years ago and stopped watching regularly. It'll be great to see him pick up and move on to something different, hopefully after ending "The Colbert Report" in a truly glorious fashion. And remember, his departure from Comedy Central opens up the post - "Daily Show" slot for someone new. It'll be interesting to see who comes in next, especially as the network had some trouble keeping anything in that timeslot - I vaguely remember "Insomnia" with Dave Attell being the best of the pre- "Report" shows. Maybe another "Daily Show" alum will be up next?

And what about all the other contenders for "Late Night"? I am a little disappointed that Conan O'Brien's not coming back to network television and I still think he should have stayed the host of "The Tonight Show." Ferguson, Stewart, and Louis CK seem to be perfectly happy doing what they're doing, and good for them. It would have been nice to see a lady invited to the sausage party, but then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have plenty of other opportunities to exercise their talent, and I'm not familiar with Chelsea Handler's work, so I have no real opinion on her. Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have had their day, and wouldn't have brought anything new or interesting to the table. And Arsenio? Better luck next time.

So now it's going to be Fallon versus Colbert, with Kimmel as the third party candidate. I like Stephen Colbert's odds and think he's going to be a real contender. He's the oldest of the bunch at 49, but he's also the one with the most personality and the most range. He can never be David Letterman, but he's already done a very fine job being Stephen Colbert for nearly a decade. I'm also a little apprehensive that the move to a network means that he probably will have to adjust his style for more mainstream viewers. That sharp satiric edge that has served him so well will probably have to be put away, to be brought out only for special occasions. Many members of Congress may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Then again, it's not wise to underestimate Stephen Colbert. This is the man who delivered that devastating takedown of the Bush Administration at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and managed to wrangle himself a cameo in one of the "Hobbit" movies by sheer force of his nerdiness. I'll bet he still has some surprises in store for us.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Be a Film Snob?

I'm getting precariously close to finishing off the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They" list of the top 1000 movies ever made. This is illusory, since the thirty-odd films I have left to see are among the most obscure of the obscure, and include things like the fifteen-hour "Heimat" series and the experimental film "Out 1," which isn't available in my country in any form, and I have no plans to track down in the near future. I have to admit a certain sense of accomplishment getting as far as I have. However, I've been left with the nagging question. Why did I embark on this crazy journey to begin with? Why did I want to watch all these films and become the pretentious film snob I am today?

I mean, if I wanted to simply watch great films, I wouldn't have been so dedicated to watching every last title I could get my hands on. I'd have ignored all the Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson titles after a certain point. Heck, I'd have probably picked a different list that wasn't so dedicated to being so diverse and all-encompassing. There are several other 1000 film lists I could have tackled that aren't nearly as challenging. However, I picked "They Shoot Pictures' because it was the most difficult, because it contained experimental films, and films from more obscure film cultures, cult films, and films that only the really dedicated cinephiles know or care about. I've watched films that most mainstream moviegoers would be hard-pressed to even identify as films. So what have I gotten out of it?

Well, it's mae me a much more informed and confident movie watcher, for one thing. I've been working my way through another list of films lately, the list I of all the films I still want to see from the previous year before I write up my "Best of" list. I'm down to about ten titles now, mostly foreign films since the bulk of December releases finally hit DVD over the last few weeks. This year, however, I noticed that the composition of the titles was a little different than usual. I usually make a point to watch all the Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees and all the Best Documentary nominees so I have a decent sampling of each before making my list. This year, I've seen three of the five Foreign Language Nominees, but have no desire to track down the last two, "Omar" and "The Missing Picture." I'd consider watching both when they become available, but they're not priorities.

Why? When I look back at everything I watched for 2013, I've seen dozens of foreign titles already. "Blue is the Warmest Color," "A Touch of Sin," "Le Passe," "Wadjda," "Borgman," "Heli," "Gloria," "Museum Hours," "Drug War," and many others. On my "to watch" list are a few more, including "The Wind Rises," and "Bastards." Over the last few years I've figured out how to follow the festival coverage, which critics have good recommendations, and which filmmakers to keep an eye on. I've figured out how to pick and choose among titles instead of blindly watching every awards contender that showed up on the radar. Of course, that was a good thing to do for a few years until I got my bearings and started developing - and I know how this sounds - a better sense of taste.

Context is vital to being able to navigate world cinema the way I want to, and thanks to "They Shoot Pictures," I now have some pretty good footing with just about every genre and film culture. I don't get intimidated by films from Brazil or Romania or sub-Saharan Africa because I've seen the foundational films from each school of filmmaking. Looking at the some of the prominent foreign titles from 2013, I don't think I would have gotten half as much from a movie like "The Great Beauty" if I hadn't been familiar with Fellini. And knowing Godard's "Band a Apart" was vital to understanding the final scene of "Le Weekend." I may not like Godard films, but I get a lot out of being familiar with his work.

The crux of it is that I love movies and the more I know about movies, the better I tend to enjoy them. This certainly isn't true for everyone, and I readily admit that becoming a film nerd has steadily decreased my tolerance of studio pablum. However, I still love a good Arnold movie, and I'm certainly not giving up superheroes or cartoons. I think it's better to say I've refined my tastes rather than replaced them wholesale. And in the process I have so much more cinema available to me than ever before, whole categories I would've passed by without a thought ten years ago.

And though the going got rough sometimes, it was a lot of fun getting here too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Trailers! Trailers! The 2014 Grab Bag Edition

We've been seeing a steady influx of trailers for the summer movie season, and a couple of oddball outliers for pictures coming up later in the year and beyond. So here's a quick rundown of some of the notable trailers and teasers that have popped up since January. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Annie - The reactions to the new "Annie" coming up for the holiday season have been decidedly mixed, especially Cameron Diaz's new take on Miss Hannigan. Still, Quvenzhané Wallis looks like she's going to make a great Annie, and Jamie Foxx is in rare form as Will Stacks, the new Daddy Warbucks figure. I'm a little disappointed that we didn't hear more of the music, though, and that the trailer decided to emphasize the humor instead.

Hercules - So much cheese on display. I'm getting flashbacks to "Conan: The Barbarian" here. Best case scenario is that we get a completely pulpy, silly B-movie Hercules and Duane Johnson's considerable charms don't get buried under too many CGI effects. I'm not sold based on the action and the spectacle alone, and this trailer really could have used a little more spark and personality. Unfortunately this comes off as pretty generic-looking.

Chef - It's nice to see Jon Favreau taking a break from big summer blockbusters and trying his hand at a foodie comedy. And it doesn't hurt that he apparently decided to have an "Iron Man 2" cast reunion at the same time. Being released in the middle of May, "Chef" is clearly a personal project being served up as counterprogramming, and looks like a perfectly sweet, feel-good alternative to the superheroes and Adam Sandler. They don't make enough of them like this anymore.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - A very brief look at the new designs for the Ninja Turtles confirms that they're way too humanized, to the point of being a little off-putting. The rest of the trailer is following the exact same template as the "Transformers" films, especially with the presence of Megan Fox as April O'Neil. I don't have high hopes for this, but I've learned not to underestimate Michael Bay and toy aisle nostalgia. Proceed at your own risk.

Tammy - Melissa McCarthy has worked her way up the ranks over the past few years to the rare position of female comedy headliner - and when was the last time we legitimately had one of those? The trailer for "Tammy" makes it very clear that this is a major starring vehicle for her. I've found McCarthy's previous efforts very hit-or-miss, and I don't know how well she's going to work as a lead, but this teaser with her stumbling through a robbery routine did make me smile. I wish her all the best.

The Giver - Confession time. Despite being recommended the book by every English teacher in junior high, I've never read Lois Lowry's beloved dystopian YA novel, "The Giver." I figured this could be a plus, allowing me a different perspective on the film version than I've had with other, similar adaptations. So far, the trailer is pretty bland, trying too hard to make itself look like every other teen action franchise out there. The appearance of Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges is intriguing though.

Peanuts - This isn't coming out until November of 2015, but it provides a crucial first look at the visual style that's going to be used for the new "Peanuts" movie from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, best known for the "Ice Age" movies but steadily getting more ambitious with recent features like "Epic." It looks like they've done a good job of capturing the iconic look of the Charles Schultz drawings with CGI. However, getting the story and humor right will also be crucial.

Edge of Tomorrow - I thought this was a spring release, but apparently the latest Tom Cruise science-fiction action film is coming in June. Cruise has proven to be a good fit for this kind of material, and I'll watch Emily Blunt in just about anything. Based on a Japanese novel and manga called "All You Need is Kill," this looks to have a lot in common with "Source Code," except much more action-oriented. Also, having Doug Liman and Christopher McQuarrie onboard doesn't hurt.

Guardians of the Galaxy - And finally, we come to my favorite trailer of the batch, which introduces us to the motley crew who will be starring in the next Marvel Universe film. I think what makes this work is really John C. Reilly as the audience surrogate, providing the introductions and setting the tone for how we're meant to view these characters. Frankly, I have my doubts about how the concept is going to play, but the trailer goes a long way in convincing me that they've got the tone right and the humor right, and we're in good hands.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Getting Biblical

One of the big trends this year is the return of the Bible epics and the rise of the grassroots Christian films. The former include Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which has been banned in several Muslim countries but is doing pretty well at the box office everywhere else, and Ridley Scott's upcoming Christmas release, "Exodus: Gods and Kings," which will star Christian Bale as Moses. I guess you could also count "Son of God," which is a theatrical film cobbled together out of footage from last year's hit "The Bible" miniseries that aired on the History Channel. On the other end of the spectrum we have "God's Not Dead," notable for generating $32 million so far after three weeks of release from a budget of $2 million, thanks mostly to the backing of several major Christian organizations. Somewhere in the middle you have the little indie drama "Heaven is for Real." There's also a reboot of the "Left Behind" series starring Nicholas Cage coming in October.

Now, faith-based and Bible-based films have a long history in Hollywood, despite the claims that the town is hostile to the faith community. Some of the biggest hits in movie history have been Christian-themed, including "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," and "The Passion of the Christ." There was a whole flourishing genre of Bible epics in the '50s and '60s that gave us titles like "The Robe," "Exodus," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "King of Kings." With the recent spate of historical epics and sword-and-sandals movies, it makes sense that Hollywood would revisit and update some of these stories for modern audiences. There are lots of opportunities for spectacle, and despite the controversy that seems to dog even the most innocuous religion-themed film, they can be extremely lucrative. With Easter coming up, there's been a lot of chatter going around about the possibility that this trend may stick around long-term.

However, there is the little matter of the current cultural divide. When you look at the religion-themed films, the first thing that you notice is that the studios are really only interested in putting money into the big Bible epics. Smaller, more contemporary stories about faith are very few and far between. Religious comedies like "Oh God!" and "Sister Act" are practically extinct, with the exception of the Tyler Perry movies, aimed at a very niche audience. Prestige pictures like "Philomena" rarely call attention to their religious themes. It's been a long time since we've seen anything really controversial like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Dogma" on the scene. The ruckus around "Noah" has been mostly limited to Islamic countries, where the screen portrayal of prophets, such as Noah, is not allowed. Christian conservatives have had mixed reactions to the film and some of the artistic license taken with the story, but there hasn't been much outright hostility. All in all, there's been a definite retreat from religious subject matter in recent years, particularly by any filmmaker who wants to examine religious questions seriously. As a result, even films that casually involve religion are scarce.

Those little, independently produced Christian movies we occasionally see popping up in the box office standings often claim to be filling the gap, purportedly serving a market that is perceived as being ignored by Hollywood. I don't find this to be true. These are better characterized as Evangelical films, because they're usually aimed toward reinforcing an Evangelical worldview and have very little crossover appeal, even with other religious audiences. "God's Not Dead," for instance, is premised on a scenario where Christians are persecuted in academia for their beliefs, which is a flimsy idea at best. It's biggest star, amusingly, is former "Hercules" actor, Kevin Sorbo. Like most of these films, the reviews were lackluster and awareness of the film outside of its intended audience is practically nonexistent. And for every "God's Not Dead" which attracts a fair amount of attention, there are dozens of others that flop, such as the notorious "Alone Yet Not Alone," which was involved in the recent Oscar scandal.

It'll be interesting to see if any of these movies do well enough to really make an impact on the commercial film landscape, but it seems doubtful that religious films of any real consequence will result from the the trend. We're looking at either studio blockbusters or didactic message movies, not that I mind the existence of either, but there's little middle ground. I don't see much room for the really interesting projects that have been percolating for a while, like Paul Verhoeven's historical Jesus biopic or Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's "Silence." "Noah" seemed promising because of Aronofsky's involvement, but seems to be far more spectacle than anything else. And if we are going to have a revival of the religious films, it would be a shame if we didn't get any that actually bothered to seriously address modern questions of faith and religion.