Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Mad Men," Year Seven

Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.

Thanks to AMC's decision to split the final season, we only got seven episodes of "Mad Men" this year, in what's being called the first half of the seventh season. However, as brief as the run was, this felt like a full season, giving many of the familiar characters complete and interesting arcs, and delivering a couple of major developments worth devoting a full post to by themselves. So as far as I'm concerned, this was the seventh season of "Mad Men," and will be analyzed as such.

The end of the sixth season saw Don Draper hit a low point, disintegrating during the Hershey pitch and being forced to take a leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. Would he stage a comeback like he had so may times before? Would he wash his hands of the agency and of his failing second marriage and start over again? We got the answer fairly early that a Don unable to work was a Don disastrously disconnected and adrift, out of sync. However, getting him out of bicoastal limbo and back to work took up most of the season. In essence, to get any semblance of the old Don Draper back, he had to grow up and become someone else.

And to do that he had to keep failing and failing miserably for a while. He had to be torn down and brought low, made to realize that Megan didn't need him in California and that the firm was doing just fine without him in New York. Betty and the kids? So busy with their own lives that his absence barely registers. Moreover, being awful to Peggy and Joan last year had big consequences, and his bold move to bring in Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough backfired, with Cutler and the supremely hateable new creative director Lou Avery becoming the season's major villains. Don's most enthusiastic supporter this year was fellow exile Pete Campbell, of all people! And it made Don the kind of fascinating, relatable protagonist that I'd been missing for too many seasons.

Of course, Don wasn't the only one in crisis this year. In the show it's now 1969, with the world about to plunge into the '70s and nobody quite ready for it. Peggy, like Don, didn't deal well with personal or professional situations that weren't going her way. She was downright unlikeable for an episode or two before finally getting past her blocks, which was a development that was honestly a little overdue. Peggy has been so sympathetic for so long, it was good to see the status quo shaken up. Nobody else had nearly as much screen time or emphasis among the regulars, but just about everybody got some of the spotlight in at least one episode to remind us why we love and/or hate them.

More than ever, "Mad Men" felt like a collection of character snapshots - Betty and Roger screwing up parenting, Joan ascending to accounts, Shirley's awful Valentine's Day, Megan meeting Don's niece, Sally in New York, Pete in California, and the disintegration of Michael Ginsberg. Some vignettes were executed better than others, and some episodes were certainly better about connecting all the disparate stories than others, but everything felt consequential and nobody felt shortchanged this year. Thematically, it all fit the end-of-an-era, time of reckoning feel to the season where the unknown future was bearing down quickly on everyone.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the finale, one of the best episodes of "Mad Men" to date, where all the major storylines pay off, and characters take big steps forward. Roger leads, Peggy pitches, and Don helps along both of their victories while securing his own position. On the other hand, Don and the firm are right back where they started and surely only delaying the inevitable. The firm's big new clients are names we know become obsolete. Sterling Cooper was actively trying to avoid the buyout last season. And the signs of generational change are all around, Cooper's farewell the most obvious one.

Despite the more heavy-handed symbols of impending doom being toned way, way down this year, "Mad Men" is as full of ominous portents as ever. I loved the multiple references to "2001: A Space Odyssey" accompanying the threatened technological takeover that doomed poor Ginsberg. I loved Bert Cooper going out on a soft-shoe (soft-sock?) number that all but rebuked Don for his successes. And even as Sally chose the nerd over the Neanderthal, she struck a cigarette-smoking pose so positively Betty, it sent chills up the spine.

As "Mad Men" draws to a close, it feels like Matt Weiner and company are well along in the process of saying goodbye to these characters and this universe. I doubt we're going to see Megan or Ginsberg again. I doubt we'll get much more time with Ken or Stan or Bob Benson. There are several episodes in Year Seven that had scenes that could have closed out the series for good. The fact that we have seven episodes left feels indulgent, honestly.

I don't expect that "Mad Men" will go out with a bang - it's not and never has been that kind of show - but the lead-up to the end has been so strong that I'm certain the finale will be worth the wait. Here's to Year Eight.
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Friday, May 30, 2014

"Hannibal" Year Two

Moderate spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far.

Like many others, I remain incredulous that the "Hannibal" television series is airing on a national network. It's not just because of the violence and gore, which appears in copious amounts, but because the series so caters to a specific niche audience. "Hannibal" fans need to appreciate elliptical dialogue, artsy atmospherics, ambiguous plotting, and regular jolts of extreme horror movie imagery. It's so driven by aesthetics at times, you could mistake it for an European art film - except when it's also a sublimely macabre gorefest.

I wasn't all that enamored with the first season, though I appreciated what Bryan Fuller and his collaborators were trying to do with the property. I found the plotting too muddled for my tastes, and many of the characters weren't quite where I wanted them to be. Still, I saw a lot of potential so I came back for the second season, and promptly fell in love. Year Two of "Hannibal" is split up into two parts, the first with Will Graham in a mental institution, trying to clear his name after Dr. Lecter frames him for murder, and the second where Will and Jack Crawford are trying to bait Hannibal into revealing himself. The first half is where Will Graham grows a backbone, taps into the darker part of his psyche, and goes toe to toe with Hannibal in playing mind games. It is also much more tightly and explicitly plotted, with a couple of great twists.

And suddenly "Hannibal" was giving me everything I wanted from the show - lots of visceral thrills and chills without compromising the intellectual bent, and it started developing the major characters in the right directions too. Laurence Fishburne's Jack gets more interesting as he has to weigh Will and Hannibal's claims against each other. As Will becomes more self-aware and bolder in his maneuverings, Hannibal is put on the defensive. Their predator-victim relationship gets much richer and more complex with the two of them on equal psychological footing. Last year I watched the show largely for Mads Mikkelsen's take on Dr. Lecter, but now Hugh Dancy's performance is getting very close to the same level. I especially enjoy the recurring instances of role reversal, where Hannibal gets to play investigator or Will discovers his inner puppetmaster. The arc also makes great use of minor characters like Beverly Katz, Abel Gideon, and especially Dr. Frederick Chilton. Raul Esparza is a joy to watch.

Alas, Will Graham had to be let out of the straitjacket eventually, and the show had to move on to the second half of the season where we meet the Vergers, Margot and Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle and Michael Pitt respectively. There's too much story stuffed into this arc, and not enough time to adequately present it. I really got a kick out of the Vergers, but didn't feel we got nearly enough time with them to get the full impact of their twisted family feud. Will's attempts to entrap Hannibal also felt underserved, with too many pieces of key exposition missing. The final run of episodes wasn't bad in any sense, but it couldn't hope to match up to the intensity of the first half of the year, even with a wonderful finale. I'm hoping that next season fills in some of the gaps, and thank goodness there will be a next season.

"Hannibal" has distinguished itself by happily striking out on its own, borrowing characters, concepts, plot points, and imagery from the Lecter books and films, but being beholden to none of them. Characters have swapped genders, been killed off early, and positioned in different roles. Though the series is following the rough timeline of the books, specific events are ordered differently. Some of the dramatic license gets to be a bit much - there have been at least three fake-out deaths this year, possibly four - but the "Hannibal" creators have clearly become very comfortable with the material and are in a good position to start tackling some of the more famous stories coming up.

As always, I have a few reservations. Catherine Dhavernas still doesn't get nearly enough to do as Alana Bloom, and the most interesting female characters like Freddie Lounds, Dr. Du Maurier, and Bella Crawford have had fleeting appearances at best. Abigail Hobbs and Miriam Lass are really little more than plot devices, and Margot Verger's already gone. I'm hoping Clarice Starling is introduced sooner rather than later to help unskew things here. And while I'm all for letting the viewer figure things out on their own, there have been too many times where the writers simply aren't playing fair - nothing on the aftermath of the Chilton situation?

Then again, I'm getting worked up because "Hannibal" has really gotten its claws into me. I continue to adore the mad visuals, not just the death tableaux but the febrile sex scenes and the disturbing dream imagery. Directors like David Slade, Michael Rhymer, and newcomer Vincenzo Natali have been delivering excellent work week after week. The score and sound design have gotten weirder and and more evocative. The set design just keeps getting better. And the cast - even the one-off killers of the week have been landing actors like Amanda Plummer. It's fantastic.

"Hannibal" has survived despite the odds, and I hope it's around for a long time to come. I still find parts of it a little slapdash and problematic, but it's one of the most unique shows airing anywhere right now, and so well executed that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any other prestige series you could find on cable or premium cable.
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Thursday, May 29, 2014

It's About Time For "Future Past"

The "X-Men" movie franchise, now up to its seventh film if you count the two "Wolverine" solo adventures, has had a lot of ups and downs over the past fourteen years. Nobody likes "The Last Stand" or "Origins." The continuity has become a snarled mess. The newest installment, "X-men: Days of Future Past," is best enjoyed if the viewer is familiar with the rest of the series, and yet it blithely ignores major developments from those films. Last summer's "The Wolverine," included a mid-credits teaser sequence that set up "Days of Future Past," for instance, but it doesn't actually connect to anything that goes on in this movie.

And yet, "Days of Future Past" makes all that history and all that interconnectivity work for it in ways that the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe films have never managed. I enjoyed "Days of Future Past" more than any superhero sequel in ages, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that it's been quite a few years since we've last properly seen many of the characters as they were originally depicted - "Last Stand" in 2006 was the last to feature most of the cast of the original "X-men" films - and in both of the eras that are depicted in "Days of Future Past," a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened to our heroes.

In 2023, we have a dystopian future where nightmarish automatons called Sentinels have nearly exterminated mutants and a good chunk of humanity. Among the survivors are Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Shadowcat (Ellen Page). In a last ditch attempt to beat the Sentinels, Shadowcat sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time fifty years to his body in 1973, to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. To do this, he needs the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who we met in "First Class," to stop the assassination and martyrdom of the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the conflicted shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Despite hardly any of these characters looking like they've aged, the "First Class" gang is now a decade older and more cynical, grappling with the tail-end of the Vietnam War era and the fallout of a lot of historical and personal tragedies. The original trilogy's present-day characters have been flung even farther into the future, eking out their survival in a hellish nightmare world. It doesn't matter if the little details between all the different films don't match up because the "Terminator" -esque story is strong enough, and all the important characters and their circumstances are well established enough that "Days of Future Past" largely works on its own apart from everything that came before.

It's good to have director Bryan Singer back, who is a deft hand with both the action sequences and the melodrama. While "Days of Future Past" does have the large-scale set piece we see at the end of all big-budget superhero films these days, the outcome actually hinges on some very intimate character interactions. James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in particular shoulder a lot of the weight. I was also happy to see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique getting a big boost in screen time and narrative importance. The movie is a little lacking in female characters, but Lawrence steals every scene she's in, and at this point she's the definitive Mystique.

The vastly overpowered cast, full of Oscar winners and RSC vets, keep the movie humming along a very human scale, and from becoming too much of a slug-fest. Not that the slugging isn't a lot of fun. There are a couple of stand-out effects sequences, including a jailbreak lead by a speedster mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and some brawling between the Sentinels and a group of future X-men that shows off multiple kinds of powers being used together. However, it's really the storytelling that makes the film, and I got much more out of the smaller moments of humor and the period touches when Wolverine finds himself back in the '70s.

I've always liked the way that the "X-men" franchise has such a strong sense of history to it, and "Days of Future Past" is perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Unlike other superhero serials that tend to drag their feet when it comes to showing any character progression or disrupting the status quo, these last few "X-men" films have embraced the passage of time. Actions have consequences that echo through the decades. People grow and change and die. The superheroes are not infallible and villains are not always wrong. This version of "Days of Future Past" depends on it.

I've seen some describe this latest "X-men" film as a reboot to some extent, because it negates some of the events that happened in earlier films, but I think that's a mistake. "Days of Future Past" is watchable if you haven't seen any of the past movies, but those who know the series and love these characters already are the ones who will get the most out of it. And they're the ones who will be the most appreciative of the complicated, but compelling time travel fable that Singer and Kinberg and Vaughn and Goldman and the rest are telling here.
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Friday, May 23, 2014

"Person of Interest," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

So much has happened this year on "Person of Interest," I had to review recaps of some of the early episodes to get my bearings. At the end of the second season, we were still in the thick of the H.R. plot, Decima Technologies was still being set up as the next Big Bad, and Root was about to have an extended stay in a mental hospital. The face of Control hadn't been revealed, and Samaritan and Vigilance hadn't even been namechecked. More importantly, Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA were just about to come to light.

And now a year later, we're looking at a very different "Person of Interest," one that has not just undergone cast changes and moved on to new storylines, but one that is now actively grappling with the big issues that have always been at the heart of its premise. Snowden hasn't been referenced directly, though there have been a few minor references to the NSA surveillance programs, but we've definitely seen the position of the heroes shift from an uneasy alliance with the tools of the surveillance state that have made their work possible, to active adversity. Finch, Reese, Shaw, and their allies are now targets of a new and improved government-funded information-gathering system that threatens to create a full-blown Big Brother dystopia.

First, let's go back a couple of months to one of the biggest events in the show's run so far, the death of Detective Carter. Taraji P. Henson left the show, and "Person of Interest" gave her quite the sendoff. Not only did they take the opportunity to tie up all the storylines involving the New York criminal organizations and the corruption in the NYPD, but gave Henson, Clarke Peters, and Kevin Chapman some of their best moments. There were some choices I didn't agree with - throwing in a romantic connection between Reese and Carter so late didn't make sense for either character - but the episode directly following her death was one of the show's finest, with an especially strong final bow for Enrico Colantoni's crime boss, Elias.

All terribly pat, but the resolutions were satisfying enough. And it cleared the board to start pursuing a new set of villains starting at the midseason. Peter Collier (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Vigilance gave us urban terrorists with a sympathetic cause, John Greer (John Nolan) and Decima Technologies embodied evil corporations run amok, and the shady government unit that originally commissioned the Machine got a figurehead in Control, played by a deliciously malevolent Camryn Manheim. It would have been easy enough to leave them as shallow comic-book villains, but what I really admire about this show is that every one of them is given shades of gray. Control is a sadist, but a patriot at heart. Collier is likewise a true believer in his cause. Greer, amusingly, shares a lot in common with earlier versions of Root.

Speaking of Root, she and Shaw got the lion's share of the character development this year since Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi have joined the cast as regulars. I'm a little sad that Root became saner and more reasonable with every appearance under the influence of the Machine, but she's still enough of a rogue and wild card that I enjoy her contributions immensely. It was a good move to make her a largely independent force, often taking care of business for the Machine on separate missions, and only intersecting with Finch's group when necessary. Shaw was a harder sell, since she came off as such a blank in the second season. However, a couple of good episodes played up her emotional detachment as a defining trait, which works reasonably well, and her snarky rapport with Reese and bouts of trigger-happiness can be a lot of fun. If the Nolans have had trouble with their female characters in the past, it's not apparent here.

Accommodating the larger ensemble has meant less emphasis on the personal stories of our do-gooders and more emphasis on the plotting, and "Person of Interest" has always done a great job of it. At this point we've only had about half a season with the Samaritan storyline, where a competing surveillance system without the Machine's safeguards has been pitted against our heroes by Decima, through the manipulation of Vigilance and the government. However, it feels fully developed, exciting, and momentous, despite unfurling over only a handful of episodes. While the treatment of the surveillance issues has been shallow so far, at least the show has successfully introduced a very different point of view to consider, and I expect that we'll see improvements as the Sentinel story goes on. The finale was one of the highlights of the year, completely fleshing out Collier and delivering a game-changing set of events that have set up a promising Year Four.

There were weaker spots, as usual. "Person of Interest" stuck to its procedural format for most of the year, and some of the cases of the week were bland filler. Finch and Fusco got good spotlight episodes, but the ones for Reese felt off. He had a few minor storylines, including a brief leave of absence early in the season, that felt inconsequential. It's clear that Jim Caviezel is getting tired of the role, and the show's creators are taking steps to reduce his screen time so he can take on other work. Though considering his most recent big screen role in that Schwarzenegger and Stallone team-up pic, Caviezel shouldn't give up his day job.

"Person of Interest" remains one of the better action shows on network television, and is as strong as its ever been. In the beginning I wasn't sure it could sustain itself for so long, but a little reinvention and fresh blood has gone a long way toward keeping it feeling fresh and vital. And the timeliness of the subject matter doesn't hurt either.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Year One

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far, and the recent "Captain America" movie.

I still don't like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as much as I want to like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," but there's no denying that it has improved drastically over its first season, to the point where I am happy to keep giving it more chances to prove itself. The most problematic characters, Ward and Skye, have both been upgraded considerably. We finally got a compelling - or at least credibly threatening - villain in Bill Paxton's John Garrett. After weeks of awkward references and name-dropping, the show's storylines were properly integrated into the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, namely the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Oh, and Patton Oswalt and Samuel L. Jackson dropped by too.

When you look back over the whole season, everything that the creators spent all those early, tedious weeks setting up paid off wonderfully in the end. The Clairvoyant, the Centipede project, Deathlok, Quinn, Raina and the mystery of Coulson's resurrection all came into play. The trouble was that "Agents" had a lot of trouble getting the ensemble to mesh right, and its biggest weakness is still the main characters. There was the episode that was supposed to be devoted to Agent May's backstory that mostly consisted of other characters discussing her backstory. There was Agent Ward's traumatic past, conveyed through some of the most unclear, poorly shot flashback sequences I've ever seen. And while it's fine to have romantic pairings in the mix, they need to be well-delineated, or you end up with a mess. Did Fitz have a crush on Simmons or Skye or both in the early part of the season? A lot of the plotting here was downright clumsy.

As a result, there was way too much story to churn through and not enough of the fun, interpersonal team interactions that were necessary to support it. Though there were some stronger early episodes like "The Hub," which paired up Fitz and Ward, I don't think "Agents" really started improving until well into the midseason, with "T.R.A.C.K.S.," and only hit its stride when the big reveals started coming in the wake of the "Captain America" sequel. The show remains plot driven instead of character driven, which I don't think is going to be sustainable in the long run, but they've bought some time to work on their team dynamics. As much as I like Clark Gregg, Agent Coulson hasn't made the transition from secondary character to main character as well as I'd like. Chloe Bennett's Skye is at her best in snarky badass mode (as opposed to wide-eyed newbie mode), and finally getting more chances to prove it. Fitz and Simmons could be better, but have been the most consistently entertaining out of the whole bunch. Agent May and Agent Triplett have potential, but have been stuck in fairly limited, functional roles so far.

And then there's Agent Ward, who was the kind of bland, generic, utterly typical action hero type who we see in way too many of these shows. And thank all the Whedons under the sun that it turned out that he was a double-agent for Hydra all along. Sure, he's got an angsty past and a bleeding heart that means he's going to be redeemed and returned to the fold at some point down the line, but that doesn't take away from the fact that for the final run of episodes he was an evil, murderous nogoodnik, and far, far more entertaining for it. I think that the MVP of the season remains Bill Paxton, though, for pulling off a slimeball who was even more fun to hate. Pity he had to go splat.

The big budget, snazzy special effects, Marvel Universe tie-ins, and a slew of notable guest stars were all meant to help the show distinguish itself from the crowd. I think that all of these elements helped to some degree, but only to a certain extent. The effects work and expensive fight scenes couldn't impress if the writing wasn't there to give them proper context. Tie-ins were only effective once the show really started to commit to them. The guest spots ranged from middling to exceptional. The show got a real boost from the appearance of Jamie Alexander as Sif, for instance, but others like Adrian Pasdar were little more than fun Easter Eggs for Marvel fanboys.

"Agents" does successfully stand alone as a separate entity apart from the rest of the Marvel Universe, but I think it has only just found its footing and there's still a significant danger of backsliding into bad habits next season. And it's important to remember that we're getting a big influx of comics-based shows in the fall with "Gotham" and "Constantine," not to mention Marvel's "Agent Carter," which will be sharing the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." time slot during their hiatus. The novelty factor isn't going to work twice, and "Agents" is going to have to step up to the challenge.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dark Delights of "The Double"

I didn't know that Richard Ayoade had this kind of movie in him. The British funnyman made his directing debut in 2010 with "Submarine," a poignant, sweet, occasionally weird coming of age story with some Wes-Anderson-y flourishes. With "The Double," he's gone in a different direction completely. Here we have a dark and paranoid adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Double" that shares similar aesthetics with Roman Polanski's 1970s psychological thrillers, most notably "The Tenant."

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker drone for a Kafkaesque data collection company, who lives such an anonymous existence that the security guards at his place of employment don't recognize him even though he's been working there for seven years. He pines after the girl in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and tries to curry favor with his boss Mr. Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn), with little hope of success. Then one day a new employee, James Simon, shows up at the office. He is everything that Simon is not: affable, charismatic, and confident. He also looks exactly like Simon, down to their wardrobes, though no one else seems to notice. At first James is friendly with Simon, even helpful, but he soon reveals sinister ulterior motives.

It is a little difficult to categorize "The Double," which looks and acts like a thriller, but is not particularly concerned with behaving like one. Instead, it's better to think of it as a very dark, wry, comedy about a hapless loser who inhabits a particularly strange and alienating universe. I love the way the world of "The Double" has been constructed, with its dark, moody atmosphere and endless bureaucratic frustrations. Nearly all the action takes place at night, or within dimly lit interiors. The technology and the television broadcasts we glimpse suggest that we're some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there's a sense of timelessness to the murky environs, which mix Eastern European utilitarianism with peppy Japanese pop songs. The sound design is wonderful, full of oppressive ambient noises that dog our hero wherever he goes. Are they being magnified by Simon's subconscious?

Jesse Eisenberg delivers two fine performances as Simon James and James Simon with ease. These are familiar types that we've seen him play before, but he does a commendable job of keeping them entirely distinct every moment we see them onscreen, and without leaning on many gimmicks. I liked that there's really no attempt made to explain the presence of James, or delve very deeply into any existential questions about why he exists. Once it's established that no one else takes any notice of the fact that James is a double, his role is to be Simon's antagonist. Larger philosophical questions are not off the table, but they're not the point. "The Double" is primarily concerned with Simon's narrative rather than grappling with metaphysics, as the recent Denis Villeneueve film "Enemy" did.

I think that's why I prefer "The Double" to "Enemy," which is also about a pair of inexplicable doubles who wreak havoc on each other's lives. "Enemy" has more high-minded ambitions, and is full of obtuse symbols that demand dissection and interpretation. "The Double" is a far more straightforward piece of work, but with more nuanced execution. It takes the time to build its characters, acquaint us with their lives, and lets us get deeper into the protagonist's screwed-up head. There's actually a nice little romance that plays out reasonably well, which let me connect emotionally to Simon and Hannah, whereas the characters in "Enemy" came off as utterly cold, flat constructs.

My only quibble with "The Double" is that the story plays out almost entirely as expected, and the stylization makes it feel a little too slick. The movie comes off as slight as a result, a genre exercise that doesn't really pack the kind of punch that it could have. However, it is such a unique bit of filmmaking and Richard Ayoade makes a lot of interesting choices here. When searching for other films to compare it to, I kept pulling up art house obscurities like KieĊ›lowski's "A Short Film About Love" and Scorsese's "After Hours." The aforementioned "The Tenant" is probably the most obvious precursor, with its endless insomniac night scenes and deeply confused hero.

So I suspect that "The Double" is one of those odd little films that only an art house nerd could really love. The subject matter and the style are so far off the beaten path that even with a pair of recognizable young actors like Eisenberg and Wasikowska as the leads, it doesn't have much hope of attracting a larger audience. That's a shame, because Richard Ayoade deserves kudos aplenty for puling this one off. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
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Sunday, May 11, 2014

We Are On a Break

Boy, it's been a crazy week. The real life stuff I was anticipating blowing up went and did just that, eating all my free time and making it impossible to sit down and write anything coherent. I was hoping to have a few more weeks of my regularly scheduled media blogging schedule, but that's definitely no longer in the cards. So, I'm announcing that Miss Media Junkie is going on hiatus early. You'll still get sporadic updates, mostly reviews, for the rest of the month. From June to the end of August, I'll be almost totally incommunicado. And while I anticipate picking up blogging again in September, you won't be seeing nearly the same rate of posts.

So, we're going to adjust how things are done around here more fundamentally. Focus is now going to shift to quality over quantity. Arbitrary word limits and targets are out the window, meaning you might get a 200 word entry, or a 1,000 word one, depending on what I'm writing about. However, I promise I will actually proofread things before they're posted and make corrections as needed. I also plan to go back and update or fix some of the content in older posts - the Great Directors list needs updating, for instance.

This has been a long time in coming, and I admit I'm not sure what this blog is going to look like a few months down the road. However, rest assured that I'll keep writing - because I really don't think I have it in me to stop completely.

Happy watching.


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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why I Want to Keep the VCR

My SO has been in a spring cleaning mood, and has been purging our household of old electronics. His old laptop was sent packing a few days ago. Old hard drives are up for sale on Craigslist. He's been after my older electronics too, namely a slightly outdated Nikon point-and-click camera that I bought secondhand a few years ago, and my DVD/VCR combo player that hasn't been hooked up to a television since we moved last year. I successfully argued the case for the camera - it works perfectly fine and it's always good to have a backup, but he wasn't so convinced about the DVD/VCR. I understand his arguments, which are perfectly reasonable. It's not a small player, we have at least three computers between us that will play the DVDs, and I have kept a grand total of one VHS tape that I haven't played in years, but I'm hanging on to out of nostalgia. Heck, it's been about five years since I've regularly used the DVD part of the player too. Digitize that VHS tape and we don't need the player at all.

I remain reluctant, however. I can easily imagine that at some point in the future some situation where I'll need a VHS player. Home movies that never got digitized. Obscure movies that never went to DVD or Blu-Ray. There's the lurking fear that once I toss the player it'll be difficult to acquire one again. I understand that the need for a VCR is extremely rare and is going to become rarer in the future, but I'm not ready to let go of the technology yet. I understand how to use a VCR in all the ways I never figured out how to use a DVR or any other digital recorder. I had a little TV/VCR combo all through grad school that I used regularly and became very comfortable with. Yes, the quality is awful. Yes, I really should learn how to use the new technology that's made the VCR obsolete. Yes, at some point, even with adapters, new televisions won't even be able to accommodate devices like mine anymore. But still, there's a certain sense of security in knowing that I have a backup option if all the others fail, so it's very hard to let go.

I remember my mother kept her record player in the closet for at least a decade after we stopped using it. At one point the stylus broke and she never got it fixed. There were only about half a dozen records in the house, and I only vaguely remember her actually playing them when I was very, very young. Disney's "Mousercise" exercise album was my favorite. Cassette tapes and players were the staples of my childhood, which very slowly disappeared from life at some point in the last decade. I think the last cassette player I owned was the one that was built into my indestructible old alarm clock, which was finally junked about two apartments ago. The last cassette tape I remember listening to was a mix tape that a friend made for me in high school, full of Weird Al Yankovic and Dr. Demento novelty songs. I have great memories of me and my brother laughing our heads off at "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh." I think I still have it in a cardboard box somewhere, though I have no way of playing it now. It's a nice reminder of good times.

Then again, I'm all too familiar with the negatives here. Dad was a hoarder. Kept all the old computer equipment around for far longer than he should have. He still had a massive CRT from the early '90s monitor when my mother was using a flatscreen. There were always at least three printers, the oldest one an ancient dot matrix dinosaur where the paper still had the perforated edges. At one point we had three VCRs in the house, two that worked, and one that was always going to be fixed when someone found the time. We actually did get some use out of it because it filled in as a substitute tuner for one that broke in the television in my parents' room. Of course, this required a lot of monkeying around with the settings on both devices to actually be able to watch anything, but it did work. So yes, I've seen what getting too attached to your media players looks like, and it's not pretty. And I don't want that to be me in ten years.

I will toss the VCR eventually. I promise I will. Just... not yet. I'll throw out my junior high speech competition trophies, my reams of old notes from college, and the half-finished crochet projects. But I need a little more time to say goodbye to the VCR.
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Friday, May 2, 2014

My Top Ten "Batman: The Animated Series" Episodes

The Marvel folks have been dominating the discussion of superheroes lately, but I'll always be a DC Comics kind of gal, thanks largely to watching "Batman: The Animated Series" at just the right time when I was a kid. It remains my favorite incarnation of "Batman" and it's high time it got its own Top Ten List. This was one of the harder lists to pare down, and I've got a long list of honorable mentions as a result. As always, entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters as single episodes.

"On Leather Wings" - The show's pilot episode is also one of its greatest, that sets the tone and style for the entire series. The mad scientist story is straight out of the earliest incarnations of Batman, but the modern sophistication of the writing and the more adult handling of the characters quickly establishes that "Batman: The Animated Series," (Henceforth "BTAS") had far bigger ambitions than most syndicated weekday cartoons.

"Heart of Ice" - Perhaps the best example of how "BTAS" reinvented, added to, and permanently enriched the "Batman" universe. Mr. Freeze was a gimmick villain until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm got their hands on him, giving Victor Fries a tragic, crushing backstory that humanized him utterly. Add the score, the winter imagery, and that amazing Michael Ansara performance - Freeze's cold heart was never a gimmick again after this.

"Feat of Clay" - A two-parter with some of the strongest animation in the entire series. The tour-de-force finale sequence is pure, glorious nightmare fuel. However, it's the villain origin story, which could easily be mistake for an old fashioned '40s or '50s noir mixed with sci-fi horror, that really packs a punch. The shapechanging Clayface was one of several of the Batman villains who I found legitimately frightening in these early episodes.

"Almost Got 'Im" - A collection of our favorite villains gather to play cards, banter, and swap "Almost got 'im" stories about the Caped Crusader. It's a light, funny episode with a lot of great punchlines. The individual stories aren't all that memorable, but the framing device and the character interaction is priceless. I especially love how Two-Face's giant penny story provides an origin for the beloved Batcave fixture. And that he's still got the hots for Ivy.

"Heart of Steel" - I love Barbara Gordon in this, far more than I enjoy her subsequent appearances as Batgirl. Maybe it's the wonderful creepiness of the Rossum Robots (gotta love that reference), patterned off Miyazaki creations of all things, or the paranoid "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" story. Or maybe it's the heightened intensity of the action and suspense. Because the enemies were robots, they got away with much more violence here than usual.

"The Laughing Fish" - My favorite Joker episode, because it's so wonderfully absurd and twisted. The poison gas that leaves its victims with disturbing perma-grins, the copyright scheme, the wacky commercial with Harley singing the Joker Fish jingle, and Batman going up against a shark - it's just one outrageous moment after another. This was also the episode where Harley Quinn really became Harley Quinn, and I love the character to bits.

"If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?" - I always had a thing for The Riddler, having cultivated a similar know-it-all personality as a kid. Riddler's origin story is not one of the better ones the show came up with, but I was always a sucker for the puzzles, and the writers came up with some fun ones for this episode. This was also the first time I remember seeing Robin in the series, who could usually be counted on to lighten things up a bit.

"Harley and Ivy" - Was there ever a pairing of female villains as perfect as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy? Bad girls were never so much fun to watch, and I couldn't help rooting for Ivy's twisted feminist schemes, even though I knew she was in the wrong. I mean, what woman hasn't secretly dreamed of having a bazooka on hand when harassed by a pack of hooligans? Their comeuppance, or course, is poetic justice at its finest - Gotham's Finest, that is.

"House and Garden" - I don't know why, but Poison Ivy episodes always seemed to involve the most horrific monsters and concepts. "House and Garden" has some of the most jaw-dropping. The story starts out innocuously enough, one of several second season episodes dealing with familiar villains' apparent attempts at reforming themselves. Ivy appears to have given up crime and become a suburban mom, but of course all is not what it seems.

"Harley's Holiday" - And finally, we end with a comic romp with my favorite "BTAS" character, Harley Quinn. Unlike Poison Ivy, Harley really does try to reform when she's released from Arkham. Unfortunately she's picked up some bad habits after all that time with Mr. J. I had a touch time choosing between this and the previous Harley episode, "Harlequinade," but this one gives Harley a chance to show what she's like working solo, and I appreciate the hopeful ending.

Honorable Mentions: "Christmas With the Joker," "Robin's Reckoning," "Two-Face," "Joker's Favor," "The Clock King," "I Am the Night, "Read My Lips," "Appointment in Crime Alley," "Eternal Youth," "Trial," "Mad as a Hatter," "Harlequinade," "Second Chance," "Catwalk," and "Over the Edge."
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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Indispensible iCheckMovies

I realized I haven't written much about the one movie site that I access almost daily and have been the most active on: iCheckMovies. Sure, Letterboxed has been getting a lot of press for its social networking features, and GetGlue/TVTag has its fans, but when it comes to cold, hard, data crunching, I haven't found anything better than iCheckMovies. This is a no-frills, Web 1.0, cinephile-centric site that gets the data I want in front of my eyeballs faster and better than all the rest.

There are two things I use the site for primarily. The first is keeping track of what I've been watching. The second is finding more movies to watch. Plenty of sites use the checkbox approach that let you indicate the movies that you've seen, usually with an option to rate them. IMDB is one example. Letterboxd uses the film diary approach, which insists on tying viewings to specific dates. Film diaries are good for some viewers, but in my case I don't keep track of the dates that specifically. In my own records, I only so go far as to indicate what year I've seen a film. I can usually pin down the approximate month I've seen a film because they're listed by viewing order, but I rarely have any need to know anything more accurate. iCheckMovies keeps track of the particular date I checked a movie, which is often helpful, but doesn't assume that's when I actually watched it the way that Letterboxd does.

More importantly, iCheckMovies allows me to sort everything by various criteria that I don't keep track of myself. For example, if I want to profile a particular filmmaker for a "Great Directors" post, my first step is usually figuring out how many of their films I've seen. iCheckMovies will pull up a list of everything someone has directed and show me which titles I've checked off. It's harder to do this in Letterboxd, which uses an interface that shows you poster icons for each movie - and with older and foreign classics it often takes some work to figure out which poster goes with which title. You can also sort the iCheckMovies lists by year or name or how often they show up on the site's collection of movie lists.

Ah yes, the lists. One of the main features of iCheckMovies is that they offer a collection of Top Lists, such as the IMDB Top 250, the various AFI Top 100 lists, and more ambitious ones like the They Shoot Pictures Don't They Top 1000 list and the BFI Sight & Sound lists. There are country-specific lists, genre-specific lists, lists of highest box office grossers and cult classics, and more. Currently there are 155 official Top Lists, and one of the main metrics for how movies are ranked and sorted is how often they appear on the lists. "Citizen Kane" shows up on 31 lists. "Dumb & Dumber" shows up on three: The Empire Magazine Top 500, The All-Time Worldwide Box Office, and the iCheckMovies Most Checked lists.

It's convenient having all of these various lists in one place, with the ability to sort and order the entries. I've been working on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list, for instance, and keeping track of my progress is a breeze. I can see the whole list ordered by date or title or popularity or runtime. I can filter out the titles I've already seen, or the ones that I haven't. All the individual movies have their own pages with basic info and links to IMDB. The site may lack visual sophistication, but it's extremely user friendly and useful. It also has a particularly devoted user base that is instrumental in checking for bugs and data errors, alerting people to updates, and creating a wealth of great unofficial lists.

I find the site a great source for recommendations. iCheckMovies not only keeps track of all the movies you have seen, but all the movies that you haven't seen, and will order them for you by how often they appear on the official Top Lists. When I'm at a loss for what to watch, sometimes I'll just open up that "Unwatched" list and scroll through the titles until I see something that looks interesting. This obvious isn't going to work for everyone, and I suspect it takes a certain breed of movie nerd to really get the most out of the site.

And I'm certainly one of them. At the time of writing, there are only two official lists out of the 155 on iCheckMovies where I haven't seen any of the entries. One is a Top 100 Korean films list that doesn't have any entries later than 1970, and the other is the list of winners of the Stallion of Yennenga prize from biannual Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

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