Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's Gloriously Nutball "Noah"

2014 has seen a resurgence in Bible epics and Christian-themed films. By far the most interesting of them has been Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which reimagines the famous story of the flood and the Ark as a gloomy meditation on environmentalism, human extinction, and religious fundamentalism. Oh, and it also has giant rock monsters epic battle sequences, and miracle sex, because Paramount is footing the bill and needed something that would look good on IMAX screens. There was reportedly quite the struggle behind the scenes over the final cut of the picture, which is apparent from the often schizophrenic tone and content that winds up onscreen. "Noah" clearly made concessions to the studio, but Aronofsky's work hasn't been compromised. And though it's a strange, uneven, and problematic film, I'm so very happy that it exists.

Aronofsky's interest in the Noah story clearly isn't with the spectacle, which often comes across as an afterthought, but exploring the psyche of a man who is receiving orders from his Creator. Played by Russell Crowe, Noah is burdened with interpreting a series of visions he receives, driving him to devote his life and his family's lives to the creation of the ark and the fulfillment of a divine plan that he believes requires the total extinction of the human race. The last bit troubles his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who worries for the future of their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). As the ark nears completion and the flooding is imminent, Noah and his family are threatened by the armies of Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who will do anything to ensure his own survival.

I've seen Paramount get some flak for pushing to make the film more palatable, but I'm pretty impressed that they let Aronofsky make a big-budget film this difficult and downright weird. "Noah" is about as far from the sanitized, pandering version of the Bible story we all heard as children as it possibly could be. Aronofsky humanizes the man, putting his moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas front and center. For a good portion of the film he's more villain than hero, descending into self-righteous zealotry that drives him to do some pretty heinous things. Aronofsky also doesn't shy away from the cruelty of the Creator, who wipes out nearly all of humanity in the deluge, including people who are clearly innocent or redeemable. There are holes in the logic of narrative everywhere you look, but Aronofsky seems to purposefully draw attention to them, provoking the audience to question the characters' behavior and assumptions.

I love that "Noah" contains so many of these little moments of subversion. The standout sequence in the film is when Noah tells his family the story of Creation. What we hear is the Biblical version, but the accompanying visuals are the scientific version of how the earth was created and how life began and evolved on Earth. Every time the movie threatens to turn into a mindless action spectacular, we get pulled back into the more personal struggles of Noah and his family. Aronofsky avoids most of the obvious epic imagery we associate with the story of Noah. The animals arrive two by two, but are then promptly sent into a drugged stupor and largely inconsequential for the rest of the picture. When we do see something awe-inspiring, it often has negative connotations - the sight of the massive ark bobbing on the rising floodwaters is accompanied by choruses of screams from the people left to drown outside.

Not all the changes work. In fact, some of the new twists and reinterpretations are downright baffling, particularly the family drama aboard the ark that plays out once the flood has been unleashed. Aside from Noah, the characters are pretty flat, but the cast is strong enough to mostly make up for it. I don't think Noah's wife is ever addressed by name, but Jennifer Connelly makes a strong impression with her few big moments, including a confrontation scene that is the best part of the film's problematic final third. I also liked Logan Lerman as Ham, Noah's middle son, who had bits and pieces of an interesting arc, but needed more fleshing out, and Emma Watson as Ila, whose character is a dodgy addition to the story no matter how you look at it.

There's something almost campy about the dynamics of the situation, and the way that our loyalties are abruptly meant to shift multiple times as events play out. Is Aronofsky commenting on the self-seriousness of other Bible movies? Is he highlighting the absurdity of the story's mechanics and internal logic? With another filmmaker I might be inclined to see the cheese as cheese, but we are talking about the director who made "Black Swan." There's so much to dig through and debate and examine, something I didn't expect. And that's why, even if "Noah" is such a ball of competing interests and half-baked ideas, I still found it a fascinating piece of work. I think Aronofsky's least successful films are the grander scale ones like "The Fountain," which "Noah" most closely resembles, but I find it impossible to begrudge him for his ambitions.

Aronofsky's "Noah" may not be a good movie, but it's undeniably Aronofsky's "Noah." And that's enough.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Unique "Boyhood"

There have been a lot of superlatives heaped on Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a film shot over twelve years, following a core cast that aged in real time along with its fictional characters. The main character, a boy named Mason Evans Jr., is played by Ellar Coltrane, who was cast when he was six, and is eighteen at the end of the film. There have been a few documentaries that have followed children through their lives in a similar fashion, but this is the only narrative feature I've heard of that has attempted the conceit. Linklater has had experience with this, though - he's the director of the "Before" films that chart the relationship of one couple through multiple installments across two decades (and counting). "Boyhood" is far more ambitious, though, seeking to capture the process of growing up in a single three-hour feature.

The narrative is ordered the way memories are, which is to say that there are sometimes clearly laid out sequences or progression of events, but other scenes seem disconnected from anything else. It often feels like a collection of vignettes, little peeks into the characters' lives. We see the occasional milestone in Mason's life, but other moments are incidental - a visit with his grandmother or a casual conversation with a friend. Sometimes the inclusion of certain moments seems a little random, similar to how we remember some banal things more clearly than the big events, but there's no question that all these experiences are foundational. We first meet Mason at six, living with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) reappears in their lives after an extended absence to take the kids for outings on weekends. We follow them through the years, with some of the leaps forward in time more obvious than others. There are no obvious indicators for when specific events take place, or what ages the kids are at any given point, but we begin in 2002, and there are occasional glimpses of news reports or snatches of pop songs to act as signposts along the way.

Linklater avoids manufactured moments of too twee profundity for the most part, opting for a fairly candid, unfiltered look at American boyhood. Most of the adult characters casually curse. Mason never really gets along with his sister, but little is made of this. At one point there's a vigorous discussion of sexual experiences that could only be had by immature teenage boys. Major dilemmas remain unresolved and people react in ways that are entirely contrary to what we've been taught to expect in other movies about children. There's a refreshing lack of sentimentality throughout. For example, Olivia asks Mason to paint a door frame, not remembering (or perhaps not caring) that Mason and Samantha's height measurement marks have been collected there. Mason does as instructed, without a fuss, and hardly any reaction at all. There are a few twists and turns that feel a little too calculated, and one involving a restaurant server that is downright cliche, but otherwise Linklater succeeds in creating a story that feels like it's happening to a real boy in the real world in real time.

Mason isn't particularly interesting as a subject, and Ellar Coltrane's performance is uneven, particularly towards the end when he becomes more active. However, it works for the film. So much of the role is reactive, as most of the events of Mason's childhood are completely out of his control, as they are for most children. His early attempts at asserting himself as a teenager are awkward and uncomfortable. However, the cumulative effect of seeing him go through all these different stages of life, seeing his relationships change, and his sense of self develop is extraordinary. I was surprised at how invested I was in Mason's life by the final scenes of the movie. Just as vital as Coltrane are Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason's parents. We also see their characters navigate twelve eventful years onscreen, getting older and changing bit by bit until they're both very different from how they were when we first met them. Arquette in particular gets to portray a wonderfully complex, imperfect human being who wants to do right by her kids, but also makes some terrible mistakes out of that same instinct.

The twelve-year production of "Boyhood" has been the subject of much discussion. Richard Linklater didn't start out with the narrative mapped out, but let it evolve year by year as the film progressed. This is very noticeable, especially as the film is more aggressively structured in the beginning and gradually switched to a more passive, documentary style. The final scenes in particular, when Mason is eighteen, are more meandering and incidental. They are also quite a bit longer than any of the other segments, as Linklater wraps up a few loose plot threads and puts cappers on the major character arcs. Though most of the film seems to fly by, I was definitely feeling the three-hour running time by the end. However, this is only a minor stumble in a unique, rewarding film that by and large succeeds at what it set out to do. I don't think this is one of Linklater's best films - it's far too chaotic and self aware at times, and you can tell when the kids started to lose interest in the project. However, there's truly nothing out out there quite like it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Top Ten "Gargoyles" Episodes

It's the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of "Gargoyles," Disney's ambitious action-adventure cartoon, created at the height of the syndicated animation boom of the 1990s. I was a big fan in junior high, and it was one of the first online media fandoms that I was really active in. At the same time, it's the last series I remember really enjoying from the Disney Afternoon block, and it served as a bookend of sorts to my cartoon-loving childhood. The show itself remains fantastic. I mean, it's a fantasy series full of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" actors and geeky Shakespeare references! How could I not love this? As always, the following entries are unranked and ordered by airdate. And I reserve the right to totally cheat and count two-parters (and three-parters and five-parters) as single episodes.

Deflagrate muri tempi et intervalia!

"Awakenings" - It was tradition for Disney Afternoon shows to launch with a feature-length adventure that was then broken down into regular episode sized chunks for future airings. "Gargoyles" kicked off with "Awakenings," which really set the bar for both animation quality and the sophistication of the story. "Gargoyles" impressed me immediately with its complex world, conflicted heroes touched by tragedy, and a pair of cunning, memorable villains in David Xanatos and Demona. If "Gargoyles" had never gotten farther than the premiere, I'd still count myself a fan.

"Temptation" - One of the ways that "Gargoyles" distinguished itself from the rest of the action cartoon crowd was having very smart, very capable antagonists. Here, Demona shows off her skills as a manipulator after Brooklyn has a run-in with a group of humans that leaves him vulnerable to suggestion. Her little tour of the worst parts of humanity is impactful without being preachy and gives a lot of insight into her character. All the stuff with the motorcycle is great too, showing how the younger gargoyles are continuing their exploration of the modern world.

"The Edge" - Demona was my favorite character in the series, but the signature "Gargoyles" baddie was David Xanatos, whose complex plans rarely left him without a way to turn any situation to his own advantage. TvTropes went and named several related tropes in honor. "The Edge" sees Xanatos recently released from prison and ready to regain the upper hand in his dealings with the gargoyles. The return of the Steel Clan robots and the skirmishes that he has with the gargoyles aren't particularly exciting, but Xanatos's attitude toward the events is fascinating.

"Long Way to Morning" - This episode was the first indication that though a millennia had passed, "Gargoyles" wasn't done with the medieval era. As Goliath and Hudson go up against Demona in the present day, Hudson recalls a similar mission they undertook in the past, that resulted in him giving up the leadership of the clan. Stories told in flashback can be tricky, but this is a strong outing that reveals a lot of the characters' shared past history, introduces a new villain, and gives the underappreciated Hudson some much-needed time in the spotlight.

"The Mirror" - My favorite episode by far. Demona summons Puck - yes, that Puck from Shakespeare - and tries to get him to do her bidding. Puck happily twists every command she gives him, resulting in gargoyles becoming humans, humans becoming gargoyles, and all sorts of "Midsummer Night's Dream" style chaos inflicted on the residents of Manhattan. The animation in this episode is particularly good, juggling multiple character designs, transformations, and magic spells. And Brent Spiner's mischievous Puck is an absolute delight, especially when he's infuriating Demona.

"Eye of the Beholder" - Xanatos seems to become more complex every time he appears onscreen. Here, he delivers one heck of a memorable marriage proposal to Fox, which appears to be part of his latest scheme testing out a magical artifact called the Eye of Odin. Or is it? But Xanatos's love life is only part of the fun, as it's Halloween, which means that it's the one night of the year that the gargoyles can go out in public. I love the different relationship dynamics in play here, and that in the end Goliath gets to deliver one of the best comebacks in the entire show.

"High Noon" - Elisa is sleep-deprived and stuck dealing with Macbeth and Demona's latest plot largely on her own during the daylight hours. It's a great look into how our favorite detective juggles a busy life full of conflicting responsibilities. After the great chase sequence she had in "Awakenings," I always thought that Elisa got in on the action far too rarely. Here, Elisa is not only the main driver of the action, but gets to be a serious badass. It's also a great Demona episode, highlighting her strange relationship with Macbeth and how she's been dealing with Puck's little gift.

"Future Tense" - I love jaunts into nightmare futures, or as "Community" refers to them, "the darkest timeline." "Future Tense" is one of the last of the notorious "World Tour" episodes where Goliath, Elisa, Angela, and Bronx spent a huge chunk of the second season traveling the world and meeting various one-off characters. Mysteriously, then end up in a Manhattan decades in the future, where Xanatos has become a tyrant, and Demona has joined the surviving gargoyles under Brooklyn as a freedom fighter. It's all wonderfully dark and weird and twisted.

"The Gathering" - My favorite of the big multi-parters in the second season, where Goliath temporarily allies with Xanatos in order to stop Lord Oberon's assault on the Eyrie building because of the big fat spoiler I'm not going to reveal here. It's a pair of episodes that deliver so much payoff for all the ongoing storylines - the World Tour finally ends with a round of reunions, the Gathering at Avalon gets underway, and Xanatos's family issues get sorted out. There's also a big reveal that is telegraphed far in advance, but that completely knocked me out when I first saw it.

"Vendettas" - Yes, it's a clip show. However, it's such a clever way to do a clip show, creating a new character out of three incredibly minor background extras. Vinnie the ex-security guard, who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, retells portions of past adventures from his point of view, and then finally gets to exact his revenge on the gargoyles. The rest of the episode involving Wolf and Hakon and a magic battle axe (wtf?!) isn't nearly as interesting, but it's worth slogging through their antics to get to Vinnie.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dubious Days for Dreamworks

Two years ago, Dreamworks Animation got ambitious, releasing a schedule of their upcoming animated features through 2016. Three films were scheduled for every year, more than any other studio has attempted. Two years later, we're about halfway through the original list, and I thought I would take a look at how Dreamworks has done so far. Before we get started, I want to point out that nobody ever manages to meet projected schedules like this exactly. Release dates get moved, projects get cancelled, and titles change. PIXAR, for example, only releases one animated film a year on average, but recently had to bump back "The Good Dinosaur" from 2014 to 2015, pushing "Finding Dory" to 2016.

So while the rearranging of the Dreamworks slate might look dramatic at first glance, the moves have been pretty typical. From the list linked above, the biggest changes that have occurred with the films released so far is that "Me and My Shadow" was sent back to development, and "Peabody and Sherman" pushed back from November 2013 to March 2014. Now here's the future slate as projected in 2012:

Happy Smekday! (Nov. 26, 2014)
The Penguins of Madagascar (March 27, 2015)
Trolls (June 5, 2015)
B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations (Nov. 6, 2015)
Mumbai Musical (Dec. 19, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 18, 2016)

And here's the slate now:

Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26, 2014)
Home, formerly Happy Smekday! (March 27, 2015)
B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (June 5, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dec. 23, 2015)
Boss Baby (March 18, 2016)
Trolls (Nov. 4, 2016)
Captain Underpants (January 13, 2017)
Mumbai Musical (March 10, 2017)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 9, 2017)
The Croods 2 (Dec. 22, 2017)
Larrikins (Feb. 16, 2018)
Madagascar 4 (May 18, 2018)
Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves (Dec. 21, 2018)

Note that "How to Train Your Dragon 3" was recently moved back from 2016 to 2017, which is why the schedule is currently lopsided with two films in 2016 and four in 2017. Expect one or more of the 2017 titles to get moved eventually. Looking at the new list compared ot the old one, you can tell which projects have been going well and which ones haven't. "B.O.O." is now in a plum spot in summer, 2015 while "Mumbai Musical" has been delayed over a year. There's also been a shift in scheduling priorities, so now the original projects are more likely to be in spring slots, and the sequels positioned for summer and holiday release dates. The ratio of original projects to sequels has turned in favor of the sequels, sadly. Of the six new titles on the slate, half are sequels, including "Madagascar 4" and "Puss in Boots 2," the latest installments of long-running franchises that I had hoped were finally done for good.

My biggest concern, however, is with the quality of the movies, and frankly, Dreamworks' output over these last two years has been underwhelming. "Rise of the Guardians," "The Croods," "Turbo," "Peabody and Sherman," and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" have all been decent films, but nothing particularly interesting. "The Croods," directed by Chris Sanders, is easily the best of them, a stone-age comedy with good design work, strong character fundamentals, and a unique take on the concept. "Guardians," "Turbo," and "Peabody" were all middling, forgettable features. "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is the one that worries me the most, though. I saw it over the summer and found it adequate enough as a film, but couldn't shake the sense of how unnecessary it was. The first "How to Train Your Dragon" is one of Dreamworks Animation's best films, and turning into this massive franchise with multiple sequels and television shows has really strained the goodwill I originally had for it. Aging up the heroes and introducing larger scale conflicts for the sequel just seems to be trying to make the story conform to a blockbuster template that doesn't suit it. I had a similar reaction to the second "Kung Fu Panda." To date, "Madagascar 3" is the only Dreamworks sequel I that's matched up to the first movie. I much prefer what Disney has been doing lately - creating new shorts to follow up to their massive hits like "Tangled" and "Frozen," but refraining from feature-length sequels. Well, at least for the time being.

Among the other new projects, "Larrikins" is an Australian outback themed musical, "Captain Underpants" is based on the popular children's book series, and nobody knows anything about "Boss Baby," except that "Madagascar" helmer Tom McGrath is directing it. Though all of these films have as much of a chance at greatness as anything else being developed by any other animation outfit, it's harder to get excited about them than it was two years ago. Dreamworks hasn't done a very good job with the source material it's tackled recently, including the "Guardians of Childhood" books and Jay Sherman's "Peabody and Sherman" cartoons. I'm not happy to see that they're sticking with their plans to release three features a year for the foreseeable future, because the time crunch looks to be one reason for the falling quality of their output.

The next film up on the schedule is "Penguins of Madagascar," a spinoff which should do well. However, the "Dragons" sequel underperformed this summer in spite of fairly minimal competition for the younger audience, so it's not a sure thing. What will be more interesting is what happens in 2015, where Dreamworks is putting two original films and the third "Kung Fu Panda" in the midst of one of the most competitive movie years we've ever seen. PIXAR will be back, also with two original films. My guess is that the Dreamworks films are going to make money, but won't be real competition for PIXAR and Disney - and that's a shame.

Dreamworks Animation continues to display lots of potential, but it's been a while since they've released a truly impressive film, and they're only been consistent in being very hit-or-miss.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Legend of Korra," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for everything that's aired so far.

"The Legend of Korra" has always struck me as being a little too concerned about being distinctive. It spent the first two seasons exploring corners of the "Avatar" universe that we hadn't seen before - Republic City and the Spirit World. While this was all fine and good, I always thought that it was a shame that "Korra" didn't make more use of the places and characters we'd gotten to know in "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Sure, too much of these elements would have been a terrible distraction, but they still held so much potential. The third season finally gave me what I wanted, sending Korra, Tenzin, and the rest on an eventful journey through some familiar territory, and encountering old friends from the previous series. And I'm glad that they waited until now to do it, after the characters and their relationships have all been pretty well established, and the writers understand how they work.

Because even better than opening up the rest of the "Avatar" world for adventuring, I'm happy to report that "Korra" finally has all the little issues with its core cast ironed out. Take Mako and Bolin for example. They spend a significant chunk of the year off on their own, but the two of them have each other to play off of. After getting tepid romance storylines and a mediocre investigation subplot, Mako finally feels like a well-rounded, consistent, and likeable human being. He's firmly established as the straight-arrow straight-shooter who serves as the straight man to goofy Bolin, and the brothers have never been better onscreen. Then there's Asami, who was sadly wasted too often the Other Woman during the first season, and mostly sidelined for the second. She and Korra get paired up this year, becoming a formidable action duo and kickass besties. Korra herself has worked through a lot of her adolescent growing pains, though not all of them, and is more competent, more levelheaded, and living up to her Avatar press more than ever. She's also much easier to root for than she has been in the past, not being saddled with wonky characterization and messy personal arcs. This is also the best season for Tenzin and Jinora, who get to grow so much by being placed in very different situations than we've seen them in before.

The stronger characterization reflects a big improvement in the show's writing. "Korra" has been at a comparative disadvantage to the original "Avatar" series for many reasons, the biggest being that it doesn't have that one, epic, overarching storyline building up through multiple seasons. There hasn't been anything nearly as compelling as Aang's fight against the Firelord, but the third season of "Korra" offers a narrative that puts it in the same ballpark. This year we learn that the opening of the Spirit Portals at the end of the last season unexpectedly gives many non-benders the ability to airbend. So Korra and Tenzin set out to rebuild the Air Nation, journeying through the Earth Kingdom to recruit new airbending students. However, one of the new airbenders is a villain named Zaheer, whose new powers allow him to escape from prison, free his associates - three of the most powerful benders in the world - and rally their forces to come after Korra and her friends. Zaheer isn't particularly more evil or interesting than past baddies like Amon, but he's ruthlessly effective, and willing to take extreme measures.

And four new high-powered bender villains means spectacular bending battles in abundance. The action scenes this year are so much fun, more intense and more dramatic than ever. Studio Mir's animation is great stuff, and the designs are fantastic. I especially like the new waterbender Ming-Hua, who has no arms but can make herself water tentacles to compensate. We're also introduced to other characters like a street kid, Kai, who is one of the new airbenders, and the Metal Clan, a group of metalbenders who have created their own city. Not everyone gets as much screentime as I'd have liked, but it's all well balanced and everyone is thoughtfully used. Tenzin's siblings, for example, really only feature in three or four episodes, but the show gets a lot of mileage out of their appearances. Kya's not particularly important to the season, for instance, but she's one half of one of the best action sequences of the entire series.

I'm glad that there's still one season left of "Korra" to go, because it's finally the series that I was hoping for, and I'm very excited about where it's going. Year Three ends on a semi-cliffhanger, and there has been a lot of groundwork laid for a truly exceptional finale. I doubt we'll be getting another sequel series, considering Nickelodeon's puzzling handling of the distribution this year, so Year Four will most likely be our goodbye to the entire "Avatar" franchise. It's a bittersweet eventuality, but I can't wait to see more of "Korra."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Orphan Black" Year Two

Spoilers for everything that's aired so far.

Sophomore outings are hard, especially when they're following up to premiere seasons as strong as the one that "Orphan Black" had. That great momentum, fueled by putting its heroine into one hot situation after another, and introducing memorable characters in quick succession, was unsustainable in the long run. Too many players, too many loose ends, and way too many conflicting plot details make Year Two of "Orphan Black" an ungainly thing. We now have four major protagonists with their own separate stories, and it often feels like we're watching four different shows. You can tell that the writers are actively reaching to keep characters like Paul, Vic, and Art in the mix, ignoring past events and past motivations when it suits them. "Orphan Black" has always been a messy, flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants genre program, where some suspension of disbelief is always necessary. When the thrills are chills are executed well, continuity hiccups aren't a big deal. However, the show definitely stumbles in some major ways this year and makes some mistakes that are too egregious to ignore.

The Dyad Corp, headed by the Pro-Clone Rachel and Dr. Leakey, emerged as the new Big Bad at the end of the last season. This year was mostly a tug-of-war between them and the clone club over control of Sarah and Kira, with a deteriorating Cosima stuck in the middle, desperately searching for a cure to her illness. But first, there are all manner of tangents and diversions. Sarah has to go find her daughter, track down the original scientists who worked on the cloning project, and finally goes ahead with her plan to skip town. Cosima, meanwhile, remains in bed figuratively with Dyad to study the clones and literally with Delphine (Evelyn Brochu), her handler and colleague, despite the ambiguous motives of both. Allison and Helena barely intersect with them this year. Allison remains nominally connected to the Dyad storyline through her husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun), but the bulk of her screen time is spent dealing with booze, rehab, and musical theater. Then there's Helena, whose return from the dead I cheered. She gets stuck with a new crop of Proletheans, lead by the supremely creepy Henrik Johnson (Peter Outerbridge), who intends to exploit her biology in a far more more direct fashion than Dyad.

As a result, the show has not only separated out and isolated some of its major characters, but some of the basic elements of its narrative. All the horror seems to be concentrated in Helena's story. The bulk of the comedy goes to Allison, which is a problem when it comes to Felix, the show's best comic relief, because he's still largely interacting with Sarah. Cosima gets the romance and the hard science-fiction. Sarah gets the action. All of these stories more or less work on their own, though Sarah's narrative is wildly haphazard. All deliver moments of fun and excitement. However, the joy of "Orphan Black" was watching the clones interact with each other, and seeing how the various genre tropes could be mixed and matched. There were simply too many episodes this year where everyone was off in their own little corner. Many of the highlights came when the clones crossed paths - Sarah and Helena's road trip, the clones passing themselves off as each other, and of course the dance party.

The new additions to the cast were mostly strong ones, and I especially enjoyed Andrew Gillies as Professor Ethan Duncan and Zoe De Grand'Maison as Henrik's daughter Gracie. Michael Huisman's Cal, Michelle Forbes' Marion, and Ari Millen's Mark seem to be getting set up for meatier stuff next year, so I don't have a problem with their relatively brief screen time this year. However, it felt pointless to bring back some of the existing characters like Art and Paul, who had severely reduced roles. Michael Mando was downgraded to a guest star, but ironically Vic was much better used this year thanks to Allison's rehab stint. I also love what they're doing with Donnie, who has become a great foil for Allison. Tatiana Maslany, however, is still the main event. It's still difficult to get my head around the fact that she's juggling so many such vastly different, distinct performances every week. Rachel is a great addition to her repertoire, a twisted ice queen with some of the year's best scenes to play with.

But then there's Tony, who was only around for one episode, but who I have to bring up because we can't ignore him or what he represents. Tony the transgender clone was one of several ideas that surely looked good on paper, but that "Orphan Black" completely bungled with poor execution. Tony was such a failure of a character on every level, and such a weird digression from the rest of this season, you have to wonder how he made it to the screen. Tony comes across as oddity for oddity's sake, a poorly thought out new twist that was deployed too quickly, and then bundled up and sent away into potential obscurity just as quickly. I'm torn between wanting him to come back at some point, to justify the show spending a whole episode setting him up, or hoping that the creators cut their losses and let him be forgotten as soon as possible.

There were a lot of other Tonys and potential Tonys this season, storylines and characters that fell apart or stopped making sense. What's particularly infuriating is that many of these issues could have been corrected or greatly improved with a little more care and attention. The second season of "Orphan Black" remained very entertaining throughout, and there were a lot of things that did work beautifully, but it was hard to ignore the multiple times it fell flat on its face. In general I like the show's daring and its uniquely female-centric, female-positive genre narrative. However, it's got a lot of work to do to get back to the level of the first season, which I now realize I cut too much slack to begin with. "Orphan Black" is starting to look more and more like a guilty pleasure, which is a shame. I hope that the creators figure out how to reverse course for Year Three.


Monday, September 15, 2014

"Game of Thrones" Year Four

Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.

Another year of "Game of Thrones," and another round of dodging spoilers for ten weeks. This year I failed to avoid the two biggest ones - the Purple Wedding and the outcome of the duel between the Red Viper and the Mountain - but remained blissfully oblivious about the rest. It was harder to spoil things this season, a year which can be characterized by a shrinking list of characters to root for and root against.

Let's start with the less successful storylines. Theon and Stannis had transitional years. Though we checked in on them, nothing major really happened that was worthy of much discussion. I found that Daenerys in Essos was mostly treading water too. She had some good episodes, grappling with the difficulties of rulership while trying to maintain the freedom of her newly liberated cities, but the whole year just felt like an extended pit stop on her way to conquering Westeros. Brandon Stark's little band is still trudging along with poorly defined stakes and giving me little reason to be particularly invested in what they're doing. It's nice that they've finally gotten somewhere, but too much of Bran's journey has been inconsequential filler.

The rest of the surviving Stark children were more satisfying to watch. Though the status quo never remains undisturbed for long in "Game of Thrones," this was the year that some of our major protagonists showed the most change and growth. Arya continues to become more disilliusioned and cynical. The latest in her long line of male mentors was The Hound. It's a fun pairing, with the two constantly at odds and Arya not bothering to disguise her hatred of him. After three seasons of being solely a pawn and victim, Sansa has taken her first steps toward becoming a real player in the game. Her escape from King's Landing and installation as Lady of the Vale gave her some of her best material in ages. It was also good to see Littlefinger back in the thick of things after limited appearances in the last two seasons. Finally, Jon Snow has been allowed to develop into a more viable hero figure, gaining some texture from heartbreak and warfare, and well on his way to becoming a good leader.

But let's be honest. The main event of Year Four was the Lannister family's dominance falling apart at King's Landing. The Purple Wedding, Tyrion being pitted directly against Cersei and Tywin over Joffrey's death, and the subsequent fallout from the persecution were thrilling. This storyline also gave us Oberyn Martell, one of the most enjoyable supporting characters to have appeared in the show so far. The bulk of the season's best scenes involved these characters, and we got some big payoffs to storylines that had been developing for a while, like Tyrion's relationship with Shae, Joffrey and Margaery's union, and Tywin's manipulations of his children. Sure, there were missteps like the infamous Jamie and Cersei rape scene, but all in all the Lannister conflicts were more compelling than everything else put together. Well, except Brienne, who got to set off on her own storyline this year. I love her to bits, and putting her with Pod is inspired.

The season's big showpiece episode was the attack of the wildlings on the Wall, which was reportedly more expensive and complicated to pull off than the Battle of Blackwater, but I found it far less successful. Jon Snow's adventures in the far north were always among the weaker parts of "Game of Thrones," so while the big episode was impressive, it also didn't have nearly the dramatic weight that it could have because the Castle Black characters were so much less interesting than the ones at King's Landing. The duel that took place at the end of the previous episode was far more gripping. Heck, it hardly even matched up to Brienne's bout with the Hound. It's only now that Stannis has gotten involved that I care about what's going on with the Night's Watch.

And I do care. With few exceptions, Year Four of "Game of Thrones" was tremendously successful. The story hasn't lost any momentum from last season, and the quality level has remained high. I think it also helped that there were relatively few new additions to the cast this year, and those few were well-used and memorable. The balance among all the different stories and characters was very good. There wasn't anyone I particularly wanted to see more or less of this year - maybe more of the Tyrells would have been nice, though what we did get of them was excellent. Often shows in their fourth seasons begin to stagnate, having spent too much capital on previous seasons, and start repeating themselves. However, there's so much going on in "Game of Thrones," that even if Danaerys is having a duller year, Jon Snow and Sansa and Brienne can more than make up for it.

And this is why I'm not particularly worried about losing Joffrey, who will surely go down as one of the most memorable television villains from the amount of rancor I've seen lobbed at the kid, or any of the others who didn't make it through this season. We have plenty of heroes and villains and indifferent types left in the story to be invested in. And if the show ever runs out, it's proven that it's perfectly capable of giving us new ones, if Oberyn Martell is any indication. As the series closes in on the end of its source material, I am a little concerned that the creators may be tempted to start dragging some events out in order to give Geoge R.R. Martin the time he needs to finish the books. However, there have already been several instances where they have diverged from the books or moved on ahead of them. And the show has been better for it.

Highlights? It was possibly Peter Dinklage's best year as Tyrion, but he was inevitably overshadowed by Pedro Pascal's Oberyn. The Stark girls are maturing before our eyes into a terrifying pair for different reasons, and we got some great moments from Gwendolyn Christie, John Bradley-West, Jack Gleeson, and Lena Heady. And I'm very sad to see Rose Leslie, Charles Dance, and Rory McCann leaving the cast. For all my impatience with Danaerys's adventures, they certainly looked more impressive than ever, with some of the most gorgeous set design and costuming I've seen yet. Similarly with "The Watchers on the Wall," even I'm not immune to the sight of a giant riding a woolly mammoth or that ridiculously cool business with the massive arrows.

Can Benioff and Weiss keep this up next year, as the story reportedly starts slowing down? I don't know, but I can't wait to see them try.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Checking In to "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

It's been a long time since a Wes Anderson film has gotten me completely on its side. I admired "Moonrise Kingdom," and its lighthearted youth romance almost won me over, but I didn't quite connect with it the way that many other fans were able to. It was the same with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Darjeeling Limited," and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." However, I'm happy to report that "Grand Budapest Hotel" hit all the right buttons.

Nested in a narrative structure that incorporates multiple time periods and several different layers of storytelling devices, we are presented with the tale of a young man named Zero (Tony Revolori), who becomes a Lobby Boy at the once famed Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, in the brief time between the World Wars. In this position he becomes the loyal protege of the hotel's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Zero and Gustave become caught up in a series of adventures after Gustave inherits a valuable piece of art from one of his elderly female admirers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), and is framed for her murder. The pair have encounters with many colorful characters as they struggle to uncover the truth, including a young pastry chef named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who Zero falls in love with.

I think the reason why "Grand Budapest Hotel" worked for me while "Moonrise Kingdom" and many of the other Anderson films didn't, has to do with the way it's executed. The artifice of the "Grand Budapest Hotel" universe is no less obvious than it was in any of the other films, but this time we're given a bridge of sorts from reality to Anderson's meticulous dollhouse dreamscape. Zero's adventures in the 1930s are relayed by the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to a novelist (Jude Law) in the 1960s, who writes a book about them in the 1980s, which is being read by an unknown girl in the present day. Thus the events have obviously been colored by being relayed second-hand, by the nostalgia of two different storytellers, and by being adapted into different mediums. This is nicely emphasized by Anderson using different film aspect ratios for the brief scenes in other time periods. Thus, it's easier to accept the characters being larger than life, the madcap plot developments, and the occasional jaunts into the absurd and the fantastic.

The change of scenery is also helpful. I find the continental aesthetics of "Grand Budapest Hotel" tremendously more appealing than Anderson's usual evocations of the vintage Americana of his youth. Here the amalgam of different period European designs, nods to various 30s and 40s cinema classics, and a fantastic color scheme full of bright pinks and purples and turquoises reveal the director's style is far more malleable than I've given him credit for. His composition skills and eye for detail are as impressive as always. What really sells it, though, are the performances. Ralph Fiennes playing the romanticized caricature of the ultimate concierge is a delight, and makes you wish that he did more comedy. He's a wonderful addition to Anderson's regular troupe of actors, many of whom also make appearances here. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are the villains, Edward Norton is a train inspector, Harvey Keitel is a convict, and Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman pop by for minor roles.

Another major change is the humor. This is the closest Anderson has come to making a pure genre film, in this case an old-fashioned screwball comedy. While there's still a good deal of the deadpan absurdity and ironic dialogue of the "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tennenbaums" variety, there's also lots of straightforward slapstick and gags in the mix, which are much easier to appreciate. Since "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson has been incorporating the wilder imagery and visual language of animation into his films, and he's particularly successful at it here - more successful than his efforts when he was making an actual animated film, in fact. There's an escape sequence that delivers so much rapid-fire physical humor, it's like watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon starring Ralph Fiennes. Then there's a brief chase sequence rendered with stop-motion animation, which shouldn't work as well as it does.

And yet, the story retains a strong emotional core and Anderson's usual explorations of parent-child relationships are firmly front and center. This is one of his more sentimental films, a tribute to filmmakers and filmmaking of eras long past. And I'm always a sucker for these kinds of movies, which is probably the biggest reason why I liked "Grand Budapest Hotel" so much. I don't think its his best, but it's the first Wes Anderson picture in ages that I've enjoyed wholeheartedly. And best of all, it's proof of Anderson growing and changing as a director, perhaps for the better.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

An Argument For "Transcendence"

"Transcendence" was one of my most anticipated films of 2014. It's the directing debut of Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister, stars Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, and features an original science-fiction script that made it onto a recent edition of the Black List. And while it's clearly a very flawed piece of work, "Transcendence" didn't disappoint me in the slightest. I think that the overwhelmingly negative reactions I've seen can be chalked up to a couple of things, the most obvious being a major case of mismatched expectations. From the names involved and the intriguing premise, everyone went in expecting a cerebral action film, or possibly some sort of loftier hard science-fiction drama. Instead, "Transcendence" is better characterized as a modern-day retelling of "Dracula," one part monster movie and one part romantic melodrama.

Johnny Depp's Dr. Will Caster may be on all the posters as a dying man who uploads and merges himself with an artificial intelligence, but the film's protagonist is clearly Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), Will's loving wife. She is the one who must grapple most directly with the question of whether the new AI really is her husband, or if the entity is simply using his data to mimic him for its own sinister purposes. We first meet the Casters as they are working to achieve the technological singularity or "transcendence," which attracts the attention of an extreme anti-technology activist group RIFT, led by the grim-faced Bree (Kate Mara). When Will falls victim to one of their attacks, Evelyn and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) help create the AI Will Caster. Max is our other POV character, who realizes the destructive potential of the new AI creation, and that though RIFT's tactics are heinous, their fears are not unfounded.

"Transcendence" certainly looks the part of a big-budget action movie, with its copious use of CGI effects, impressive action set-pieces, and a narrative that builds up to a big clash between two well-armed opposing forces. However, action fans are likely to become bored with the slower stretches dealing with Will and Evelyn's relationship, and all the talk about the ethics of AI. It's also apparent immediately that the science in this science-fiction story is mostly technobabble. We see the AI Will Caster accomplish some completely ludicrous feats, supposedly thanks to his control of advanced nanomachines. It's really more akin to him having supernatural powers, and "Transcendence" works better if you think of the AI as an analogue of a demon or a ghost, slowly gaining influence and amassing power as it finds a foothold in the physical world. The trouble is that "Transcendence" isn't interested in being a horror film, which probably would have served the premise better. Instead, it's far more preoccupied with visual spectacle, constantly showing off beautifully designed environments and neat little graphic concepts.

And the spectacle is certainly impressive. If you're a fan of Pfister's work on the Nolan films, he's certainly working up to his usual standard here. The integration of the effects is particularly impressive. The AI Will Caster eventually builds himself a laboratory that functions like a giant iPad, allowing him to project his image on any surface. His interactions with Evelyn are fascinating, as the AI tries to approximate the human Will but keeps being thwarted by its unnerving, casual omnipresence. I think the film would have worked better if the scope of the story were smaller and more intimate, perhaps cutting out the heavy-handed apocalypse storyline completely and simply exploring the changed relationship. The apocalypse is where the bulk of the film's problems lie, where there are the most noticeable storytelling problems and logic leaps. The core of more personal, philosophical film about AI is established pretty well here, but the typical action movie folderol isn't set up well, so it comes across half-hearted, and just feels like a distraction.

With the basic construction of "Transcendence" in such a bad state, there's not much that any of the actors could do to mitigate the damage. They all try their best, including Johnny Depp, who has been accused of phoning in his performance, but I found he did a very good job of getting across the eerie ambiguity of the AI, which always speaks in a low, soothing tone, and uses images of Will to represent itself that tend to look a little too glossy and perfect. Rebecca Hall hasn't gotten nearly enough credit for her work as the conflicted Evelyn, who sells her character's unusual state of mind and personal dilemma. All the other characters, sadly, are too underdeveloped to say much about, including a federal agent played by Cillian Murphy and a colleague of Will's played by Morgan Freeman. I was especially disappointed that Kate Mara's domestic terrorist got so little to do beyond monologuing about the dangers of giving the machines too much power over humanity. The section of the film featuring her and Paul Bettany clearly didn't get as much attention as the rest, and it shows.

Still, "Transcendence" has a lot of strong elements and I admire Wally Pfister's ambition and commitment. I think he shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker and his first directorial effort is certainly worth seeing. The film is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, and more importantly an interesting mess. And those are always more worthwhile than the merely competent mediocrities.