Tuesday, October 28, 2014

All By My "Selfie"

There aren't many shows this season that I've been interested in enough to check out. There's too much that I need to catch up on, and little room on my plate for anything new. However, the chatter around one ABC sitcom did catch my attention. "Selfie," a modern-day social-networking-centric spin on "My Fair Lady," stars Karen Gillan and John Cho as Eliza Dooley and Henry Higgs respectively, a pair who live at opposite extremes when it comes to internet usage. She's a superficial Twitter addict who lives too much of her life online and lacks real, meaningful personal connections. He's an uptight Luddite workaholic who is a genius at rebranding but a mess in relationships. Henry takes on Eliza as a new project and as she learns to be less self-centered, he learns to loosen up. And because we have John Cho as the first Asian-American romantic male lead in an American sitcom, Asian solidarity mode is definitely on.

The pilot was terrible, but there are enough good things developed in the subsequent episodes to hold my interest. My fascination with "Selfie" is currently twofold. First, I like the leads, who are both getting a well-deserved shot at the larger spotlight after lots of good supporting work. John Cho in has bounced from series to series over the past few years and I've been hoping that he finally lands a steady gig somewhere. Karen Gillan, who was such a big reason to keep up with the recent seasons of "Doctor Who," definitely deserves a higher profile too. The pair have good chemistry together and are vital in rescuing two unlikeable characters from themselves. Eliza was downright grating when introduced and has been softened up considerably since. Meanwhile, Henry was entirely too self-assured and has benefited greatly from the addition of more neuroses. "Selfie" is clearly still in the process of getting the characters balanced and the tone of its snarky, rapid-fire, topical humor sorted out.

I'm also enamored of the weird, exaggerated, social-media savvy universe that "Selfie" has created, that satirizes common forms of internet usage and internet culture. The show has been hit-or-miss with this so far. Nobody aside from the most vapid teenagers talks like Eliza does, with a vocabulary full of strung-together hashtags and buzzwords. Henry would never be chided for taking a personal stand against Facebook, particularly in light of recent privacy concerns that have prompted many high profile figures to swear off social media. However, the show does make some interesting observations about how we live in the era of Instagram and tweeting, and I wonder if it might end up being prescient of how people will interact with each other in another ten years or so. There's a lot of good material here that is well worth exploring. It's only scratched the surface of the generational divide, for instance. Henry is a Gen Xer, the last pre-internet generation, while Eliza is firmly Gen Y.

A big weakness that needs some attention is the thin roster of supporting characters, which could end up making or breaking the show. The single-mom receptionist Charmonique (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) has been the most promising of them. She's had the benefit of a whole episode devoted to her to get her past the sassy black mom stereotype. Eliza's nerdy neighbor Bryn (Allyn Rachel), however, is way too one-note for the amount of screen time that she's gotten. It's always nice to see David Harewood, but as Henry and Eliza's boss he's barely made an impression so far. Other recurring characters are various co-workers who are clearly going to need some time to establish themselves. However, since "Selfie" has been among the lower rated new shows, they may never get the chance to.

Honestly, I'm not sure that it should. The show's "Pygmalion" premise needs to change if it's going to sustain the series longer than a season. While I like Gillan and Cho, these aren't parts that they're particularly well suited for. I'm missing Karen Gillan's Scottish accent in particular. "Selfie" has steadily been improving from week to week, but it may not be quickly enough. I've been enjoying it though, and I'm glad that everyone involved got this shot.


Monday, October 27, 2014

"True Detective" Gets Its Man

This review is long overdue, but it took me ages to finally see the last two episodes of HBO's "True Detective." Minor spoilers ahead.

The best thing that I can say about "True Detective" is that it doesn't feel like a traditional long-form television serial or a feature film. It's found this wonderful balance between the two, where it enjoys all the high production values and star power of a studio-produced project plus all the slow burn, leisurely-paced, character study goodness that recent television series have been so good at supplying. Despite the shenanigans that HBO pulled at the Emmys, this is a miniseries of exactly the right structure and length for the story it's telling, and one of the best I've seen in a long time.

There's been a lot of talk about the participation of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as the leads here, because they're high-profile movie stars who are still in great demand, and it means that the line between film and television work is fading quick. What's important to note is that their star power is secondary to the fact that these are two excellent actors working at the top of their game. Harrelson and McConaughey play Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, a pair of massively flawed Louisiana ex-detectives who are being asked to recount the events of a murder case they worked in 1995 to investigators seventeen years later in 2012. The present-day framing device and adds a great deal, revealing that Marty and Rust are highly unreliable narrators and that time has taken a heavy toll on both their lives since their stint as lawmen and partners. The case itself, involving grisly murders and child abductions, is not particularly notable, but the in-depth examination of Hart and Cohle as they work through all the twists and turns is fantastic.

Rust Cohle is one of the highlights of the McConaissance, a drug-addled, philosophy-spouting atheist with an enormous amount of pain and loss fueling an asshole attitude and dialogue full of priceless non-sequiturs. It's the showier of the two parts and McConaughey gives it everything he's got. Rust sounds like McConaughey and shares a great deal of the same lackadaisical charm, but his demons are awfully close to the surface and they frequently get away from him. It's always a mystery how sane he'll be from one minute to the next. Woody Harrelson's in a more familiar role as the family man who just can't keep his libido under control and hates having his hypocrisy pointed out to him. "True Detective" would have been a treat with either of them as the sole lead, but their interactions are what really gives the show the edge.

The actors have plenty to work with too. Eight hour-long episodes spanning seventeen years give creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga the necessary room to construct a detailed universe with a lot of chances to experiment and explore. The structure of the show can change from week to week, and there's time for things like Rust's drug trips and the long take fight sequence at the end of the fourth episode. The labyrinthine mystery offers twists and turns that land the protagonists in all sorts of odd places. There are a few moments that almost cross the line into magical realism, and there's a wonderful ambiguity about some of the mechanics of how things operate. It's a dark, vile world to be sure, but one that's not without it's own strange beauty and moments of wonder. I love the Southern Gothic imagery and primordial atmosphere that suggest, perhaps, monsters could exist there, just offscreen.

However, as more than one critic has pointed out, no effort was made to give much character development to any of the secondary or minor players, most notably Marty's wife Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan. It's frustrating because Monaghan's an actress I enjoy, and she's stuck in the thankless, perfunctory role of the domestic nag. She does a good job, and Maggie is a better version of this character than most, but her material is still terribly paltry. Also, all of Rust's philosophical musings and the incorporation of various mystical and religious symbols makes "True Detective" seem deeper than it actually is. It's easy to go down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole as the show goes on, but "True Detective" never strays too far from being a police procedural, and wraps up in fairly conventional fashion. It's a little disappointing, but only if you expect more from "True Detective" than what it's offering.

For lovers of a good, grisly crime story in the vein of "Zodiac," and "In Cold Blood," or for anyone who just likes watching great actors at work, this is not one to miss.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Did HBO and CBS Just Kill TV?

It's been a fun couple of days, watching "Game of Thrones" fans rejoice, Netflix stocks freefall (quick disclosure here that I still own a few shares), cable service providers gnash their teeth, and various technology, media, and business analysts tabulating the fallout. HBO has announced that their online HBO Go streaming service will become a standalone, no cable subscription required, content platform starting in 2015.

There were a lot of signs that this was coming. There was the skyrocketing popularity of HBO shows through online piracy, particularly "Game of Thrones." There was HBO's deal with Amazon Prime to offer a good chunk of their library titles, including "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." There were the rumblings that fellow premium stations Showtime and Starz were looking to launch their own standalone streaming services for their content. And perhaps most importantly, there was Netflix churning out new content to replace what the studios were no longer interested in providing to them, and doing a pretty good job of it. Or as Ted Sarandos put it, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us." So logically, HBO had to make this move eventually.

After all efforts by the old guard to keep subscription streaming services and on demand binge-watching from becoming the new normal, it's become clear that the war has been lost. Netflix and Amazon Prime are here to stay with growing legions of subscribers, and the cord-cutting shows no signs of slowing down. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. HBO has enough content and enough clout that it can make waves with its own streaming service, though I don't think that it's going to be a real competitor to Netflix the way some are predicting. "Game of Thrones" aside, HBO is still after a more niche, elite audience, reflected by the announcement that it's going to be charging at least twice the going rate of other streaming services. The one that's really getting screwed here is Amazon, which is losing the exclusivity to all that HBO content that it licensed only a few months ago.

But as juicy as the HBO Go announcement is, the arrival of CBS All Access, which offers on demand CBS content and streams of live programming from several affiliates for $6 a month, is potentially even more of a game changer. The decades of classic shows it will offer is nothing to sneeze at. However, what's really intriguing is that it's offering live programming online, the kind of service that Aereo was trying to provide before the Supreme Court quashed it. None of the other major networks have tried this yet. Fox, NBC, and ABC owned Hulu, for instance, offers no local news or sports. The live streams would fill those last few gaps in programming, creating access to shows that cord-cutters currently do not have access to without the traditional media mechanisms. Now that it's been proven that there is demand for the streaming of live broadcasts, CBS's movie isn't all that surprising either.

Other streaming services are in the works that are sure to be following soon. Sony is hot to start one with Viacom content. DirecTV and Verizon have publicly made comments about their interest, and there are rumblings that one or more of the other major television networks might follow in CBS's footsteps. Cable and regular over-the-airwaves television aren't going to be impacted immediately, because traditional viewing audiences are slow to change entrenched habits and there are many places where the high speed internet required to use these services isn't readily available. I expect that the old media guard will be substantial players for decades to come. However, as streaming options increase, on-demand programming now has more potential than ever to match or overtake traditional television offerings.

Streaming services are quickly becoming the new television channels, and consumers are getting the ability to create their own content bundles. And that means the day that a la carte programming becomes a reality is right around the corner. I just need The Food Network and maybe SyFy to get onboard with one of these new services, and that'll cover everything I feel I miss from not having cable.

This may truly be the beginning of the end of television as we know it.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Simple is Good in "The One I Love"

"The One I Love" is one of those movies that you're better off not knowing very much about before you watch it, but my enjoyment wasn't hampered at all by knowing a few minor facts about its nature going in, so I'll describe the story in broad terms, and you can stop reading at the end of this paragraph if you don't want to know even that much. I did enjoy it very much, with special kudos to the complex performances by Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss.

Sophie (Moss) and Ethan (Duplass) are a couple with a relationship in crisis. They visit a therapist (Ted Danson), who suggests that they take a vacation together to a secluded retreat to try and rekindle the romance. The trip forces the pair to confront themselves and each other, and question the nature of their attraction and commitment. At this point I should mention that "The One I Love" is a genre film - not a science-fiction horror thriller or an action spectacle, but the kind of quieter, more thoughtful small-scale genre story that might be mistaken for one of the more charming, low-key episodes of "The Twilight Zone." This is an absolutely no-frills production, with only three actors that ever appear on screen, one major location, and clearly not much of a budget to speak of. However, first-time director Charlie McDowell does a lot with a litte, neatly juggles some very complicated scenes, and it never feels like any corners are being cut.

Mark Duplass is one of the central figures of the mumblecore film movement, and much of the dialogue in "The One I Love" was reportedly improvised by him and Moss. However, the film is too polished and too precisely plotted to qualify as a true mumblecore piece. There's a wonderful sense of spontaneity to it, though, and the actors do a remarkable job of showing us all the ins and outs of Ethan and Sophie's relationship as it teeters on the brink. The genre elements that come into play are handled well, and the central "what if" is a fascinating one. Still, the movie is better when it's focused on the performances rather than the plot. The ending is also much too pat and predictable, but it's one that works in context.

I especially enjoyed the pairing of Duplass and Moss as our dysfunctional couple. I've been a fan of Duplass's onscreen work for a while, but this is the first time I've seen Moss in a feature film in decades, and she's excellent. Once she's done with the last season of "Mad Men" next year, I hope she gets the opportunity to do more work like this. The unusual premise demands a lot from the performances, very nuanced behaviors and interactions that I haven't seen many actors pull off so well. Moss gets some fun ambiguities to play with, and Duplass nails being that guy who thinks he's smarter than he actually is.

This is the kind of high concept, low-budget film that has benefited so greatly from the descending costs of special effects, though the use of them here is very restrained. Independent filmmakers are making the most interesting genre pictures these days, because the ideas and implications of the extraordinary can take precedence over the spectacle. "The One I Love" is the perfect example, a movie that takes an intriguing hypothetical and lets it play out thoughtfully and relatably on a human scale. It's so well grounded, I think it's a genre film that would work for people who generally dislike genre films. And it's one of the best films about relationships I've seen a long time.


Monday, October 13, 2014

And What Didn't Make the 2013 List

I write a companion piece to my Top Ten list every year to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of positive attention, in order to give some context to my own choices and provide a sense of where and how my opinions diverged from the critical status quo (not that there really is one, but the perception of a critical consensus existing has a surprising amount of influence). I find this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my choices, and I wish more critics would write them. Please note that I will not be discussing films listed among my honorable mentions like "The Wolf of Wall Street."

First up: the awards contenders. I think I've already said plenty about my dislike of "American Hustle," which was a collection of good performances that didn't have the support of a properly cohesive narrative. "Gravity" had been one of my most anticipated films for years, and I'm happy for it's success. However, it was far too much of a technical exercise for me, and lacked the strong human story that I associate with Alphonso Cuaron's best work. "Dallas Buyers Club" struck me as a perfectly decent social issue picture, and "Captain Phillips" was a perfectly decent action film, but that was as far as my appreciation went. "Blue Jasmine" was an interesting one, buoyed by a great Cate Blanchett performance, but I couldn't help thinking it would have probably been a better movie if someone other than Woody Allen had directed it. And though I admired it greatly, I couldn't connect to the nostalgic music or prickly main character of "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Smaller titles that won a lot of attention included "Fruitvale Station," which I admired for a few performances, but I also found that the concept was a lot stronger than the execution. "Short Term 12" was a promising effort, but there have been a lot of similar indies that have tackled the woes of troubled youth and their caretakers. Ditto "Mud," which failed to stand out from a crowd of good coming-of-age movies that came out around the same time. The mumblecore science-fiction film "Computer Chess" only succeeded in alienating me, and I have no idea how it's supposed to be a comedy. Then there's "Prisoners," which made the mistake of substituting intensity for thoughtfulness, and just became an unpleasant watch in spite of the intriguing moral dilemmas that it presented.

Foreign films are always an interesting category, as my opinions usually vary wildly from those of the major critics. Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmaster" struck me as beautiful but unnecessarily convoluted. I liked parts of "The Great Beauty," but found its social criticisms too inscrutable - maybe I would have liked it better if I were Italian and had a better grasp of their social problems. I wrestled for a long time with "Blue Is the Warmest Color," and while I enjoyed the film and didn't have particularly strong objections to its graphic sex scenes, I also found it overlong and occasionally grating. "The Wind Rises," Hayao Miyazaki's final film, was a disappointing bore, and oddly evasive about its subject matter to boot.

The film I found the hardest to cut was "Rush," which is the best thing that Ron Howard has made in a long time, and I thought Daniel Bruhl deserved to take home the Oscar. I also strongly considered Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Dance of Reality," but the plague curing scene was so off-putting I couldn't ignore it.
Others in the running that I wish had gotten more attention include "The Bling Ring," "Enough Said," "What Maisie Knew," and "Don Jon."

Finally, because it was far and away the biggest hit of 2013 with the most cultural impact, a brief note about "Frozen." It's definitely a step in the right direction for Disney Animation, but the movie felt rushed, uneven, and unconscionably sloppy in a few places. I didn't like it nearly as much as "Tangled" or "Wreck-it-Ralph," and it's actually one of the few big blockbusters I'd like to see a sequel for - because I know they could do so much better by the material.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013, Plus One

I made a special effort to see more foreign and independent films from 2013, and and there were a lot of opportunities to do so. Streaming options have improved remarkably over the past year, giving me access to many more titles in a more timely manner. There were more films that I didn't hear about until they were already available through Amazon or Itunes, and I took advantage of a few simultaneous releases that put a movie in theaters and on VOD at the same time. Though it took me until early October to see the last few titles on my list, there was nothing that I felt was missed or was resigned to saving for the "Plus One" spot for next year. I also saw more films in the theater during awards season, which impacted some of my choices - several of my picks play much better in a theater than they do on a smaller screen at home.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2013, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. This year, in order to get a title on the list, I cheated a bit. More on that later. Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list. And here we go.

Before Midnight - I expect that Richard Linklater fans will forget about the amount of trepidation there was towards the third entry in the "Before" series. "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" were such strong films, was Linklater tempting fate by making another sequel? Could he recapture the magic of the earlier films? "Before Midnight" not only matches up to the prior installments, but feels like something that Linklater was building up to all along. It's a complex, candid look at a mature relationship after the romance has cooled, and stays perfectly true to its very imperfect characters.

Upstream Color - Science-fiction films often gets too wrapped up in complicated technobabble and exposition, so it's nice to find one that refuses to explain anything at all. Instead, we're tossed into the deep end of a fascinating narrative about the life cycle of a mysterious organism, told through the main characters' subjective sensory experiences, and left to work out the details on our own. With the imagery and sound design used to convey many vital pieces of information, "Upstream Color" is one of the best examples of truly cinematic storytelling I've seen in a long time.

Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley's documentary about a long-held family secret unfolds into a unique examination of the filmmaker's personal history ad identity. Turning the camera on herself was brave enough, but then Polley proceeds to ask all the questions that we're supposed to ask when viewing documentaries - about the effect on the participants, the biases of the filmmakers, the relevance of the subject matter - and incorporates them seamlessly into the film itself. 2013 was a particularly strong year for documentaries, and "Stories We Tell" was one of the stand-outs.

Leviathan - Life aboard a commercial fishing vessel is not unfamiliar, thanks to shows like "The Deadliest Catch," but "Leviathan" offers a more immediate, immersive experience, creating a collage of sounds and visuals that is utterly transporting. The filmmakers put cameras on the deck of the ship, in the water, and skimming along the waves, to give us multiple views of the microcosm of the fishing operation. With no narrative, no characters, and only an epigraph to suggest possible themes, "Leviathan" might be confused for an experimental film instead of a documentary feature.

Her - The most ephemeral of romances, that takes place between one lonely human man and an artificial intelligence. The sentient A.I., named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johanssen, has no physical form and is only heard as a voice in her lover's ear. And yet, she is as real as he is, with her own wants and needs. The premise sounds dubious, but the pair share a warm, intimate, onscreen relationship that director Spike Jonze is entirely serious and sincere in portraying. It's gratifying to find that one of the year's best science-fiction films is also one of the most soulful.

The Act of Killing (Director's Cut) - And here's the entry where I cheated. Yes, the original version of "The Act of Killing" first screened at the end of 2012. However, the version that has won so much acclaim is technically the Director's Cut that premiered later, so it's eligible for my list. "Killing" is one of the most daring films I've ever seen, not only because it confronts the perpetrators of an abominable genocide, but reveals them to be largely ordinary, relatable human beings. The act of filmmaking itself becomes a subject of the film, blurring the lines between the documentarian and his subjects.

12 Years a Slave - Films about slavery as it existed in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries have been few and far between, but it's still surprising that it has taken this long for one to have been made by a prominent black director. But what sets this film apart from the others isn't the heroic black protagonist, or the intensity of the graphic content, or even Steve McQueen's art house bona fides. Rather, it's the unblinking focus on the horrors of the slave system that so many others have glossed over or ignored. "12 Years a Slave" may be an uncomfortable watch, but it's a necessary one.

The Selfish Giant - Clio Barnard's coming of age tale of two boys living in a poor community in Northern England, inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story. I couldn't stop thinking about this one long after I saw it, particularly the character of Arbor, a vicious youngster obsessed with money, whose humanity is slowly revealed to the audience. The film is a portrait of misery, but has one of the most uplifting endings of the year. Barnard is one of several promising British female directors who have been making waves lately, and it's hard to fathom that this is only her second feature film.

Nebraska - The ever reliable Alexander Payne's latest takes us to the economically depressed, culturally moribund American Midwest. An old man named Woody Grant, perfectly realized by Bruce Dern, returns to the Nebraska town where he spent his youth to collect on old dreams and confront the lingering ghosts of his past. His loving wife and sons are sure he's gone senile, but come along for the ride. And so begins the most melancholy of comedies, a slow-paced, good-natured visit with those older, ornery relatives everyone has, who can still manage to land some wicked jabs.

Museum Hours - I have never visited the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, but "Museum Hours" provides a lovely approximation of the experience. Watching the film feels like an idealized museum visit, with knowledgeable, thoughtful companions on hand to supply information about the various pieces being observed. And as it slowly transitions into a human drama, the film loses none of its gentle charm or inviting atmosphere. This is one of those quiet films that some will find interminable and boring, but others will find endlessly absorbing and refreshing.

Plus One

The Broken Circle Breakdown - From Belgium comes the painful love story of two musicians whose relationship is put in jeopardy by a terrible tragedy. With deft direction, a pair of excellent performances from the leads, and a soundtrack of American bluegrass music, "Broken Circle" is one of the most intense and riveting dramas in recent memory. Though a sizable hit in its home country, "Broken Circle" didn't gain traction internationally until it nabbed a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod last year.

And the Honorable Mentions

All is Lost
The Spectacular Now
Frances Ha
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Place Beyond the Pines
A Touch of Sin
Pain and Gain
Child's Pose
Spring Breakers


Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Belle" Presents a New Face

British costume dramas occupy their own familiar genre, one traditionally full of class and gender conflicts. However, its heroes and heroes have been overwhelmingly Caucasian, with the odd foreign prince or noble slave character appearing at the margins. "Belle" therefore immediately stands out from all the rest, because its titular heroine, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), based on a real 18th century woman of the same name, is of mixed race with dark skin. The daughter of a Royal Navy officer, raised in the household of her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a prominent judge, Dido is an anomaly in British society. Her family is painfully aware of her status, and so Dido is kept hidden away until she is grown up, and the question of her future becomes unavoidable.

It's always wonderful to find a film that defies easy categorization. Clearly "Belle" has antecedents as a period romance and as an abolitionist narrative. The film takes place in 1779, in the waning days of the slave trade. However, Dido's search for love and acceptance requires directly confronting the issue of her race and color. The sisterly relationship between Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who Dido regularly measures herself against, is at least as vital to the film as the romantic relationship that develops between Dido and the young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) she falls in love with. And as a woman of means and a certain social standing, her relationship to the slave trade is very different from that of the black victims we usually see in abolition stories.

The first two thirds of "Belle" are excellent as it follows the gradual blossoming of its heroine into a self-confident young woman who takes control of her own life and destiny. It is especially good at establishing all the hurdles, great and small, that she faces in her life, from the well-meaning restrictions set by her own family to the naked disdain expressed by outsiders. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance as Dido is very appealing, and she has no trouble carrying the film despite only a short list of previous credits. She also has no shortage of help from the supporting cast, which is full reliable players - In addition to Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, and Penelope Wilton all appear in smaller roles.

I'm sorry to say that the ending of "Belle" is very formulaic, much of it an obvious fabrication that plays up a lot inspirational, feel-good melodramatics so that the viewer can walk away with a happy ending. Long-ingrained prejudices seem to evaporate instantly, and social conventions are overturned willy nilly. It even has a courtroom scene that seems to have been plucked out of a different film altogether. Still, even the most tired and overplayed moments gain poignancy from the fact that we are seeing a person of color at the center of this story. Dido Belle is a unique character in cinema, whose very presence gives the film a weight and importance that is impossible to ignore.

There's a defining scene between Dido and Elizabeth where the two have a thinly veiled confrontation over their respective social disadvantages. The matter or Dido's skin color is never brought up, though it is clearly on both women's minds. The subject is too volatile to be addressed directly, even though the two are as close as sisters and Elizabeth doesn't think of Dido as her inferior. The fact that Dido can speak to Elizabeth as an equal is as rare and extraordinary as the fact that she actually takes the opportunity to do so. "Belle" would have been stronger if it had been subtler and resisted the urge to grandstand in the final act, but it does play many complicated moments like this just right.

This is the second film by Amma Asante, a Black British director who is quickly rising to prominence. Her ability to get strong performances from her actors and her choice of subject matter make her one to watch out for. Asante's next project looks to be a far more conventional thriller for Warner Brothers, but I hope that she keeps making films as unique and challenging and necessary as "Belle."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Capaldi "Who"?

At the time of writing we are halfway through the latest series of "Doctor Who" with Peter Capaldi having taking over the role of everybody's favorite time-and-space traveling alien adventurer. I've seen five of the six episodes, and that's enough to discuss some of the changes to the show. As always, it takes a while for me to get settled with any new cast members. Though I like Capaldi very much, I haven't really warmed to his Twelfth Doctor yet. In theory I like the different dynamic of having an older, grumpier, and far less cuddly Doctor at the center of the show. In actuality, I'm having a hard time sympathizing with the character, and it's only in rare moments that he really channels the fun, romantic, genre hero I've always seen the Doctor as being - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, there's been a vast improvement in the character of Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman. Clara has been humanized with more emphasis on her life as an English teacher at the Coal Hill School, plus she has a new love interest, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). It's a little trite, sure, but it works. Suddenly, Clara is relatable and interesting, where she'd been a little too slick and superficial in the previous season with the Eleventh Doctor. Now we can see the rough edges and the flaws. Or it could just be that she's the most familiar element in a show that's gone through some major changes. The focus of the writing has shifted from plot-centric to character-centric. There's clearly a new Big Bad that's been foreshadowed in several episodes, but the stories are centering around the changing relationships of Clara, the Doctor, and Danny.

And it surprises me how invested I've become in Clara and Danny's relationship in only a handful of episodes. Samuel Anderson is great as Danny Pink, a full, well-rounded character who is clearly not just the tagalong black boyfriend that Mickey Jones was. He's a little brittle, but tremendously charming and a good match for Clara. They're both characters who have extremely cool and well-put-together exteriors, but turn into fumbling adolescents when you put them together. It's adorable. Following the rocky fits and starts of their romance and their hectic lives as teachers, it's clear that Jenna Coleman is a much better comic actress than she is a dramatic one, and should have been getting more material like this from the start. I like Clara so much more as an ordinary teacher with real life woes than The Impossible Girl who seemed to exist only as the MacGuffin in a galactic mystery.

Capaldi's Doctor is still a work in progress, but he's a radically different kind of Doctor, much closer to the touchy, avuncular character as he was introduced in the '60s than his more immediate predecessors. Part of it has to do with his age - Capaldi is older and plays the Doctor more crotchety and eccentric as opposed to zany and oddball. The show's approach to the character has also changed. The Doctor always had his shades of gray, and was downright ambiguous in some of his darker adventures, but this time out, his moral compass has never been more questionable. When he asks Clara if he's a good man, it's a genuinely difficult question to answer. The Twelfth Doctor seems far less heroic and protective of humanity than the Eleventh or the Tenth. He's much more fallible, mentally unhinged, and unpredictable. And in the latest comic episode, he was the butt of a few jokes.

I'm also having some difficulty shaking off Peter Capaldi's previous work. I'm so used to seeing him as Malcolm Tucker, that when he's in any comedic context and not exploding into torrents of blistering profanity, it feels a little off. Also, one of his previous appearances in the "Who" universe was the much more morbid, horrific role of John Frobisher in the "Torchwood" miniseries "Children of Earth." The Twelfth Doctor hasn't had the opportunity to be nearly as intense yet. Rather, he comes off a little silly sometimes - I'm getting used to it though, and I expect the dissonance will get better with time.

But while I'm not sure where i stand on the new Doctor, I like the status quo of the new series much better than the back half of series seven. The supporting cast is stronger and more fleshed out, the stories feel more consequential and of a piece, and I'm genuinely curious as to where the show is heading next. I can see more possibilities for interesting adventures with this mix of characters.

I'm also a fan of the new opening title sequence, with its clear references to the older "Who" canon. A few extra electronic warbles make so much difference.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A "Maleficent" Mess

I'm of two minds about "Maleficent," a revisionist telling of the Disney's 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty" feature that first introduced the horned villain. On the one hand, the live action version of Maleficent portrayed by Angelina Jolie is an intriguing character and she is given some interesting things to do. When you compare "Maleficent" to other effects-heavy fantasy spectaculars that Disney has been making recently, like "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Alice in Wonderland," "Maleficent" easily tops them. Jolie is perfectly cast, gives a performance of exactly the right size and tone, and she carries the film easily. First time director Robert Stromberg's background is in effects work, and he does a perfectly fine job wrangling the CGI and giving Jolie the space she needs. The script, though entirely too family-friendly for my tastes, delivers some good messages for young girls and nicely subverts expectations on a few fronts.

On the other hand, as a fan of the animated Maleficent, I'm very disappointed at what Disney has done to one of their most iconic villains.

"Maleficent" follows the "Wicked" model, taking an evil character that gave many young children nightmares, and completely turning the narrative on its head so that we see the whole story from their POV, with events significantly altered to help make the villain into a sympathetic heroine. In the case of "Maleficent," we learn that the evil fairy was originally a good, protective sprite who was terribly betrayed in her youth by a young man who would eventually become King Stefan (Sharlto Copely), the father of Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), the Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent's story is one of trauma, revenge, and ultimately redemption, with hardly anything in it resembling the original "Sleeping Beauty." They only truly share one scene in common, where Maleficent arrives uninvited to the christening and curses baby Aurora. The live action version is a great recreation of the animated one, and a highlight of the film. It's a shame that little else in "Maleficent" matches up to it, as the cursing is now positioned as Maleficent's low point, when she does a terrible thing she will eventually regret. The fun of the original character was her showy theatricality and her intimidating presence, both of which are largely absent in this version. The Jolie Maleficent is charismatic and cinematic, but doesn't have anywhere near the same panache.

What really undercuts the film, though, is the weakness of nearly everyone that Maleficent interacts with. "Wicked" not only reinvented the Wicked Witch, but Glinda the Good, the Scarecrow, and many others. "Maleficent" does a decent job with its title character, but stumbles with King Stefan, who had the potential to be a much more interesting antagonist. Part of the problem is Sharlto Copley, who seems to get less effective with each film he appears in. Here, he goes from scummy to paranoid and that's about it. Then there are the three good fairies, played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville. You could make an argument that they were the real protagonists in the animated film, being the most active characters. In the live-action film they're charmless comic-relief idiots, and a real disappointment. Maleficent's raven, renamed Diaval and occasionally wearing a human form played by Sam Riley, gets a slightly expanded role. He's pleasant enough, but the movie doesn't do enough with him. That leaves Aurora as the only other character in the film who is successfully reinterpreted from the original, and she's easily the least changed of all. Elle Fanning manages to do a lot with very, very little.

Disney has gotten a lot of mileage out of revisionist versions of their old animated classics in recent years, and "Maleficent" is far from the most egregious case of one of their old classics getting reworked to the point where they barely resemble the original. The "Once Upon a Time" television series is full of examples. This one grates more heavily, though, because the potential for something more thoughtful and more powerful was there. Jolie and Fanning are excellent, the film's production values are fantastic, and Linda Woolverton's script hints at more thoughtful directions that the story could have gone in. There's so much more material from "Sleeping Beauty" that was completely ignored too - what became of Maleficent's terrifying mountain stronghold or her army of monsters? What happened to "all the powers of Hell?"

As family viewing fodder, this works fine. As CGI spectacle, it's less successful. There are some nice effects, like a sleeping Aurora looking like she's floating underwater while being transported through the woods by Maleficent's magic, but there are too many instances of crummy, clashing visual styles - it doesn't remotely match up to Eyvind Earle's production design on "Sleeping Beauty." And as a revisionist fairy tale, "Maleficent" just isn't as daring or as subversive as it needs to be to really make an impact. It's a little better than what Disney's been producing for this audience lately, but still not nearly as good as what they deserve.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

State of the Blog Post

This is a little overdue, but I wanted to get back into the groove of writing content before I addressed the future of this blog. A long story short, I no longer have the time or the resources to devote to writing that I had in the past, or to the consumption of media, frankly, so any ambitions I had about producing comprehensive and timely commentary have pretty well been squashed. I've seen a grand total of three movies in the month of September, and I haven't been keeping up with any television, with the exception of the current season of "Doctor Who" (more on that in a few days). The new fall season is in full swing, and I haven't seen any of the new pilots. Awards season is coming up, and I don't see myself setting foot in a movie theater for the foreseeable future. It's a little depressing, yes, but rest assured that my time is being well spent on other pursuits. And that doesn't mean I intend to give up on the blog or being a media junkie in the long run.

As I've mentioned before, my media consumption will largely be shifting from the first to the second window - rentals, streaming, and other home media options, so you'll still be getting my takes on the big films, but four to six months late. Look for my reviews of "Interstellar" and "Big Hero 6" next spring. I plan to keep up with a couple of my favorite shows like "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," but you'll probably see reduced coverage of the casual viewing like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "The Big Bang Theory" because I'll no longer be watching them every week. More shows will go on the "eventually" pile, like the new seasons of "Orange is the New Black" and "True Detective." Movies will get priority over television - I'm already making lists of smaller titles to track down later. Award show coverage is out - I fast-forwarded my way through the Emmys the morning after. I've also decided to stop chasing down the last few "They Shoot Pictures Don't They?" titles. The final tally is 975 out of 1000 films on the 2014 list, with No. 975 being all seven hours of Bela Tarr's "Satantango," which I finally saw back in May.

So what's coming up? I have my 2013 film list ready to go, having worked through the last few titles on my "To Watch" list. It's probably the last year for a while where I'll be able to be so comprehensive. I'll still be writing analysis and reaction pieces for developments in the entertainment world, and boy have there been developments. I could write a whole month of posts on the "Star Wars" news alone. I don't expect any changes to the "Great Directors" or "Top Ten" posts, which will continue to be regular features. I expect I'll be leaning more heavily on nostalgia pieces for a while too, until I can catch up a bit with the summer movies.

Finally, a few nuts and bolts. I'm going to shoot for at least ten posts a month, a perfectly reasonable goal I didn't manage to reach in September. I will no longer be cross-posting content to Dreamwidth, as they do not have convenient scheduling controls and I haven't been able to work out how to set up anything to do it automatically from the Blogger feed. I don't have much time to spare these days, so I gotta streamline where I can. Hopefully this will mean a leaner, meaner Miss Media Junkie, and ensure the blog sticks around for a long time to come.

Happy watching.