Friday, November 28, 2014

A Little Down on "Doctor Who"

Spoilers ahead for the latest series.

First things first. I love Michelle Gomez as the newest incarnation of The Master. I bought her as the character immediately, and thought her appearance in the finale episodes was a blast. I really hope that she comes back for more episodes in the future, and says the word "bananas" a bunch more times. However, her performance highlighted for me how much I've been struggling to accept Peter Capaldi as the newest Doctor, and after a whole season I find that I'm not quite there yet. I find Capaldi a tremendous performer, and he's delivered some great moments over this past series. The man has a wonderful facility with ridiculous speeches. However, Capaldi's Doctor has been so much grimmer and morally gray than his most recent predecessors that I'm having trouble thinking of them as the same character. And though he's shown a sillier side on occasion, I miss the goofiness of Matt Smith and David Tennant. This series of "Doctor" Who" has been plenty compelling, but it just hasn't been as much fun.

Look at Danny Pink, for example, played by Samuel Anderson. As Clara's love interest he was a major part of this year, and received lots and lots of character development and screen time. However, he was such a sourpuss every time he appeared, angsting over his past as a soldier, getting hostile with the Doctor, or suggesting that his relationship with Clara was an jeopardy. And what a relationship. They seemed to have about five minutes in total of happy, flirty, enjoyment of each other amidst endless scenes of awkward bungling, Clara being evasive, Danny being suspicious, and the threat of separation dominating nearly every scene of them together. For these two, the finale was all about sorrowful partings and somber declarations of love and loyalty. It was difficult to really root for their relationship when the relationship just seemed to be an endless source of unhappiness for both of them. It certainly helped to flesh out Clara as a character, but I couldn't help feeling frustrated with all the doom and gloom.

Part of the issue was that here weren't as many comedic episodes this year, but the few that were in the mix like "Robot of Sherwood" and "The Caretaker" were promising. I like the Doctor as a grump, who is sometimes a few steps behind where human nature is concerned as opposed to being the near-omniscient alien smarty-pants he's been in the past. However, the level of grumpiness hasn't been consistent, and there have definitely been some transitional bumps. The best episodes have ended up being the more horrific ones. My favorite of the year was "Mummy on the Orient Express," one of those high concept, big idea shows where all the pieces fit just right. This year's scripts have been notably ambitious - even the installments that have fallen flat like "Listen" and "Kill the Moon" haven't lacked for daring. The series' big arcs have also featured some real substance, hinging on a more thoughtful, more personal examination of the Doctor's character through Clara's relationship with him. But did it have to be so morose?

It might just be that I haven't watched any of the older "Who" episodes with a more mature actor playing the Doctor, or that this kind of character drama is not what I've grown to expect from the program. Sure, it's been hinted that many of the Doctor-Companion relationships haven't been very healthy, but this is the first time I've seen the show really dwell on the issue, and I think it may have been too much for the format to handle. "Doctor Who" is still a kids' show in my mind. Or it might be because there's been relatively little connection to earlier series this year. The Paternoster Gang showed up in the premiere, but otherwise there hasn't been much carryover of characters aside from Clara - and she was such a nonentity in the Matt Smith series, it felt like we were starting over from scratch. So it was great to have the Master and UNIT and the army of Cybermen in the finale, both for the injection of goofy fun and for the connection to the rest of the "Doctor Who" canon.

I'll certainly keep watching though, for Nick Frost as Santa Claus at Christmas and for potentially better to come. I hope that Clara's love life brightens up a bit in the future and that Capaldi's doctor can be a bit more a grumpy adventurer and a bit less of an introspective bundle of doubts. After his big speech in the finale, I hope some of those questions about his morality can be put to bed for a while. And we can get back to the business of exploring and saving the universe unhindered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Favorite Mike Nichols Movie

I've avoided commenting on the deaths of famous celebrities and artists, but every so often I have the opportunity to post something timely that could function as such. And so we come to Mike Nichols, one of the instigators of the New Hollywood era, who made small scale dramas and comedies that were wonderfully reflective of their times. He's best known for "The Graduate," the landmark 1967 coming-of-age film that launched the career of Dustin Hoffman, my favorite actor. "The Graduate" was very much a film of the '60s though, and as funny and touching as it is, I never related to it the way I did to some of Nichols' other films. Like "Working Girl," which was such a time capsule of the '80s. Or "Primary Colors," which provided an uncomfortably close look at the Clinton years. Then there's "The Birdcage," which wouldn't have worked nearly as well if it hadn't been made in the mid-90s, right as the culture was starting to change and become more accepting of LGBT folks and their relationships. I love it to bits, and it's my favorite Nichols film because it always makes me laugh.

"The Birdcage" is such a deceptively simple movie. A gay couple pretend to be straight in order to meet the conservative parents of their son's fiancee. Miscommunications cause mix-ups and misunderstandings, leading to beautifully executed comedic farce. Though very open about the homosexuality of the main characters, the movie was such a universal crowd-pleaser, even when it was released in 1996. Armand and Albert were two of the first explicitly gay characters I remember headlining such a mainstream comedy, and while I didn't have much exposure to gay relationships, I understood who they were immediately - loving parents willing to upend their lives and compromise their identities out of love for their son. "The Birdcage" is also, we must remember, a remake. "La Cage aux Folles" was first a 1973 French play, which was adapted into a 1978 French-Italian film and a 1983 American musical, both very successful. "The Birdcage" was based on the film version, which I've seen and enjoyed. It's a lovely feature that originated many of the best bits of character work and dialogue, but it has absolutely nothing on "The Birdcage," which boasts a collection of comedic greats at the top of their game.

Mike Nichols was an actor's director, and his films are all about showcasing the performances he was able to get out of his ensembles. Though a constant presence in Hollywood movies over the past twenty years, Nathan Lane never had a screen role as memorable as Albert. He's such an extreme caricature, but also such a loving one, who could be offended? Hank Azaria is monstrously talented, but has proven difficult for many creatives to use effectively. Not here, where Nichols helped him turn Agador (Spartacus!) into a scene stealer. And then there's Robin Williams, so restrained in this role compared to everything else he was making at the time, he's practically the film's straight man (so to speak), but he gets the little moments to break out when appropriate - the immortal "eclectic celebration of the dance" scene, for instance. And there was Gene Hackman in a rare comedic role. And the underappreciated Diane Wiest. And Christine Baranski at her cuddliest. And even a very young Calista Flockhart, showing off burgeoning comedic skills.

I miss comedies like this one, that were okay with being a little risque instead of hitting you over the head with vulgar content. That could take a stand for gay relationships without being a message movie. That could discuss politics but somehow never felt remotely political. That tossed a few ancient Jewish jokes into the mix just because it could. Best of all, I love that it could have a great big heart, one revealed not through a saccharine love scene, but in a wistful conversation between two middle-aged men, and when their son finally works up the courage to introduce his mother to his future in-laws. It hurts to lose Mike Nichols, who seemed to make movies like this effortlessly, and very funny, touching ones to boot. I'm not knocking iis dramas, which are consistently excellent, but to me Nichols will always be the man who knew "The Graduate" had to end with Benjamin and Elaine becoming their parents, and "The Birdcage" had to end with Gene Hackman in drag.

What I've Seen - Mike Nichols

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Catch-22 (1970)
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The Fortune (1975)
Silkwood (1983)
Biloxi Blues (1988)
Working Girl (1988)
The Birdcage (1996)
Primary Colors (1998)
Angels in America (2003)
Closer (2004)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)


Monday, November 24, 2014

A Peek "Over the Garden Wall"

There are some shows that seem destined to slip through the cracks, that are so unique and ephemeral that it's difficult to believe that they really exist. Billed as Cartoon Network's first miniseries, "Over the Garden Wall" is one of these curiosities, telling one complete story in ten serialized ten-minute episodes. At first glance it looks like exactly the kind of content you'd expect from "Adventure Time" veteran Patrick McHale. Two young brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) are lost in the woods and trying to get home. Their designs echo vintage illustrations from old volumes of children's stories, though their patter is very modern. Other characters they meet include a talking bluebird, Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), an intimidating Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), and a genial horse (Fred Stoller). The villain of the piece is a sinister creature known as The Beast (Samuel Ramey).

What sets "Over the Garden Wall" apart is how beautifully realized its universe is, and the way the storytelling is handled. Each episode neatly parcels out a little information at a time, gradually revealing larger stakes and character details. Initially all you know about Wirt and Greg is that they wear funny hats, they're brothers, and they're lost. By the end of the last episode, there are satisfying explanations for everything, including a lot of the odd little conceits that abound in children's shows - like why Greg is always lugging around a frog and starts out the journey with his pants full of candy. There's also the atmosphere, which is never inappropriate for children, but mixes whimsy with a darker, more foreboding undercurrent of dread. It's fairy-tale like in the best sense, evoking both wonder and horror. I was surprised how dark and psychologically fraught the series got. At the same time it maintains a good balance of fun and silliness. Some installments are much lighter and more comedic, and even the grimmest ones will have a good laugh or two.

As an animation fan, I love the multiple references and homages to the older comics and cartoons of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the designs look like like they came straight out of old Max Fleischer "Betty Boop" shorts or early Disney "Silly Symphonies." One episode features a dream sequence that borrows heavily from "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Jazz and ragtime songs are incorporated into the narrative now and then, several with vocals by Jack Jones, evoking the era even further. The illusion isn't quite perfect, as the actual animation is very much the same quality as Cartoon Network's usual output - well designed, but a little static and a little flat. Though the characters have rubber hose limbs, they don't move like proper rubber hose characters. That's not to say that "Over the Garden Wall" isn't lovely to look at, but the budget constraints are very evident.

Aesthetics aside, the show's sensibilities are very modern, particularly the characters of Wirt, an insecure teenager who keeps questioning things that don't make sense to him, and Beatrice, the helpful bluebird whose slightly acerbic attitude doesn't quite match her cuddly exterior. Initially I thought they were a way to inject some self-aware, ironic dialogue aimed at amusing parents, but "Over the Garden Wall" actually makes the incongruity part of its story instead of just pointing it out. Picking up the little clues and foreshadowing from their asides and offhand comments is a lot of fun. On the other hand, my favorite character is the younger brother Greg, an eternally optimistic little boy whose behavior is completely universal and timeless. He makes up songs, changes the name of his frog every five minutes, and has an infectious never-say-die attitude that diffuses a lot of the creepier material.

Best of all, "Over the Garden Wall" feels exactly the right length. The running time is roughly the same as a feature film, but the episodic structure and the serialization give the creators a lot more space to explore the show's intriguing universe while digging into its secrets. Much of the same crew worked on "Adventure Time," and I've enjoyed the way that show has slowly built its mythology over the course of multiple seasons. However, the payoff has been extremely slow in coming. "Over the Garden Wall" wraps up everything in 100 minutes while still giving the viewer the feeling that they've come a long way with the characters.

I hope that Cartoon Network tries more experiments like this, and I hope that "Over the Garden Wall" manages to stick around in the public consciousness and reach a broader audience over time. Miniseries and special event programming like this can get lost in the shuffle because it doesn't fit any of the usual programming categories - you have to go back to things like "Clone Wars" or MTV's "Liquid Television" to find similar animated projects - and "Over the Garden Wall" is one that deserves to be remembered.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Television Talk Shows in the Internet Age

I was waiting for my lunch order in a restaurant a week ago, a little mom and pop place that had a flatscreen in the back corner. It was playing Maury Povich's talk show, which I hadn't seen in a long, long time. I hadn't seen any of the syndicated talk shows in ages, having had no reason to watch daytime television since the internet gave me a more preferable option with which to kill brain cells. But I didn't have a laptop or phone with me, and the batteries were dead in my MP3 player, so I spent about twenty minutes watching "Maury" and marveling at how the show had changed since I last saw it.

I watched the daytime talk shows on occasion when I was a teenager in the '90s and stuck at home for one reason or another. They were mostly variations on the same formula, with Jerry Springer's show on the trashiest end of the spectrum, and "Oprah" on the classiest. All of them picked a topic of the day, brought out a few rounds of guests to be interviewed, and fed on the energy of a live audience. "Oprah" might build shows around specific celebrities or products, but it always fell back on sensationalized human interest topics. "Maury" definitely leaned toward the "Springer" model, reliant on the freaks over the glamor. Paternity tests, alternative lifestyles, dysfunctional families, and interventions were all regularly trotted out on stage for our amusement.

I don't remember what the topic of the day was on the episode of "Maury" that I glimpsed last week, though there was a caption at the bottom of the screen indicating what it was. That wasn't the content that was on the screen. Instead, I found that I was watching a significant portion of "Maury" that had been set aside for viral videos. Apparently this is a regular segment, with its own presenter to provide commentary and context for the clips: footage of a robbery, a home video of a woman backing over a disabled man's scooter, and so forth. I recognized one of them from a post that had appeared on Reddit a month earlier. I'd noticed a couple of viral video programs like this had popped up on television in recent years, mostly time-fillers that local stations would run to patch gaps in their schedules. But what were these videos doing on "Maury"?

I kept watching. It was near the end of the hour, and the show was wrapping up with various announcements and messages. They were looking for participants for future shows on such-and-such topic. Tickets for future tapings could be obtained at such-and-such phone number. And then there was a push for viewers to connect with the "Maury" show online through Twitter and Facebook. As I watched the social media icons flash prominently on the screen, one after another, it clicked. Viral videos weren't just a cheap and easy way for the show to obtain content. "Maury" was showing them because that's what the target audience for these talk shows have been watching instead of "Maury." If you want to find a freak show, after all, the internet has an endless supply, and presented in a far more accessible way than the clunky daytime talk show format, interspersed with inane commercials.

The mainstream culture has inevitably shifted away from television and toward the internet. Twitter followers and Youtube views have become the new metrics of success, and it's rare that you can find anything on television that you can't find online within a few hours. The bigger talk shows and interview shows have responded by becoming part of the internet culture. Kimmel and Fallon create content intended to go viral on the internet. The hosts of "Good Morning America" and "Today" discuss whatever's trending on Twitter. However, the modus operandi of Maury Povich is to shovel schlock, and when his brand of schlock isn't selling any more, the only thing he can do is regurgitate the stuff that is getting attention - "shocking" acts "caught on camera" that most of us with any internet savvy have already seen circulating online.

I suspect the only ones left to watch "Maury" are the dwindling number of viewers who aren't savvy or aren't connected. Or have been stuck waiting for an order of fish tacos for a little too long. I don't think I'll be going back to that restaurant. And I doubt I'll be seeing Maury again for a long time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Gone Girl" Goes For the Throat

It's been long enough that I think a spoiler-filled review is appropriate. A quick review up front though, if you haven't seen the film yet. Just stop reading at the end of this paragraph. David Fincher's latest film, "Gone Girl," is a domestic thriller about a woman's disappearance that takes some wild turns, and features some good performances. Rosamund Pike completely steals the show as Amy Elliott Dunne, the missing woman. Ben Affleck is no slouch either as her very imperfect husband Nick, who is not prepared for the media attention that the case attracts. "Gone Girl" is an intensely cynical, smart, and involving film that plays on all our fears about relationships and intimacy. It's the best crime film, and one of the best psychological thrillers made in years.

And Amazing Amy instantly joins the ranks of Alex Forrest from "Fatal Attraction" and Annie Wilkes from "Misery" as one of the great female screen villains. She's the embodiment of everyone's worst fear about their romantic partner, a woman who goes from picture perfect to destructive and psychopathic when things don't work out the way she wants them to. Amy is also a manipulator, who goes to extreme lengths to create a perfect sob story, and uses the voracious cable news entertainment industry to persecute her husband in her absence. Her false narrative is so convincing because it's so easy and familiar. We want to believe the wronged, victimized woman, and hate the careless, cheating man. David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn do a terrific job of playing on these tropes and leading the audience to just the right place to get the rug pulled out from underneath them with maximum force. I understand that the "Gone Girl" novel painted Nick in a much less flattering light, and the reader could conclude that he and Amy deserved each other. However, I don't mind that he's more of an everyman in the film, because it just makes Amy that much more effective and memorable.

Rosamund Pike is an actress I'm familiar with for minor parts in genre films, but I never saw her in any really substantial roles before this. Here she's got the spotlight, and there's no question that she's a star. She remains sympathetic and attractive even when she's at her worst. The second half of the film where we follow her misadventures as "Nancy" are so effective because Pike and Fincher continue to largely present her as the vulnerable, underdog figure that Amy has cast herself as in her own mind. It's only very, very late in the movie that the mask is completely off and we understand what she's fully capable of. Ben Affleck's performance doesn't have nearly the same complexity, but he does solid work and he's perfectly cast. Affleck's public persona and history with the media give Nick's encounters with the media some added impact. As Nick learns to become a public figure, it's hard not to think of that point in Affleck's career when he was better regarded for being part of the Bennifer super couple than for his artistic endeavors.

After the oddly sanitized version of "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," I was worried that David Fincher was losing some of his verve. But after "Gone Girl," that's clearly not the case. This is one of his darkest, most intense films, and he does it with very little graphic imagery or content. His style is unmistakable, but it's the tone and the mood that mark this as a Fincher film. The amount of psychological and emotional violence in play here is staggering, and far more gripping than the few instances of physical violence. That's not to say that these moments aren't handled well. Consider the jolts of Nick's fairly mild assaults on Amy and the tension created during the robbery where the perpetrators barely touch her. However, he's reduced the scale of the larger conflict down to such a personal level, while hardly sacrificing any of his usual brutality.

I also love all the little subtleties in how the "Gone Girl" universe has been constructed, especially its self-awareness about its own messages, and the way that it highlights the dangers of the media. Surely aware of the way Amazing Amy would invite discussion of its gender politics, the filmmakers offer two positive female characters, Margo (Carrie Coon) and Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) to support Nick. More familiar actors - Neil Patrick Harris, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, and Tyler Perry - are used in ways that play off of or go against type. And though the scrum around Nick is reprehensible, none of the actions of any individual characters feels exaggerated or unrealistic in the slightest. Everyone, even the Nancy Grace stand-in who leads the charge against Nick, gets their moments of humanity, even if that humanity is ugly stuff.

"Gone Girl" is the kind of movie that doesn't arrive at the theaters very often anymore - a serious contemporary adult drama, chock full of issues to debate over (though not an "issue" film), and massively entertaining to boot. The closest thing I can think to compare it to, ironically, is "Gone Baby Gone," which Ben Affleck directed not too long ago. When I first heard about this project, I hoped that a little of Fincher might rub off on Affleck. Now, I'm not so sure it wasn't the other way around.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Joys of "Drunk History"

It's taken me a little while to warm up to "Drunk History," which originated as a series of Funny or Die shorts and is currently in its second season on Comedy Central. In the first year, each episode told three stories from a particular city or region. The second has expanded to particular topics like First Ladies and sports heroes. I liked the sound of the premise and the promos at first. Inebriated "storytellers" - no credentials are offered, so they could be paid actors for all I know - are recruited to tell the stories of famous figures or events from America's past. Their drunken ramblings are paired with with historical recreations acted out by haphazardly cast comedians in period dress. However, the first episode rubbed me the wrong way. The poor man trying to recount the particulars of the Watergate scandal was so drunk, I was more worried for him than amused. Also, as a lifelong nerd, I was actually interested in the stories that were being relayed, and found that the drunkenness was getting in the way of the storytelling, which was very annoying.

Subsequent episodes, however, have won me over. Though I still don't find the drunken narrators as funny as other people do, I love the way that the reenactments are staged, with the actors lip-synching the modern, off-the-cuff dialogue and all the little ways that the show finds to send up the talking-head documentary format we usually see in history-themed programming. History has always been associated with pompous ivory tower academia to some extent, and thus often viewed as unapproachable by the common man. The introduction of alcohol cuts out all the pretension immediately, but not the passion of the storytellers who are eager to tell us about the wackier exploits of Abraham Lincoln or Billy the Kid. And I love the way that Great Moments From History have essentially been reframed as drinking anecdotes, bringing untouchable icons back down to a human level. Drinking to excess can be dangerous and morally murky territory, but we could all use the reminder that quite a bit of early American History took place in and around taverns and bars.

Pains have been taken to ensure the drinking is less of an impediment, too. The featured stories tend to be a little off-color, and often they're obscure tales that don't usually come up in schoolbooks. The showrunners seem to have quickly figured out that their narrators can't be so drunk that they're incoherent and unable to finish the stories. Interruptions and mixed up words come up regularly, but you rarely see them impact the storytelling. I've even noticed a couple of instances where the narration over the reenactments sobers up a bit for the endings, possibly thanks to some good editing. This was particularly evident in the Hawaii episode, where a pair of less well-known heroic figures were spotlighted in their own segments, who the show clearly wanted to do right by. The show has gotten downright informative, though I'd hesitate to call it educational considering how incomplete and chaotic a lot of the stories are.

The reenactments are far and away the best part of the show. Where else could you have Stephen Merchant as Abraham Lincoln or Kevin Nealon as a Grand Dragon of the KKK? And we must have more Jack Black, who has played Elvis and Orson Welles so far with glorious abandon. It's a shame that the majority of the time the actors don't actually get to speak any of their dialogue, but the pantomime is more than enough to get laughs. The production values are self-consciously a little rough - fake facial hair quality varies greatly from segment to segment - but they're just good enough that you can treat them as legitimate reenactments. Some have been so well produced that I legitimately got wrapped up in the story and forgot that I was watching "Drunk History" instead of an actual historical program. Well, until we cut back to a plastered historian anyway.

I hope that "Drunk History" goes on for a long time, because there's certainly no shortage of history for them to retell. And I hope that they expand their horizons, so we can get some international stories. I want to see the Defenestration of Prague! William the Conqueror's funeral! Caligula! You'd hardly even need to be drunk at all to tell a fun story about him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Chef" is Pretty Boss

One of the basic questions I ask when unpacking my reaction to a movie is, what audience was this movie meant for? Jon Favreau's new film "Chef" is not a family film, even though the most important relationship is between the main character, Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) and his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Though the humor is gentle, it's a little too ribald for younger audiences. Is "Chef" for foodies? To an extent. The main character is a chef who has become complacent in his life and work, and must set out to reclaim his identity. A big part of this is cooking the food that he wants to cook on his own terms, and rebuilding his reputation from the ground up. But though it makes good use of food culture to tell its story, I don't think this is the film's primary audience either. No, "Chef" is aiming quite a bit broader. It's a feel-good film for guys, the male equivalent of all those Meryl Streep movies about bonding and self-discovery and starting the next chapter of your life. And it's a pretty good one.

And how appropriate that it should come from Jon Favreau, whose track record making big studio films has been rocky lately. After "Iron Man 2" and "Cowboys & Aliens," it's nice seeing him working small scale and simple again. And it's hard not to draw parallels between Favreau and Carl, who lands himself in hot water after getting into a social media-fueled tiff with a food critic, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), and trades in a steady gig as head chef of a restaurant for a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches with Percy and their sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo). There's definitely a wish fulfillment fantasy aspect to "Chef," where Carl's ex, Inez, is played by Sofia Vergara, and a Twitter marketing campaign managed by a ten-year-old is enough to draw crowds to greet Carl at every stop on his cross-country tour. At the same time, so much of the story has a ring of authenticity to it. Clearly Favreau took pains to get the food and the food preparation right, even spotlighting the contributions of one of the real chefs who worked on the movie during the credits. There's also an emotional honesty and vulnerability to Carl Casper that 's refreshing to see, that keeps him sympathetic and worth rooting for.

If "Chef" is a foodie movie, it's one that takes pains to be accessible to the common man, where Carl is frequently engaged in lightly vulgar banter with Martin, and father-son bonding has the highest priority. Kitchen culture gets the focus, rather than the more hoity-toity dining culture that we see more commonly. That puts "Chef" in closer company with older family restaurant dramas like "Big Night" and "Eat Drink Man Woman." At the same time it's very much a product of the current internet age, where the plot hinges on Carl misusing Twitter, and a bad interaction going viral. Part of his learning curve is getting comfortable with technology, and appreciating its uses. The way that social media is depicted in the film is fanciful but mostly realistic, and a good sign that we're getting away from the sensationalist portrayals of life online that have been a bothersome fixture of mainstream cinema for far too long.

Though this has been billed in some circles as Jon Favreau's return to his indie roots, "Chef" is far too slick and star-studded for that. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johanssen were recruited for brief appearances in minor roles, and there are some instances of corporate branding that can't help but stick out. This feels like an indie by default, the kind of smaller scale movie that the studios are wary of making anymore, which is a shame. "Chef" is clearly a passion project for Favreau, a charming, low-key, big-hearted crowd-pleaser that has had no trouble finding a receptive audience. It's a little trite and very indulgent, but it's easy to forgive those flaws when you have a movie so personable and so eager to simply entertain. More big-budget films are surely in Jon Favreau's future, but I hope he keeps making the time to make a few more small ones like "Chef."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Utopia, Year Two

Spoilers ahead for the first series of "Utopia," and light spoilers for the first two episodes of the second series ahead.

There's always a great conundrum when you reach the end of a conspiracy mystery show that has shown all its cards and told the audience all its secrets: What do you do next? A big part of what made the first year of Channel Four's "Utopia" such a satisfying watch was that it was never stingy with information and the big mysteries weren't drawn out. Instead, perfectly satisfactory explanations were presented in a well timed fashion, and the series never lost any of its momentum. For year two, there was a cliffhanger or two to resolve, but where would "Utopia" go now that we knew the identity of Mr. Rabbit, the purpose of Janus, and where Jessica Hyde was? Other shows would have given us new mysteries, perhaps revealing that there were villains higher up the chain that we hadn't known about, waiting in the wings. The second series of "Utopia" chooses the opposite tack, morphing into a different kind of show as it reveals more information and grapples with the fallout of the events of the first series.

I knew that we were on the right track in the premiere episode, which is entirely a flashback episode to the 1970s. It spells out the sordid history of The Network, created by Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) and Milner (Rose Leslie), and the origins of Arby and Jessica Hyde. The violence is gut-wrenching, the personal tragedies of the characters are engrossing, and the extremism on display is presented as scarily plausible - "Utopia" at its finest. In a single episode, we see how the Network destroyed Philip Carvel's life, which sets up the central questions of this series: what are the characters willing to sacrifice in the name of what they believe? Though everyone from the first series is back, there are two clear figures who take the leads: Pietre, who is working to shed his old persona of Arby, and Wilson Wilson, who made the decision to side with the Network last series and is now figuring out how much involvement he's willing to have in their plans. The Network is on the move again, and closer than ever to seeing their plans come to fruition.

The second series is far more character-based, giving us people to root for on both sides of the story. As we learn more about the Network and how it operates, its members are humanized. Milner, the architect of so much horror, is made sympathetic to a certain degree without losing an iota of her brutality. The ideas and aims of the Utopia project are depicted as strong enough to create fanatical devotion and loyalty in some of its followers to the point where they are willing to commit atrocities. They believe they are saving the world as strongly as those who are trying to stop them. It's a fascinating thing to see depicted through the comic-book fantasy lens of "Utopia," still rife with color coded environments and whimsical hitmen. The characters are all clearly exaggerations, but their behavior rings true at its core. It's simple enough to compare the actions of the Network with religious extremists, or terrorist groups, or any number of fringe organizations.

The continuing adventures of our original gang of heroes - Ian, Becky, Grant, Jessica and Dugdale, are less compelling this time around without a rabbit to chase down. The writers give them plenty to keep them busy, though, including an addled old man named Anton (Ian McDiarmid) who knows an awful lot about Becky's disease, more fun with sleazeball Christian Donaldson (recast as Michael Maloney), and of course Pietre, still the most fascinating of the show's lineup of psychopaths. There's some rehashing of the same bits of business from the first series, but there's always enough new material in play to keep the pace brisk and the mood tense. Violence is employed as effectively as ever, graphic and upsetting. While some of the characters may become desensitized to violence over time, the "Utopia" creators never allow the same for the audience.

The production values are as strong as ever, particularly the visual composition and cinematography. This remains one of the most distinctive looking television shows I've ever seen. I haven't worked out what all the different colors mean but I never feel like I have to. Performances are mostly strong all around, with a few exceptions. Oliver Woolford hits a few bumps, having clearly aged a great deal more than his character during the interval between the series. Ian McDiarmid and Geraldine James stand out as the MVPs, and it was a brilliant idea to cast Rose Leslie as the younger version of Milner. The score is still wonderfully unsettling, and I've finally figured out what it reminds me of - Susumu Hirasawa's electronica soundtrack for the anime mystery series "Paranoia Agent."

I don't think that this series is ultimately as strong as the first, but it's a good continuation that works on its own terms and fleshes out the "Utopia" universe a great deal. I appreciate the way that it takes the time to explore what felt glossed over too quickly in the previous finale, and how it really has something to say about violence and extremism. This feels like a transitional year more than anything, and sadly we'll never see how certain things will play out, since the series won't be returning for a third year. I was satisfied with this ending, though, and hope to see more from the creators soon.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Superhero Era

After the recent announcements by DC and Marvel about their plans for their upcoming comic book superhero film franchises, you've probably seen the schedules and infographics of all the superhero films that are planned for the near future - at least thirty in the next six years from four major studios are planned. There have been plenty of other bloggers happily providing analysis film by film, but I'm more interested in the bigger picture here. With Marvel Universe films having dominated the worldwide box office charts for the past several years and nearly everyone in Hollywood eager to try and replicate their success, the popularity of superhero franchises has exploded. The big question is, will audiences embrace the trend and make superhero films a long-lasting and lucrative new fixture in cinema, or are we looking at a bubble that will burst sooner rather than later?

There have been many pieces by film lovers trying to make comparisons between the relatively young superhero genre, and genres that were popular in the past like westerns and musicals. John Heath's Why Superhero Movies Aren’t Like Westerns (and Probably Won’t be the Next Great Chapter in Genre Filmmaking) is a good one, pointing out the many weaknesses of the current crop of superhero films, the biggest being that there's so little variation in the stories that superhero movies have been telling. Because the films are so expensive, only the risk-averse major studios have been able to make them, resulting in a lot of cookie-cutter films that all largely follow the same familiar patterns. There have been a handful of projects that have criticized common superhero tropes, such as "Super," "Watchmen," and "Chronicle," but these have done little to expand the scope of mainstream superhero films. Despite Marvel touting their recent titles mixing superheroes with other genres such as space opera, in "Guardians of the Galaxy," and political thriller, in the latest "Captain America," deviations from the standard formula of self-discovery, mild romance, and bombastic action have been slight. Some of the most intelligent and thoughtful entries in the genre, ironically, have been animated films ostensibly aimed at younger audiences: "The Incredibles" and "Megamind."

The films coming from the big studios in the immediate future promise more of the same. It's nice to see some diversity finally being embraced with the upcoming "Cyborg," "Black Panther," "Captain Marvel," and the long awaited "Wonder Woman," but it also begs the question why it took Marvel and DC so long to greenlight these films. Sony's "Sinister Six" and DC's "Suicide Squad" will shine the spotlight on anti-heroes and villains, a potentially interesting subgenre, but it's doubtful that the narratives will really stray all that far from what we've already seen. Plenty of successful superhero films already have protagonists with darker origins and redemptive arcs. Note that FOX is also readying "Deadpool," a feature that will star a foul-mouthed, meta-loving mercenary who is currently one of the most popular comic book anti-heroes. However, it's likely that his feature will carry a PG-13 rating, undercutting a lot of elements that gave the character so much bite. Past attempts to franchise more adult-oriented titles like "The Crow," "The Punisher," "Watchmen," and "Kick-Ass" have had mixed results at best.

However, with so much competition, the studios will be forced to start taking some risks, just to stay ahead of the pack. The current strategy that everyone has latched on to is to try and follow in Marvel's footsteps and create shared universes that link a series of superhero films. However, they're doing this in different ways. Warner Bros., after stumbling with "Green Lantern" and landing a moderate hit with "Man of Steel," will be skipping the preliminary character introduction films, and launching straight into "Batman v. Superman" for 2016, and then "Justice League." FOX is doing the MCU model in reverse, spinning off specific characters for their own features after they appear in the "X-men" films. "Wolverine" will be followed by "Deadpool," and there's been talk of films for Gambit and Quicksilver on the way. FOX will also be attempting to launch a new "Fantastic Four" franchise separately, and then figuring out if they can fit together with the "X-men" films at some point.

Will the superhero onslaught slow down anytime soon? Are audiences going to burn out on them? Culturally, I don't see superheroes losing their appeal, but it's going to be a lot harder to stand out from the crowd with so many players jostling for space. Marvel has established a good enough track record that they'll be insulated from poorer installments for a while. I can definitely see a landscape where there's the MCU continuing its success and everyone else fighting to get the audience's attention. FOX's "X-men" films are also in a good place, and the franchise is one of the few that could sustain multiple spin-offs and a cinematic universe. Warners has ambitious plans laid out, but an awful lot is hinging on some iffy projects, and the lukewarm success of "Man of Steel" doesn't inspire much confidence. As for Sony, they definitely need to reevaluate what they want to do with "Spider-man," because the property is sinking quick.

Superhero movies have achieved the kind of massive popular success that's going to leave an impact on cinema, whether the actual movies themselves endure or not. Honestly, I think that the genre is just getting started, and the financial success of the next crop of films is beside the point. While few of the films that have actually been announced interest me, I am very interested in how other filmmakers are going to find variations on these stories, and the films that are made as reactions to them. I'm interested in the spoofs and the satires and the subversions that are inevitably going to come along. I want to see what other kinds of movies the "shared universe" trend might spawn. And I'm dying to see if "The Dark Knight Returns" or anything like it ever comes to the screen uncompromised. And will I finally get my "Sandman" movie, thanks to the momentum of so many other comic-book projects?

Imagine the possibilities of what comes after 2020.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I'm Sick of These Common Movie Discussion Questions

Once a year I fill out a movie survey for fun. Past entries have included a Halloween horror movie quiz, the AICN Butt-Numb-a-Thon entry form, and a Movie Confessions questionnaire. This year I'm taking a different tack. I've spent the past few months collecting some of the common ice-breaker questions that commonly come up again and again in movie discussion groups and forums. Most of these are just asking "what's your favorite movie?" phrased in different ways. I figured it would be interesting to dissect the premises of some of these questions and then answer them with that in mind.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what [insert number] movies would you bring with you?

I've also seen the desert island substituted with apocalypse scenarios, where it would be more plausible to still be able to screen movies, space voyages, arctic treks, or just long hospital stays. This is the epitome of the kind of question that's just asking for a list of favorites with high rewatchability. The variation in scenarios usually wouldn't impact my choices, with the exception of the apocalypse. If the zombies were coming and I could only save a certain number of movies, those movies would be different from the ones I'd take along on a trip to Mars for my own amusement. In the case of the desert island, I'd bring along the films that I've already watched a million times and know I wouldn't get bored of: "Muppet Treasure Island," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Sound of Music," "The Princess Bride," and "Amadeus." These are not my favorite movies, but I would be able to watch any of them near infinitely without losing my marbles. For the specific case of zombies, however, I'd swap out "The Sound of Music" for "Zombieland" for the survival instructions.

What movie would you watch again for the first time?

This question has never made any sense to me, because my initial viewing of a movie often isn't the one I enjoy the most. Sometimes it takes two or three viewings to really get attached to a movie, and part of the fun for me is anticipating the good bits coming up, or the bad bits to be mocked. I've found this to be true even for many of the films with shocking twists or clever reveals that completely change the viewing experience upon subsequent rewatches. And if a movie like that isn't strong enough to hold up with its secrets spoiled, would I really want to watch it again anyway? However, there are exceptions. One that's always intrigued me is the case of "Dark City," which was originally released with studio-mandated opening narration that gives away several of the big reveals. Director Alex Proyas managed to get this narration removed for later releases, and I always wondered how my initial experience with the film would have changed if I'd seen the story play out as originally intended. "Dark City" is already one of my favorite films, and one I revisit frequently.

If you could show one film to someone who had never seen a film, what would it be?

Sometimes the question involves time travel, which completely ignores that this is a scenario that can and has happened in the modern day. There have been several examples of screenings set up for people in remote villages, far from the rest of civilization, who had never seen movies before. Evangelicals have done this with various Christian films as part of conversion efforts in Africa and Asia. Eli Roth showed Amazonian villagers "Cannibal Holocaust" a few years ago, which they thought was hilarious. However, a popular choice for these screenings is Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," as captured in a Cuban documentary short, "For the First Time," about a screening of the movie that was set up for Cuban villagers in the '60s. Chaplin's comedy is universal, enduring, still relevant, and I can't think of a better title to start with.

What recent movie will be a classic 10/20/50 years from now?

I have some strong feelings about the misuse of the word "classic" which I've already gone into great detail about previously, so I won't rehash the whole thing here. Let's just assume a "classic" movie is a movie that is widely praised and remembered long after its release, like "The Godfather" or "Star Wars" or "The Wizard of Oz." These are movies that have withstood the test of time and often have become cultural touchstones. There are a lot of different factors that go into why a film becomes a classic, including quality, hype, nostalgia, accessibility, and social relevance. "It's a Wonderful Life" probably would have remained an obscure box office disappointment if it hadn't become public domain and then a staple of Christmas television programming for decades after. It's impossible to tell which recent films are going to become classics because it's impossible to predict how the audience will grow and change in the future, and what may help or hinder a specific film from getting more time in the spotlight. However, I think children's films like "The Lego Movie" and "Frozen" tend have a better shot at immortality because of the nostalgia factor. The movies we love when we're kids tend to stay with us, even if they're terrible in retrospect.