Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Top Ten Classics I Saw in 2014

And now in no particular order, here is a list of my favorite older films that I saw for the first time in 2014. 

The Pawnbroker (1964) - A great example of the work of Sidney Lumet, a gritty, socially conscious, and deeply personal portrait of an elderly Holocaust survivor who now runs a pawn shop in Harlem, and spends his days loathing everyone he interacts with.  Rod Steiger plays the title character with heartbreaking intensity.  Though it no longer comes across as raw and groundbreaking, the film still manages to deliver some significant punches.

Autumn Sonata (1978) - I adore the pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman's exploration of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.  I've grown more appreciative of Bergman's smaller, intimate domestic dramas over time, and this one is spectacular in its use of music and the interplay of its troubled characters.  Though not Bergman's final screen credit, the role she plays here serves as the perfect capper to her legendary career.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998) - There's something so wonderfully life-affirming and delightful about the films of Emir Kusturica.  Initially I was a little put-off by the nutty characters and topsy-turvy magical-realist worldbuilding in this one, but as the film chugged along and all the pieces of the story started to come together, it completely won me over.  I can't think of anything else I watched this year that was so funny and sweet and that I'm so happy exists. 

The Quince Tree Sun (1991) - Also known as "Dream of Light."  I don't know what it is about the creation of art that I find so fascinating.  The bulk of this film is devoted to watching Antonio López García paint his quince tree and talk about his life and work.  It's very slow going, but also very engrossing, and ultimately rewarding to see the whole process from start to finish.  Even if García doesn't achieve what he wants, there's no better example of the journey being worth the trip.

Demon Lover Diary (1980) - The chronicle of amateur filmmaker Donald G. Jackson's attempts to make a horror movie, "The Demon Lover," and all the drama and chaos that resulted from its troubled production.  The documentary was pieced together from footage shot by one of the cameramen, who was eventually forced to flee the scene with other members of the crew.  It's a wonderful, bizarre cautionary tale that is as timely as ever in the DIY filmmaking age.

Miracle in Milan (1951) - It took me ages to track down a copy of Vittorio DeSica's whimsical fantasy tale about the poor inhabitants of a shantytown on the edge of Milan.  The film seems to have fallen out of favor since it contains some seriously non-PC and culture-specific elements.  However, I found that the low-budget effects sequences have some real charm to them, and the neo-realist social satire is still sharp and very funny.  It was certainly worth the effort to find. 

Boogie Nights (1997) - I first saw parts of this one as a teenager, but was too intimidated by the subject matter to appreciate the comedy or the humanity of Paul Thomas Anderson's characters.  Upon finally viewing the whole film, I could at last appreciate the magnificent ensemble lead by a resurgent Burt Reynolds, and the daring of a filmmaker who found so much to sympathize with and celebrate among those making their living on the seamier side of the tracks.   

Stroszek (1977) - The American immigrant experience has been the subject of many movies, but nobody's done it quite like Werner Herzog, who happily punctures the myth of the American Dream with a little help from Bruno S. as the title character.  With no shortage of absurd humor, Herzog and Bruno S. explore the heartland and all its promises of comfort and joy, before coming inexorably to the hard truth and the end of their adventures.

Le Beau Serge (1958) - Though it has an important place in the history of cinema as one of the first titles of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" still holds up beautifully on the strength of its narrative and performances.  I got completely caught up in the story of a pair of young men, one successful and one a deadbeat, who reconnect after a long separation, and discover that they have grown too far apart for their friendship to survive.

Feherlofia (1981) - The title translates to "Son of the White Mare," referring to the central character in Marcell Jankovics' beautiful animated fable based on Eastern European legends.  The art design of this feature is unlike anything I've ever seen, a fantastic mix of traditional forms with painstaking hand-drawn animation techniques.  It serves as a good reminder that great films come from everywhere, and that masterpieces like this fall into obscurity every day. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bye Stephen, Bye Craig

I felt a little guilty watching the final episodes of "The Colbert Report" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."  Both were programs that I used to watch regularly back in college and grad school.  I distinctly remember the first seasons of each, and watching the hosts experiment with their formats and voices before settling on the familiar forms we know today.  Little by little I gave them up, went to bed earlier, and would occasionally circle back to catch clips of the highlights on Youtube when those went viral. 
I admired Colbert's verve, even if I found his fake pundit routine wearing too thin after a few years to keep me watching regularly.  When he would pull stunts like creating his own SuperPAC, I cheered him on.  I liked Ferguson better, who pretended to have no agenda and no regard for his own position in late night, but then systematically carved out a unique, kitschy little place for himself full of toys and puppets and silly costumes, and then invited Desmond Tutu for a chat.  Ferguson was simply on too late.  After staying up to catch his monologue for years, I finally had to give him up when I got a real job that required getting up before 7AM.  And now suddenly it's a decade later and both gentlemen are moving on. 
Far more loyal and knowledgeable fans than I have eulogized the show and written at length about why these two were so important.  However, I think their final episodes spoke for themselves.  Colbert was flashier and more fun, lining up interviews with President Obama, Smaug the Dragon, and finally the Grim Reaper.  He organized a sing-along that included Big Bird, George Lucas, and Henry Kissinger crooning "We'll Meet Again," from the ending of the greatest satirical American film ever made, "Dr. Strangelove."  Befitting his alter-ego's massive ego, the show ended with Colbert becoming immortal and joining the pantheon of pop culture icons, including Santa, Abe Lincoln, and Alex Trebek.  And at the very end, most poignantly, he threw the baton back to Jon Stewart at "The Daily Show," framing the entire nine-years as just an extended segment on the show where Colbert's blowhard character first originated. 
Craig Ferguson had far less of a budget and far less polish, which has been par for the course for his show the entire time it's been on.  He opened with the big, star-studded musical number, but it was almost entirely pre-taped, cutting in the end to Craig rocking out on his sparsely populated studio set.  He finally got his band, though.  The opening number also replaced his usual lengthy monologue, so after trading a few barbs with Geoff Peterson (far more articulate both physically and verbally since I saw him last), we got to the meat of the hour, which was a fairly serious conversation on life after talk show hosting with a shaggy Jay Leno.  There were a few fun in-jokes - Secretariat was revealed to be Bob Newhart all along - and then Craig closed with a clumsily executed bit with Drew Carey that parodied the famous endings of "Newhart" and "St. Elsewhere."  And it felt exactly right, except for being over far too quickly.
Both of the hosts will still be around, of course.  Stephen Colbert will be taking a break and then heading over to CBS Late Night to take over for David Letterman after Dave has his own sendoff in a few short weeks.  it won't be the Colbert persona we've known and loved, though, but a kinder, gentler, mainstream-friendly Colbert who will stay largely apolitical.  Craig Ferguson has yet to commit to any particular project, but he's bound to pop up again somewhere, doing something interesting.  Maybe he'll write another book or go back to scripting movies.  Remember "Saving Grace"?  Or I'd love to see him pull a Jon Stewart and direct something.   
It'll never be the same, and of course, it shouldn't be.  Ten years is quite long enough for anybody to do anything.  Still, I'm sad to see these gentlemen go.  2014 has been a year of hard goodbyes, from Robin Williams to the "Mythbusters" build team, and the laughs have felt fewer and farther between.  Colbert and Ferguson are some of the most dependable late night comics we have, and I'll miss their contributions terribly. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Fifth Annual Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

I know this is cutting it close, but this year for Christmas, I want:

For a speedy end to Sony's troubles. Enough is enough already, and the studio needs to get back to business. There are movies and shows in production that I want to see, and talented creatives that should get back to work. The longer the hackers keep toying with them and dragging this whole mess out, the longer it'll take the company to rebuild, regroup, and rehabilitate. I have no particular interest in seeing "The Interview," so let's just write it off, shift gears, and worry about the next James Bond film, huh?

For the Warner Bros. DC films and Dreamworks animation's new features to find some success. As much as I enjoy Disney's Marvel films and PIXAR films, I worry that they're becoming too dominant lately. There's no doubt in my mind that 2015 is going to be great for the Mouse House, but a healthy industry is a competitive one, and I'd be happier if their rivals were real challengers rather than the afterthoughts they are now. Dreamworks in particular has gotten themselves into a bad spot, after a run of lackluster originals and sequels that fewer and fewer kids want to see. And honestly, they don't deserve half the bad press they've gotten.

For "Mad Men" to stick its landing. Of all the television that's coming up in 2015, the end of "Mad Men" is the biggest event that I'm anticipating. Though its popularity has cooled over the past few seasons, I think it's stayed remarkably consistent. Sure, AMC splitting the final season was a dumb and desperate thing to do, but it didn't hurt the quality of the episodes that were produced. Robert Morse's goodbye musical number was one of my favorite moments from last year. In the television realm, I'm also looking forward to HBO's "Westworld," BBC's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," and more "Game of Thrones."

For the continued improvement of the indie, foreign, and documentary selections on VOD and streaming services. The iTunes and Amazon selections have gotten so much better over these last few years, but there could still be some considerable improvements. Now that I'm relying on these services more and more, I've realized how much better they could be. It's such a big opportunity to meet the needs of niche audiences. Sure, there's not much demand out there for Frederick Wiseman's highly acclaimed four-hour documentary on the University of California, Berkeley, but you'd think it would be available to stream somewhere by now, right?

For a better year for science-fiction at the movies. While 2014 did offer some nice surprises like "Under the Skin," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "Edge of Tomorrow," most of the sci-fi titles I had been looking forward to either got shuffled over to 2015, like "Ex Machina" and "Tomorrowland," or turned out to be disappointments like Wally Pfister's "Transcendence" and Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem." Now I haven't seen "Interstellar" yet, but it won't be enough to make up for the rest of the year, and it won't be enough to kickstart more original sci-fi projects the way I had been hoping these movies would. Oh well. There's always next year.

For the continued rise of women directors in film. With the end of the year awards conversations going on, it's been nice seeing Angelina Jolie, Ava Duvernay, Jennifer Kent, Laura Poitras, and Gina Prince-Bythewood coming up again and again in connection with "Unbroken," "Selma," "The Babdook," "Citizenfour," and "Beyond the Lights." And it's such an eclectic bunch too. And with Michelle MacLaren recently attached to direct "Wonder Woman," they're finally moving into the realm of big budget superhero movies too. Slowly but surely those walls are coming down.

For all the shows that disappointed me this year to do better, and for the good ones to keep up the good work. And for the passel of sequels in the movie theaters to offer some surprises. "Jurassic World" can't be as bad as it looks, right?

For a fun "Doctor Who" Christmas special. And a good, creepy "Black Mirror" one too.

And J.J. Abrams, please, please, please don't screw up. I can't take another "Phantom Menace."

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The December 2014 Follow-Up Post

It's been a while since we've had one of these, hasn't it? If you're new to the blog, these are posts where I write up brief additional comments updating pieces that have been previously posted, specifically where I don't feel I have enough to say about the matter to justify writing an entire new post about them. And here we go:

The MoviePass Math - MoviePass has turned out to be a viable business, so AMC has decided to get in on the action, announcing that they're testing out monthly subscription plans that will allow theatergoers to watch a movie a day for a flat fee. With theater attendance dropping and similar subscription plans gaining popularity in other countries, I expect that we'll see other chains follow suit, hopefully with more competitive pricing.

They're Calling the Movie What? - Well, it's finally happened. We have a major studio that has changed the title of a movie after its theatrical release. In this case, the Tom Cruise action movie released as "Edge of Tomorrow" is being marketed for home media under "Live. Die. Repeat.: Edge of Tomorrow." "Live. Die. Repeat." was initially the tagline. Apparently the crummy marketing campaign confused potential viewers who mixed up the two. It's a shame because the movie was a lot stronger than most of Tom Cruise's recent efforts. And I still prefer the source material's title, "All You Need is Kill," proper grammar be damned.

My Last Blockbuster Trip - It turns out you don't need a physical Blockbuster store to rifle through their inventory. The discs that couldn't be sold during the liquidations have been dumped in bargain stores. I found more pre-viewed Criterions of Jean Renoir's "The River, " Yasujiro Ozu's "Floating Weeds," and Oliver Parker's "The Importance of Being Ernest" in a display at a local Grocery Outlet, for $3 a pop. This could turn into a terrible habit.

Say It Ain't So, Spill.Com - Spill is no more, but its members have created two new sites to carry on its mission. Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas rounded up the Spill fanbase, went to Kickstarter, and created, releasing podcasts pretty close to the same format as what they had on Spill, though I miss A Couple of Cold Ones. Chris Cox and Brian Salisbury started, which celebrates geek culture. Alas, the Co-Host 3000 has been MIA, but I'm still holding out hope he'll be back someday.

What to Do About Wonder Woman? - The best news to have come out of the Warners camp about their slate of DC films is that Michelle McLaren, veteran of "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," has been attached to direct "Wonder Woman." That means the Zack Snyder nightmare scenario I had been dreading won't come to pass. McLaren has been a geek favorite for a while now, and I'm happy to see her making her film debut. However, the Wonder Woman property is such a minefield, I'm a little worried that this could all fall apart and impact her filmmaking career badly before she even gets started.

Dubious Days for Dreamworks - The bad news just refuses to let up for Dreamworks. "The Penguins of Madagascar" didn't exactly bomb at the box office, but it's falling well short of expectations. Its domestic numbers are actually worse than "The Rise of the Guardians" at the same point in its theatrical run. Foreign numbers are helping, but not very much. At the time of writing, the total gross is $175 million, and the film cost $132 million. If a dependable franchise like "Madagascar" can't attract audiences anymore, Dreamworks looks to be in deep trouble. It's no wonder they moved "Kung Fu Panda 3" to 2016, to avoid the competition from "Star Wars."

Greta Gerwig is Starring in What?! - Though its creators are holding out hope for a resurrection in the future, "How I Met Your Dad" didn't make CBS's fall schedule and Greta Gerwig has yet to make her television debut. Thank goodness. Meanwhile, none of the "Wizard of Oz" themed television shows I wrote about in TV's "Oz" Overload have gotten anywhere. The closest was NBC's "Emerald City," which was ordered straight to series, but never got past the script stage.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Lucy" and "Under the Skin"

I never would have guessed at the beginning of the year that one of the biggest names in science-fiction films would be Scarlett Johanssen. She's starred in no less than four genre films that made a big impact in 2014: "Her," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Under the Skin," and "Lucy." I thought I'd take a little time here and talk about the last two.

"Lucy" was a particularly noteworthy title because it topped the box office based on little more than her star power coupled with a nutty, high-concept science-fiction premise. Director Luc Besson's had a rocky track record lately, mostly telling and retelling stories of aging hit-men trying to hold dysfunctional families together. There are certainly antecedents in Besson's work for "Lucy," including his celebrated "La Femme Nikita" and the more recent "Columbiana," but it's been a long time since Besson has worked with this kind of protagonist and such an out-and-out fantastic premise. Scarlett Johanssen plays the titular Lucy, an American party-girl who is roped into becoming a drug mule, and gains superpowers when the drugs in question allows her brain to operate at higher and higher percentages of its capacity.

There's a nice simplicity to "Lucy." Though it's billed as an action film, the fisticuffs are really only a stepping stone to get us invested into the transformation of the main character from an ordinary woman to, essentially, a god. Besson is having a lot of fun here, framing the story like a nature documentary, with explanatory narration provided by Morgan Freeman's professor character, and occasional intercutting with wildlife footage so we can draw parallels. The appeals to science are utterly ludicrous, of course, but as a storytelling device it's very effective. Though "Lucy" became more and more outlandish the longer it went on, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Johanssen doesn't have much to work with, but she manages to avoid the Barbie-doll badass cliches and give Lucy a few poignant moments as her humanity gradually slips away. The visuals are trippy and a lot of fun. And Choi Min-Sik plays the bad guy, because, well, why not? Though we root for Lucy to use all of her brain, the movie requires the audience to leave theirs at the door. And that's okay.

If you're looking for headier, more thoughtful science-fiction fare, look no further than "Under the Skin," a chilling, atmospheric tale of two alien visitors who disguise themselves as human beings with stolen bodies. Their objectives are unknown, but it involves luring and capture of human beings by one of the aliens, using the body of a beautiful woman played by Scarlett Johanssen. Little exposition is used, and the aliens are largely non-verbal when they're not interacting directly with humans, so we can only glean their intentions through their actions and behavior. We follow the nameless alien in Johanssen's skin as it looks for victims. We see how its interactions with various men play out, and how its behavior starts to change. Initially cold, emotionless, and predatory, the continued exposure to Earth and its inhabitants creates attachment, and eventually new feelings and wants in the mysterious creature. No cinematic alien being has been so compelling in ages.

Director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer allows "Under the Skin" to unfold slowly, to reveal its horrors and its wonders incrementally. His goal is to establish a mood as much as it is to tell a story, and so there are lengthy, sinister shots of unidentified objects of possibly alien origin, and a long sequence shot with a dashcam where the Johanssen alien is posing as a lost tourist, driving through the darkened streets of Glasgow. The natural world plays a big part here, the rocky seashore heightening the cruelty of a tragedy that occurs in the waves, and a tranquil forest of snow-landen trees emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of our main character. Then there's Mica Levi's score, an extraordinary electronic thing full of lulling rhythms and pregnant pauses.

And Johanssen? She gives one of my favorite performances of the year, one that is largely physical in contrast to her work in "Her," which was limited to her voice. Where Lucy lost her humanity, the alien visitor gains a semblance of it, and "Under the Skin" allows that transformation to be a far more harrowing and soulful one. Johanssen's ascension to the A-list has been gradual, but very rewarding to see. And I hope she keeps picking more great genre roles in the future.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Potty-Mouths of the "Galaxy"

I just can't get over the amount of swearing in "Guardians of the Galaxy." I was looking forward to the movie for months, was ecstatic when the good reviews started rolling in, and hyped by the high box office totals and "I am Groot" becoming a catchphrase. And there's so much in the movie I did enjoy, from Chris Pratt's star-making performance as Star Lord to the grungy lived-in cosmic setting to the nostalgic '70s soundtrack. I thought director James Gunn did a fantastic job setting up stakes and juggling a cast of very strange characters in a very, very difficult genre. If this had been an original property with an R-rating, I would have adored the movie wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a Marvel film and part of the massive Marvel cinematic universe. And the rule up until this point has been that Marvel movies are kid-friendly even though they're not aimed at them directly. I know four-year olds who dressed up as Captain America and Iron Man for Halloween this year. "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be inevitably watched by lots of kids, because it's associated with the Marvel universe. Disney is counting on it, and in the process of readying a "Guardians of the Galaxy" cartoon for their Disney XD channel, and lots of action figures for Christmas shoppers as I type this. And I can't help feeling queasy about it because Star Lord casually curses like he's in a Judd Apatow flick, and at one point Drax calls Gamora a whore - and it's played for laughs.

Part of me knows that this is a generational thing, that language has slowly been getting stronger in movies over the years, and it's now perfectly acceptable to have PG-13 action films throw out a couple of s-words and occasionally an f-bomb. A lot of kids have grown up with Michael Bay's cheesecake shots in the "Transformers" films and violence several orders of magnitude greater than the stuff that used to prompt rants from Siskel and Ebert in the '80s. Bad language has lost a lot of the sting it once did to the younger segments of the U.S. population. However, I still associate it with being rude, lewd, crude, and a surefire way to get written up or sent to the principal's office, dude. And because there is still a good chunk of the older population that will react badly to a casually dropped expletive, warning for this kind of thing is still a very legitimate concern.

Parents of young kids who want to avoid media with strong language already have their work cut out for them, and "Galaxy" must have felt like being ambushed. None of the previous Marvel films had this amount of harsh language in them, and from the marketing, "Galaxy" looks perfectly safe for an eight-year-old. It's got a talking raccoon! Goofy, colorful aliens! Crossover characters who showed up in the last "Thor" and "Avengers" movies! With G and PG movies becoming scarce, "Guardians of the Galaxy" and other big PG-13 action films are inevitably some of the most popular summer viewing with the anklebiters, but the amount of potentially awkward conversations you'd have to have with a kid in order to get through this one is daunting. The movie starts with a parental death scene, for pete's sake.

And that's why I can't embrace "Guardians of the Galaxy" the way I really wish that I could. It's nice to see the Marvel films branching out, into space opera and broader comedy. This almost felt like a spoof on other recent blockbusters, before the predictable third act "save the world with explosions" business. if the villains had been a little better, this would have been the year's best genre comedy (a title currently still held by the glorious "Lego Movie.") It's a fantastically fun film - for adults. And I'm afraid that makes it a poor Marvel movie.

And now the success of "Galaxy" worries me. What does this mean for the next Phase of Marvel movies? The "Galaxy" gang are inevitably going to cross over with "Avengers" gang at some point - does that mean they're no longer going to be safe viewing either? Summer movies are turning into a mindful parent's minefield.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sony Hack Scrum

The situation has been changing so fast, I've had to rewrite this post multiple times. If there are any inconsistencies I've missed, apologies in advance.

When Sony Pictures Entertainment's computer systems were hacked, resulting in the leak of massive amounts of sensitive data, initially it seemed like a minor matter. So a few screeners got leaked, Hollywood accounting tactics were thwarted, and sensitive employee information got out. Though a lot of people were affected, it seemed like something that would blow over in a few days or weeks. Sony would have to cough up money for better security, to settle a few lawsuits, and maybe chip in for some credit monitoring for its employees. Big corporations have been hacked often enough that these situations are becoming fairly common. Much of the stolen data seemed fairly benign - a marketing presentation for "After Earth" and E-mails from various employees griping about Adam Sandler. It was embarrassing, but hardly seemed damaging.

And then the "Jobs" E-mails came out. And the insensitive Obama exchange. And the MPAA's anti-piracy strategy. And then the Spider-man reboot plans. And a screenplay for the next James Bond film is floating around now, along with some meeting notes that suggest the production may be massively over-budget. Then last week, the hackers started threatening Sony employees and their families. When the first rumors about the attack being connected to North Korea and the Seth Rogen comedy "The Interview" started circulation, I ran across several snarkers dismissing the whole thing as a publicity stunt. With the latest threats against movie theaters and the release of "The Interview" cancelled, everyone's taking it seriously now. I agree with Sony's decision here - averting a potential tragedy is worth taking the financial hit, but I'm also disturbed by the precedent it's setting. What happens when a movie or television show depicting something really controversial is targeted by future hackers?

There's also the question of how we process the information from the leaked E-mails. Aaron Sorkin penned a strong reproach to the gossipmongers for the New York Times a few days ago, pointing out that people's lives and careers are being ruined. Of course he's absolutely right. And I confess I've been ignoring him completely. I haven't watched any of those leaked screeners and wouldn't touch any of the stolen employee data with a forty-foot pole. I know Sony chief Amy Pascal said something about Obama she shouldn't have, but I don't know exactly what, and I do not care to. However, the inside baseball stuff has been fascinating. Being able to glimpse some of the candid negotiations and the politicking that goes on behind the scenes to get movies made, and seeing how the studio big shots conduct business is too much for me to resist. The E-mails detailing Sony's attempts to get a Steve Jobs biopic off the ground have been the juiciest since they involve so many big names, but some of the lower-profile exchanges have been just as dramatic. There's the way CBS and the NFL screwed over "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" this year, for instance. Or the whole business with the gender pay disparity for the stars of "American Hustle."

I know. It's wrong to be reading these stories. But I've only ever read about exchanges like these second-hand, years and years after the movies in question have come and gone, and somebody wants to write their memoirs. Getting to follow the conversations first-hand, some dated only a few weeks ago, is a rare thrill. And learning that the power players are human beings with often horrendous spelling and grammar is a thrill too. It's one thing to hear about Scott Rudin's attitude, and another entirely to read the insults he casually lobs at A-listers. There is no film obsessive who hasn't secretly dreamed of having this kind of access, to be able to confirm that the people who were responsible for "Grown Ups 2" disliked it just as much as its critics.

The price of that access, though, is a movie studio that has lost the ability to operate. This is a severe blow to Sony. These leaks are going to have serious repercussions for years, and may change how the entire film industry operates. Major projects are in jeopardy. Several of the Sony top brass will probably be going down in flames. It will take the company a long time to recover, and they will lose more than money before it's all over.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Trailers! Trailers! The 2015 is Almost Here Edition

It's December, which means that 2015 is just around the corner. This promises to be a pivotal year for Hollywood, with a slate chock full of big franchise films - though not as full as it was a year ago. Since the holiday movie season is in full swing, we've been getting lots of trailers for some of next year's biggest titles. Some of the highlights below. All links lead to Trailer Addict:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Let's get the big one out of the way first. We're still more than a year away from the release date, but this is a reassuring peek at the next "Star Wars" film. The visuals are right. The sound design is right. The music is bliss. Of course, a scant ninety seconds is too little to tell anything, and we all remember the raves that accompanied the first "Phantom Menace" trailer, right? For all we know that little soccer ball droid may be the next Jar Jar Binks. I'm staying optimistic though, because so far J.J. Abrams has been doing everything right.

Jurassic World - Isn't this the plot of "Jaws 3," but with genetically engineered dinosaurs? I think some of the concepts presented here are promising - theme park visits gone wrong are always fun - but this is a terrible trailer. The last half in particular, that switches to a horror tone and tries to make the "Jurassic Park" theme sound sinister, is just a bungle. The only bright spot in the whole thing is really Chris Pratt, and the "Jurassic World" creators were very, very lucky to be able to capitalize on the great 2014 he's had.

Tomorrowland - What I love about this teaser is that I still have no idea what the movie is about. I don't know who George Clooney's character is. I don't know what the mysterious "Tomorrowland" is. However, there's such a great sense of wonder and mystery conveyed here. I've been hearing about this project for ages, and Brad Bird has a track record that few can match up to, so I'm very curious to see the final result. At the time of writing, this is definitely my most highly anticipated blockbuster for next year.

Pan - I like so many of the people involved in this movie, but I'm not sure about this. I'm not opposed to origin stories, but the premise of Pan and Hook once being allies never sat quite right with me. Also, there's the Tiger Lily problem. I understand that Joe Wright did colorblind casting and a few of the major characters are dark-skinned - but none of them feature in the trailer or in any of the marketing. Instead, we have a lily-white Tiger Lily played by Rooney Mara everywhere. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, guys.

Inside Out - Formerly known as "The Untitled PIXAR Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind." The first teaser trailer was too brief for my tastes, so it's good to see the concept fleshed out a little with a domestic situation playing out between the main character and her parents, as seen through the eyes of their anthropomorphized emotions. It loses a few points for the stereotypical parents, but this is only a brief glimpse, so it's way too early to be drawing any conclusions yet. And you gotta love that tagline.

Cinderella - I was disappointed when Mark Romanek left the director's chair, but was faintly hopeful about Kenneth Branagh taking over. But I can't see Branagh anywhere in this trailer, which is just relentlessly Disney, Disney, Disney. Cate Blanchett's evil stepmother looks great, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother should be a treat, but otherwise this looks like exactly what you'd expect yet another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic to look like. Do we at least get talking mice?

Terminator: Genisys - I was intially skeptical, and I still think the title is blah, but boy is it great to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in this franchise again. "Terminator" is one of those franchises that can be credibly rebooted since there's so much time travel and timeline rewriting in the premise itself. I'm not thrilled at having Jai Courtney fronting this, as he's been underwhelming in everything I've seen in him to date, but I'm excited about Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor, who we all know is the real lead anyway.

Chappie - Neil Blomkamp's last movie "Elysium" looked great but was ultimately an unfortunate bust. It's hard to say if "Chappie" will be more of the same. This trailer doesn't offer many plot details, so it's essentialy an effects reel. The robot looks fantastic, but I'm wary that he's being voiced by Sharlto Copley, whose performances have just gotten more and more bizarre lately. But on the upside there's Hugh Jackman and Die Antwoord. Put this one in the "wait and see column."

Avengers: Age of Ultron - I'm linking the preview clip shown during "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." here instead of the actual teaser because, let's be honest, it's so much better. You've got the humor, the checking in with all the old characters, and the villain making a splashy entrance. What does the teaser have? Random ballerina shots and a creepy version of "I've Got No Strings" from "Pinocchio." Seriously, what is it with trailers lately trying to make completely non-creepy songs sound creepy?

Mad Max: Fury Road - Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!


Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top Ten 3rd Rock From the Sun Episodes

I miss "3rd Rock From the Sun." It was the last sitcom of the '90s that I really loved, where each and every member of the ensemble was a joy, and I never missed an episode if I could help it. More silliness than science-fiction, it nevertheless appealed to the geek in me, and certainly the alienated teenager in me that didn't feel quite like she was cut out to be part of the human race for a few years. Below are a sampling of fondly remembered episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. As usual, I will cheat and count two-parters as single entries - and there are a lot of them this time. It's been at least a decade since I've watched any of the episodes, but I'm pretty confident about these picks. Once I started reading over synopses, there wasn't an episode I didn't remember.

"Dick's First Birthday" - Or as I remember it, the one with Dick in the amazing tight leather pants. A big part of why the series worked was the performance of John Lithgow as the High Commander Dick Solomon, and this episode is the reason why I committed to becoming a regular viewer. It's so rare to find a performer so committed to such a ridiculous performance, and I loved every second.

"Body & Soul & Dick" - Dick is recruited to deliver the eulogy for a colleague who everyone hated, prompting all the Solomons to think about their own mortality. I greatly preferred the show's earlier seasons because they tried more earnestly to examine the big questions about the human condition. They weren't always successful, and some attempts were downright cringeworthy, but this was one of the good ones.

"Dick Like Me" - The aliens exploring race and ethnicity could have been a total misfire, but the writing manages to strike a balance between irreverence and pointed commentary, and the actors sell it. There are lots of great little character moments too - Harry dancing, Nina's exasperation, and each Solomon's reaction to being declared Jewish. Alas, later episodes returning to the topic weren't nearly as successful.

"See Dick Continue to Run" - The second season opened with two episodes devoted to my favorite character in the entire series run: Evil Dick, who replaced regular Dick in the first season finale cliffhanger. Evil Dick had Lithgow was firing on all cylinders, smarmily wooing Professor Albright, subjugating the other aliens, and being an all around... well... Evil Dick. Lithgow won the Emmy a few days before this first aired and famously ended his speech by quoting this episode: "God bless television!"

"Fourth and Dick" - A good example of the show's formula working at its best. Dick dismisses homecoming activities as fuss and nonsense, only to be completely swept up in school spirit by the end of the episode. The other aliens have their own subplots, and everyone comes together at the end to discuss what they've learned. In this case, all the parts work, even the completely unrelated business with Tommy crushing on a choir teacher and Sally befriending Nina.

"Jolly Old St. Dick" - It might be because it's so close ot the holidays, but I love the way that the Solomons take on the madness of Christmas, especially the retail horror and gift-giving side of things. Dick of course plays the Scrooge, who learns to embrace the season after bah-humbing his way through most of the episode. I especially enjoy some of the bits with his students, who were a minor but always amusing part of the show.

"A Nightmare on Dick Street" - This was heavily promoted as a special two-parter with sequences presented in 3D. Even without the gimmick though, I thought this was lots of fun. The aliens have dreams for the first time, which they naturally panic and overreact to. We get to see the dreams too - neat little jaunts into the surreal. My favorite is Harry's musical number, written and co-starring Randy Newman.

"36! 24! 36! Dick!" - The Superbowl two-parter where a group of highly attractive newcomers, all played by supermodels, come to Rutherford and quickly have all the men in town entranced. Of course, they're a rival alien invasion force. The guest stars are well utilized, Sally gets one of her funniest turns when she plays infiltrator, and who knew that Cindy Crawford and French Stewart would have actual chemistry with each other?

"Dick's Big Giant Headache" - One of the greatest casting coups of all time is William Shatner as the Big Giant Head. Because of course he is. Shatner is a great sport, playing a caricature of himself as a boozing, womanizing egomaniac who sweeps Vicki Dubcek off her feet, to Harry's consternation. It's no wonder he made multiple return visits to Earth to compound the havoc in later seasons. Also, there's the epic "Twilight Zone" in-joke.

"The Loud Solomon Family: A Dickumentary" - A spoof on the "An American Family" docu-series, which uncovered the dysfunctions in an average family's lives. When they discover they're the subject of Professor Albright's project, the Solomons let the attention go to their heads, and make up all sorts of shocking revelations to generate more drama. This one was before its time, as reality TV hadn't really taken off yet, but boy did it stay relevant.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Ghibli Princess

Isao Takahata is the other founder of Studio Ghibli, alongside the much more renowned Hayao Miyazaki. His masterpiece "Grave of the Fireflies," is an indisputed classic, but otherwise his films have had far less press and attention than Miyazaki's work. This isn't surprising as Takahata's films tend to be less accessible, and often involve very specific aspects of Japanese culture that can be difficult to translate. He's also less prolific, and much harder to categorize as a director. While most fans can identify a Miyazaki film within a few minutes, Takahata's style seems to change for every production. None of his Ghibli features have the same art style, and some are wildly different from each other.

His latest, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," is a good example. It resembles no other Ghibli film, and I'm hard pressed to think of any other animated project that looks or feels quite like it. Retelling the Japanese folk tale of a bamboo cutter who finds a magical baby girl in a bamboo stalk, the whole film is designed to look like Japanese ink brush paintings. All the line work and the color palette reflect this, especially in the occasional pauses that the film takes to let us simply look at and enjoy the natural scenery. The princess herself, called Little Bamboo as a child and Kaguya when she's older, has the eyes and face of a typical Ghibli heroine, but her expressions and her movements are rendered so much more artfully. The amount of detail in the deceptively simple visuals, especially the sequences that feature a lot of quick motion, is extraordinary.

The film follows the life of its heroine from a laughing baby to a conflicted young woman, who struggles against the social expectations of being a noble. Her adoptive father believes Kaguya's happiness is dependent on rising to a high station, but she wants to remain free from the many suitors who vie to win her hand. A thoughtful character study of a popular figure from Japanese legend, the focus on her inner turmoil helps to carry the lengthy film through an episodic structure with a lot of loose ends. Kaguya may be a fairy tale princess, but her woes are deep ones about love and loss and family. And they are dealt with seriously, resulting in great empotional impact.

At the same time, this is one of the funniest and most lighthearted Ghibli films, with a lot of emphasis on caricature and physical humor. Aside from Kaguya and her childhood sweetheart Sutemaru, all the characters are wildly exaggerated in form. Kaguya's adoptive parents are squat, dumpling-shaped, and look like they'd be more at home in Takahata's domestic comedy "My Neighbors the Yamadas." The flaws of the noble suitors are immediately revealed in the way certain features have been emphasized. My favorite character is Kaguya's chubby little maid, who never says much, but provides plenty of comic relief.

I love a film that can show me something I haven't seen before, and that's why "Princess Kaguya" is my favorite Ghibli film in years. I admired "The Wind Rises" and "Arietty," but they were both well-tread ground for the studio, and too many elements were very familiar. There are certainly some familiar bits of design work and story themes in "Princess Kaguya," but I've never seen anything like Kaguya's flight from the capital, done in a frenzy of rough charcoal lines that emphasize pure speed and motion. And the character animation in the joyous sequence where the baby princess learns to crawl, and then walk within only a few minutes.

Though he's made no announcement, it's likely that this is Isao Takahata's last animated film. It took him over a decade to complete "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," and at the age of 79 he's older and has had a longer film career than Miyazaki. I'm grateful that he managed to leave us with a final feature that hit ever so much harder than I expected it to. And has left absolutely no doubt in my mind that Studio Ghibli truly was built on the work of two auteurs, who have both done so much to advance the art of animation.