Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The 2015 Movies I Didn't See

Traditionally I'd end the year with a summary post featuring my favorite Miss Media Junkie highlights of the year, or a post on my favorite classic films that I watched during the year.  However, with my posting count cut in half over the past two years, and my rate of watching classic films currently embarrassingly low, I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to be watching either of those posts.  Over the past few weeks I've been obsessively working on the list of all the 2015 films that I still want to see - and with the critics' lists coming out there have been plenty of new additions.  However, I thought it might be interesting to talk about some of the films that I've made a conscious decision to leave off for one reason or another.

So below are ten movies that didn't make the cut this year, where I actually did have to think about whether or not I wanted to see them.  I reserve the right to revisit and reverse these decisions in the future, particularly if they involve a long flight or an intractable online argument.  I've also left off "Fifty Shades of Grey," because I think I've written enough about not seeing that movie already.

"Goodnight, Mommy" - Austria's submission for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar this year is the highly acclaimed horror/thriller about a pair of twin boys trapped in a house with a convalescing woman they suspect is not really their mother.  I've already had this one thoroughly spoiled for me, and frankly there are way too many plot details that I cringed at.  In another year I might have forced myself to sit through this, but I just can't see the point today.

"Terminator: Genisys" - Oh, Arnold.  I'm happy that you're back with this franchise.  I really am.  However, after a couple of lackluster, spoiler-heavy trailers, middling reviews, and apathetic audience reactions, I couldn't muster up any excitement for this.  Maybe if they'd gotten a few of the other actors from previous installments back, or maybe if they'd gone for a more straightforward sequel instead of this screwy timeline rewrite, I could have latched on to something.

"Home" - A DreamWorks original from back in March.  I like that this one features a minority kid as a main character and contained some interesting concepts, but I couldn't get over how generic it looked.  Do the aliens look liked poor knockoffs of the three-eyed  "Toy Story" aliens to anybody else?  The preview short released last year, "Almost Home" sealed it for me that the humor wasn't working for me.  I'm glad it made money for the studio, but I'm leaving this to the kids.

"Child 44" and "Dark Places" - Two darker crime melodramas that I would have watched in the past simply based on the talent involved, and because I like the genre.  "Child 44" has Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace starring, while "Dark Places" has Charlize Theron and was based on a novel by "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn.  However, from the way their releases were treated and the sad critical reception they received, clearly nobody had faith in either of these movies.

"Maggie" - Arnold again.  More importantly, zombies again.  I'm so sick of zombies.  Sure, this one had a new twist on the concept and offered some character drama, but the thought of sitting through another bleak movie about a zombie apocalypse really put me off.  Also, I love Arnold, but serious, dramatic Arnold only works for me in certain projects.  If this had been our usual ass-kicking, gun-toting Arnold, I would have been onboard for "Maggie" in a second.  

"Hot Pursuit" - I keep rooting for Reese Witherspoon to hang on to her A-lister status, but I don't know if Hollywood is making the kinds of movies that really suit her talents anymore.  The trailers with her and Sofia Vergara flailing around were pretty painful.  Vergara's very talented, but not great in large doses.  Witherspoon looked out of her depth.  As much as I'm all for girl power and female solidarity, I had to draw the line.  Better luck next time ladies.

"Southpaw" - A boxing melodrama with Jake Gyllenhaal was s a tough sell from the start.  Not because I don't like Gyllenhaal, but because this kind of material does nothing for me.  During the schmaltzy trailer I kept flashing back to the MMA drama "Warrior," which bored me to death, and "Cinderella Man," which I don't think I watched all the way through.  This stayed on the list for a while just because it was so high profile, but after the middling reviews I cut it loose.

"Secret in Their Eyes" - I respected but wasn't all that fond of the original "The Secret in Their Eyes," which won an Oscar back in 2009.  The prospect of an English language remake initially didn't sound so bad.  Billy Ray's a solid director and the cast is full of strong talents, including Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Yet again, it was the trailer that decided things for me.  It just felt like a watered down, colorless imitation of the original film.

"Mustang" - I'm still wrestling with this one.  "Mustang" is the Turkish drama that has been chosen to be France's Best Foreign Language submission for this year's Oscars.  It's about five orphaned Muslim sisters who struggle against the restrictions forced on them by their insular community as they grow up.  Rape, forced marriage, and suicide are plot points.  This sounds soul-crushingly sad, and I'm not sure if I have the guts for this one.  Maybe next year.
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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas With "Tangerine"

We've seen Hollywood in the movies many times over the years, but we've never seen the Hollywood of Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch's new film "Tangerine," which was shot with three iPhones, in real clubs, apartments, and businesses located in the area.  Production even began on Christmas Eve of 2013, exactly when the story takes place.  This is the Hollywood that nobody talks about, the Hollywood of sun-baked sidewalks in December, of late night talks in donut shops and laundromats, and of a pair of no-nonsense transgender prostitutes who spend their Christmas Eve tracking down a cheating pimp and getting their due.

Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of prison, reunites with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and learns that her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has taken up with a new "fish," Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) in her absence.  Sin-Dee is outraged at this betrayal and decides to find both of them and confront them.  Alexandra agrees to help her, but is more concerned about her singing gig later that night.  At the same time, an Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), tries to track down Sin-Dee when he learns she's back in town, while avoiding the scrutiny of his concerned mother-in-law Ashken (Alla Tumanian) and the rest of his family.

Rodriguez and Taylor are both transgender women, have history with the Los Angeles LGBT subculture, and radiate authenticity in these roles in a way that I doubt anyone else could.  Their lack of acting experience doesn't stop them from commanding the screen every moment they appear on it.  Both women are bursting with personality, particularly Rodriguez as she prowls her way around the city in her hunt for justice, demanding redress in a torrent of perfectly pitched dialogue when her targets are in sight.  The whole film is designed to reflect their endlessly diverse, eclectic urban universe, full of saturated colors, larger-than-life characters, and manic energy.  The style is rough at times, but also infectious and invigorating.  The soundtrack includes club music, mariachi music, Christmas carols, and a selection from Victor Herbert's "Babes in Toyland."  Significant chunks of the film with Razmik and Ashken feature Armenian dialogue.

All the characters that appear are on the low end of the economic ladder, if not underneath it, but they certainly don't act that way.  Love transcends class, race, gender, and sexuality, and a woman scorned is a woman scorned, no matter her chromosomes or her profession.  The glimpses of prostitution are often humorous, including a sequence in a makeshift brothel operating out of a seedy motel room.  Lonely Razmik, who is at one point frustrated in his furtive search for love by a prostitute with the wrong equipment, often comes across as less empowered than Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who are loud and proud about who they are.  The women don't see themselves as unfortunate souls or victims, ignoring those who would try to treat them as such.

If "Tangerine" sounds too unapproachable, I should also mention that this is a classic love farce at its core, the opposite of the kind of heart-rending sob story of oppression and surviving hard times that we usually get with characters like this.  It's frequently very funny, as Sin-Dee's misadventures snowball throughout the day, and finally end with the whole cast crammed into a donut shop, hashing out their grievances in front of an exasperated counter girl.  And yes, it's also a Christmas movie, in the best way.  At the end of the night, after all the love games are finished, the movie takes a lovely, poignant moment to recognize that the friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra is the one relationship in their lives that really counts.

A film like "Tangerine" would have never come out of a major studio, at least not in the form we see here, so raw and unapologetic about its characters and their lives.  Some may scoff at the rise of the microbudget filmmakers, but they made the Hollywood Christmas of "Tangerine" possible, and its unlikely leading ladies into bona fide stars.  And they've opened up new avenues in filmmaking to a whole lot of aspiring directors who will hopefully keep making wonderfully offbeat, unique films like this one.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

More Ups and Downs With "Doctor Who"

Spoilers ahead for the recently concluded season.

We come to the end of another year of "Doctor Who," the second with Peter Capaldi that also said goodbye to Jenna Coleman as his companion, Clara Oswald.  And thank goodness.  While I've grown attached to Capaldi over the past year, as I usually do with each successive Doctor at about this point in their tenures, I've come to the conclusion that I don't care much for Clara at all.  She was always too flat and entirely too clever, difficult to sympathize with because she was so lacking in human foibles and flaws.  She was at her best last year, during her tempestuous romance with Danny Pink, and without him she regressed into the too-perfect Impossible Girl who was occasionally more alien than the Doctor.

It's strange because the other two female characters who played big parts this season have strong similarities to Clara, but I enjoyed them far more.  First, there's Missy, embodied by the priceless Michelle Gomez, who was only around for the premiere episodes, but will surely be back for more appearances in the seasons to come.  She remains my absolute favorite part of the Capaldi era, a hilariously amoral, lunatic force who has completely drop-kicked the angst of the previous incarnations of The Master in favor of having more fun.  And she proved that having her for an ally might be worse than having her for an enemy, in a fun two-parter that started the year off with a bang.  I was disappointed when she didn't pop back in for the finale, especially considering where it was set.

Then there's the new girl, Ashildr, also called "Me," who becomes an immortal being thanks to the Doctor's intervention in an early episode, and pops up again in several subsequent ones.  Maisie Williams plays her as someone with a lot of potential for good or evil, who has to be reminded regularly that she's fallible and that she actually does have a heart.  Like Clara she's too clever and almost impossible to faze, but the show treats that as a symptom of her distancing herself from her own humanity, a flaw rather than a strength.  That's what makes her character easier to stomach.  Ashildr is intriguing, but I don't think that the show has made the best use of her - at least not yet.

I've heard many claims that this is the best season of "Doctor Who" in a while, particularly in the way that it returned to the old two-parter format.  Overall, I found it about on par with the last Capaldi season, but with stronger highs.  The beautifully bleak "Heaven Sent" episode is one of the series' best without question, featuring a tour de force performance from Peter Capaldi.  I like how his Twelfth Doctor has evolved, becoming softer-edged and more eccentric.  He's more vulnerable and less in control than he's been in a while, which makes me very excited for his post-Clara adventures.

However, I really disliked "Face the Raven," where Clara's fate is sealed, and had very mixed feelings about "Hell Bent," where she parts ways with the Doctor for the last time.  I admit that something about their relationship never sat right with me, and it's honestly a relief that it's over.  I feel bad, because Jenna Coleman's clearly very talented and I think she'd be fantastic in other roles - I preferred her as some of the other versions of Clara a few series ago.  I think a lot of it came down to Steven Moffat's writing and all the messy inconsistencies of who she was supposed to be.

Finally a couple of odds and ends.  I liked seeing Gallifrey again, and I hope that we'll get some more material involving the Time Lords that isn't just limited to saving them from or consigning them to oblivion.  The Zygon storyline still doesn't do much for me, but I like the direction that Osgood has taken, and the continued presence of UNIT and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  I'm missing the Paternoster Gang though.  At least we're getting more River Song this Christmas, in a special that looks nice and comedic.

So while I'm giving this series of "Doctor Who" a mixed review, I'm more optimistic about where the show is going.  Looking forward to next year and the next companion.
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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rank 'Em: The Phase Two Marvel Movies

I wanted to write up a post about the "Phase Two" Marvel Cinematic Universe films now that we're moving into Phase Three, and I think a "Rank 'Em" post makes the most sense so I can talk about all six films in relation to each other.  The last time I ranked the Marvel films was in 2013, after "Iron Man 3" but before "Thor 2," so there's not going to be much crossover.  Here we go, from best to worst.

1. Ant-Man (2015) - The more I think about this film, the more I like it because it gives us something different.  The hero is an ordinary guy with a different set of concerns than any of the other heroes we've met so far.  His shrinking powers open up a whole new visual landscape.  We've also got a real mentor-student relationship going on between Scott and Hank, which is an interesting new wrinkle.  There are some serious flaws, and I maintain that it's not the film that it could have been in different hands, but "Ant-Man" is more than good enough.  They didn't solve the villain problem, but they did offer a fantastic new variation on the third act final battle sequence, which I appreciate so much.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - Come and get your love.  I was pretty harsh on this one last year when I found out it wasn't kid-friendly, but I have to give it due credit for its wildly imaginative sci-fi universe and a strong cast of characters.  Chris Pratt's dudebro Star Lord, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot are especially fun additions to the Marvel pantheon, and the retro soundtrack is priceless.  If the rest of the offworld Marvel movies look like this, fans shouldn't have anything to worry about.  Again, points get knocked off for poor villains, poor treatment of the female lead, and a couple of jokes in poor taste that I'm not sure how they got away with under Disney's nose.  It's a fun movie, but one that left me with my guard up.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - I came away from this one so impressed with the direction of the Russo brothers, and I can see why they've been chosen to helm the upcoming "Avengers" movies.  The nods to political thrillers of the '70s were nice, and it was good to see Robert Redford, but this was still a superhero movie through and through.  Having action scenes more reminiscent of the "Bourne" series was a welcome change of pace, but we still ended up with the same, dull world-in-peril finale we've seen so many times before.  Also, I came away with no particular attachment to either the Falcon or the Winter Soldier, which is probably going to be a problem for the upcoming "Civil War" storyline.

4. Iron Man 3 (2013) - I'm surprised that I liked this so much more than the majority of viewers.  Maybe it's because I actually prefer Tony Stark out of the suit, and I really enjoy Shane Black movies.  The Mandarin bait-and-switch worked fine for me.  So did the kid sidekick and superpowered Pepper.  I actually like "Iron Man 3" about on par with "Winter Soldier," except that I didn't buy Tony's character arc or the ending of "Iron Man 3" at all.  Seriously, we all knew he was going to be Iron Man again for "Age of Ulton."  No, it doesn't live up to the original and I would have much rather have had a straight adaptation of "Demon in a Bottle," but after "Iron Man 2" I wasn't expecting this to be nearly as good as it is.

5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - So many things here just didn't work for me: smarmy Ultron, underdeveloped Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and most of the business with the Vision.  Joss Whedon made a valiant effort, but this movie was too long and overstuffed with too many characters and obligations.  It felt like an entire series of a television show crammed into a single feature.  Individual sequences were great - I loved everything involving Hawkeye's family and many of the action sequences - but I don't think this works as a film.  I'm hopeful that a stronger villain and a two-part structure will alleviate some of these problems for "Infinity War."

6 Thor: The Dark World (2013) - The first "Thor" was near the bottom of my previous list.  The sequel didn't manage to improve on it in many ways, and in others is quite a bit worse.  Some of the Thor and Loki friction is enjoyable, but the main villain is a terrible waste of Christopher Eccleston, the romance is as tepid as ever, and the humor continues to fall flat.  This movie exemplifies all the common complaints about filmmakers trying to use copious amounts of CGI destruction to hide the lack of interesting characters and a decent plot.  It feels like they weren't even trying this time.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

All About "Ant-Man"

"Ant-Man" is the Marvel film that I've enjoyed the most since the first "Avengers." However, it's a little difficult to parse who is ultimately responsible for it.  "Ant-Man" was Edgar Wright's dream project for ages, but he parted ways with Marvel over creative differences, and was eventually replaced by Peyton Reed.  However, Wright's name is still all over the movie - he has executive producer, screenplay, and story credits.  Several of the comedic and action sequences are clearly his work.  Reed's a decent director, but frankly has never displayed the kind of proficiency with comic-book visuals on display in "Ant-Man."  On the other hand, it's not fair to attribute all the good bits to Wright.  There's a lot of good dialogue and Marvel worldbuilding that definitely didn't come from him.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, who we first meet being released from prison, determined to go straight, ending his career as a skilled thief and burglar.  However, finding employment is tough for an ex-con, and Scott needs money quickly to pay child support and be reunited with his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  He's convinced by his ex-cell mate Luis (Michael Peña) to break into the house of scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to steal the contents of a mysterious safe.  It turns out the contents are a mysterious suit that allows the wearer to shrink to the size of an insect while retaining the strength of a full size man, and Pym engineered the whole burglary as a test for Scott.  Pym wants Scott to take on the mantle of the superhero "Ant-Man," and help him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) to stop Pym's former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from developing his own suit and selling it to the highest bidder. 

The familiar origin story formula has been shaken up in some good ways here.  First, it's largely structured as a heist movie, where Scott, Hank, and Hope spend the majority of the second act training, planning, and hashing out personal issues in preparation for stealing Cross's prototype suit from a heavily guarded facility.  Second, the shrinking powers allow for some very entertaining variations on the standard fight sequence.  Instead of a final showdown leveling cities or endangering planets, the finale of "Ant-Man" takes place in a child's bedroom amidst a heap of toys.  Other action sequences take place in a suitcase, in a bathtub, and in water pipes.  The conceit sounds very silly at first, but it allows for so much inventiveness playing with scale.  Scott also learns to command an army of loyal CGI ants, adding to the sense of epic in miniature.  He even rides a winged carpenter ant into battle.

I've never been much of a fan of Paul Rudd, but he fits into the role of Scott Lang nicely, giving him a sense of innate decency despite an impressive resume of wrongdoing.  However, Michael Douglas really stole the show as Hank Pym.  I love how much history and old, unfinished business the characters here have with each other, and how it plays into the story.  Pym's another version of the Tony Stark genius entrepreneur, one several decades further along who is now working to mend old relationships and address his mistakes.  Douglas really sells his stubborn pride and arrogance, with a mushy heart of gold underneath, of course.  He even gets the messy emotional stuff with his daughter to mostly work. As for Evangeline Lily, she was was decent but underused.  I can only hope this will be corrected in the upcoming sequel.

"Ant-Man" does suffer from some of the same issues that most of the other Marvel movies do.  Chiefly, the villain is a bust.  Corey Stoll isn't even trying to play Cross as anything other than a sober version of his character from "House of Cards."  Also, there are a few too many awkward tie-ins to the other Marvel movies shoehorned in there, from the pre-credits scene to the after-credits scene, to a contrived fight with one of the Avengers that probably should have been cut for time and pacing issues. The script could have used a few more passes too.  There are plot holes everywhere and the shrinking powers are terribly inconsistent.  Scott is awful at asking obvious questions.  And Hope having to spend the entire movie convincing her father to let her put on the suit made Marvel's problem with female superheroes all the more apparent.

Finally, I have to come back to the lack of Edgar Wright.  I enjoyed "Ant-Man" as it is, but I was also very aware of all the ways in which it probably would have been better if Wright had directed it.  I can't help thinking it's such a shame that we never got to see the movie he wanted to make.  Then again, we're lucky that the film did get made without him, and is as solidly entertaining as it is. 

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Victoria" Vexes

Sebastian Schipper's German drama, "Victoria," has rightly won praise for its daring camera work.  The entire 138 minute film is shot in a single take, following the title character during an eventful night in Berlin.  I found the film extremely difficult to sit through though, not because of the extensive shakeycam, but because the characters and story are an absolutely implausible mess.

Victoria (Laia Costa) is a recent immigrant from Madrid, who works at a café for scant wages, and doesn't speak much German.  Thus, most of the dialogue is in heavily accented English.  One night, on her way home from a club, she meets a group of young men including Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff), who invite her to hang out and party with them.  Victoria takes a liking to Sonne, and unwittingly gets caught up in a job that Boxer has agreed to pull for a local crime boss.

About ten minutes into "Victoria," as I watched our heroine agree to go off with a pack of drunken hooligans she had just met, I decided that Victoria was a complete idiot.  These guys start the movie off being refused entry to the club, spend a painfully long time talking Victoria into spending longer and longer stretches of time with them, and once they had her isolated they could have very easily assaulted her or worse.  Not knowing much about the film except that it was some kind of action thriller, I expected that this was going to turn out to be a human trafficking story instead of one about an entirely different kind of crime.  Maybe cultural differences explain away some of this, but I spent much of the first act wondering when Victoria was going to be roofied.

The pacing also drove me to distraction.  The first hour of the film is just following the group as they drink beers and meander around Berlin, in search of a good time.  Almost all the dialogue is improvised, and quite a bit of it is difficult to understand because of the thick accents.  At one point around the midway point of the movie, Victoria and Sonne are able to spend some time alone, and I became hopeful that the movie might turn out to be a low key love story - so little had happened by that point that surely this couldn't be an action film.   But, alas, after that one scene of decent interaction between our lovebirds, suddenly there's a small crisis that snowballs into a big one, and there are a barrage of illogical twists and turns.  Because of course the young woman you've known for less than two hours who speaks no German should be asked to be your getaway driver.  Of course.

it's a shame because when Laila Costa is actually given a few minutes to expound a bit on Victoria's past, she's quite compelling.  The rest of the time she comes across as painfully naïve, taking stupid risks and displaying a profoundly poor sense of judgment.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that not only was she careless and unthinking, but really an awful human being.  At least she fares better than Sonne and Boxer and the rest, who barely register as distinct personalities.  They all seem to boast and lie and panic in the exact same ways.  What really kills the film for me is how little it cares about showing you who these people are.  There's almost nothing to latch on to with any of them.  The guys are a standard collection of petty thieves who give the viewer every reason to think the worst of them, and nothing is ever really offered to refute that.  Sonne is maybe humanized a little more than the others, but not much.

The slowly escalating heist and chase sequences that make up the final parts of the firm are technically impressive and do provide some good thrills, but they're not worth sitting through the first half of the film to see.  And they're so hamstrung by all the weak contrivances and bad decisions that it took to get all the characters to that point that I couldn't enjoy them fully.  I wish the filmmakers had spent a fraction of the time they spent on the cinematography on a solid, cohesive script.  
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Monday, December 7, 2015

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Next March will be the tenth anniversary of the launch of Twitter, once derided as a micro-blogging services for the self-obsessed, and now considered such a massively important method of online communication that outages are front page news.  The rise of the Twitterverse seemed to happen so fast.  Initially, the service was greeted with skepticism.  What could you really say in only 140 characters?  Did you really need updates on the everyday course of another person's life?  Who would spend so much time composing and sending tweets?  And who would read them?  It turns out, depending on who was writing, everybody.  Texting exploded in popularity right around when Twitter began.  Within a year or two, everybody who was anybody had a Twitter account.  And maintaining that social media presence could have a noticeable impact on the celebrity and standing of public figures.  Companies and organizations have Twitter accounts.  Heads of state and religious leaders have twitter accounts.

I think when it really struck me that Twitter was becoming a major force was when the cable news programs started mining them for quotes.  Initially I thought this was in poor taste, discussing random netizen's commentary on various events in order to fill time.  However, the curation of tweets quickly became better and more focused.  Tweets started coming from notable figures, and some specific tweets were making headlines themselves.  Then relaying tweets gathered from people in the middle of disasters and crises became commonplace.  And we started seeing fights over Twitter censorship and Twitter blocking in various countries.  People got persecuted and arrested for tweets.  And then, of course, Arab Spring happened.  And before I knew it, following hashtags wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and I was creating my own Twitter account to follow the conversations between various celebrities online, and announce updates to this blog.

I wasn't very good at Twitter though, and after about a year or so of actively trying to participate, I stopped reading my Twitter feeds.  Around the time I went on hiatus, I stopped updating the Miss Media Junkie account for good.  I don't think I ever had more than a dozen subscribers at any point anyway.  What's so attractive about Twitter is the immediacy of it, the way you can be in contact with anybody in the public sphere with a few clicks, and amplify your message with enough retweets or the support of the right people.  However, I found I don't have much important to say, and no real desire to be in the spotlight.  Maybe in different circumstances, Twitter will be more useful for me, but I only managed to experience it as a time waster, and frankly I just ran out of time.

So I've watched the continuing Twitter takeover of the world mostly from the sidelines.  It continually astounds me how creative and versatile the platform can be.  I love the emergence of the fake Twitter accounts, like the glorious @NotTildaSwinton that dispenses absurdist Swintonesque nonsense, and @seinfeldtoday, which comes up with plot summaries of fake "Seinfeld" episodes featuring the daily annoyances of the 2010s.  And you've got @RealTimeWWI tweeting updates form World War I as if it were happening in the present.  And that British guy who tweeted the entire Bible over the course of three years.

And when people talk about social media campaigns, Twitter is the default method of getting the word out, for good or bad.  When people want to make a stand or have their say, they can do it on Twitter without spending a dime.  It's debatable how much of an effect it's having from one moment to the next, but it does have an effect.  And the media and the powers that be have taken notice.  I'm still a little resistant to the notion that measuring the incidence of certain key words or phrases in people's tweets can really tell you anything, but there are all kinds of trackers now, measuring just that for marketers and researchers.

And somehow the discourse hasn't become dumbed down or reductive.  Twitter is just a different way of communicating and getting ideas across.  It turns out that you can say quite a lot in 140 characters at a time, and there are no limits on the number of tweets, the length of Twitter conversations, or the number of people they can be directed to.  Yes, a lot of it is silly chatter, but once in a while, a few little tweets are anything but.
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Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Remake Rodeo

The announcement of an impending remake of Christopher Nolan's 2000 film "Memento" seems to have inspired some strong anti-remake feelings among film-lovers.  I can't blame them.  I mean, "Memento" is such a conceptually unique film, and executed so well that it's hard to imagine that anybody could successfully do another take on it without coming off as a retread. Not to mention that it's a relatively recent film - most of the properties getting remade at the moment are from the mid-90s, to take advantage of Millennial nostalgia.  As always, there's nothing inherently wrong with remakes, but there are certain expectations that they need to overcome, and a "Memento" remake would have daunting ones.

And I suppose it's as good a time as any to step back and take a look at how reboots and remakes have been doing lately.  2015 has four of note: "Cinderella," "Poltergeist," "Vacation," and the upcoming "Point Break," which is being released as Christmas counterprogramming and will likely be ignored and swept under the rug very quickly.  Frankly, I'm tempted not to count "Cinderella" since there have been several movies with the same source material, but the Kenneth Branagh version makes so many references to the 1950 Disney animated version, it's impossible to deny its roots.  Anyway, it's the best reviewed and best received of the bunch, and has made about half a billion dollars worldwide at the time of writing.  We can expect many more Disney live-action remakes to come.  "Poltergeist" and "Vacation" both got middling reviews and while neither was an outright bomb, they didn't make much at the box office either.  More importantly, they were discussed among hardcore movie fans for only a few brief days before being almost instantly forgotten.

This seems like very little to draw any conclusions from, so let's go back to 2014.  There were more remakes that year: "Robocop," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Left Behind," "Annie," and "The Gambler."  "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" made about the same amount as "Cinderella," and has a sequel in the works for next year.  Among the rest, "Annie" didn't do too badly, but "The Gambler" and "Left Behind" hardly made any impression at all, ignored by audiences despite having Mark Wahlberg and Nicolas Cage starring in them respectively.  "Robocop" was a more expensive flop that generated some critical discussions, but only tepid interest.  The best thing you could say about it is that thanks to the efforts of director José Padilha, it's not as bad as it could have been. Go back further to 2013, and you have the remakes of "Evil Dead," Carrie," and "Oldboy."  Oh, right.  There were remakes of "Evil Dead," Carrie," and "Oldboy," weren't they?

The pattern should be evident.  When films are remade from other films these days, they tend to be fairly cheap, uninspired affairs that sometimes make a little money, but are quickly forgotten and rarely affect people's memories of the originals.  They're low risk films greenlit by risk-averse executives, and rarely attract any significant talent or aspire to any major ambitions.  The big exception appears to be children's films, which the studios are more comfortable converting into bigger, riskier tentpole pictures, and these tend to reap larger rewards.  Maybe it's because the audiences are less discerning, or the material is easier to reinterpret. I also want to point out a few outliers, Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and Pete Travis's "Dredd" which shared source material with previous films, but I don't think are technically remakes.  Neither made much money, but they did win over some vocal fans by going off in completely different directions from their predecessors.

So keep that in mind about the reboots and remakes that are coming up in 2016: Jon Favreau's live-action "The Jungle Book," Paul Feig's gender-flipped "Ghostbusters," Timur Bekmambetov's "Ben-Hur," David Lowery's "Pete's Dragon," Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven," and a "Jumanji" remake, which we know almost nothing about, but it's slated for a Christmas Day opening.  Without even seeing a frame of these films, I already have a pretty good idea which ones are going to share the fate of the "Carrie" reboot and which might have a shot at being the next "Cinderella."  There are some interesting question marks, though, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that one or more of the iffy-looking ones will surprise me.
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Friday, December 4, 2015

The Return of Blockbuster Fatigue

The 2015 box office has been a year of monumental highs and dispiriting lows, the year that "Jurassic World" massively exceeded expectations, and "Fantastic Four" crashed and burned.  This was predicted to be a big year long in advance, with so many big franchise titles on the schedule.  Summer went as expected, with the major tentpoles like "Avengers" and "Furious 7" drawing the expected crowds.  Fall, however, has been a different matter.  Attendance has been off, leading to the worst October since 2007.  Prestige pictures have been noticeably sluggish, with few daring to expand after the high profile failure of "Steve Jobs."  What's really been worrying is that the two big November tentpoles, "Spectre" and "Mocking Jay Part 2" have both been underperforming.  They'll both certainly make money, but not nearly as much money as the studios were hoping for.

Some industry watchers have been pointing to "blockbuster fatigue" as a potential culprit.  Remember blockbuster fatigue?  The summer of 2013 was besieged by costly flops like "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth," "White House Down," and "R.I.P.D," leading some to conclude that the summer movie slate was overcrowded with too many big event pictures.  Critics have been warning since at least 2008 that there aren't enough audience dollars to go around, including Steven Spielberg, who speculated that the whole industry might implode if too many flops happened in the same season.  There have been enough hits to allay those fears over the last two years, but the hits appear to be cannibalizing the business for the more modest performers, leading to more disappointments.  "The Martian," a sizable but not exceptional hit, made almost three times what anything else released in October did.  Another possible factor is the industry's insistence that all prestige pictures be released in the fall, resulting in a log jam of well-reviewed Oscar contenders all going after the same audience.

And that's a continuing worry with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" still ahead of us, which is already breaking presale records and may lead to the biggest box office take of all time.  I worry that filmgoers won't come out for anything else, meaning more Oscar hopefuls and modest midrange films like "Room" and "Brooklyn" go unseen.  And  that counterprogramming choices like the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters" simply won't get greenlighted the next time around.  Moreover, I'm concerned that the "Star Wars" juggernaut will end up negatively impacting the 2016 box office, which is already predicted to be a slower one with fewer highly anticipated sequel films and more like "Warcraft" and "Deadpool," which studios are hoping will start franchises.  These are the riskier pictures that tend to become the biggest flops.  If the business of movies is about creating anticipation for these big blockbusters, it's going to be rough going for a while after "Star Wars."

Honestly, thinking back on Spielberg's remarks, 2016 looks like a pretty good candidate for the potential industry implosion. It's absolutely rife with iffy-looking projects like David Yates' "Tarzan," and Guy Ritchie's "King Arthur," plus some really desperate sequels like "The Huntsman: Winter's War," "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and the incredibly late "Independence Day: Resurgence."  I have no idea if audiences are going to be receptive to a "Harry Potter" spinoff or the female-led "Ghostbusters."  Sure, the big superhero films are all going to make money, but I'm betting that we're going to see a few of the smaller ones stumble this year.  And even if the industry manages to weather a bad 2016, can they weather multiple years like it?  

Finally, though it's not going to happen in 2016 or 2017, I now think that it's inevitable that we're going to see the lucrative Disney film franchises slow down.  A "Star Wars" film every year isn't going to be sustainable in the long run.  The Marvel Phase Two movies made gobs of money, but I only thought two of the six were really worth the price of admission.  I doubt that Phase Three is going to be much better, and Marvel is going to have to negotiate some tricky waters after that, with many of their original sub-franchises hitting their logical endpoints.  Frankly, I'm not going to be too sad to see it all end - I'm starting to get awfully tired of the same old superhero schtick.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Mistress America" is Familiar Farce

Noah Baumbach may have directed and co-written "Mistress America," but it's a Greta Gerwig film.  Here, Gerwig is playing another variation on the familiar Millennial free-spirit we met in Baumbach's "Frances Ha," Daryl Wein's "Lola Versus," and Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress."  And she does it so well that I can't say I really mind that we've seen this all before.  We have plenty of bigger stars making movies with the same plots over and over, with only a fraction of the charm.  At the same time, I can't help noticing that the formula is really starting to show.

The main character in "Mistress America" is actually Tracy (Lola Kirke), an incoming freshman at Barnard College who is having a difficult adjustment.  She isn't accepted to the school's prestigious student publication, stymieing her plans to become a writer .  Her fellow reject, Dylan (Michael Chernus), is the first person at college she really connects with, but then he quickly becomes attached to Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who proves to be a hostile and jealous girlfriend.  Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe), who will soon be getting remarried, suggests that Tracy get to know her soon-to-be sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who lives nearby in Manhattan.  Brooke turns out to be a young woman of big ideas, lively creativity, slight means, and endless, verbose discourse.  Tracy becomes fascinated with her and is swept up in Brooke's dreams of opening a local restaurant, while surreptitiously chronicling Brooke's life for her next story.

The high point of the film is an extended sequence in the second half where Tracy, Dylan, and Nicolette accompany Brooke out to the suburbs to try and persuade Brooke's ex-boyfriend Tony (Matthew Shear) and ex-friend turned mortal nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), to loan her money.  It's a fabulous piece of farce and more than justifies the rest of the movie existing, but it also highlighted for me how cobbled together "Mistress America" feels from previous films.  Tracy's woes at Barnard are well-observed and fairly well-grounded, but never examined in much depth and feel a bit tacked on.  Brooke operates on such a different wavelength, when she appears the whole film becomes more absurdist and freewheeling.  Then, when Mamie-Claire and Tony enter the picture, suddenly the film shifts gears again and becomes a more formally structured kind of comedy.  The humor and tone aren't always consistent from one scene to the next, and there are all sorts of loose ends and under-developed characters - Nicolette seems to have been borrowed wholesale from "Damsels in Distress."  Then there's Tracy's narration, via her short story, which is awfully self-aware and leaned on very heavily.  

The performances won me over, though.  Lola Kirke is excellent as Tracy.  The actress seemed familiar, but this is the first substantial thing I've seen her in, and I hope she goes on to bigger and better things.  I also liked Michael Chernus, who got enough time to make scruffy Dylan more memorable than similar characters I've encountered in other Baumbach and Stillman films.  Heather Lind and Matthew Shear play the most out and out comedic parts, and leave a big impression despite limited screen time.  As for Brooke, she's definitely not Frances or Lola or Violet, but comes off as almost a parody of those past roles, slightly too over-the-top to be real.  Gerwig's performance is very entertaining, but I have to conclude that just didn't find Brooke as convincing as she probably should have been.  Her repartee is just a little too glib, and she repeats signature phrases a few times too many.

I expect that Baumbach and Gerwig will collaborate again in the future, but I'm a little worried how many of these films about being shallow, immature and self-aggrandizing in New York they're going to keep making, especially as Gerwig's hit her thirties and "Girls" is wearing out its welcome on HBO.  "Mistress America" was a fun watch, but I suspect it's more fun if you haven't seen the other recent Greta Gerwig films, and that's not a good sign.  Now, Gerwig is terribly talented, and Baumbach just hit a career best with "While We're Young."  These two are very good at singing the same old song, but I think it's high time that they got a new one.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Favorite Kenji Mizoguchi Movie

The Japanese jidaigeki films, the costume dramas set in the country's eventful past, are largely associated with tales of battling samurai and assassins in the west.  However director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose filmography is full of jidaigeki, was far more interested in the women of these bygone days.  He often used their stories to highlight social and cultural injustices, to explore the more painful aspects of Japan's past, and to shed light on forgotten figures from history.  His heroines were mostly tragic, often lowly prostitutes and geishas, but their stories were epic and enthralling.  My favorite of them is the history of a fallen woman in "The Life of Oharu."

Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is initially a noble woman, the daughter of a samurai, Shinzaemon (Ichiro Sugai).  However, when she is courted by a lower-rank page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), their affair ends in disaster.  Katsunosuke is executed and Oharu's family banished and disgraced.  Oharu is then sent from one position to the next, first becoming the mistress of a daimyo, then a failed geisha, then the servant of a jealous woman, then the wife of an artisan, and then a nun.  Each time money troubles, unforeseen tragedy, or injustice require her to move further down the social ladder, bringing more shame upon Oharu and her family.  Her past constantly hounds her, ruining her chances for happiness.  By the end of her journey she has acquired a reputation for being an immoral and wicked woman.  She is scolded for her choices, but it's far from clear if Oharu really had much of a choice about the course of her life at all.

The strict social hierarchy determines everything in Oharu's world, and she keeps running afoul of it despite her best efforts.  The slights she commits seem so small, and her struggles for self-determination seem perfectly reasonable, but the consequences for non-conformity meted out by the implacable social institutions of the time are dire.  Mizoguchi paints his heroine as an entirely sympathetic figure, a victim of terrible misfortune and the cruelties of others.  A great portion of the responsibility for Oharu's fate is placed on her father, who views Oharu as little more than a source of income, and proves difficult to cut ties with.  This mirrors events from Mizoguchi's own life, as his father sold his older sister into servitude at a geisha house when Mizoguchi was a child, an act which profoundly affected the director's worldview.  While the story of Oharu is often lurid and melodramatic, Mizoguchi keeps the focus on her attempts to endure, her moments of personal and spiritual transcendence in the face of so much adversity.

Mizoguchi is generally characterized as the most poetic and contemplative of his contemporaries, with his long, meditative tracking shots and famous "once scene, one shot" style, that avoids close-ups, often keeping his characters at a distance.  He was also reputedly a fanatic about detail and historical accuracy, particularly in his recreations of period environments.  In "Oharu," I particularly love one of the closing scenes where she tries to glimpse a loved one from afar, the composition emphasizing the impossible social chasm that now exists between them.  There are also the various tragicomic episodes where Oharu keeps losing position after position in the different households she's sent to.  This allows Mizoguchi to be examine the pettiness and hypocrisies of both the highborn and the low, from the nobles to the nuns and everyone in between.  Oharu's revenge against a bad-tempered, balding mistress is a deliciously funny moment in film where levity is rare.

Oharu is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's most famous leading lady who appeared in the majority of his films and would later go on to direct a few of her own.  From tender youth to decrepit old age, Tanaka imbues Oharu with great dignity and passion, and a sense of steely determination even at her lowest point.  She's my favorite of Mizoguchi's tragic women because she yearns so stubbornly for what she dsires, heedless of propriety, to the very end.  And because she never gives in to despair, in my view she walks away at the finale with a strong personal victory in spite of all that she's lost.

Kenji Mizoguchi - What I've Seen

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
The 47 Ronin (1941)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1947)
The Life of Oharu (1952)
Ugetsu (1953)
A Geisha (1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)
Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Top Ten "Venture Bros." Episodes

I've long counted myself as a fan of "The Venture Bros.," but I've resisted doing one of these lists because I wasn't around for the first season.  However, going over the episode lists today, I realized that I have seen most of the missing episodes via reruns.  And as we continue the long, long wait for season six, it's a good time to look back on the series' high points.  Team Venture has been with us for over a decade now, and gone to some very strange and interesting places.  As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate below, and I will totally cheat and count multi-parters as single entries.  Minor spoilers ahead.  Go Team Venture!

"Dia de Los Dangerous!" - I'm not clear when exactly I first saw the "Venture" premiere, but it always stuck with me because of how neatly it sets up all the major characters and relationships.  Early on I was a big fan of the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend, who despite their oddities have a very healthy and warm relationship both at home and in the field. This is also a good example of the show's formula, which would gradually be subverted as time went on: bodyguard Brock has to protect the cheerfully daft Venture boys, Hank and Dean, and their selfish super-scientist father Doc "Rusty" Venture from myriad comic book dangers.  Many fans watched the show simply to see Brock beat people up, which he does here with great gusto.

"Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean" - More hijinks aboard the Cocoon after the Monarch manages to abduct the whole Venture family.  Dean, however, has sustained an embarrassing injury which requires medical attention, so an uneasy truce is called while this is sorted out.  We switch back and forth from that point between Dean's humiliating surgery and the Monarch's birthday showdown with Brock Samson.  While not the most eventful episode, it's one of the most enjoyably silly ones that gives all of my favorites some time to shine.  I always liked the episodes with the main characters hanging out and dealing with personal issues better than the crazier, more conceptual episodes full of genre parodies.  However...

"Escape to the House of Mummies Part II" - There's something to be said for the ambitious conceptual episodes, especially when they're as well done as this.  We start in the middle of a wild time-traveling adventure, where Team Venture is stuck in a pyramid full of booby traps.  Doc manages to escape and goes to find help, but gets sidetracked by a bet with Dr. Orpheus.  We get to spend some time following Orpheus on a trip to a hell dimension to confer with his master (via poor Triana's closet), while Doc reminisces and does bad science with Pete and Billy.  Occasionally we also cut back to Brock and the boys, whose adventure just keeps getting weirder and wilder, culminating in a priceless "Star Wars" reference.

"Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?" - And then there was the time that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln recruited Hank and Dean to help him foil a "Manchurian Candidate" style assassination attempt on the president.  This one has my vote for the funniest episode - it has the best one-liners, bad puns galore, and the uncomfortable innuendoes are off the charts.  Brock trying to fend off Mrs. Manstrong's advances is one of my favorite bits in the whole show.  I love how all the authority figures are just terrible, and even Honest Abe is kind of a jerk. The second season was definitely my favorite, where the show's sensibilities fully gelled and the creators got much more comfortable lobbing absurdities at us.  Speaking of which...

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills" - How did they ever came up with a character as dementedly wonderful as Dr. Henry Killinger with his Magic Murder Bag?  I love the slow reveal here, where it turns out that the sinister newcomer who finagles his way into the Monarch's confidence really is there to help him, despite the reasonable suspicions of his henchmen and Dr. Girlfriend.  The Ventures tangling with loony Myra Brandish is fun, and Orpheus visiting his master is always a treat, but really I love this episode for the domestic drama at the Cocoon base.  Slowly but surely, the Monarch gang was revealed to be a family unit as well as an archvillain outfit - and likely a much more functional family unit than the Ventures.

"Showdown at Cremation Creek" - I love a good wedding, especially when there are supervillains, an extended "Never-Ending Story" parody, and David Bowie in the mix.  This two-part finale to the second season was the ultimate expression of the show's love of comic-book carnage and '70s-'80s popular music as the Monarch and Dr. Fiancee take an eventful plunge into matrimony together at last.  The epic battle between the Guild of Calamitous Intent and the Monarch "murderflies" is one for the ages, especially with Brock in command.  And once I figured out who Klaus Nomi was, it made perfect sense that he and Iggy Pop have superpowers in this universe.  And the cliffhanger ending, which I'm not sure was actually ever fully resolved, was perfect.

"The Buddy System" - Another fairly low-key outing, where Dr. Venture decides to run a day camp out of the Venture compound, recruiting several of his friends to help.  The Monarch sends in the Moppets to infiltrate, and there's an irritating, mouthy kid named Dermott who riles up Brock.  This episode is best enjoyed by established fans who get to see old favorites like the Ghost Captain and Action Johnny again, and puzzle over a new mystery.  "The Venture Bros." is at its best when it juxtaposes the fantastic with the utterly mundane, and you don't get much more mundane than a safety demonstration, no matter how much the Order of the Triad tries to jazz it up.  Of course, this was also the debut of Dr. Mrs. The Monarch's new costume.  Nothing mundane there.

"Return to Malice" - Henchman 21 becoming a fearsome badass in the wake of Henchman 24's death is one of my favorite developments in the "Venture" series.  Here, he gets to work through a lot of baggage while kidnapping Hank and Dean, and we get to the crux of his obsession.  Meanwhile, this is also a great episode for Sergeant Hatred, who initially wasn't one of my favorite characters, but who I warmed up to quickly.  There's so much wrong with the guy, but he's still terribly sympathetic.  He tries so hard to live up to his new good guy status and his job as bodyguard, but like everyone else on the show, his failures haunt him mercilessly.  Doc and the Monarch's Mrs. also get a rare private moment together, which was sort of oddly sweet.

"Any Which Way But Zeus" - The gladiatorial battles between so many of our favorite sidekick characters is a lot of fun, but this episode is here because it lets Hank confront his father about some long-simmering issues, and reveals that Doc actually does care about both of the boys, even if he expresses it in some pretty unhealthy, twisted ways.  This is one of those conversations that wouldn't have happened in so many other shows, but here it lets Hank put a lot of fears to rest and move on.  And as a result, the show gets to move on too.  This was roughly the point where I realized that "Venture Bros." was never going back to the old formula again, but that was a good thing.  The characters were changing, becoming more nuanced and interesting.

"Operation P.R.O.M." -  The fourth season was when the Venture boys started to grow up and rebel in various ways.  Hank got a great arc culminating in "Everybody Comes to Hank's," but Dean's maturation didn't really kick off until the finale, where Doc attempts to throw the boys their own prom.  With Hank and Dermott's help, Dean finally summons up the nerve to try and win back Triana - and turns into a complete jerk in the process.  There's a lot going on here, with the Monarchs, Molotov, and SPHINX lurking around, Doc hiring prostitutes to be the boys' dates, and everyone trying to figure out what kind of sexual act a "Rusty Venture" is slang for.  Inevitably, everything ends in crushed hopes and giant mutant bugs, which is exactly as it should be.
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Monday, November 30, 2015

On Watching Too Many Movies

"One-movie-a-day" challenges are often tackled by young, neophyte movie fans who are trying to get into film more seriously.  Usually they're paired with some activity like reviewing or blogging about the experience, and tend to last in duration from a month to a year.  I always have to restrain myself from being cynical when I run across some excited college kid thinking that he or she is about to do something exceptional by embarking on one of these challenges.  A movie a day for a year isn't particularly difficult as challenges go.  The average person watches four or five hours of television a day, and the average length of a mainstream American film is only a little north of two hours.  And if you get into the habit, it can be very hard to stop.

A movie a day is perfectly doable for anyone who has the time and inclination, especially now that we have Netflix and Amazon and iTunes, which allow almost instantaneous access to massive online catalogs of movies.  And despite being so busy these days that I often can only watch half a movie at a time, I'm over two hundred films for the year so far.  In my more intense Miss Media Junkie years of yore, that number would easily be doubled.  My record was 532 movies in my first year out of grad school, where I had no internet and awful television reception in my crummy apartment, but I was only a short walk from the main branch of my city's library.  I was taking home Criterion DVDs ten at a time for a few months.  Not normal or healthy, clearly, but we all have our ways of distracting ourselves during tough times.  Movies were a lot cheaper than drinking.

And a few years before that I had an internship near Washington DC, and had rented a room from a woman with a house in the suburbs.  Again, no internet, limited access to television, and I only had time to go to see the touristy stuff on weekends because I was reliant on public transportation.  However, I trudged past the doors of a Blockbuster Video store on the way home every night, and eventually paid for a month of their unlimited two-at-a-time rental plan.  I think the cost was $35 and I wound up watching 52 movies that month on my laptop.  I wasn't particularly interested in becoming a movie buff - I just liked movies and had grown up regularly watching an hour or two of television in the evening with my parents before bed.  It felt odd not to have something on.  So that was how I first saw "The Conversation" and "Midnight Cowboy" and "Harold and Maude."  I was back at school a few weeks later, and only watched about thirty movies the rest of the year.

By the way, I'm getting the numbers from an Excel spreadsheet I've kept of all the movies I've watched since 2004.  I've been using Icheckmovies as a backup for the past few years, but the spreadsheet is still my main record.  I started it for fun and just got into the habit of logging a quick one-sentence review and star score after every viewing of a new movie.  I've gotten behind on the recordkeeping a few times over the years, but always caught up again eventually.  I like having it in this format for reference, easily sortable by year or score or even viewing format.  I can pinpoint pretty clearly when I had subscriptions to various rental services, and when I switched from DVDs to online streaming.  I keep thinking that one of these days I'm going to start a new spreadsheet, something better formatted with more information, but I don't know if I ever will.

And somewhere along the way I realized that I had turned into a movie buff, and watching a movie every day or two felt completely normal.  It became a part of my life, and something I don't really question.  It's only when I see my own viewing patterns referred to as a "challenge" by someone that I'm reminded that I really am a media junkie.  Not quite the one I used to be, but still a media junkie.
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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Oscar Season 2015

As usual I haven't seen most of the contenders yet, but the Oscars have always been more about politics than merit, and we're definitely deep into the season at this point. The various critics' circles will start announcing their nominees soon, followed by the guilds and the other major awards organizations. What am I hoping for this year?

Well, it's going to be an interesting race because there aren't a lot of front runners yet and no clear favorites.  Thomas McCarthy's "Spotlight" has been singled out as a possible winner, but it's a quieter picture with a modest campaign so far.  The populist choices are "The Martian," and "Inside Out," but neither seems to have the support for a win.  We've been hearing a lot about what it took to make "The Revenant," but who knows if it's any good or not.  That leaves us with a lot of films from familiar names that sound like safe bets: Todd Haynes' "Carol," David O. Russell's "Joy," Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl," Quentin Tarantino's "Hateful 8," Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs," and Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies."  There are also some smaller, more interesting titles from relative newcomers in the mix: John Crowley's "Brooklyn" and Lenny Abrahamson's "Room."  I'm also gunning for longshots "Love & Mercy" and "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Best Actor looks like it's going to be a fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender.  I wouldn't mind if either of them won, because they're both due some recognition.  Eddie Redmayne will almost certainly be back for "The Danish Girl," and I'm guessing Johnny Depp for "Black Mass," since he's gotten enough good press for the role.  Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, and Will Smith are all in contention for the last spot.  In the Best Actress race, Brie Larson is our early frontrunner for "Room."  Saoirse Ronan for "Brooklyn," Cate Blanchett for "Carol," and Jennifer Lawrence for "Joy" are also very likely.  The fifth spot is a lot harder because there are so many smaller, actress-led films that tend to fly under he radar but get nominations with a good campaign.  Julianne Moore won with the completely pedestrian "Still Alice," remember.  I'm going to guess that Carey Mulligan swings a nod for "Suffragette."

The supporting categories are a lot harder to gauge, but I'm rooting for Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks for "Love & Mercy," and Jane Fonda for stealing the show in "Youth."  The ones to beat will be Mark Rylance who seems to have bee the only part of "Bridge of Spies" worth talking about, and Rooney Mara for "Carol."  Who I'd love to see in the Best Supporting category, but who will almost certainly have no shot, is Oscar Isaac for "Ex Machina."  Instead, this is usually where we see token nominations for minority actors, like Idris Elba for "Beasts of No Nation" and Benicio Del Toro for "Sicario," or older favorites like Joan Allen for "Room" and Sylvester Stallone for "Creed."  Who ends up with a nomination could depend largely on which picture picks up momentum as we get closer to the deadline.

For the rest of the categories, a miscellaneous assortment of thoughts: Cinematography is going to see yet another Deakins and Lubezki showdown.  I'm rooting for Deakins, just because Lubezki's already won twice.  Otherwise, this would be a good place to recognize Cary Fukunaga for "Beasts of No Nation," and "Mad Max: Fury Road."  In Documentary, the Amy Winehouse profile "Amy" is the frontrunner, and "Going Clear" is going to have to fight simply secure a nomination.  I'm rooting for "The Look of Silence" personally.

In the Foreign Language category, the only major contender seems to be "Son of Saul" from Hungary.  I'm also curious about Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin" and the Icelandic "Rams."  For Animated Film, as much as I loved "Inside Out," I'm rooting for Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" sight unseen, because it would set such a good precedent for this category is something for grown-ups finally won.

And then you have all the wild cards and dark horses, of which there are plenty this year. Will controversy help "Truth"?  What's going on with "By the Sea"?  Is "99 Homes" going to get lost in the shuffle?  What about "Concussion," "Macbeth," The Program," and "The Lobster"?

And what of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"?
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Friday, November 20, 2015

My 2015 Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

It's that time again!  This year for Christmas, I want:

For women directors to get a fairer shake.  Now I understand that there have been some great efforts made in recent months, and I know there are a lot of systemic problems that can't be corrected quickly.  But when you've got the EEOC conducting an industry-wide investigation of gender discrimination, you have to acknowledge that there's something wrong with this picture.  Yes, I know that Ava DeVernay said no to "Black Panther," and Michelle Monaghan said no to "Wonder Woman," but we need to get to the point where female directors turning down these high-profile gigs is no longer newsworthy.  At the time of writing, there are only seven films directed by women on the 2016 movie schedule, two of them animated films.  On television the numbers are better, but still not what they should be.

For the DC films to score some wins.  I still don't know how I feel about Zack Snyder having the reigns for "Batman v. Superman" leading into the "Justice League" movies, but I hope that it does well enough to get the DC cinematic universe back on track.  Keep in mind that we also have David Goyer's "Sinister Six" movie coming, which could provide an alternate avenue of success if the capes end up going down in flames.  As much as I've enjoyed many of the Marvel films, and as much as I'm looking forward to "Captain America: Civil War," it's not healthy for the industry and the superhero genre if Marvel keeps dominating the field like this.  I also have high hopes for FOX's "X-men," which include "X-Men: Apocalypse,"  "Deadpool," and possibly "Gambit," though it's likely that one will be pushed back to 2017 because of production troubles.

For Renee Zellweger to get back on her feet.  A year ago she reemerged after a five year hiatus from acting with a dramatically altered appearance.  I find it very sad that she thought she had to resort to such drastic measures to be marketable again, and we'll see how it's affected her screen work soon.  Zellweger has three films coming out in the next year, including "Bridget Jones's Baby."  While she was never one of my favorite actresses, I really hope Zellweger pulls off this comeback.  I always respected her work, and we need more forty-something headliners like her onscreen.

For Messrs. Sepinwall and Fienberg to regroup and find new podcasting homes.  The sudden cancellation of "Firewall and Iceberg" at the beginning of October was one of the saddest events of 2015 for me, as it was by far the best television podcast out there.  I have no idea how I'm going to get through the midseason without these two.  Oh, and for all the writers from The Dissolve and Hollywood Prospectus to land on their feet.  This was a rough year for the media reviewing community all around.

For the 2016 presidential election coverage to maintain some semblance of sanity.  With Donald Trump involved until the primaries next year, it's going to be tough, and probably very entertaining.  But as I get older, I find that I have less and less tolerance for political shenanigans.  I hope Bernie Sanders holds out for as long as possible, though, if only for more Larry Sanders appearances on SNL.  Thank goodness I've stopped watching live television.

For the return of "The X-files" to go smoothly.  I don't think that the revival is particularly necessary, and there's a pretty good chance that it'll be a disappointment.  The original had some pretty major ups and downs in quality, after all.  I'll be happy with "The X-files" if we get a few decent updates on the "monster-of-the-week" installments, which were always my favorites.  Oh, and if they could clear up what happened to Gibson Praise and the Lone Gunmen, I'd really appreciate that.

For all the new films and television shows coming out this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve.  Especially "Dr. Ken," because it looks like we're stuck with him for a while.

And for the "Sherlock" Christmas special and the new "Star Wars" movie to be as good as their promos.

Happy holidays!
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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Marvelous "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

There have been so many spy movies this year from "Furious 7" to "Spy" to the latest James Bond movie.  I think I've found my favorite of the year, a loving throwback to Cold War spy films based on the 1964 series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."  Guy Ritchie puts together a stellar group of acting talent, with a lighthearted script, gorgeous locales, and a sensational soundtrack to tie the whole thing together.  There's not as much action in it as some might hope for, but it doesn't lack for excitement.

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) helps a young woman named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape from Communist East Berlin, hoping that she can help lead them to her father, a nuclear engineer who has disappeared.  A KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), is hot on their tails.  However, having determined that Gaby's father may be working on a nuclear bomb for Nazi sympathizer Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the CIA and KGB decide to team up, and stick Solo and Kuryakin together as reluctant partners.  They go to Rome, where Gaby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is working for Vinciguerra, to try and infiltrate the operation.  Kuryakin poses as Gaby's fiancé, to her dismay, while Solo poses as an antiquities dealer to cozy up to Vinciguerra directly.  And of course there are dangerous missions, double crosses, daring escapes, a little romance, and a lot of witty banter.

The plot is an overcomplicated jumble, as it was in Guy Ritchie's last "Sherlock Holmes" movie, but here the performances are so much fun, I didn't care.  Cavill's square-jawed Napoleon Solo oozes charm and just the right amount of cavalier nonchalance.  There's a lot of Cary Grant in his performance in a good way.  Hammer's Kuryakin is a sympathetic, if touchy soul, and definitely a co-lead.  It's nice seeing the two of them having some fun after the gloomy "Man of Steel" and the muddled "Lone Ranger."  They make a very good comedic pair, constantly bickering and trying to one-up each other before becoming grudging allies.  The ladies are no slouches either.  Vikander's feisty gamine has no trouble keeping up with the boys, while Debicki's icy femme fatale steals every scene she's in.  After this and "The Great Gatsby," I hope Debicki gets a lot more work, because her presence is fantastic.

Ritchie throws himself into recreating the 1960s as it only existed in the movies, with a playful sensibility that makes it accessible to young and old alike. I've found the director a little hit-or-miss, since he can go overboard with his visual tricks and elaborate stylization.  In "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." I noticed that he has a tendency to repeat gags: something mundane happening in the foreground contrasts with something crazy happening in the out-of-focus background, the narrative doubles back on a scene to insert extra bits of information that makes it play out in a different way, and there are two rounds of split screen montages.  They work most of the time, though, are well executed.  Really, there's little here that I haven't seen in other spy movies, but it's all done with such an admirable level of care and craft.  There's so much retro eye candy, from the fashions to the Roman locales, to the cars.  The substance is lacking here and there, but the style is good enough to carry the film.

I've never seen any of the original "Man from U.N.C.L.E.," but I can't imagine any of the old fans would have any strong objections to the reboot.  It's definitely putting its own spin on the material rather than aping a past success, and more importantly it's not garishly modernized like "The Green Hornet" or "Get Smart."  This is one of the only spy films in recent years that I can think of that really romanticizes the profession of being a secret agent again.  Oh, it's winking terribly whenever Solo drops a double entendre, but there's definitely a nostalgic taste of the old exoticism from the early James Bond days in the mix.  I didn't realize until now that I've been missing it, just a bit.  There are so many spy movies these days, but so little to intrigue.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Going Clear" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"

Oh yes, we're doing this.

I saw the latest "Mission Impossible" movie recently, and it's great fun.  Christopher McQuarrie picked up the reins, and sent the Impossible Missions Force members Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) off on another globetrotting adventure with lots of great action set pieces, lots of zippy humor, and all the usual spy shenanigans.  It's always a good sign when you can identify multiple sequences for praise, and here there were plenty - the opera house sequence, the underwater sequence, the crazy car chase, and so on.  Heck, the big airplane stunt that's been at the center of the film's marketing campaign happens in the opening pre-title sequence!  I don't think this was the best installment of the franchise, but it was a pretty strong one, signaling that there's a lot of life left in the almost twenty year-old franchise and Tom Cruise's career.  Rebecca Ferguson got a lot of good notices for playing double-agent Ilsa Faust, but Cruise is clearly still the main event.

And then I had to go and watch the HBO documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," directed by Alex Gibney, which strongly suggests that Cruise is complicit in some of the worst abuses of the Church of Scientology.  "Going Clear" is an excellent summary of Scientology's long and sordid history, from its origins as a self-help philosophy created by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard to the soul-sucking runamok cult it's become today.  For those already familiar with Scientology's antics the documentary doesn't offer much new information, but it backs up a lot of the most important claims with riveting interviews with former Scientologists who were high up in the organization, and experienced the insanity first hand.  Some of the most disturbing images came from the Church's internally distributed promotional videos, several of which featured Tom Cruise essentially being worshiped as a Scientology deity - and set to the "Mission: Impossible" theme music no less!  That certainly put a dampener on any enthusiasm I had for Tom Cruise's resurgent career.   

So "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is now the latest sad, stark example of good media coming from distasteful talent.  Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby are the usual names we should bring up in these conversations, of course.  The individual viewer can (and should) draw their own conclusions from the material presented in "Going Clear" as to how much responsibility Tom Cruise has for the amount of power and influence Scientology currently enjoys, and whether they want to keep supporting his movies.  Personally, I don't think that he should be condemned for simply being friends with people like David Miscavige, but his status as Scientology's most famous promoter suggests that Cruise is either condoning the abuses or has been manipulated to the point where he's essentially a puppet figure.  Either way, Tom Cruise is clearly a troubled man who is in way too deep with a pack of dangerous zealots and con-artists.  Though he's not particularly vocal about being a Scientologist these days, he's not exactly doing anything to distance himself from them either. 

However, Cruise personal failings don't change the fact that he's still an excellent actor and is a big part of why "Rogue Nation" is one of the better summer action movies this year.  As a producer he was directly responsible for the hiring for McQuarrie, who Cruise also worked with in 2012's "Jack Reacher."  From interviews, it's clear he also had a big part in casting, writing, and all the stunt work.  I've never had trouble compartmentalizing in these situations, and considering the art separate from the artist.  Some of my friends can't bear to watch Bill Cosby's old work anymore, and I sympathize.  However, when I've gone back and looked at old "Cosby Show" episodes, I see Cliff Huxtable, not Bill Cosby.  It's the same with Cruise and "Mission: Impossible."  I look at the film and see Ethan Hunt, not Tom Cruise.  He doesn't remotely resemble the Tom Cruise in the "Going Clear" videos, who looks like he was going through some kind of extreme psychological crisis at the time they were made.

Is there any way to resolve the cognitive dissonance?  Not easily, no.  I can try to justify watching "Mission: Impossible" as supporting all the hundreds of other people who worked on the film, but honestly without Cruise it probably wouldn't exist.  Supporting Cruise's isn't directly supporting Scientology, but the organization still benefits from counting a big movie star among its ranks.  Cruise seems to have become more self-aware at least and has clammed up about Scientology in public, but there's still something off about him.  He appeared on the Nerdist podcast last year and sounded like a guy who had been stuck in press tours and junkets for far, far too long.  Being a movie star is about maintaining an illusion, and Cruise is still very good at it.  But we've seen him lose his footing before, and he probably will again.  "Rogue Nation" was a high point for him, but I have to wonder how many more he's got left.

As for the Church of Scientology, its days are surely numbered.  "Going Clear" is damning, but it's also notable for how much it left out of the narrative, for all the terrible, well-known stories it didn't tell.  In popular culture, Scientology has been a laughingstock since the "South Park" guys introduced us to Xenu, and a much easier target for criticism since the Internet got involved.  What resources the organization has amassed will ensure its vestiges stick around for a while, but its power is quickly dissipating.  And if Tom Cruise or John Travolta or any other major star made any visible efforts to help them at this point, they'd probably go down with them. 

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Watching Shia LaBeouf Watching Shia LaBeouf

Last week, Shia LaBeouf and several collaborators created a unique piece of performance art, titled #Allmymovies.  Over three days, the bulk of his filmography was screened at New York's Angelika Film Center in reverse chronological order, and LaBeouf marathoned all of it, from the recent indie film "Man Down" to the Disney dub of Miyazaki's "Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind."  Only brief breaks were scheduled, so he slept through several of the films, and ate during others.  The goal was for him to remain in his seat for as long as possible.  The whole thing was livestreamed, and curious fans could also drop by the theater and join the audience at the screenings - admission was free.  The Gothamist covered what was going on outside the screening room.

I logged in briefly to the livestream site during the first day, and was greeted by the image of LaBeouf's passive face as he watched one of the films.  You could also make out a couple of other spectators sitting behind him, but not very clearly.  The lighting constantly changed because of the flickering screen, but you could clearly see LaBeouf's expressions, or the lack thereof.  I only lasted a few minutes before quitting the stream.  I don't feel like I really got the full effect of the piece, but I didn't have the time or resources to really commit to the experience.  No sound from the movies was supplied because of copyright issues, so following along required some work.  A schedule of the films was supplied so the curious viewer could sync up with LaBeouf, but was it worth the effort?

I've tried to keep an open mind about Shia LaBeouf's artistic ambitions and offscreen foibles.  His plagiarism of a Daniel Clowes comic two years ago was definitely a low point, but his very public string of apologies (several of them also plagiarized) and jaunts into performance art have been intriguing, if not always very effective.  Marina Abramović he ain't.  The marathon strikes me as an original idea, at least.  A famous actor watch his own films isn't something we've seen before, and it's a perfectly appropriate piece of programming for the Netflix generation, who have made marathoning television shows and watching livestreams of other people playing video games popular.  Heck, just a few days ago Twitch streamed the entire run of "The Joy of Painting" with Bob Ross to a not-inconsiderable audience.  Just because I haven't the time or inclination to watch Shia LaBeouf watching "Dumb and Dumberer" doesn't mean that others online don't.

I've written a bit before about the pleasures of secondhand and communal viewing, and how the internet is creating new forms of both.  Reaction videos, liveblogging, and livestreaming are commonplace these days.  As I've read over some of the reaction pieces to the Shia LaBeouf marathon, what struck me was how familiar it all felt - the speculation about his intentions, the obsession over minutiae (someone gave him a can of Pringles!), and the nostalgia from younger viewers over LaBeouf's earlier films.  #Allmymovies is just giving us a new excuse to have the same conversations about Shia LaBeouf we've been having about him for years.  It's the fact that LaBeouf is instigating the conversation this time that's the interesting part.  While the stunt is inherently attention-seeking, there's no sense of desperation about it, no indication that it's meant to be anything more than exactly what it is.  LaBeouf's actually had quite a decent run of movies lately with "Nymphomaniac" and "Fury," and he seems to be successfully putting the "Transformers" phase of his career behind him.

But that doesn't mean he can't revisit it.  Interest in #Allmymovies seemed to peak during the screenings of the films people were the most familiar with: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the first "Transformers," and his Disney Channel era features like "Holes" and the "Even Stevens" movie.  Without LaBeouf providing any commentary, viewers could only guess at what he was thinking while watching the younger version of himself in these films, and many did.  Poking around on Reddit and Twitter, I found so many watchers sharing speculation: Did he seem bored by this one?  Was he embarrassed by that one?

I don't think that most of Shia LaBeouf's films are worth revisiting, but revisiting them alongside their star is another matter.  And LaBeouf keeps doing things like #Allmymovies, he's not going to lose the spotlight any time soon.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rank 'Em: The "Star Wars" Movies

Before "The Force Awakens" upends the franchise forever, I figured it was time to get my rankings in order for the existing six films.  No, I'm not counting the "Clone Wars" animated movie or the Ewoks movies.  The rest are ranked below from best to worst.  Sorry prequel fans, but I never much liked Episodes I-III.  They do have their good points, though, which I'll expand on below.  Spoilers below.

"The Empire Strikes Back" - I originally watched "Empire" and "Jedi" via edited television broadcasts in 1992, and I don't think I knew about the famous reveal beforehand.  I remember that the ending definitely made a strong impression, that suddenly this dazzling space adventure story I'd been enjoying had deeper, darker, more personal stakes than I'd anticipated.  After more viewings, I'd come to appreciate all the scenes with Yoda, the Hoth battle, and the increasingly dicey situation with Lando Calrissian on Cloud City.  What I think really makes this film for me, however, is Darth Vader, who becomes more and more powerful and threatening with each appearance.  After years of jokes and parodies, people forget how effective he was as a villain - and it still irks me that he was so badly undercut in the prequels.

"The Return of the Jedi" - This is the "Star Wars" movie I watched the most often as a kid, to the point where I had good chunks of the dialogue memorized.  I never really minded the Ewoks, and "Jedi" had the Jabba the Hutt sequence and the confrontations with Darth Vader and the Emperor, which are some of my favorite parts of the whole series.  I've heard some criticism over the years that there was too much reliance on action sequences, and that the series essentially backslid to being a kids' movie after "Empire" struck out in more adult directions.  I always thought of "Star Wars" as being a kid-friendly franchise first and foremost, though.  I especially appreciate the effects work in this installment, which significantly improved on similar scenes from the earlier movies.  When I think of the attack on the Death Star, it's usually this one.

"Star Wars" - I actually saw "Star Wars" after the first two movies, so all the innovation and the originality of its concepts were completely lost on me.  I was initially a little disappointed, even, because the characters were fairly flat, and some of the effects didn't hold up so well (until the 1997 Special Edition anyway).  However, I thought it was still a great time, especially the middle section on the Death Star where the humor comes out, and there's that great scene with the trash compacter.  The Death Star getting blown up is always fun too.  The older I get, the more I appreciate Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness's performances, which help to ground the space fantasy elements considerably.  And then there's John Williams' score, which is as vital to these movies as the special effects.

"The Phantom Menace" - It could be the nostalgia talking, but I really do think that "Phantom Menace" was the best of the prequels.  It had Liam Neeson, Darth Maul, the best score, and some absolutely stunning art direction.  Yes, it also had Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd, but if I keep in mind that I'm watching a kid's film, I don't find them intolerable.  The tin ear dialogue is pretty bad, but I like several of the fight sequences, particularly the final two-on-one lightsaber duel.  After fifteen years, it's become obvious that the heavy reliance on green screen effects really hurt the film, but some of those effects still look pretty impressive.  Most of all, I think that the way it's structured as a prelude to a bigger story helps to cover a lot of the flaws, which is why I was able to enjoy what I could.

"The Revenge of the Sith" - I really, really loathe Hayden Christensen's performance as Anakin Skywalker.  While I admit I enjoyed watching a good deal of his downfall, that awful final transformation scene just killed it for me.  And I still can't believe that Darth Vader's tragic backstory amounted to some dumb, reckless kid trusting the wrong people and jumping to idiotic conclusions about his closest friends.  "Revenge of the Sith" may have tackled more adult subject matter than the other two prequel films, but it's executed so ham-handedly, it never feels like Lucas is really taking his characters seriously.  The only thing keeping this one from the bottom of the list is that I do get the sense that the filmmakers were trying.  Sadly, it wasn't enough.

"Attack of the Clones" - Good grief, where do I start?  The leaden romance between Anakin and Padme?  The arena fight where all the lightsabers look like glowsticks?  The ridiculous Yoda and Dooku duel?  This was the film where it finally sunk in that the franchise had seriously gone off the rails.  I've only watched "Attack of the Clones" once, but I'm going with my gut on this one.  I walked out of the theater hating this movie, and it's been my worst experience with "Star Wars" to date.  So as far as I'm concerned, it's definitely earned last place.
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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tentatively Getting Excited About "Star Wars"

I've spent so much time trying to stay out of the way of the "Star Wars" marketing machine.  There have been toys on sale at Target since mid-summer.  Themed food items are showing up at the grocery store, with packaging that make it all too clear which characters are the good guys and which are the bad guys.  There are certain movie-related sites I just can't visit anymore for fear of running across more spoilers.  I already know way too much about who's playing who, who's making cameos, and who ends up with which lightsabers.  I'm guessing that many of my fellow old school "Star Wars" are getting a little burnt out.

So I'd like to just pause, take a deep breath, and remember that I actually am excited to see "The Force Awakens."  It has been a very long wait for most of us, and now we're only a little more than a month away from opening weekend.  2015 has been a very solid movie year, but frankly the new "Star Wars" movie still has the potential to dwarf all the other successes.  Those first two teaser trailers gave me goosebumps like nothing else in years.  I toyed with skipping the final one last month, but I eventually gave in.  The Comic-Con behind the scenes footage actually got me a little teary-eyed.  I've written before extensively about how I fell out of love with the "Star Wars" franchise after the prequels, but I continue to adore those first three movies.  They're my cinematic touchstones for so many, many things.

Realistically, I know "The Force Awakens" probably won't be the movie I want it to be. J.J. Abrams is a severely hit or miss director with a lot of bad habits, and the only movie he's directed that I've liked without reservations is the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot.  However, I can see his sensibility suiting "Star Wars" very well, as long as he doesn't get carried away.  From the promotional materials, he's made many choices that I can really get behind, like the diverse casting and the use of more physical props and effects.  I'm actually more thrilled at the prospect of Gwendoline Christie playing a "Star Wars" role we haven't seen a woman occupy before than any of the promised cameos by the old familiar faces.  And frankly, I can handle some lens flares if it means we get more visuals like the Super Star Destroyer wreckage from that second teaser.

I'm also getting very excited for the films coming after "The Force Awakens."  There's been a lot going on behind the scenes with "Episode VIII" and "Rogue One" that's been overshadowed by the current hype for "The Force Awakens."  Creating the spinoff anthology films and using different directors for each film were good ideas.  This means a slew of different creative voices will be in the mix, and the franchise will be flexible enough so that it can hopefully accommodate directors we wouldn't immediately consider for "Star Wars."  "Rogue One," for instance, seems to be aiming to put the war in "Star Wars," with a plot synopsis straight out of a WWII movie.  The international cast they've assembled for it, including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, and Alan Tudyk is jaw-dropping.  Not much is known about Episodes VIII and IX yet, but I'm hoping these will be the movies that Rian Johnson finally knocks out of the park.

I think what I find especially heartening is that Disney is clearly signaling that they're in for the long haul with "Star Wars."  They are doing their best to turn this into the next Marvel Universe, possibly with multiple sub-franchises and spinoffs.  Netflix is gunning for a "Star Wars" series to go with "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," of course.  So even if "The Force Awakens" turns out to be a disappointment, there will be multiple attempts to get it right using multiple approaches. Now looking at the current state of the Marvel Universe movies and shows, there's clearly both upsides and downsides to this kind of strategy long term, but I'm pretty confident that "Star Wars" fans are going to be getting some fun media out of it before the end.  
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Friday, November 13, 2015

Checking in With "Steven Universe"

It's been about two years and seventy-odd episodes since "Steven Universe" premiered, and high time I checked back in with one of the best animated shows currently on the air.  Minor spoilers ahead for the first season.

After my first few episodes of "Steven Universe," I expected the rest of the series to be a fairly laid back, easygoing romp with a lot of humor and some occasional low-stakes fantasy monster bashing.  And for a long time, that's exactly what it was.  However, about halfway through the first season, we started getting some pretty significant pieces of back story.  The more Steven learns about his powers, the more he learns about his mother and the other Crystal Gems. New concepts and skills are often introduced in lighter, funnier episodes first, only to come back later in darker contexts.  And soon it becomes clear that even though Steven and the audience don't know exactly what's going on, or what each new bit of information means, it's all adding up to something big.

This Is a really refreshing approach to worldbuilding and serialization, which we've been seeing more of in action cartoons.  More perceptive older viewers should be able to catch on to what's going on fairly quickly, but younger viewers who don't understand the specifics still get a sense of the impact on the characters.  Steven sees the Gems getting increasingly worried and upset with each new discovery.  He sees that many of his own personal victories turn out to have consequences he didn't expect, and his worldview becomes more complex as a result.  The Steven at the end of the first season has grown and matured considerable from the happy-go-lucky kid who was showing off his cheeseburger backpack at the start.  He's still a goofy optimist, but one who has had to deal with a lot of tough situation and emotions.  And the Gems have turned out to be far, far more complicated than they appeared to be at the outset.

What I makes "Steven Universe" particularly strong is its focus on relationships.  In this show, feelings matter and can be a source of power in a very literal sense.  But while there is a lot of emphasis on building bonds, more time is spent on healing old hurts and dealing with some unusually fraught emotional baggage.  There are a wide variety of insecurities, traumas, and fears explored by the characters, some of which are pretty dark and have the potential to get much darker.  The loss of Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, is an event that most of the main characters are still dealing with in various ways.  These aren't issues that come up in every episode, but they drive the main storylines and are at the crux of our young hero's journey.  It's especially apparent in the stories where some big, plotty, magical event happens, but the actual conflict is centered on Steven trying to deal with some smaller, side problem that the show patiently reveals is just as important to take seriously.

I really adore the Crystal Gems as characters, especially as their personalities and flaws have come into sharper focus.  Fussy Pearl may actually be the least in control of herself and the most potentially destructive.  Amethyst still has a lot of growing up to do, and appears to be on a similar arc to Steven.  Garnet is awesome and my favorite for reasons I can't get into without spoiling too much.  And all of them are so funny too.  I love that the Gems can be ripping on monsters one minute and engaging in silly bickering the next.  Their interactions with regular humans are a riot.  As much as "Steven Universe" is about fighting evildoers and learning about special alien powers, it's also very invested in Steven's day-to-day life as a regular human kid.  I love how involved he gets with helping out the various inhabitants of Beach City, even if some of them tend to get on my nerves.  Less of Ronaldo and the Cool Kids, please.

The one character who's grown on the me the most is Steven's dad, Greg Universe, especially as we've learned more about his past and relationship with Rose Quartz.  A balding, washed up rocker, living out of a van, it was hard to see him as more than comic relief for a long time, but a few poignant flashback episodes and present day bonding episodes have changed that.  I know that eventually we're going to get to his account of Rose Quartz's departure, and I'm kind of dreading watching him get his heart broken.  And the fact that I care about that more than I care about the impending arrival of the Big Bads and their sinister Earth-threatening plots just shows you what kind of show "Steven Universe" is.

The hiatus can't go by fast enough, and I'm already anticipating a third season.  Happy watching.
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