Monday, January 26, 2015

"Selma" Shines

Back in 2012, one of the films on my "to watch" list at the end of the year was Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere," a domestic drama starring Sharon Lawrence and David Oyelowo that had gotten a good amount of critical acclaim.  I waited for it to appear on DVD the following year.  And waited.  And waited.  And I'd probably still be waiting if DuVernay and Oyelowo's follow-up project wasn't the excellent historical drama, "Selma," chronicling the actions of American Civil Rights campaigners in 1964.  The film is currently attracting controversy, but I'm worried that its well-deserved status as an awards contender is going to keep people from seeing it.
And boy, do I hope that people see this one.  I understand why some audiences are approaching with caution.  It's got all the earmarks of the kind of unbearably self-serious, one-note historical prestige pic that's been far too prevalent this season.  Oprah Winfrey, who has been associated with some of the more misguided entries into this genre (see Lee Daniels' recent work), is prominent as one of film's producers and has a small supporting role.  But those who would write off "Selma" sight unseen are going to miss one of the best films about the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever made.  Heck, they're going to miss one of the best films of 2014 period.
There are many similarities between "Selma" and Steven Spielberg's recent "Lincoln."  It takes the approach of dramatizing one important chapter in its subject's life, in this case the protests that took place in Selma, Alabama for voting rights.  Dr. King, played by Oyelowo, is brought down to earth, portrayed as a man with great flaws and great doubts who has to balance multiple competing interests.  The script is very literate and avoids hand-holding, assuming viewers are already broadly familiar with major players like Dr. King and Governor Wallace and events like the bombing of the16th Street Baptist Church that brought the movement to Selma.  Oyelowo's performance is tremendous, easily anchoring the whole project, and backed up by a great ensemble led by  Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace.  
However, "Selma" is fundamentally different from "Lincoln" in that it's concerned primarily with the movement rather than an individual.  Though it uses him as a focal point, the film resists the urge to become a biopic of Dr. King, instead taking pains to shine the spotlight on smaller figures involved in the campaign, including white supporters.  "Selma" explores Dr. King's role as a strategist and negotiator, careful to treat him as a man rather than an icon, and it extends this attitude to the rest of the major players as well.  President Johnson is portrayed as a sympathetic ally, but one who has to be prodded into action - a portrayal which has made some of his supporters uncomfortable.  Then there are the other participants in the Civil Rights Movement, representing multiple factions and ideologies and interests.  There are far too many to identify and do justice to all of them - many important figures who  show up onscreen aren't even named - but as they plan and debate and coordinate, we get a glimpse of how the movement operated day to day, on the ground, in the thick of it.
Dr. King is absent for many of the important events in "Selma," so our attention shifts to Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) or Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) or others.  Eventually our investment is with the Civil Rights movement, as it should be, rather than any particular individual.  At one point near the end of the film, we suddenly get a scene with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Martin Sheen playing an attorney and a judge.  Neither of their characters are identified, but it quickly becomes apparent that Gooding's character is handling a legal challenge to allow the march from Selma to Montgomery.  The narrative is so clear, and the momentum of the unfolding events so strong, that little cutaways and digressions like this are possible, and the director takes full advantage.
And speaking of the director, I'm glad to report that "Middle of Nowhere" was finally released on DVD and all the usual streaming platforms last week.  I doubt that it'll match up to "Selma," which is as impressive a historical film as I've ever seen, but it's nice to finally have access to the work of a black female director who has certainly proven worth paying more attention to. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game"

The trouble with biopics about brilliant people is that it's difficult for viewers of average intelligence to appreciate them for their brilliance.  The filmmakers are obliged to spend some time making a case for their subject being worthy of the viewer's attention.  For biopics of artists, their work can easily be displayed and discussed - the life and times of Mozart, Van Gogh, and Michaelangelo have spawned wonderful films.  But how do you discuss the far more intangible accomplishments of math and physics genius Stephen Hawking, or computer scientist Alan Turing?  
"The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game" are devoted to the struggles of two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.  "Theory" does this by exploring Stephen Hawking's (Eddie Redmayne) relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), and the progression of his severe disabilities caused by ALS.  "Imitation" focuses on Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) most famous accomplishment, breaking the Nazis' Enigma code during World War II.  Both are decent films, bolstered by strong performances, but one is considerably more successful than the other for a variety of reasons.
"The Theory of Everything" does an admirable job of humanizing Stephen Hawking, who has become an odd fixture in pop culture, better know for his synthesized voice than his work.  The trouble is, while we learn plenty about Hawking's daunting impairments and their toll on his marriage, the film has no idea how to  address Hawking's scientific and academic accomplishments.  Various characters discuss and explain his theories, but never in much depth.  Yes, Hawking should be recognized as a survivor of a terrible disease, but his most lauded accomplishments that brought him to fame feel like a secondary concern.  At one point we learn that Hawking has reversed his position on a particular theory of how the universe began, but we're never told why, or what the significance of that is.  The conversation is primarily used to illustrate the state of the Hawkings' marriage at that time.  The romance is also undercut by the film fumbling the couple's later relationship troubles, which are downplayed and glossed over to try and keep the appearance of a happy ending. 
I suspect much of the trouble comes from the fact that Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde are both still very much alive, so the filmmakers were obliged to present them both in the best light possible.  Both characters end up idealized and dreadfully boring.  Redmayne and Jones are both very good in their roles though.  Redmayne is particularly memorable as Hawking, capturing the extent of his physical disabilities and limitations.  However, his efforts feel wasted on what is ultimately a bland, unambitious look at the life of Stephen Hawking that feels far too rote and formulaic for its subject.  At times it felt like I was watching a middlebrow period romance that just happened to have a disabled physicist as one of the love interests. As biopics go this is competent, but disappointing.
"The Imitation Game" could have been a similar bungle, but it fares much, much better.  Alan Turing is built up as a far more engaging central figure, a mathematical genius with absolutely no social skills, who acts so insufferable about his mental superiority that he tends to repel those he wants to help.  However, Britain is at war and needs Turing's mind to crack the Enigma code protecting the Axis powers.  "Imitation Game" is as much a dramatic thriller as it is a biopic, establishing high stakes for the codebreakers racing against the clock each day to decode messages.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing, but he gets a lot of support from a stellar ensemble, including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightly as colleagues, and Mark Strong and Charles Dance as Turing's military superiors.    
Where "The Theory of Everything" assumed that the audience was familiar with Stephen Hawking, "The Imitation Game" assumes the audience knows very little about Alan Turing, so it treats him as a mystery.  His personal history is gradually revealed through intercutting among three different periods of Turing's life - during the war, and his experiences before and after.  A post-war arrest and investigation of Turing's activities acts as a framing device.  Director Morten Tyldum, best known for the heist film "Headhunters," does a great job of keeping the momentum up, letting the narrative occasionally flirt with spy and conspiracy movie tropes.  So "The Imitation Game" doesn't feel like a biopic for most of its length, even though that's ultimately what it embraces being.  And in the end, it has far more emotional resonance and impact. 
I still don't feel I know much about either Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, but I understand why "The Imitation Game" was made, which I can't say about "The Theory of Everything."  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Dreamworks" Takes a Tumble

After the dismal box office performance of Dreamworks Animation's big holiday film. "The Penguins of Madagascar," capping a disappointing year, there have been devastating consequences for the studio.  Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria were brought in as co-presidents of feature animation, replacing Bill Damaschke.  A few days ago, it was announced that 500 employees, nearly a quarter of their entire workforce would be laid off, and Pacific Data Images (PDI), the CGI animation studio responsible for "Antz" and "Shrek" that was eventually bought by Dreamworks, will be shuttered immediately.  Their slate of upcoming films has been slashed from twelve features to seven over the next four years, with an eighth, "Captain Underpants," being outsourced to another studio in Canada. 

This is a massive, and clearly much-needed reversal from the ambitious plans that Dreamworks had previously been announced.  In 2012, their plan was to release three features a year, a feat that the studio accomplished twice, in 2010 and 2014.  Company chief Jeffrey Katzenberg commented on the need to pull back: “We achieved the production capacity but not the creative capacity to do it. We have fallen short on the creative side of it."  No question, then, why "B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations" has been sent back to development, a scant five months before it was supposed to arrive in theaters, along with their Bollywood themed project and the upcoming "Madagascar" and "Puss in Boots" sequels.  With "Kung Fu Panda 3" recently pushed back to March, 2016, that leaves "Home" as Dremaworks' sole release for 2015.  Also, note that "How to Train Your Dragon 3" has been pushed back yet again, this time to the summer of 2018.  

I've included the Dreamworks Animation projected release schedules from 2012, 2014, and 2015 for comparison below: 

Home (prev. Happy Smekday!) (Nov. 26, 2014)
The Penguins of Madagascar (March 27, 2015)
Trolls (June 5, 2015)
B.O.O: Bureau of Otherwordly Operations (Nov. 6, 2015)
Mumbai Musical (Dec. 19, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 18, 2016)
The Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26, 2014)
Home (March 27, 2015)
B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (June 5, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dec. 23, 2015)
Boss Baby (March 18, 2016)
Trolls (Nov. 4, 2016)
Captain Underpants (January 13, 2017)
Mumbai Musical (March 10, 2017)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 9, 2017)
The Croods 2 (Dec. 22, 2017)
Larrikins (Feb. 16, 2018)
Madagascar 4 (May 18, 2018)
Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves (Dec. 21, 2018)

The Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26, 2014)
Home (March 27, 2015)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 18, 2016)
Trolls (Nov. 4, 2016)
Boss Baby (January 13, 2017)
The Croods 2 (Dec. 22, 2017)
Larrikins (February 16, 2018)
How to Train Your Dragon 3 (June 29, 2018)

Captain Underpants (unknown, 2017), outsourced to Mikros Image in Montreal


Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Into the Woods" and "Big Hero 6"

I wanted to offer some quick reviews for Disney's holiday movies, "Into the Woods" and "Big Hero 6."  Both are decent films with a lot of good things in them, but flawed enough that I ultimately came away from both a little disappointed.
"Into the Woods," based on the Sondheim musical about fairy-tale characters discovering the down side of happily ever after, was high on my list of anticipated films for ages.  All the right people seemed to be involved: Rob Marshall of "Chicago" fame was directing, James Lapine and Steven Sondheim from the original musical were on script and music, and it had a cast full of people who could actually sing.  Sure, there were early reports that the story had been toned down to make it more family-friendly, but there were enough reassurances from the key people involved that I wasn't too worried.
And for the first half of the film, everything was going right.   Good performances, good adjustments made to the music and the plotting, and the fairy-tale visuals were thankfully restrained.  After the overdesigned "Maleficent" and "Oz the Great and Powerful," it was nice to see the CGI effects take a back seat to the characters.  Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Meryl Streep's Witch were my favorites, but everyone fit.  The younger actors, Lila Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, were especially impressive delivering Sondheim's rapid-fire lyrics.  And it was a relief to find that the darker, more adult moments were largely preserved, if deemphasized.  Things felt slightly rushed, but only slightly.
The trouble came when the film moved into the darker second half of the story, which is where Disney lost its nerve.  Suddenly there were major musical numbers being cut left and right, story points were horribly muddled, and the feeling of being rushed got much worse.  There was a lot of pre-release chatter about one of the major deaths in this act being removed, but at least it had been replaced with an ambiguous fate for the character which arguably worked just as well.  Many of the darker endings for other characters that were kept were severely hampered by events happening offscreen, being toned down, or shortened.  Terrible events occur, but the impact was often blunted to the point where they felt inconsequential. 
All these changes resulted in an extremely rocky second half that was difficult to follow and thematically confusing.  The actors carried on valiantly, which mitigated some of the damage, but they could only do so much.  I still think "Into the Woods" is worth watching for the excellent first half, but it's such a shame they couldn't follow through.
Much less frustrating is the new Disney animated film "Big Hero 6," based on an obscure Marvel comic book about an Asian-themed superhero team.  It has an unusually well-conceived main character, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a kid genius who lacks direction and has a penchant for getting into trouble.  Fortunately his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henny) intervenes, and gets him excited about attending a "nerd school" full of inventors and researchers.  But Hiro loses Tadashi after a terrible tragedy, and is left with only his brother's final creation, a healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), to help him cope. 
This is unusually emotionally fraught territory for Disney, and it gives the typical boy-and-his-robot story some real heft to it.  The creators do an excellent job of portraying Hiro's grief and adolescent moodiness, not avoiding the darker parts of his psyche.  And Baymax is easily the most original and memorable cinema robot in ages.  A big, huggable, inflatable, marshmallow of a bot who looks like he stepped out of a Miyazaki picture, he is a physical comedy goldmine.  Easily the best parts of the movie are the scenes of the two of them becoming friends, learning about each other, Hiro upgrading Baymax, and Baymax helping Hiro to heal from his loss. 
Unfortunately "Big Hero 6" is also obliged to be a superhero team movie, and that's where the story gets off track a little.  The other four heroes are students at Hiro's school, all nicely individuated and well designed.  I liked them all fine, but they're so painfully extraneous to the story.  I was torn between wanted to know more about them and wishing they were kept in the background, so the film could keep its focus on Hiro and Baymax.  The movie tries to do too much, trying to juggle all these characters, origin and revenge plots, lots of spiffy gadgetry, and a mystery villain too.  All the pieces work, but it's hard to ignore how cluttered the narrative feels at time, and how quick it all seems to go by. 
I so admire the ambition driving this one, though.  I love that it takes place in a gorgeous futuristic Tokyo and San Francisco mash-up called San Fransokyo.   There are images that only appear for a few seconds on screen I could spend hours looking at to admire all the little details and in-jokes.  I wouldn't mind a sequel or two, simply to take advantage of the vast amounts of promising material crammed in here.  That could be intentional - many recent animated films are starting to feel like television pilots. 
If that's the case here, I'm sold on a "Big Hero 6" series.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I May Have to Give Up On TV

A few days ago I put together a list of all the films of 2014 that I wanted to catch up on for awards season.  With my free time severely reduced, it's going to keep me busy for a while.  I thought about doing the same thing for television, figuring that even if I didn't bother with most of them, I could still use a handy reference of acclaimed 2014 shows: "The Affair," "Transparent," "The Leftovers," and "Fargo" would be at the top.  But as I paged through critics' lists and "Best of" pieces, I realized I was completely out of my depth.
Being behind on movies is one thing.  Movies are easily quantified, easily consumed.  It's easy to decide to commit to a movie because it rarely demands more than three hours of your time.  Television is another matter entirely.  Three hours into most shows, the major characters have hardly been introduced.  A television show is long-form entertainment that requires the kind of time and effort that I don't have much of these days.  And as I was trying to fill a TV list for 2014, I realized that many of the highlights were shows that were in media res.  "The Americans," "Downton Abbey," "The Good Wife," and "Boardwalk Empire," and "Shameless" kept coming up, shows that were in their second, third, or even sixth seasons. 
And I thought to myself that I was going to have a hard enough time catching up with shows I'd already committed to, like "Mad Men," "Orange is the New Black" and "Person of Interest."  When am I ever going to find the time to start "The Americans"?  After all, I never did get around to "The West Wing" or "Blackadder" or "Deadwood," or dozens of other highly acclaimed series that I always told myself that I'd watch some day.  I never even finished the first season of "House of Cards."  Why bother trying to remind myself that I had a passing interest in "Rectify," "Silicon Valley," "The Knick," and "Mozart in the Jungle," when I'll probably never get that far down these imaginary lists?
And there are so many new shows coming in 2015 that sound great, but realistically I'll probably only be able to add one or two to my rotation.  Good grief, the January midseason premieres alone are enough to keep me busy for the rest of the year: "Agent Carter" adding to the Marvel Universe, "Empire" providing an opportunity for Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson to strut their stuff together again, "Galavant" looks like ridiculous fun, and Asian solidarity requires that I have an opinion about "Fresh Off the Boat," whether I like it or not.  And these are just the network shows! 
If I watch "Better Call Saul" and HBO's "Westworld," currently at the top of my list of anticipated 2015 shows, and keep watching "The Daily Show," "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Hannibal," "Doctor Who," and "Orphan Black," will there be time for anything else?  Will I have time to check out "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore on top of "The Daily Show," where I'm already skipping the interviews with guests who look boring and feeling guilty about it?  Will I ever be able to justify vegging out with "Project Runway" or "The Big Bang Theory" again?  It's enough to make a media junkie want to quit television altogether.
Don't get me wrong.  I love that television has become a flourishing artistic medium.  I love that I'm spoiled for choice when it comes to programming.  However, lately it feels like I'm trying to eat an elaborate nine course meal with a wooden dixie cup spoon that's about to snap at any moment.  Maybe I should take a break for a while, until I can get my hands on more cutlery.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Nominee Madness 2015

The awards race has so many qualifying events and precursors to the Oscars these days that the winners aren't hard to figure out anymore.  One of the only real surprises we've got left is the actual slate of nominees, with the suspense centered around who will land in the fourth or fifth slot and get to rub shoulders with the frontrunners.  This year offers some pleasant and not-so-pleasant shocks, however, because a few of those frontrunners are missing completely.
Let's get to the biggest one first, in the Animated Feature Film category.  Where is "The LEGO Movie"?  Where is the animated film that critics so loved and championed, it showed up on multiple year-end top ten lists?  That is still domestically the highest grossing 2014 cartoon feature?  I've seen four of the five nominees here, and while it's a decent bunch, "LEGO" is easily better than all the other American contenders.  What gives?  At least now we know that Best Song is going to "Everything is Awesome," because the oversight is so obvious that voters will surely be compelled to try and made up for the snub. 
A couple of other notable omissions in the smaller categories - "Life Itself," the documentary about Roger Ebert was left out, removing the possibility of Steve James finally getting the trophy due to him for "Hoop Dreams."  I've heard a lot of chatter about "Force Majeure" not making the Foreign Language Film list, but this category is always a mess due to the eligibility rules.  "Winter Sleep," "Mommy," and "Two Days, One Night," should have all been frontrunners.  Likewise, the Original Song category passed up obvious contenders from Lana Del Rey and Sia.  I can only assume that somebody in the music branch of the Academy really has it out for Lana Del Rey after this and the "Great Gatsby" debacle.
And now let's get to the big guns.  Please keep in mind that I've seen fewer of the major contenders than usual, but I've seen enough.  I knew that most of the momentum behind "Gone Girl" had faded, but to see it land only a single nomination for Rosamund Pike was a shock.  Similarly, "Selma" has been getting great reactions, and it was predicted to pick up a bunch of nominations, including Ava Duvernay for Best Director and David Oyelowo for Best Actor.  It only ended up nabbing two, for Best Picture and Best Original Song.  "Nightcrawler" was always a bit of a long shot, but Jake Gylenhaall was getting good buzz for his performance.  It managed a lone Original Screenplay nod. 
Instead, Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" has emerged as a late favorite with six nominations, including one for Bradley Cooper as Best Actor, who has barely even been in the conversation as a possible contender.  Not much of a surprise, I guess, since "American Sniper" looks to be the kind of gung-ho, feel-good war film that the Academy loves.  I don't want to be too critical here, because I haven't seen all the films, but I'm absolutely appalled that "The Theory of Everything," the gutless, formulaic Stephen Hawking biopic snagged five nominations including Adapted Screenplay.  I'd love to accuse the Academy of preferring safer, more conservative prestige fare over more challenging, darker, and controversial films, but that's not true.  Because this is also the year that the frontrunners include some downright weird, and even experimental work: "Birdman," "Boyhood." and "The Grand Budapest Hotel."   
Frankly, I'm thrilled with a lot of the choices.  Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson are finally getting recognition after decades of great work.  I actually feel a little better now that "Moonrise Kingdom" got snubbed a few years back, because Anderson deserves the kudos for "Grand Budapest Hotel" so much more.  "Boyhood" wasn't one of my favorites this year, but I'm rooting for it because it's such a feat of great filmmaking.  And hooray for Marion Cotillard grabbing a nomination for "Two Days, One Night," over Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston.  And hooray for "Whiplash" getting a well-deserved Editing nomination.  And "Inherent Vice" getting an Adapted Screenplay nod.  And "Ida" snagging a slot in Cinematogrpahy.  And that Isao Takahata is an Oscar nominee.
The weirdest nomination by far is the Best Director nod for Bennett Miller.  Has anyone gotten a Best Director nod when their film wasn't up for Best Picture since they upped the number of nominees?  "Foxcatcher" was an interesting film, but I wasn't surprised to see that it didn't quite make the Best Picture list.   There were clearly a lot of strong contenders because a lot of the nominations across various categories didn't match up the way they normally do.  Note that Clint Eastwood didn't get a Best Director nod, "Birdman" is missing from Editing, and no individual contributor to "Selma" had any support at all.  It signals that there was no real consensus with these choices, and that's a good thing.
Ultimately this is a group of nominees I can live with, even though there are some massive flaws.  I hoped to see Ralph Fiennes for "Grand Budapest Hotel," Essie Davis for "The Babadook," and Josh Brolin for "Inherent Vice, though I didn't expect them.  The only snub I'm really bothered by is Gillian Flynn not getting her due for the "Gone Girl" screenplay.  That and "The LEGO Movie."  Because, really, how did they manage to screw that one up?

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Predestination" and "The Edge of Tomorrow"

 Now what do these two science-fiction movies have in common?  One is a low budget Australian film based on a Robert Heinlein short story, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.  One is a big budget studio action adventure film based on a Japanese novel, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.  Well, they both have complicated plots involving time travel, are unusually committed to their heady premises, and both have been hailed as overlooked or underappreciated titles by various movie fans taking stock of the genre films of 2014.
"Predestination" is a film I was more inclined to root for at first.  It's a tiny film made on a shoestring budget, but has such a great idea at its core.  It also has the benefit of a great performance from its leading lady, Sarah Snook, with a good assist from Ethan Hawke.  Hawke plays a Temporal Agent, a time-traveling law man of sorts, who is sent back to the 1970s to stop a terrible bombing from taking place.  Snook plays a writer he meets, whose involvement in the crime is not clear.  "Predestination" is set up as a typical thriller, but then turns into something else completely, something much weirder and stranger.  And as much as I usually love movies that do this, it doesn't' work.
It's not that the twists are predictable - and they are predictable - but that they simply aren't executed well.  Part of this has to do with the nature of the story itself, which includes several outlandish elements that worked well on the page but fall totally flat on the screen.  Part of it has to do with the limited budget and big ambitions.  But mostly, it's the filmmaking that just isn't up to snuff.  The characters are shallow, the dialogue is trying too hard to sound cool, and every one of the big twists are telegraphed far in advanced.  The premise is a good one, but it needed some expansion to really get us invested in its outcomes.  "Predestination" doesn't bother, too wrapped up in the mechanics of making sure the audience appreciates how grand its big ideas are, so those big ideas end up having very little impact.
On the other hand, we have "Edge of Tomorrow," the action-adventure movie that can be described as "Groundhog's Day" if "Groundhog's Day" took place during an alien invasion.  The marketing made it look like yet another by-the-numbers Tom Cruise vehicle in the vein of 2013's ho-hum "Oblivion."  And it completely failed to spotlight the earthy humor, the great worldbuilding, and most importantly the humanity of the characters.  Tom Cruise breaks from form and plays a main character who starts out as a scummy coward, and we're happy to see him dumped in the middle of the battlefield to get his comeuppance.  He eventually becomes the more typical Tom Cruise action hero again by the end of the movie, but they make him work for it. 
Between writers Christopher McQuarrie and the Butterworth brothers, and director Doug Liman, the repeating day premise of "Edge of Tomorrow" is used to its fullest.  Cruise's character is gleefully offed many, many times, we watch multiple variations on the same scenes build up to satisfying climaxes, and the heroes are forced to earn their victories the hard way.  The action is great and the aliens are wonderfully menacing - they have to be or the movie simply would not work.  And just when the video game mechanics start to make things seem too easy, the game changes again.  Cruise shows that he can still surprise when necessary, and Emily Blunt continues her ascension to the A-list.  How is it possible that this woman hasn't been cast in a superhero role yet?
Simply having a good, interesting high-concept idea isn't enough.  Though "Predestination" shows a lot of promise, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have a take on the Heinlein story that was worth creating a movie around.  And though there have been too many Tom Cruise sci-fi movies that have been disappointments, if you put him with the right talent and material, you get something like "Edge of Tomorrow," a good reminder of why we watched so many of those Cruise films in the first place.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rank 'Em: The "Black Mirror" Episodes

After two series and one Christmas special, we now have seven installments of Charlie Booker's fantastic anthology series, "Black Mirror."  More are reportedly in the works, but who knows when they'll actually make it to the screen.  So it's a good time to take stock of the series so far.  And thanks to the anthology format and low episode count, it's a good fit for one of my lists.  So, without any further ado, here's my ranking of the episodes of "Black Mirror" that have aired so far, from best to least-best.  It's hard to pick a "worst" with a series this good.
"Fifteen Million Merits" - The reality-TV obsessed, video-game integrated dystopia is a lot of fun and provides some memorable visuals, but the story is what sets it apart.  "Merits" feels like Charlie Booker examining his own place as a media critic and what that means.  Daniel Kaluuya also delivers a great performance as our hero, particularly a scorching monologue on the despair of life in a world where nearly everything has been reduced to virtual reality. 
"The National Anthem" - Shock value can have plenty of value when it's used in the right way.  "The National Anthem" is the only episode so far that only relies on already existing technology, namely social media like Twitter and Facebook, and it's not hard to imagine the events depicted could actually happen in the present day.  I'm impressed not only with the embrace of a potentially disastrous concept, but that the creators were willing to take it as far as they did. 
"Be Right Back" - I love this one for the performances of Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson.  The concept is simple and the narrative doesn't offer many surprises to anyone remotely genre savvy, but the execution is lovely and the intimate moments hit just right.  Quiet and lachrymose, this is a bit of an outlier for "Black Mirror," which usually leans toward horror and black comedy, but it's every bit as effective in hitting its target as the louder, showier outings.
"White Christmas" - A nice triptych of stories show off a little of everything that "Black Mirror" is know for: intimate relationship stories, flashy dystopias, and some really biting social commentary.  Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall do a lot of the heavy lifting to pull off a complicated, exposition-heavy narrative with a lot of twists.  There were definitely some sections that worked better than others, and some of the ideas could have used more fleshing out, but this was a wonderfully nasty holiday surprise.
"White Bear" - This one feels like something made for a straight horror anthology, as social media only plays a small part here.  The bulk of the episode played out fine, but it was the epilogue that really got to me, showcasing the systematic inhumanity of everyone involved in creating the illusion.  "White Bear" is lower on the list for being very heavy-handed and not taking some of the satirical opportunities it could have, but the nightmare scenario it presents is extremely effective.  
"The Entire History of You" - This is a favorite for many viewers, but I thought it was a pretty average story.  I think this is because I've seen the concept before in other sci-fi media and because the salacious elements struck me as far too unsubtle and gimmicky.  Like "White Bear," the characters don't feel like real people, and the structure feels far too mechanical.  It's certainly not a bad episode, but one that feels limited by its fascination with its own premise.
"The Waldo Moment" - I don't think this is a surprise, as many others have pointed out that "Waldo" has some serious story problems.  It's certainly an interesting idea, but I don't think Booker worked out what he really wanted to say here, or where the concept was supposed to go.  The ending in particular is infuriating because it fails to land the final punchline with nearly enough oomph.  It's a rare example of the series pulling back when it should have gone for the throat.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The End of "Korra"

It took a time jump, a new female villain, and splitting up our heroes for a big chunk of the season to finally push "The Legend of Korra" over the top, into the category of sequel series that successfully live up to their predecessors.  Because of the way it was structured and because of the fundamental differences in storytelling, "Korra" was never going to have the same amount of impact as "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  However, it did manage to distinguish itself, develop good characters, and build up to a great finale.  Minor spoilers ahead.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the occasional crossovers between "Airbender" and "Korra" actually hurt the show more than it helped it.  The creators were always careful to limit the amount of screen time and involvement that the old favorites like Katara and Zuko had on the story, but they weren't always able to keep them from being a distraction.  That was made abundantly clear this season with the return of Toph, who is put into the Old Master role, and at least gets some interesting dynamics to play with when she reconnects with Lin and the Metal Clan.  However, as fun as the aged Toph is, and as much as the series teased and hyped her appearances, she's not a big part of this season.  In fact, she explicitly declares at one point what the creators should have made clear from the start: saving the world is the new generation's job. 
But boy does the "Korra" gang get the job done this time.  Tenzin and his family only make brief appearances, and it probably would have been better if they'd sat this round out entirely, since their big arcs were all wrapped up in the third season.  The episode devoted to Meelo and Ikki felt like filler.  Fortunately, every other character is firing on all cylinders: the Metal Clan from year three, Varrick and Zhuli from year two, new comic relief guy Prince Wu, and of course the villain Kuvira, introduced at the tail end of the previous season.  This last book of "Korra" feels like a culmination of everything in the series pushing our heroine toward the self-examination and personal growth that many fans had been clamoring for.  It also quietly revisits some of Korra's relationships established in the very first episodes and pushes them in some interesting, daring directions.    
I like Korra as a character in this last book far more than I have in the prior ones.  Here, she struggles and she fails repeatedly, and she's forced to accept that there's no going back to the way she was - and it's for the better.  The show also does a good job of using Bolin and Mako in ways that play to their strengths - Mako is stuck as the straight man to Wu, making him truly sympathetic for once, and Bolin is roped in as a well-meaning henchman to Kuvira, building up the threat she poses.  Kuvira is by far the most complicated and interesting villain that "Korra" has featured, and if she'd had more than a season to work with, she'd probably be right up there with Zuko and Iroh.  Because she truly believes in what she's doing, she's so confident in her powers, and she manages to build up quite a cult of personality, Kuvira makes a good mirror to Korra.  Her campaign of conquest to form the Earth Empire also presents so many opportunities for large scale action and mayhem.
If nothing else, this season of "Korra" has to be commended for the action sequences, which are consistently great.  I love that nearly all the major brawlers like Su and Lin are women.  I love that they make the effort to give all the characters their own little moments to be awesome.  The finale features multiple battles that take place in and around a giant mecha, something I'd always wanted to see done in anime.  I don't know what it is about Earth Kingdom stories that lend so well to big, epic battles in this universe, but boy do the creators nail it this time.  This season of "Korra," sadly is also notable for production troubles and some truly baffling distribution decisions by Nickelodeon, resulting in a clip show and other compromises, but they deliver when it counts. 
There are a lot of little things I can't help wishing for: a better peek at the present day Fire Nation, a better capper for Opal and Bolin, more Asami, and more of the Avatar mythology in general, but I know we're lucky to have gotten as much from "Korra" as we did.  The series had its ups and downs, but in the end I can say that I truly enjoyed "The Legend of Korra" on its own and not just as an extension of the original "Avatar."  And while I'm sad to see it end, it lived up to its promise and went out on a high note.

Friday, January 9, 2015

My Least Anticipated Films of 2015

2015 is going to be a big year for Hollywood, full of highly anticipated franchise films and thankfully quite a few originals too.  I'm still working on the list of 2015 films that I'm most looking forward to, but as is tradition for this blog, first we're going to have a look at the high-profile wide release titles that I'm not looking forward to, and will be making efforts to avoid.

All things considered, this doesn't look to be a bad year at first glance. There aren't as many obvious stinkers in this bunch as there have been in the past - but maybe that means the studios are just getting better at hiding them.  I know that nobody sets out to make a bad movie and sometimes a bad premise and mediocre talent can result in something great.  Still, there are more than a few upcoming titles that I can't imagine being worth anyone's time. So here's the list of my least anticipated films of 2015.  If past years are any indication, it's likely this will be the last time you see discussion of any of these titles on this blog. 

The Repeat Offenders - I seem to be one of the few who really disliked "Taken," and can't belive that we're already being subjected to "Taken 3."  "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" is the sixth in the series, with a first time director whose bona fides consist of editing four of the previous installments.  "Alvin and the Chipmunks 4" needs no explanation.  I didn't like the grim and humorless "Olympus Has Fallen," and have no interest in "London Has Fallen." "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" comes six years after the first movie, just as I was forgetting that it ever existed.   Oh, and "Friday the 13th" is getting rebooted.  Yes, again.

Out of Chances - "Seventh Son" is packed with good actors, but after being delayed and delayed for two years, I can only assume that the movie is as bad as its trailers.  As much as I've been rooting for Dreamworks, I don't know what to make of "Home," which has a sci-fi comedy premise that's just odd, and previews that have fallen completely flat.  "Mortdecai" has been abandoned in January, which means Johnny Depp's career has hit a new low point.  While the premise of "The Visit" sounds like fun, M. Night Shyamalan's directing credit puts me on the defensive.  And the day has finally come when the words "Untitled Cameron Crowe Project" means an automatic pass.

This is a Bad Idea - A "Point Break" reboot is a bad idea.  And going ahead with "Jane Got a Gun" without Lynne Ramsay and Jude Law is a bad idea.  And a "Hitman" spinoff eight years after the original film makes no damn sense.  Neither does a movie based on "Jem and the Holograms," which nobody remembers except people way outside the presumptive target audience.  And really, what is the point of making "The Transporter Legacy" when you don't have Jason Statham?  There have already been three movies and a television show.  We have enough "Transporter," thank you.

And finally, "Fifty Shades of Grey" gets its own paragraph, because this one has all the makings of a truly heinous motion picture.  Based on crummy source material, about salacious subject matter, and targeting a rabid audience that may only be an illusion, I'm expecting a critical savaging and a disappointing box office take.  The books have attracted so much ridicule, the mockery of the film is not only inevitable, but something many are looking forward to. 

Schadenfreude doesn't count for my purposes though, so the movie still wins a place of (dis)honor on this list.