Friday, March 27, 2015

Have Some "Pride"

The fact that "Pride" is based on real life events involving real LGBT activists fundraising for striking British miners in 1984 doesn't make the plot feel feel any less contrived.  It's another charming, feel-good UK comedy like "The Full Monty" and "Waking Ned"!  It features wacky culture clashes between plucky young LGBT Londoners and the stodgier inhabitants of a Welsh mining town!  It's about timely social issues and has a sentimental streak a mile wide!  Spot familiar actors like Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine, Andrew Scott, and Dominic West!  But you know what?  Every formulaic, over-earnest, calculatedly uplifting thing about "Pride" works.  It works really, really well.
Joe, nicknamed Bromley (George MacKay), is a closeted young gay man who becomes part of a small LGBT group that forms to raise money in support of the UK miners' strike.  Their name is the same as their slogan: "Lesbians and gays support the miners," or LGSM.  Bromley befriends the group's leaders Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), Mike Jackson (Joe Gilgun), and Steph (Faye Marsay), and older mentor figures Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan (Dominic West).  When the national miners' organizations declines to take money from them, LGSM decides to send the funds directly to one of the affected mining towns in Wales, Onllwyn, sparking an unusual alliance between LGSM and the miners.
There's a tendency to be wary of overtly political films because they can be very didactic if they're done badly.  "Pride" makes no apologies for being pro-labor and pro-LGBT equality, and anyone with opposing views might be uncomfortable with how strident the film is about its messages.  At the same time "Pride" is so positive and optimistic about people overcoming their differences in the name of a good cause, it's impossible not to want to root for everybody involved.  I think the story also goes down easier because there's a high degree of self-awareness - the Onllwyn locals aren't sure what to make of the LGSM members, and the LGSM members are perhaps a little too used to being treated like weirdos and deviants.  Making connections and the finding of common ground play out on a very human level, with a lot of humor and a lot of charm. 
"Pride" does a good job of playing on all the tropes we've see a hundred times, making them work to its own advantage.  As we've seen before, mixing reserved, older Brits with the naughtier elements of the counterculture can lead to very funny things.  The silliness isn't overplayed to the point where it feels unbelievable, though.  Nobody winds up in drag or takes the the miners clubbing.  Events are firmly grounded in reality, and clearly the filmmakers were always careful to respect their real-life subjects.  There's a lot of heavy material ito chew on here too, from the strike to the newly emerging AIDS epidemic to more personal troubles and traumas.  A lot of it is just about getting the balance right, so that the film is enjoyable without feeling slight.  Most of the characters fit very broad types, but they're sketched in well enough that it's very easy to become attached to them.
The bigger names get top billing, but this is an ensemble effort.  The younger actors, particularly Ben Schnetzer as the irrepressable Mark and George MacKay as our POV character, Bromley, do most of the heavy lifting.  Paddy Considine, as Onllwyn's delegate to the LGSM, has some particularly good moments that sell some of the more unwieldy parts of the script.  Occasionally the film flirts with dullness as it deploys familiar plot turns - of course there's an intractable homophobe among the Onllwyn townsfolk, and of course there are health scares and relationship scares and somebody unexpected comes out of the closet.  It's the actors who make it work, and work better than they reasonably should have, in many cases.  The ending of "Pride" is easily the most predictable and manipulative, and yet also the most satisfying, joyous, punch-the-air finale of the year.
I liked "Pride" much more than I was expecting to, and I think it comes down to the movie being the best version of itself that it could be.  There is absolutely nothing new or exceptional or unique about any of it, and yet it's a blast to watch. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The John Oliver Moment

I admit that I failed to take "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" seriously.  When it premiered roughly a year ago on HBO, I didn't think of it as a real competitor to "The Daily Show"." because it was so far from the typical late night format I had come to expect. No interviews, no obvious gimmickry, and it was only on once a week.  On top of that it was airing on HBO of all places, which is premium cable and thus inaccessible to the majority of the population.  Of course, I didn't realize that HBO would regularly be making "Last Week" segments available on Youtube for free.  Or that John Oliver would take advantage of the commercial-free, sponsorship-free platform to construct much more pointed political and social commentary than "The Daily Show" ever allowed for.  I've seen several of his longer opinion pieces over the past year, including the one that some folks believe may he helped turn the tide in the recent battle for net neutrality.
Today, like everyone else, whenever a new John Oliver piece pops up online, it moves ahead to the top of my list of videos to watch.  I find it absolutely fascinating how Oliver has managed to insert himself into policy debates so effectively, and I think a lot of it has to do with the format.  (Paging Marshall McLuhan!)  Let's take the net neutrality piece as an example.  I've been following the issue for a while now, so I was aware of most of the information being presented.  However, John Oliver managed to package the mostly dull, technical arguments in a way that is entertaining to watch as well as being informative.  The segment is thirteen minutes long, which isn't nearly as long as some of his others, but still longer than a regular broadcast news program could devote to a story without adding a commercial break.  The extra time allows Oliver to get much more in depth on his subjects, often using extensively fact-checked independent research.  But the most vital moment is at the end, where Oliver directs viewers to the FCC's website to go comment on the newly proposed net neutrality rules and "focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction."  So when the video went viral, it actually created a mass political action and ultimately helped to shape policy.
And while that's great for defenders of net neutrality, it's also a little scary.  We've seen Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert toy with actually trying to influence politics before, but in very limited ways.  The "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" was really a get-out-the-vote event.  I can recall only one instance where Stewart devoted an episode of "The Daily Show" to pushing for a specific piece of legislation - a 9/11 first responders health bill that wasn't remotely controversial.  John Oliver, on the other hand, seems to have no problem with crossing over from comic presenter to outright pundit, using many of the same satirical tactics from his time on "The Daily Show," but with a different intention.  While there's a lot of humor in "Last Week Tonight," there's far more argument crammed into one of his segments than jokes.  And the thing is, Oliver has proven that this combination of "Frontline" plus fart jokes is amazingly effective.  The reason the net neutrality video took off is because it is hysterical.  He compares the FCC chairman to a dingo and the telecoms to the mob.  His recruitment of the internet trolls to be his minions against the FCC is one of the best bits of comedy from last year. 
I'm not so worried about John Oliver wielding this kind of power, because Oliver has proven to be a responsible, moral individual who cares passionately about what he's doing and advocates honestly for his positions.  He's being backed up by a crackerjack research team and some of his pieces have more reporting in them than actual news stories.  The one about the Miss America pageant organization fudging its scholarship award numbers is one of my favorites.   In short, John Oliver is trustworthy.  Others in the news media universe, however, are not.  And after the recent controversies with Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly, it's good to remember that there are real concerns about conflating the charisma and personality of a pundit or presenter with the information that they're providing.  In the age of 24 cable news channels and non-stop news commentary filling in for factual analysis, there are plenty of people who are already employing many of the same entertainment-boosting tactics that John Oliver does, and we need to remember that there are inherent dangers in this. 
The net neutrality video's success was probably a fluke to some degree.  None of Oliver's other segments have had nearly so much impact, though there have been some fun instances of the "John Oliver Effect," as TIME magazine has dubbed his influence.  I don't know if he'll be as successful or as respected as Jon Stewart in the long run, but John Oliver certainly deserves all the acclaim that he's enjoyed this past year and I'I expect I'll be watching "Last Week Tonight" for as long as it's running.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Going "Wild"

I wasn't a fan of Jean-Marc Vallée last film, "Dallas Buyers Club," which I found to be a pretty typical social justice drama with some good performances.  It was solid filmmaking, but nothing really memorable.  So I wasn't expecting much from "Wild," which was billed as an uplifting female-centric drama starring Reese Witherspoon, with a adventurous, woman v. nature bent.  I figured I'd get something like "Eat, Pray, Love" in hiking boots.  "Wild" is definitely not that.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a troubled young woman who sets out on an 1,100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail through desert and mountain terrains, despite little previous experience.  On her way, she sorts through her eventful life in flashback, and in particular the recent traumas and mistakes that left her in search of spiritual renewal in the wilderness.  We follow Cheryl through the arduous trek, both physically and mentally, that brings her into contact with many different dangers on the trail, and daunting emotional pitfalls while confronting her past.  Thomas Sadoski plays Cheryl's ex-husband Paul and Laura Dern plays her mother, Bobbi. 
The immediate comparison that comes to mind when looking at "Wild" is Danny Boyd's survival film "127 Hours," which also employs a lot of flashbacks to provide a window into the mental state of a protagonist doing solitary battle with nature.  "Wild" spends much more time outside its subject's head since Cheryl has much more literal ground to cover, but it does a great job of finding a similar balance between her internal and external struggles, and weaving them together in interesting ways.  There are some great sequences here that are effective largely due to strong editing choices and careful scene construction.  I happily hand the bulk of the credit for them to Vallée, who is credited as the film's editor as well as it's director.
Reese Witherspoon certainly deserves her kudos too.  "Wild" was conceived as a vehicle for her talents, and though she initially doesn't seem to be a good fit for the role, she pulls it off.  Her Cheryl Strayed could have easily been a far weaker, more stereotypical heroine, and her redemption arc played up in a more obvious way. Instead, between Witherspoon and Vallée, we get a considered, thorough exploration of a complicated woman.  The narrative is very personal and intimate, delving into Strayed's childhood memories, her most painful and vulnerable moments, and quiet personal triumphs.  It doesn't sugarcoat anything and lets Cheryl be pretentious, faithless, selfish, and foolish when she needs to be.  Witherspoon isn't afraid of being unlikeable, which is key.  One scene that stuck with me was a flashback to a conversation between Cheryl and Bobbi where Cheryl makes some thoughtless comments that are clearly hurtful to her mother in hindsight, and Cheryl's guilt still lingers in the present.
I expect those viewers more interested in the wilderness adventure aspect of the film might be a little disappointed.  There are some lovely beauty shots of the Pacific Northwest, but the focus of the film isn't the day-to-day business of the hike itself, but the people Cheryl meets and the situations she gets into because of the hike.  Once she gets through her initial difficulties with equipment and footwear, the time on the trail takes a backseat to the character study.  The depictions of the hiking culture ring true, though, and wilderness trail enthusiasts get their moment in the spotlight.  Also, there's a pointed emphasis on the particular hurdles Cheryl faces because she's a woman hiking the trail alone.   
Watching "Wild" didn't make me feel particularly inclined to put on a pair of boots, but it did help me appreciate why other people do.  There have been several of these self-discovery in the wilderness movies over the past few years, including "Tracks," "Into the Wild," and "The Grey." "Wild" is one of the better ones because the execution is so strong and Cheryl Strayed proves to be a main character worth following on her journey.  I'm glad I put aside my doubts and watched this, because it really exceeded my expectations.  And Jean-Marc Vallée can now count me as a fan. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Suggestions For the "Frozen" Sequel

Many viewed the recent announcement of a "Frozen" sequel as an inevitability, but I was more skeptical.  Since Disney resumed production of its animated features with "The Princess and the Frog," it's quietly avoided sequels.  Maybe they were wary of the overreliance on franchises over at Dreamworks and Blue Sky.  Maybe Disney's own brand tarnishing direct-to-video sequels of the '90s and 2000s were still too painful a memory. 
However, with subsidiary PIXAR having found success with new installments of old favorites, and Disney profits getting a noticeable boost from the runaway success of "Frozen," the prospect of a sequels proved irresistible.   "Frozen 2" is now officially in development, as announced by John Lasseter at the recent Disney shareholders' meeting.  Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck are back, despite having made previous comments to BuzzFeed that they haven't really thought about what they'd do with a "Frozen" sequel.
I, however, have a lot of ideas.  "Frozen" is one of the a handful of the recent Disney films where I can actually see some benefit in returning for a sequel.  "Tangled" and "The Princess and the Frog" told complete, finished stories.  "Frozen," which I didn't like nearly as much as those movies, felt like a much more slapdash affair.  I liked a lot of the ideas and a lot of individual moments, but the movie overall feels rushed and all over the place.  It seems to forget it's a musical halfway through.  Elsa never really gets a full character arc.  Groundwork is laid for emotional payoffs that don't happen.  A lot of this could be tidied up in a sequel.
Those years of isolation surely took their toll on Elsa, right?  And the rift between the sisters needs to be addressed.  "Frozen" was sensible enough to keep Anna's relationship with Kristoff in its nascent stages, so it should take some time to undo the damage of all those snowman-free years on Anna and Elsa.  There are lots of ways to do this without being glum - Elsa's powers are a metaphor for her inner turmoil, so any kind of emotional conflict can play out like a disaster movie.  Though there's been lots of speculation about a love interest for Elsa, I'd prefer if "Frozen 2" stuck with the sisters' relationship as its focus, since the depiction is so unique.     
Aside from that, the sequel can do anything.  Give Anna some magic powers.  Let Kristoff find his original family and have his own musical number.  Show the response of the rest of the world to Arendelle having a magical ruler.  The scope can widen so we see more of Scandinavia - maybe even all the way to the Arctic.  And there are a lot of options for new characters.  First and foremost we're going to need a new villain. I'm all for the return of Hans, but we also need someone who Elsa can really show off her powers going up against.  Evil sorcerer?  Troll turned bad?  Long lost third sister that Anna and Elsa never knew about?
Or maybe even the original Snow Queen from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.  I'd really love for "Frozen 2" to draw more from its source material, which offers a lot of great characters and concepts: the troll school, the magic mirror, the little robber girl, the garden of talking flowers, and the ice puzzle.  Technically, Elsa is never referred to as the Snow Queen in "Frozen," so you could have the Snow Queen as a separate character.  ABC's "Once Upon a Time," which uses the "Frozen" characters in Season Four, has already introduced such a character, a villainess with a cursed mirror who is Elsa and Anna's aunt.  Or Elsa could still be the Snow Queen, but we see a retelling the original story from her point of view, the way "Maleficent" revamped "Sleeping Beauty." 
There are a lot of ways that a "Frozen" sequel could go wrong, and we've already seen Disney explore a lot of these ways in its direct-to-video sequels.  However, there are also a lot of ways that it could go right and even improve on the first movie.  I'm pretty optimistic, because expectations are being set very high and Disney is going to give the creative team all the resources it needs.  Everyone involved seems committed to not disappointing an entire generation of little kids who know all the words to "Let It Go" by heart.           
Fingers crossed that they'll figure it out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Memorable "Mockingjay"

I wasn't sure what to expect with "Mockingjay Part 1," which is in its most basic conception, only the first half of a story that won't conclude until "Part 2" in November, thanks to the infuriating trend of franchise finale-splitting.  The source material is reportedly a problematic installment that left many of the series' fan unsatisfied.  And of course, there are all the usual complaints that we're watching films about children killing each other, aimed at a strictly PG-13 young adult audience.
Then again, consider that "Mockingjay" stars recent Oscar darling Jennifer Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Jeffrey Wright.  The worldbuilding and the allegorical elements of the films have gotten stronger and stronger with each film, and strategy and negotiation scenes are now far more important than any depictions of combat.  In the first "Hunger Games" I thought that it was clever that one of the challenges Katniss faced was learning how to cultivate a sympathetic media image to help her win the Games.  Now in the third film, that media image is being used to incite a full-blown revolution, and Katniss struggles to leverage the power that comes with that position to help her loved ones.  Unlike many cinematic revolution stories, our heroine isn't leading the charge.  Rather, Katniss spends much of the movie reconciling the gulf between the manufactured image of the freedom-fighter Mockingjay and who she actually is - an overwhelmed teenage girl whose first priority is saving a captured love interest.
So "Mockingjay" is a strange bird, a blockbuster action film that doesn't contain much action at all, where the heroine's biggest contribution to the cause is the creation of propaganda, and the major setting is a colorless underground bunker.  Violence is all around them, but we see little of it directly.  Rather, I was gratified to discover that "Mockingjay" is one of those rare films that is actually about the consequences of violence.  What we do see of the uprising is brutal, and many people die, but the focus is on the psychological damage done to Katniss and her friends.  I've seen some complaints that Katniss is less sympathetic in this film because she spends so much of it passive, indecisive, and fixated on saving a few people as hundreds are dying in her name.  But if you consider the circumstances and the kind of trauma that she's been subjected to throughout this series, it makes sense that Katniss would react like this, and only embrace the role of the Mockingjay gradually over time as the stakes are raised.  Like the first part of "Deathly Hallows," the quieter buildup to the big action finale actually gives the series the room to show its protagonist's character growth.
I can't say enough good things about the cast here.  Lawrence is as compelling as ever, and holds her own against some acting heavyweights.  I especially like Sutherland's malevolent President Snow and Julianne Moore as the pragmatic President Coin.  Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket provides some very welcome comic relief, while Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps a lot of ridiculous exposition from sounding too ridiculous.  Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson don't get a lot to do, but they ensure their few scenes have a lot of impact.  And I'm even more impressed with director Francis Lawrence and the writers for giving the cast the kind of material to turn in some very memorable performances.  We're still in typical blockbuster territory, and there are some missteps with the dialogue, but you can definitely count "Mockingjay" as one of the better franchise films this year that embraces difficult ideas, alongside "Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
And while "Mockingjay" is less visually interesting than the previous "Hunger Games" films, the production is still excellent.  The bombed out towns covered in rubble, the sterile living spaces of District 13, and the utilitarian clothing (that Effie despairs of) feel much closer to reality than anything we've seen before, while still being stylized enough to maintain some distance.  "Mockingjay" eliminates many of the little fantastic conceits that have characterized the series so far, which makes the atmosphere much more serious and grim.  Two of the best action scenes in the whole series are here - brief examples of unrest in the other Districts that Katniss instigates.  I still found some of the effects work a little shaky, a problem that has been with this franchise since the beginning, but it's a minor issue this time out.
This is easily the best film of the "Hunger Games" series, and I expect that "Mockingjay Part 2" won't top it, considering the kind of action-heavy finale the filmmakers have been promising.  But you never know.  "The Hunger Games" has consistently exceeded my expectations and its latest installment has cemented its place as my current favorite ongoing film series.

Monday, March 9, 2015

My Top Ten "Babylon 5" Episodes

Because occasionally we all need a reminder that this series existed and was special in so many ways, here are my ten favorite episodes of "Babylon 5," listed in chronological order.  With this list, more than any other, I provide strong warnings that there are spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!
"By Any Means Necessary" - "Babylon 5" took pains to distinguish itself from the concurrently running "Star Trek" series early on.  In this episode, Commander Sinclair has the equivalent of a dockworker's strike on his hands, where some creative bureaucracy ends up being much more effective than any lofty speeches to resolve the issue.  And then we have one of G'Kar and Londo's more memorable spats over a plant G'Kar needs for a religious occasion.
"Babylon Squared" - I always love a good time travel story, and "Babylon 5" has some impressive ones.  This episode, where Babylon 5 receives a distress call from its long-missing predecessor, Babylon 4, sets up a lot of interesting things that happen later on in the series.  I find the lead-up more fun that the payoff, since the teases are so well handled.  Also, it's our first encounter with the priceless Zathras, caretaker of the Great Machine and follower of "The One." 
"The Coming of Shadows" - After all the lead-up and all the portents, war finally breaks out between the Narn and the Centauri directly due to Londo's manipulation of the events around the Emperor's visit to Babylon 5.  Watching Londo and G'Kar struggling against destny and their own natures is a thrill, and it's even more impressive upon rewatch when you realize everything that's going to follow from the decisions the characters make in this episode.
"Acts of Sacrifice" - The bulk of this one is devoted to G'Kar's efforts to rally support for the Narn as the war with the Centauri rages on.  It's excellent in the way that it shows G'Kar's priorities shifting and his nobility rising to the surface in the face of adversity.  However, the reason that this episode is on the list is because it's the one where Ivanova has to have sex with an alien ambassador.  What results is surely Claudia Christian's finest moment.
"The Long, Twilight Struggle" - The huge scope of "Babylon 5" was something I always admired, the way that the conflicts between characters could play out on a truly massive scale.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the final defeat of Narn, which G'Kar and his allies do everything to try and prevent, but only manage to delay.  It's one thing to see the good guys lose, but another to see the good guys lose, resulting in the destruction of an entire civilization.
"Severed Dreams" - It's hard to pick out specific episodes from the third season to single out for praise because so much is going on at once.  I'm going with "Severed Dreams" as the biggest highlight of the year, where the command crew of Babylon 5 finds itself in open opposition to the Earth government after quashing an internal takeover attempt. It's a big turning point for several of the storylines, and also gives Delenn her most memorable badass dialogue.
"Into the Fire" - The end of the Shadow War felt anticlimactic in some ways, especially since it happened at an awkward spot near the beginning of the fourth season, and lead straight into the much less interesting Mars arc.  However, you've got to love how some of those little plot threads get wrapped up - the Shadows and Vorlons being assured they won't be alone beyond the rim, Londo standing up to the Shadows, and of course Vir's farewell to Mr. Morden.
"The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" - I went back and forth on this one because I find parts of it tremendously didactic and ham-handed.  Then again, I've never seen a dramatic television series tell this kind of story, which charts the effects of our heroes' actions over almost incomprehensible amounts of time.  This was nearly the last episode of the series, but I think it works better as an interlude before the final season, to hammer home some of the show's big themes.
"The Fall of Centauri Prime" - The fifth season of "Babylon Five" is wildly uneven, but G'Kar and the Centauri characters get a hell of an arc that's worth sitting through all the filler.  Londo Mollari finally gets what he always wanted and dooms himself forever in the process.  As much as I love G'Kar for everything he stood for, it's the tragic Londo who is my favorite character for his terribly human frailties.  I am so glad we got to see his final triumph and downfall.
"Sleeping in Light" - The final goodbye is thankfully a smaller, quieter, and more personal one.  We get Ivanova back and a reunion of old friends, before Commander Sheridan and Babylon 5 itself take their final bows.  There's the grand gestures and the myth-making, of course, because Michael J. Strazcynski just can't seem to resist putting in those final flourishes, but this time all of it feels entirely earned and entirely right.   
Honorable mentions: "Believers," "Soul Mates," "Point of No Return," "War Without End," and "Z'Ha'Dum"

Friday, March 6, 2015

About That "Power Rangers" Fan Film

Adi Shankar is not an unfamiliar name to fan film connoisseurs.  He's the producer of such unauthorized "bootleg universe" favorites as "The Punisher: Dirty Laundry," and "Venom: Truth in Journalism."  He's also produced some fairly successful mainstream action flicks like "The Grey" and the recent reboot of "Dredd."  His latest, a grim 14 minute short film directed by Joseph Kahn, based on the "Power Rangers" franchise, was released last week.  It was titled "Power/Rangers" and quickly attracted a storm of attention.
Once word got around to the studios, Saban Brands, which holds the rights to the "Power Rangers" IP, had the short pulled from Youtube and Vimeo.  An agreement was reached two days later that allowed it to be put back up with several new disclaimers in place to emphasize that Saban had absolutely nothing to do with it.  After all, "Power Rangers" is still being produced with new episodes currently running on Nickelodeon.  There's also a feature film in the pipeline that has been scheduled for the summer of 2016.  This is a lucrative IP with a lot of mileage left in it.  Those two days when "Power/Rangers" was in limbo were a lot of fun, with speculation flying around about copyright implications and whether or not the short could be categorized as fair use. 
It's good to see that fan films and other unofficial derivative media are so commonplace now that trying to pull something like "Power/Rangers" from circulation is recognized as being completely counterproductive.  Any controversy just makes more people want to see it, and pushes curious viewers to employ less visible distribution channels.  Something like "Power/Rangers" might be pushing the definition of fair use a bit, since this kind of "reimagining" is something that Saban could create and monetize if they wanted, but I doubt that they would ever be in the business of doing something so violent and bleak with the property.  And so more creatives are taking risks on doing projects like this, playing with various IP in ways that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
My thoughts on the actual quality of the fan film?  Sadly, not very positive.  It's kind of embarrassing how bad this thing is considering the involvement of such recognizable faces as Katee Sackhoff and James Van Der Beek.  The whole things plays out like a College Humor parody of a "dark and gritty" reboot of "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" dreamed up by overgrown, navel-gazing fanboys.  In the short film's universe the bad guys won.  All of our heroes are now dead or foul-mouthed, cynical, badass cliches.  The production design apes every other generic, dystopian sci-fi movie that's come out in the last five years.  The plotting is a confusing tangle of rehashed noir and revenge story tropes that goes to great lengths to relay the sordid fates of our once squeaky-clean teen protagonists.
The production values are very good, and there was clearly a lot of time and effort poured into this, but I guess I just don't get the point.  Most of the short is almost comically overserious, but the final reveal is very goofy, undercutting everything that the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.  The truth of the matter is that you can't do a "Power Rangers" adaptation that isn't on some level silly, campy and over the top.  At their core all sentai series are designed for small children, and trying to darken it all up for adults - even nostalgic adults -  just ends up looking ridiculous.  
I understand the fun in dreaming up "darkest timeline" scenarios for kids' shows to illustrate their shoddy worldbuilding, but this was way too earnest in its aims to be a joke.  At the same time it doesn't evoke any of the elements the fans might have genuinely liked about "Power Rangers," aside from some generic brawling.  No kaiju battles?  No wacky robots?  No wildly elaborate morphing sequences?  Clearly the filmmakers were familiar with "Power Rangers," but I don't they liked the series much.  And that defeats the whole point of a fan film. 
So while I'm glad that "Power/Rangers" survives online to inspire other fan filmmakers, I don't care much for the short itself.  Seriously, guys, with all the resources you have at your disposal, you're capable of better than this.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Closing the Book on "The Hobbit"

I have maintained from the start that Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" movies wouldn't be as bad as George Lucas's "Star Wars" prequels, and now that "Battle of the Five Armies" is behind us, I can safely conclude that I was right.  The "Hobbit" movies weren't nearly as bad on any level as the "Star Wars" prequels, and I quite liked the second one, "The Desolation of Smaug."  There were big chunks of the first and third films that I thought werevery strong too.  Overall, however, I have to concede that the "Hobbit" films didn't live up to the "Lord of the Rings" films, and it's perfectly fair to characterize them as having had a pretty negative impact on the film series.  I doubt they're going to be viewed very kindly by future generations.  But while the two shared some of the same problems, the faults of the "Hobbit" movies are very different from the faults of "Star Wars" Episodes I through III.
We all knew that the "Hobbit" novel simply didn't have enough material to sustain a trilogy of blockbuster films.  Most of the worst missteps could have been completely avoided if the filmmakers had simply made one long film or two shorter ones that cut out all the padding and the unwieldy original material that was needed to stretch a 320 page children's book into nearly eight hours of screen time.  There are already Tolkien buffs hard at work producing fan-edits to excise the ill-considered elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili, the Gandalf storyline, and my nominee for the "Hobbit" equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks, the comic relief character Afrid (Ryan Gage).  The "Lord of the Rings" films benefited from having to cut out some of the book's smaller episodes and minor characters like Tom Bombadil.  The "Hobbit" films easily could have gotten by without the shapeshifter Beorn or even a few of those extra dwarves.  After three films, I still can't name more than six of the thirteen.
As much as I disliked the "Star Wars" prequels, they were alwasy first and foremost the chronicle of the early years of Anakin Skywalker, from his childhood to his corruption as an adult.  Bilbo Baggins is a much better protagonist than Anakin Skywalker, and had the benefit of Martin Freeman's wonderful performance.  However, for much of "The Hobbit," especially in the last film, he doesn't feel like the main character.  Instead, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the human leader Bard (Luke Evans) were often at the forefront, and both characters were portrayed as much more classically heroic than their literary counterparts.  I wonder if Jackson was trying to evoke Boromir and Aragorn from "Lord of the Rings," though the characterizations felt so forced that Thorin and Bard weren't particularly appealing leading men in the end.  Then there was all the time taken up by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and their stories.  Sure, all the extra characters made the story larger scale and more epic, but Bilbo ended up a bit lost in the crowd.
I think "The Hobbit" fared better than the "Star Wars" prequels did regarding references to the previous series, though not by much.  I liked the framing device with the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and a couple of the minor in-jokes.  There weren't many instances of the ham-fisted foreshadowing George Lucas deployed.  However, I found that Peter Jackson had a hard time letting the "Hobbit" be its own story instead of another installment of "Lord of the Rings."  He kept reusing bits and pieces from the previous films, including several that he's been criticized for - the the massive CGI battle sequences, the deus ex machina, mucking with basic character motivations, rearranging the story structure, and the addition of questionable original characters.  Watching some of the action scenes in "Battle of the Five Armies" certainly reminded me of "Return of the King," but not in a good way.  Since I didn't care about most of the characters, the warfare just felt tedious and endless, and it was much easier to see the bad bits.  And those ended up reminding me of the flaws from the earlier sequences, which I was no longer inclined to forgive or ignore.  In short, watching parts of "The Hobbit" made me like the "Lord of the Rings" films less.
I feel that one of the biggest mistakes that both Peter Jackson and George Lucas made at the outset was trying to utilize a new technology in these movies that wasn't quite ready yet.  With Jackson, it was the increased frame rate projection systems, which resulted in some very unsettling visuals in the first film.  Fortunately he made the necessary corrections so that the second and third installments fared much better.  However, Jackson  and Lucas also share a more damaging trait: they misunderstand what audiences enjoyed about their previous work.  Jackson brought back everything that we loved about "Lord of the Rings," regardless of whether or not it was a good fit for "The Hobbit."  A good example is Legolas, a highlight of the first trilogy whose appearances in "The Hobbit" movie just served to lessen the character overall.  

And too often, that's how I felt about the "The Hobbit" as a whole.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The March 2015 Follow-Up Post

This follow-up post is coming sooner than I had anticipated, but there has been a lot going on.  For first timers, these are posts where I write up brief additional comments updating pieces that have been previously posted, specifically where I don't feel I have enough to say about the matter to justify writing an entire new post about them.  In this installment, we're focusing on the business side of show business.  And here we go:

It's Going to be Quite a Summer - I never did get around to writing up a post-mortem of 2014's summer blockbuster season, did I?  It was a really fun one too, with a lot of surprises.  The "Spider-Man" and "Transformers" franchises had their big weekends, but were disappointments overall, smaller comedies like "Neighbors" and "22 Jump Street" exceeded expectations, "Lucy" beat up "Hercules," "The Fault in Our Stars" snuck off with a big total, "Maleficent" put Angelina Jolie back on top, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" blew up August, proving that Marvel movies will make bank no matter where you put them.  My favorites were "X-men: Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" two remarkably strong genre films from two of the most interesting ongoing franchises.  And sadly, "Edge of Tomorrow" was the least deserving flop of Tom Cruise's career. 
Now 2016 is Getting Crowded - Now roughly a year later, the schedule of releases 2016 is coming into much sharper focus, and it's gotten much more interesting.  Nearly all of the potential showdowns I was looking at have been defused. Warners has backed off from the confrontation with "Captain America: Civil War," and will be releasing "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" in March.  "How to Train Your Dragon 3" has been delayed, leaving "Finding Dory" with no competitor, and the "Amazing Spider-man" sequels have been cancelled.  "Alice" and "X-men" are still on for a head-to-head though, and there are some more interesting titles that have been scheduled.  March in particular is currently stuffed with Tim Burton's next movie, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," Disney's next animated film, "Zootopia," the "Warcraft" movie, a "Divergent" movie, "Batman v. Superman," "Kung Fu Panda 3," and the long awaited "Beverly Hills Cop 4."
The Late Night Landscape - This isn't so much a follow-up to my previous post as it is a prequel to the post I'm going to write eventually about the departure of Jon Stewart from "The Daily Show," which was recently announced.  This is the big one, as far as I'm concerned, because Stewart has been the only late night host I've been inclined to keep watching regularly throughout my adult life, and I have no idea what "The Daily Show" is going to look like without him.  People have already been circulating the names of potential replacements, but I don't even want to think about that yet.  It's going to take me a while to come to terms with Stewart's departure, and right now all I want is for him to get a sendoff worthy of his accomplishments, and all the best of luck in whatever he decides to do next.
A "Fifty Shades" Rant - Okay, clearly I was completely wrong about the financial prospects of a "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie.  Despite lousy reviews and lots of hand-wringing about harmful depictions of kinky business, the movie raked in plenty of dough over Valentine's Day weekend, enough to ensure that we're going to see sequels and rip-offs for a long time to come.  There is an upside to this, though, just as there was with the "Twilight" films. The success of "Fifty Shades" means the studios will try to keep catering to this audience and won't be so squeamish about this kind of subject matter in the future.  I'm hoping, in the short term, that it might help fuel some interest in Peter Strickland's latest film, "The Duke of Burgundy," which shares similar themes but has a far higher artistic bona fides.
The Sony Hack Scrum - The axe had to fall on somebody in the wake of the Sony hacking scandal, and that person, sadly, was co-chair Amy Pascal.  I witnessed several happy reactions from fanboys who were critical of how Pascal had handled the "Spider-man" franchise.  And then came the bombshell: Pascal's successor will be Tom Rothman.  Penny-pinching, superhero-disparaging Rothman has long been a nemesis of superhero-loving movie nerds everywhere, after the time he spent at FOX blocking the "Deadpool" movie and mucking up the "X-men" and "Fantastic Four" franchises.  The new Marvel deal allowing their use of Spidey in upcoming MCU films looked like it would give the faltering film series a boost, but now I'm a lot less sure.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Letting in "The Babadook"

I was deeply, deeply apprehensive about watching the Australian horror/thriller "The Babadook," despite hearing nothing but praise for it from every corner.  The subject matter sounded right up my alley, but also like something that could hit too close to home.  I'm also one of those people who can't easily brush off the experience of certain horror media, and I had no desire to but up at 3 AM jumping at shadows for several weeks.  But I gathered up my courage and watched the thing, and I'm so glad that I did.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed single mother to six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a little boy with an overactive imagination and behavioral problems.  One night a picture book mysteriously appears in Samuel's room titled "Mister Babadook," about a dark creature who kills anyone unfortunate enough to let him into their lives.  Samuel becomes convinced the Babadook is real, and he starts acting out in worse and worse ways as a result.  The stress on an exhausted Amelia, compounded with unresolved issues about her husband's death, grows to unberable levels.  And then the Babadook comes to call.
My favorite horror films are about threats to the family unit, especially the ones that take the time to explore family dynamics and get the audience to care about its characters, like "The Shining" and "Poltergeist."  "The Babadook" is one of these, which takes its time easing us into Amelia's lonely world, where she feel trapped and isolated by the demands of motherhood.  Her struggles with her son are plenty daunting before any of the supernatural elements come into play - and it becomes clear that the monsters are really allegories for existing problems.  "The Babadook" doesn't become a traditional horror movie until the second half, and you could just as easily classify it as a febrile psychodrama in the same vein as "Repulsion" or "Black Swan."
But when it does become a horror movie, boy is it a treat.  I don't know the last horror film that I've enjoyed so much simply for its aesthetics.  The visuals and the sound design are fantastic.  I love the disturbing drawings of the Babadook book and all the various ways that the filmmakers find to keep referencing them as the movie goes on.  I love the transitions.  The soundtrack makes wonderful use of silence, muted sounds, and vocal manipulation to reflect Amelia's deteriorating mental state.  Gore connoisseurs may be a little disappointed that the movie is more disturbing than outright scary, but it does nail some key moments of nail-biting fright.  Nothing in this movie will be keeping me up at 3 AM, but some of those images are going to be staying with me for a long time.
"The Babadook" is writer/director Jennifer Kent's first feature film, and she has proven herself to be a major talent already.  I love how cleverly constructed the narrative is, the way that it plays with perception and framing.  Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman both give excellent performances that go places you wouldn't expect them to.  And I love that there's so much going on beneath the surface, how the film is an examination of guilt and grief and resentment and how a parent-child relationship can go so very, very wrong.  The horror comes from such a real, visceral place and sinks its claws in deep.
I've just counted up the number of times I've used the word "love" in this review, and I think it's safe to conclude that "The Babadook" is one of my favorites of 2014.  And I'm happily reserving it a spot on my top ten list - the one I set aside for the movie I just plain enjoyed the most.