Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mad Men: "Time & Life"

Spoilers ahead.
The end of SC&P came quicker than I thought.  I was prepared for an epic, multi-episode fight for the firm.  However, the big changes in "Mad Men" tend to happen quickly, and it only took an episode for the axe to fall, despite Don rallying the troops for what looked like another of his famous last minute miracle saves.  Another fresh start.  Another grand escape.  We've seen him do it so many times, it took a few minutes for it to sink in that SC&P really is finished.   This was easily the best episode of the season so far, as the big firm upheaval events usually are, and it got a lot of extra oomph from multiple callbacks to and echoes of previous episodes.
This is Pete's first spotlight of the season, and perhaps his only spotlight.  He's not awful for once.  Oh sure, we know he can still be a rat bastard, restarting a blood feud over Tammy's school enrollment, but he's an absolute gentleman to the three women we've seen him consistently clash with in the past: Peggy, Trudy, and Joan.   Even though he was at odds with Peggy last week, she's the first one that Pete warns when the news about McCann Erickson breaks.  He shores up Joan's ego on the ride home after their fates are sealed, letting his guard down enough to reveal that he really does respect her.  Even a reconciliation with Trudy looks possible.  I wonder if Pete has fundamentally changed or if it's just the circumstances of the the firm going down that's made him more altruistic.  Might Pete without the competitiveness and the jealousy that the job brings out, actually be a decent person?
Peggy, one of the only employees who seems fine with SC&P's end, is dismayed to discover her best option is to continue to operate in Don Draper's shadow at McCann.  She's also forced to revisit her decision to give up her son after some adventures in babysitting with Stan.  It's one of the few times the frustration with being a career woman is so plainly expressed by anyone in the show.  It's a welcome rant, even if Peggy's example of a double standard doesn't put her in a sympathetic light.  She's come a long way since Season One, but she resents how much of a gender gap she still has to overcome and the sacrifices that she's had to make to get where she is.  But as much as she doesn't like her choices she still makes them and has found ways to live with them.  I also think that Stan's a little premature in concluding that Peggy will never become a mother.  Her prospects aren't good but she still has a chance.  
The rest of the SC&P regulars are far less sure about their own fates even though they've largely been decided.  The partners are handed plum accounts, but the signs of impending doom are everywhere.  The highlight of the hour was McCann exec Jim Hobart, played by H. Richard Greene, trying to convince them that they were entering "advertising heaven" in terms that recalled Ned Beatty's business-worshipping speech from "Network."  Don and the other partners allow themselves to be convinced, briefly, that the move might not be so bad.  The closing scene, however, where they're unable to quell the buzzing panic of their staff, is pointing to some bleak times ahead.  The inescapable irony is that Don fought his way back into the advertising game and is going to end up stuck in advertising hell.  Peggy was told to get out of McCann in three years, but Don will be forced to stick around for four.
In the end I'm glad that three episodes are left for a proper denouement.  I hope we get more little sendoffs like the one Lou Avery got.  The idea of him shipping off to Japan to become an anime producer is absolutely hysterical.  The mentions of Diana were so brief but so pointed, it surely means the show isn't done with her yet.  I'd like Roger and his legacy woes to get a spotlight episode next, but at the same time there are a lot of other characters we need to check up on and not a whole lot of time left.  I'm going to miss these characters once they're gone. 


Monday, April 27, 2015

A Reaction to Reaction Videos

A new "Star Wars" trailer came out recently, and it was warmly received by just about everyone with an internet connection.  I didn't think there was enough content there to write up a whole post about, and figured that the buzz around it would die down quickly.  Except it hasn't.  And now Disney's stock price has gotten a boost from all the attention.  And the mashups and analysis pieces are everywhere.  And then there are the reaction videos.

As the kids say, "So this is a thing now."  People filming themselves reacting to pieces of media now also constitute media available for our consumption in and of themselves.  Father Roderick Vonhögen, a Catholic priest, probably has the most widely circulated "Star Wars" reaction video at this point.  It shows him watching the new trailer, providing commentary, and reacting to the big moments with an infectious childlike excitement, including interjections like "Holy Cow!"  There are plenty of others if you poke around on Youtube, including helpful compilations of some of the best ones.  At first the thought of watching someone watching a trailer sounds strange, but it's easy to get sucked in.  Watching people's eyes light up when they see the fallen (Super?) Star Destroyer, or burst into tears when they see Han and Chewbacca can be as much fun as watching the trailer itself, because it helps reflect and magnify your own emotions. 

Similar reaction videos have been around for a while, though usually involving more negative reactions caught on camera.  Reactions to major deaths in prior seasons of "Game of Thrones" have been very popular.  A few involving small children and the the famous Darth Vader reveal from "The Empire Strikes Back" can be found with some digging.  Capturing shock rather than elation was the goal, allowing those who had already been through the same experience to relive the event through somebody else.  I think it's important to point out that it doesn't matter who's starring in these videos.  It's the candidness, honesty, and unfiltered emotion on display that are the biggest draws.  I've heard some comparisons made to watching reality television, as all the video uploaders are attention seekers to some extent.  However, I think reaction videos can also be classified as a variation on traditional communal viewing. 

Remember the legendary office water cooler at work where all of us supposedly used to congregate to discuss what had happened on our favorite shows the previous night?  There's still plenty of that kind of discourse going on through a million blogs and thinkpieces.  Heck, I'm blogging the last season of "Mad Men" as it airs.  However, it's harder to translate the more the immediate, visceral response to watching a movie or television show to the digital arena.  Watching a movie in a  theater with an audience, or even at home with friends is a very different experience from watching it alone.  I've been consuming the vast majority of my media on my own these days, and I do miss sharing the experience with other people.  I miss the near-instantaneous validation of laughing at jokes, groaning at bad puns, and wincing through action scenes with somebody else.
So I understand the appeal of the reaction video.  It's a new way to indulge an old impulse.  Heck, the reaction videos even make me feel more favorable toward the "Star Wars" trailer.  Having already been spoiled that Han Solo and Chewbacca would appear, I didn't think their appearance in the trailer was  a highlight.  Watching so many other people enjoy the surprise, however, got me to reevaluate their effectiveness.  With some tweaks, reaction videos could be an interesting new marketing tool.  It could also go bad very easily though.  I stress again that the genuine passion of these fans and their spontaneous creation of these videos are what make them so compelling.  They're also special because they're rare so far.  You're not seeing reaction videos for the new "Batman v. Superman" trailer in nearly the same numbers.

But that's a post for another day.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dardennes "Days"

Belgium's Dardennes brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, are arthouse darlings, beloved for their intense dramas about the poor and the desperate.  They've won the Palme d'Or twice.  They were invited to join the Academy in 2012, despite none of their films having been nominated for any Oscars.  Well, at the time, they hadn't been.  This year The Dardennes' latest, "Two Days, One Night," nabbed a Best Actress nomination for its star, Marion Cotillard.

Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, who has just lost her job at a solar panel company under cruel circumstances.  Sandra took leave to recover from a nervous breakdown, and upon her return the boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) made it known that the company only had the funds to pay for either her salary or the other employees' much-anticipated bonuses.  The decision is left to the employees, who vote for the bonuses, but Sandra discovers the process was tampered with, and convinces Dumont to allow a redo the vote after the weekend.  She and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) take that time to track down each of the company's sixteen employees and try and convince them to give up their bonuses to save her job on Monday morning.

From the handful of other Dardennes' films I've seen, their work is very naturalistic, light on artifice, and often features improvised dialogue.  Their background is in documentaries and it shows.  "Two Days, One Night" is not a departure from this style, but it's easily their closest brush with mainstream filmmaking.  The scripting is is heavily structured, with some very conventional  story elements, and the social commentary is very direct.   "Two Days" feels tailor made for the era of recession and austerity, where even those with jobs are teetering on the brink.  Also, no matter how shabbily she's dressed or how tired she looks, Marion Cotillard is an international movie star whose presence completely dominates the film.  This is her picture as much as it is the Dardennes.' 

Cotillard is excellent here.  She manages quite early on to get us invested in Sandra, who is mentally fragile and wary of confrontation, but forces herself to keep knocking on the doors of her coworkers anyway.  There have been complaints from various critics that "Two Days" has a premise that's hard to swallow, and gets repetitive with the visits to so many barely differentiated employees, but it also credibly pushes Sandra through the emotional wringer.  The spiel she delivers to each new person might be the same, but you can see her attitude shifting over the course of the film, and every interaction is a little different, all completely unpredictable.  And Cotillard gets us to invest in all of them.  I wouldn't have removed a single encounter.

As a melodrama, the Dardennes' are in top form.  The tension is absolutely terrific.  I had a fairly good idea of how the story was going to end, but watching it play out is a thrill.  The Dardennes throw the viewer into the thick of the action and many details of the situation and the various relationships are only sorted out as the films goes on.  In fact, I don't think the audience is really clued in about what Sandra's really fighting against until nearly the end of the movie.  There are two final confrontations on Monday morning that are really the key to the whole movie, putting all the other events in a different context. 

"Two Days, One Night" has a more allegorical tone than the Dardennes' other films. Sandra's company is a little microcosm of a dog-eat-dog world where it's hard to fault anyone for looking out for their own interests. The filmmakers use this to explore a simple moral conundrum in a variety of different contexts and with different variations.  And I love that while Sandra experiences indifference and rejection, there's also more support and sympathy there than she expected.  It's a very positive outlook for glum economic times.  And though it's often wracking and goes to some dark places, the movie turns out to be a quietly uplifting one.  It's not the Dardennes' at their best, but it's the Dardennes' at their most accessible and enjoyable.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shelving "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica"

I had today's post all planned out.  I was going to write an aspirational list of some of the modern television classics I hadn't watched yet and was hoping to, like "The West Wing" and ""Curb Your Enthusiasm."  As I was putting together the list of titles, I came to "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica," two obvious contenders that I have to admit that I've been quietly avoiding for years.  And I felt strongly enough about it that I though I'd put in a quick paragraph explaining why.  Of course, that paragraph turned into an entire post on the subject.
"Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" are probably the two most influential, popular, and highly lauded genre series of the 2000s.  When they were still on the air, it was nice to often run across regular, non-geeky folks that were fans.  I loved that they got awards attention and their finales were big media events.  But frankly, I didn't keep up with either of the shows ten years ago and have no particular interest in doing so now.  I actually have seen a handful of "Lost" episodes and one or two of "Battlestar Galactica."  Neither really appealed to me, and whatever curiosity I had about them lessened after they were over.  
Initially it was just a matter of bad first impressions.  "Lost" looked way too much like "Survivor" for my tastes and having a stereotypically exoticized, non-English speaking Korean couple as supporting characters was a big mark against it.  I'm Asian-American and perhaps a little oversensitive about such things.  Then all the theories about what the island was, and rumors of the creators supposedly having this grand master plan started circulating.  Okay, so "Lost" was a mystery show.  That was fine, but I've learned to be wary of mystery and conspiracy shows because they so rarely add up to anything satisfying.  See the "mythology" arcs on "The X-files," for instance.  And after "Lost" ended a few years, later, the consensus seems to be that I was right to be wary.  Loads of little mysteries were left unexplained, the writers never accounted for many dropped subplots and characters, and the ending was a famous bust.  At least with "X-files" the monsters-of-the-week were a lot of fun.  "Lost" apparently offered some good character drama and adventure thrills here and there, but that wasn't enough to pique my interest.
My experience with the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot was much the same story.  "Dark and gritty" were never descriptors I thought of as positive, and I'd seen too many similar reboots fall flat.  I avoid shows with a heavy military component like "Stargate SG-1," and its various spinoffs, which the Syfy Channel heavily promoted at the time.  "Battlestar" gave me much of the same vibe, though considerably grimmer.  It didn't help that the marketing put an awful lot of emphasis on sexy actresses and guessing who the evil Cylon infiltrators among the good guys were.  "Battlestar" felt more like "Alien" or "Terminator" than "Star Trek," franchises I respect but only enjoy in small doses.  The aggressively action-oriented Heinlein stuff was never my favorite kind of sci-fi.  Still, I'm more receptive to picking up "Battlestar Galactica" than "Lost" at some point, since its fans seem to be happier with it overall.
You can trace a lot of trends in current genre television back to "Lost and "Battlestar": the heavy serialization, mainstream-friendly character dynamics, and the push for more action.  I know we wouldn't have some of my favorites like "Game of Thrones" and "Person of Interest" without them.  Still, I also blame them for the blander, gloomier direction these shows have taken over the last decade too.  We're running a terrible deficit of spaceship shows while the zombies are still running amok.  What I find odd though is that the fandoms for "Lost" and "Battlestar" haven't stuck around the way that the fans of other genre shows have.  Oh sure, there are a few Cylon cosplayers on the convention circuit, and occasional references to Hurley and Mr. Eko in pop culture, but neither series seems to have inspired the kind of geeky devotion that "Doctor Who" or "Firefly" or the Marvel films have.  I was pretty active in media fandom back when both shows were at their height, and neither had a major presence even then.
Honestly, I think the biggest reason why I never got into either "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" was because they didn't seem like shows that were much fun to be a fan of.  And after they both left a spotlight, I forgot about them very quickly. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mad Men: "Forecast"

Spoilers ahead.
Everyone's looking ahead this week in "Mad Men," predicting futures and extrapolating potential fates.  Some have everything planned out and are resistant to any complications, like Joan's new beau Richard.  Some are resistant to the path they see laid out for them, like Sally.  And then there's Don, who's been tasked with writing a forward-looking statement for SC&P, and comes to the conclusion that he has no idea what he wants his future to look like.  Don's great at using the amorphous concept of the future to sell things - note his advice to his realtor.  But when it comes to the concrete details of his own plans, Don's stuck.  He'd better figure it out quickly, though, because his Megan-less apartment has just been sold, closing off the past behind him, while the final shot pulls away inexorably, threatening to leave him behind.
Joan finally makes it out to California, and finds someone to enjoy it with.  She sees a happier future for herself with the charming retiree Richard, played by Bruce Greenwood.  And she's willing to go to some lengths to secure it, lying about Kevin and then telling Richard that she's willing to give him up so they can be together.  After last week, Joan seems determined to put her own happiness first.  There's a cost to this though, which she is made painfully aware of.  Though Joan is a rare bird in her era who doesn't have to worry about her security, she can't be free the way that a man can be free - at least not in the role of single mother.  It astounds me that Joan would be willing to give up Kevin so quickly, but then we also have to remember that Peggy made essentially they same choice way, way back in Season One to secure her own happiness.
Joan's trip also confirms the staffing moves that happened during the break.  Lou Avery is now in the stagnant California office, replacing Pete and Teddy.  Don's the de facto creative boss in New York, even though that may not be his title at the moment, and he's still technically on probation, as Roger reminds him.  I'm going to make the prediction now, with all the chatter about McCann's demands over the past few weeks, that SC&P is going to end up on the chopping block.  The tagline for this season has proclaimed that it's the "end of an era," and I'm betting that means the end of the firm and possibly the end of a few careers.  Don could certainly still take a swan dive off the side of the building in the finale, but symbolic deaths are more important than literal ones in "Mad Men."  
Don remains on good terms with Sally but his womanizing is still a sore spot, especially as Sally has to watch both of her parents flirt with her friends in the same episode.  Poor Sally just can't catch a break.  Glen means a lot to her, but it's uncomfortably clear that he maintained the friendship with her in large part because of Betty, who he finally shares two tense scenes with again after years of maintaining his distance.  Glen is still playing grown-up, still out of his depth.  This time, though, Betty is unexpectedly kind to him, in stark contrast to how she handled their first encounter.  It's a solid endpoint to the Glen storyline, and a measure of Betty's slow maturation.  As Glen notes, she's still largely unchanged on the surface, but the ice queen has softened just a little.
Glen also brings Vietnam and the resulting peace movement close to home, after scattered references earlier on.  There are more hints of the '70s youth culture everywhere, from Joan's sitter to Sally's shoutout to Kent State to Sesame Street.  As much as the adults here fret about the future, the '70s aren't their time.  There's only one person whose future is wide open in this episode.  It's Sally, and she's fairly blase about it - maybe she'll be a lifeguard again.  The only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn't want to be like her parents, and Don's advice to her on that subject is excellent.  Of course she's going to be like her parents, but she has the ability to be more than her parents.  That could be the takeaway for the entire show.
The one storyline this week that struck me a little oddly was Mathis and the peanut butter cookie account.  Don also dispenses advice to him, as he did with Sally and his realtor.  When Mathis makes a mess of it, he blames Don and throws barbs about his success being the result of surface looks, nothing more.  Not true, of course, but it does prompt Don's self-examination.  Is Mathis supposed to represent the up-and-coming generation blaming his mistakes on the past?  Is he the product of the firm's toxic work culture?  Is he just another jerk?
There are a lot of jerks in "Mad Men," and we're not done accounting for all of them yet.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Adjustment of Expectations (and the To Watch List)

Roughly forty films left to go on my 2014 movie "To Watch" list.  I've had to prune back the selection significantly due to my reduced availability, and because I'm shooting for October as the deadline to put together a final Top Ten list.  As a result, a lot of the films I would have watched in previous years are being left by the wayside.  Which titles are being chucked from the list?
Lots of little indie sci-fi films.  I love this genre and all the great work I've seen in recent years, but I just can't sift through every single promising title anymore.  So "Automata," "In Your Eyes," "Young Ones," and "The Signal" are being left out, along with Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's latest, "I Origins."  I've pointedly tried to support Marling in the past because I admire her aims if not her actual work, but after watching the "I Origins" trailer, my patience finally gave out.  Instead I watched "Coherence" and "Predestination" and "The Rover" and "Under the Skin," which were all getting much more positive attention.  Yeah, I hate having to depend on buzz as a measure here, but it's proven to be a pretty good yardstick so far.
Another big chunk of titles fall into the indie drama category.  Lynn Shelton's "Laggies,"Joe Swanberg's "Happy Christmas," and Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here" have gotten the boot.  These are the ones I feel the most badly about because these are the films that I'm not inclined to watch in the first place, and always have to prod myself to check out.  And as a result, I tend to find more surprises here.  Indie dramas are very hit-or-miss with me, but when one connects, it really connects.  2007's "Once" was one of these, so I made the effort to see John Carney's new film "Begin Again."  I did not like it, and I'm sorry to say it and "The Skeleton Twins" probably biased me against trying any of the others that I was on the fence about. 
I'm pretty weak when it comes to Oscar bait, but this year I had to draw the line at "Cake," which was widely accused of only existing to be a vehicle for Jennifer Aniston to snag an Oscar nomination, not that there's anything wrong with that.  In previous years I would have wanted to decide for myself, but this year I had my hands full just trying to keep up with the performances that were nominated like Julianne Moore in "Begin Again" and Reese Witherspoon in "Wild."  Also, apologies to Chadwick Boseman for skipping "Get On Up."  Other prestige pics I probably would have watched based on the talent involved include Jason Reitman's "Men Women & Children," Rupert Wyatt's "The Gambler," Susanne Bier's "Serena," and Thomas McCarthy's "The Cobbler" - even though the critical consensus says they're not worth it.
The biggest category of 2014 films I would have watched, though, are the ones that never made it on to the list in the first place, all the weird little documentaries and all the foreign obscurities and the odd titles that pop up on Netflix or Amazon Instant.  This year I simply didn't go looking for more movies to watch outside a few major channels, so if a movie was significantly under the radar I probably never even heard about it.  This includes mainstream releases.  There was a Helen Mirren foodie film, for instance, called "The Hundred Foot Journey," that apparently came out last August but I didn't hear a peep about until a few weeks ago.  I've cut back on blockbusters in general, even benching good dumb fun like the "300" sequel and the Rock's "Hercules." 
However, I did watch both parts of Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," despite massive reservations.  It wasn't bad. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The GamerGate Post

I was determined to keep my nose out of the whole GamerGate mess when it was still more or less limited to the gaming world.  However, recent events involving the Hugo Awards have convinced me that this is something I should be addressing.
It all started when a female game developer named Zoe Quinn was accused by an ex-boyfriend of sleeping with gaming journalists for good reviews last year.  Quinn was the subject of a vile online harassment campaign, and the campaign was held up as an example of gaming culture being hostile and sexist.  A particularly nasty group of gamers took offense and pushed back against this characterization, insisting that they were the ones being persecuted while fanning the flames against Quinn.  These were the members of what came to be known as GamerGate. 
Well then again, it's probably more accurate to say that the whole thing started a few years ago with Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist academic who used Kickstarter to fund a web series about the portrayal of female characters in video games.  Proto-GamerGate members were outraged both by Sarkeesian's critical examination of games they enjoyed and that she received so much attention and financial support.  Sarkeesian quickly became a harassment target herself.  Or maybe it was back when video games started becoming more mainstream and female gamers started arriving on the scene in significant numbers.   That was when we first started hearing about how how toxic and unfriendly the teen male dominated online gaming culture was to outsiders.
In short, GamerGate is the latest battle in a culture war between those who want gaming culture to be an anarchic place where the typical young male id is pandered to, where gamers never have to worry about being sensitive or even civil to anybody, and those who want gaming culture to become a more inclusive, mainstream place where sexism and racism are actively called out.  And boy has it gotten ugly.  GamerGate supporters are absolutely livid at what they perceive to be the invasion of their turf by meddling "SJWs," short for "social justice warriors," a derogatory term for anyone (but mostly women) who dares to advance progressive causes in media.  They're convinced that any and all attempts to tone down objectionable content and make video games and the gaming industry more female-friendly are part of some fiendish plot designed to destroy gaming as they know it.  The average GamerGate supporter is young, male, socially alienated, hates feminists, and has a massive persecution complex.  Their campaigns against SJWs, the mainstream gaming press, and anyone who disagrees with them has been dragging on for months, despite almost universal condemnation.  Some are still going after Zoe Quinn, despite the claims against her having been proven false.  GamerGaters have found few allies - the men's rights movement, vitriolic conservative publications, and a bunch of yahoos who are actively trying to wreck the Hugos.
Oh yes.  This is where I come in.  I've been a big science fiction fan all my life, and I'm very familiar with the Hugo Awards, which are given out by the Worldcon membership to celebrate excellence in science-fiction writing.  This year the awards were hijacked.  A voting bloc was organized by a couple of vocally right-wing authors who successfully pushed a slate of nominees specifically to counter what they viewed as "affirmative action" trends in recent years - too many women and minorities.  Many of the bloc's nominees came from a single tiny publisher run by one of the authors, Vox Day, who has proudly declared himself an anti-feminist and finagled two Best Editor nominations for himself.  There's no evidence that any of the GamerGate mob participated in this, but it's the same story.   You have a small group of fervent media fans who think that their clubhouse is being taken over by grubby outsiders who have changed the comfortable white male dominated status quo.  And now they're angry and lashing out using the destructive tactics of the most puerile internet trolls.  
The irony is, of course, that these efforts by GamerGate and Vox Day's minions have been entirely counterproductive.  Their win-at-all-costs behavior is so distasteful, their attemtps at discourse so tone deaf, and their goals so retrograde, they've proven exactly why continued efforts to promote diversity, to combat bullying and harassment, and to provide more support to women and minorities in these arenas, are all so necessary.   Far from driving women out of gaming or shutting them up, GamerGate's actions have given them the spotlight.  The meaner they are to their targets, the more obvious it is that the GamerGate mentality is the real problem.  And now Anita Sarkeesian is on the TIME Magazine list of the 100 most influential people of 2015, and Zoe Quinn went to Capitol Hill to speak at a congressional briefing on online harassment.  They have GamerGate's antics to thank for it. 
As for the Hugos, several of the suspect nominees have either voluntarily bowed out or been disqualified, and steps are being taken to ensure the voting can't be hijacked in a similar fashion again.  Conservative authors are probably going to find the deck stacked higher against them in the future than if Vox Day and friends hadn't meddled with the voting in the first place.  Maybe that was the point - setting themselves up as poor victims of the establishment to somehow prove they're being marginalized and discriminated against.  They can't be bigots and misogynists if they're the real victims!  I suppose they believe it's preferable to having to share their chosen identity - as gamers or science-fiction fans - with icky women or minorities or transgendered people who insist on being recognized and respected as such. 
Oh, fandom.  We still have such a long way to go.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Finding Out "What We Do in the Shadows"

Thanks goodness for Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.  I was starting to think that I'd lost all ability to relate to modern film comedies.  Their latest collaboration, "What We Do in the Shadows," which they wrote, directed, and star in, is a mockumentary that follows four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand.  It's the vampire-themed comedy I feel like I've been waiting for since "Twilight" kicked off the latest bloodsucker craze.  Each of the four main subjects is a recognizable type from vampire media.  There's Viago (Taika Waititi) the foppish loverboy, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) the Dracula-esque Lothario, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the young troublemaker, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is essentially decrepit old Count Orlock from "Nosferatu" and occupies a tomb in the basement.  All of them are, of course, losers.
"This is Spinal Tap" comparisons are inevitable, because like the rock and roll musicians of that film, vampires should be cool, right?  They're immortal and dangerous and have all these special powers.  "What We Do in Shadows" even brings out the more obscure perks like flying, shapeshifting, having human thralls, and limited mind control. Viago and Deacon try very hard to convince us that the vampire lifestyle is an enviable one, but every neat trick just emphasizes how desperately insecure and inadequate this bunch is.  They squabble over chores, go clubbing in centuries-out-of-date clothing, and rely on Deacon's human servant Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) to find victims.  It's not until they accidentally turn intended victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire that the situation gets shaken up and the flatmates are forced out of their rut.
I don't think you could have made something like "What We Do in the Shadows" before now, when the cost of CGI has dropped to the point that they're affordable for smaller projects like this.  The effects here are nothing very impressive, but they look good enough that they sell this universe where vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures exist in significant numbers.  At the same time this is clearly a low budget, independent effort, which is vital to the film retaining its idiosyncratic, Wellington-specific point of view.  The documentary film style is also used to very good effect, both narratively and stylistically.  The camera crew is neither too intrusive or completely left in the background, and I love that the filmmakers go the extra mile and parody a few documentary tropes along with the vampire ones, particularly in the editing. 

It's the performances that I really love here, though.  I'm not familiar with "Flight of the Conchords," the comedy band and related HBO series that Clement and Waititi are best known for, but I have seen them both pop up in various other media in recent years.  Clearly, these two are at their best when they're in control of their material.  Waititi's Viago is a wonderfully fussy fop who attempts to keep the group in line, but doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body.  Clement's Vladislav initially appears to be the most virile and lethal member of the group, but various crippling neuroses are soon revealed.  They're a sympathetic bunch, embodying a very familiar portrait of socially inept single male-dom.  It's very easy to get attached, even though the film makes it clear that these are still bloodsucking creatures of the night at heart. 
The important question is whether all this is funny, and I'm happy to report that yes, it is, on just about every level.  It's a frequently clever satire that relentlessly lampoons the goth and vampire fan subcultures.  There are loads of good sight gags and occasional slapstick.  The character work is rock solid, and could easily sustain sequels or other future projects (fingers crossed).   I especialy love how this version of Wellington is constructed, full of fun little details that point to more complicated background mythology.  My favorite characters might be the werewolves that the vampires encounter on their trips to town, whose pack dynamic manifests in a way that had me in stitches.
Comedies like this are few and far between, and need to be savored when they do arrive.  I urge you, for the sake of preserving your own sense of humor in the age of Adam Sandler and "Jackass," to go forth and enjoy "What We Do in Shadows" for yourselves.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mad Men: "New Business"

Spoilers ahead
Three women are the subject of the latest episode of "Mad Men," all passing through the lives of our regulars in ways that disturb and intrigue them.  Diana, the waitress from last week, is proving to be more than just a fleeting encounter for Don.  Pima, an older female photographer, delightfully stirs up Stan and Peggy's new campaign.  And of course there's Megan, probably in her last major appearance, who is tying up the loose ends of her marriage with Don.
I see the appeal of Diana for Don, a woman on the run from past traumas and mistakes.  She's bluntly candid with him, and their actions and reactions echo each other throughout the episode, making her a distaff counterpart of sorts.  Don thinks he can relate to her fundamentally, but when push comes to shove she's not interested in moving on from her grief, and Don is not willing to enable her self-castigation.  She's also the rare character in "Mad Men" who doesn't want anything from him.  She even views the brief act of accepting comfort from Don as a betrayal of sorts.  I'd love to see more of her story, but at this point Don has been firmly rejected and it's doubtful that there's any opportunity to reconnect.
Pima Ryan is a character clearly meant to embody the 70s, with her "Annie Hall" outfit and overt bisexuality.  Stan loves her and Peggy recoils, suggesting that Stan's embracing the changing times and Peggy isn't ready for them.  It's a fun little character spotlight for Stan, who rarely gets this much attention - and Hello Nurse! - but it's an especially telling episode for Peggy.  We initially find her eager to work with a successful, creative woman.  The reality of Pima, however, is something that she can't handle and potentially sours her on the whole idea.  I worry that Peggy's distancing herself from not only the few allies she has left, but the potential allies she might find as the world around her changes to be more inclusive.
As for Megan, it's hard not to feel bad for her.  She wants peace of mind, and Don is perfectly willing to provide it, but her family and her faltering career make that impossible.  The world of "Mad Men" is getting more progressive, but only marginally where young women like Megan are concerned.  Divorce is still firmly taboo.  Self-sufficiency is hard-won and often requires unsavory sacrifices.  We've known that Harry Crane is a reprobate for a while now and this was one of his lowest moments.  Yet the show points to Megan also being complicit.  She knows the industry and she shows up to lunch in a dress awfully reminiscent of a negligee.  Shouldn't she have seen Harry's proposition coming?  Shouldn't she have seen the rift with Don and the end of her marriage coming?
And so we come to the big moment - Don writing Megan the million dollar check.  Immediately, the "That's what the money is for" conversation from "The Suitcase" comes to mind.  The size of the check reflects Don's guilt, of course, not just about Megan, but about Betty and the boys in the opening scene, and about dearly departed Rachel from last week, and Sylvia coolly keeping her distance the elevator.  I suspect Diana's refusal of his gift later is what seals for Don that they're incompatible.  He still doesn't know how to make amends or show his affections without a material or financial component.  And that's going to leave him with an empty life to go with his empty apartment in the end. 
And where do we leave Megan?  Showing sympathy to her cheating mother, perhaps after realizing that the man who wronged her ended up being more decent to her than anyone else through the whole separation.  She accepts the check and the role of the cunning ex-wife who cleaned out her husband, though she didn't ask for it and certainly didn't orchestrate it.
Quickly, it was great to see Julia Ormond back as Marie, taking up with Roger again.  I like the little bits of pieces of Pete we've seen in the last two episodes, firmly back in New York and clearly biding his time before becoming another huge headache.  And kudos to Meredith for quietly become on of the most reliable comic relief characters on the show. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sorting Through the "Wild Tales"

Revenge is so overdone.  Vengeance, retribution, and the baser forms of justice have become terribly convenient excuses in films for characters to behave in all sorts of extreme and irrational ways.  So it's nice to find a movie with a sense of humor about it.
Damian Szifron's "Wild Tales" defies easy description.  It's an anthology film, made up of six stories about violence and vengeance. All can be classified as black comedies to some degree, but the style and tone of each short is a bit different.  Some are told in a pulpy, stylized manner full of outrageous moments, and others are more sedate.  "Wild Tales" hails from Argentina, where it was a smash hit last year.  The Academy gave it a Best Foreign Film nomination, despite the movie not having remotely the amount of gravitas that you'd imagine would be necessary to win such a distinction.  Frankly, I don't understand the level of acclaim, as there are a few duds among the six stories, and I think the only way to be fair to the whole of "Wild Tales" is to take each of the six parts on their own.
First we have "Pasternak," the best and the shortest of the segments  It's a pre-title stinger to get us warmed up, practically a gag, about passengers on an airplane.  Providing much more description would ruin it, but it's such a wonderfully dark, mean, absurd little joke of a short.  I fully expect this one to start circulating as a viral video at some point, and absolutely recommend a viewing even if you're not in the mood to sit through the whole two hours of the film. 
"The Rats" is out and out comedic, about a diner waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) and cook (Rita Cortese), debating over whether to poison a loan shark customer.  It's a little light on concept and underdeveloped, but executed well enough to earn some laughs.  "The Strongest," about two drivers (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado) and a case of road rage, is also very bare bones, but the gusto with which the director and the actors unleash themselves on each other makes it a winner.  The escalation of the situation goes on exactly as long as it needs to, and lets the crazy hit right where it has the most impact.  There's a lot of very physical stuff going on in this one, and it's impressive to watch it all unfold.
Things take a turn for the worse when we reach the more serious material.  "Bombita" follows a man's troubles with his city's parking enforcement. This one rubbed me the wrong way, and I think it's because the main character, Simon (Ricardo Darin), is difficult to empathize with.  The story is fairly predictable and not nearly as well deployed as the previous segments, with an ending that is too pat and abrupt.  Then comes "The Bill," which is a better effort overall, but tonally and thematically feels like it belongs in a different film, or perhaps it would have been better being developed into its own feature.  After his young son causes a terrible car accident that will almost certainly mean jail time, a wealthy father (Oscar Martinez) conspires to pay an employee to take the blame instead.  A fairly serious domestic drama unfolds that isn't operating on remotely the same wavelength as any of the other stories, and it suffers the most for being confined to a short running time.  It's a shame because "The Bill" isn't a bad starting point, and I'd like to see more.
And so we come to the grand finale, "Til Death Do Us Part," where a bridezilla goes on a rampage and an extravagant wedding reception implodes.   The bride, Romina (Erica Rivas), discovers that her new husband Ariel (Diego Gentile) has been cheating on her, and decides to make him pay in the most humiliating and public ways available to her.  This is the longest segment of "Wild Tales," and one of the most polarizing, as it elicits more cringing than laughs.  I enjoyed it, because I had no idea where the story was going from one minute to the next, and because Erica Rivas gives Romina's emotional extremes some real pathos and fire as needed.
So all in all, more good than bad.  Some of the humor was awfully low-brow for my tastes, and it's definitely not for everyone, but "Wild Tales" is one of the most accessible foreign comedies I've come across in a long while.  After all, revenge is awfully satisfying, and everyone needs an excuse to let loose once in a while.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Night of the Living Cancellation, Part II

"Twin Peaks" is coming back in a limited Showtime series!  Yes!  With David Lynch and Mark Frost onboard!  Well, okay, there seem to be some squabbles going on behind the scenes, and Lynch probably won't be directing, but still - the return of one of the early touchstones of auteur-driven television is something to celebrate.  And "The X-Files" is coming back too!  With David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson!  The series didn't end well and that last movie was a bust, but Chris Carter's got to know this is his last shot, right?  Oh, and NBC's bringing back "Coach"?  Er, I never watched much of "Coach," but it was a consistent performer back in the day, so it must have had a pretty good fan base, right? How many of them are still around, though?  I mean, that audience skewed older to begin with so twenty years later -  And now Netflix wants to bring back "Full House"?  Huh.  Well.  Um.  I have no idea why anyone would want to see that.
Welcome to the hot new TV trend of 2015 - the revival.  I knew that the '90s were inevitably going to come back, but this is ridiculous.  It seems like every day someone has dusted off another old show or star in hopes of engineering a comeback.  These aren't reboots, mind you, though there have been plenty of those.  The new "Beverley Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place" have come and gone.  Revivals are trying to effectively create new seasons of old programs to the extent that they can, bringing back familiar stars, showrunners, writers, and other creative talent.  This has already been done with some success in TNT's "Dallas," which was designed to feel as if the original show had simply returned from a very long hiatus.  And honestly, that's not as farfetched as it used to be in an era where Netflix gave "Arrested Development" a third season seven years after FOX cancelled it.
Then again, revivals aren't new.  After reruns of the '70s black family sitcom "What's Happening!" did well in syndication, a sequel series, "What's Happening Now!!" came six years after cancellation and effectively doubled the number of episodes.  "Bevis and Butthead" returned to MTV briefly, after a fourteen year absence.  And of course there's "Doctor Who," which has had a lot of fun untangling the snarls in its continuity caused by a fifteen year break.  And when you move away from serialized television, you find people have tried to bring back just about everything from "The Mickey Mouse Club" to "The Twilight Zone" to "The Electric Company."  Reboots and reinventions are preferable when it comes to more well-known sitcoms and dramas because they're usually much easier to pull off.
So why this recent spate of high profile resurrections?  The "X-Files" revival is the result of a fan campaign that was actively encouraged by Gillian Anderson and others connected with the show.   The enthusiastic reaction it received seems to have been what prompted most of th others.  Note that all of these projects made a point of emphasizing that key original actors would be returning, which is their biggest selling point.  I suspect there would be more revivals if the talent involved were more receptive, but a lot of the time the successful stars of hit TV shows have no desire to sign on for a long television gig again.  However, these days a regular television season can be as short as seven or eight episodes, so the commitment isn't as great.  And Gillian Anderson can feasibly juggle her commitments to "The Fall" and "Hannibal" with shooting six new episodes of "X-Files."  
It's a lot of fun to think about what other beloved '90s shows might be candidates for revivals, but we should also keep in mind that these shows all went off the air for a reason.  Audiences lost interest, premises and formulas ran out of steam, and some just outstayed their welcome.  Frankly, there aren't many that I think would actually benefit from another season, except a couple that ended on cliffhangers.  The "Twin Peaks" series sounds the most promising because it's the most likely to actually be a quality piece of television on par with all the good shows that it'll be competing against.  Though it certainly helps, you need more than nostalgia to get ahead on TV these days,

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"The Homesman" Stakes Its Claim

Tommy Lee Jones' latest directorial effort, "The Homesman," has garnered very polarized responses.  There are some who love the unconventional period western unreservedly, and others who find it deeply flawed.  Much of the discussion about the film centers around a major spoiler that I won't reveal here, but let's just say that it works for some and not at all for others, and introduces a lot of questions about the film's aims.
Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a hardy Nebraska homesteader who manages her own farm, but has been unable to find anyone willing to marry her.  A harsh winter strikes her small farming community, and three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) lose their minds after various hardships.  With no one else willing, Cuddy agrees to take the women to Iowa, where arrangements can be made to send them back East.  The trip will require several weeks travel through dangerous country, so Cuddy recruits a questionable claim jumper, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), after saving him from being lynched, to aid her on the journey.
At first glance this seems to follow the basic template of your modern western: take the bones of an exciting adventure story from a classic western and add unconventional heroic figures, an emphasis on the hardship of the American pioneer experience, and overtones of social progressiveness.  The journey through hard terrain full of dangerous Indians and criminals goes all the way back to "Stagecoach," but here our heroine is an oddball, unattractive, unmarried woman trying to wrangle three insane charges and an untrustworthy hired hand.  Modern conventional wisdom suggests that she win the day through significant personal sacrifice, and help to redeem her travelling companions along the way. The Coen brothers' "True Grit," is be a good model.  But this is not what happens in "The Homesman." 
I keep coming back to "No Country For Old Men" as the more appropriate Coens' move to compare "The Homesman" to, which Tommy Lee Jones also starred in.  The most vital and important part of "Homesman" is actually the long denouement after the more exciting chapters of the film have concluded, where Jones' character takes center stage and major themes are recontextualized from his point of view.  I think I can say without giving anything away that both films are ultimately about failure, displacement, loss, and grappling with terrible events that may be ultimately meaningless.  And the deliberateness and the candidness of how these ideas are handled sets the film apart, even if the film itself isn't quite up to snuff.
Now, there's plenty to like about the filmmaking here.  Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is always stirring, particularly the night and interior scenes, and the quiet montages of the three women descending into madness, one by one.  Marco Beltrami's score is a standout.  The performances are excellent, with Hilary Swank at the height of her powers as the tough but warm-hearted Cuddy.  She has excellent chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones, and their sharp back-and-forth alone is worth the price of admission.  The cast is populated with familiar faces, many of whom turn in fine smaller performances - James Spader as a pompous hotel owner, John Lithgow as a sympathetic reverend, and Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld in roles I think it's better to let the viewer discover for themselves. 
The film falters in its final third, however, and that all-important denouement.  The pacing slows to an interminable crawl, the narrative becomes oddly episodic where it hadn't been before, and the direction turns awfully ham-handed.  The scenes with Meryl Streep are just awkward and feel like they belong in a different movie.  Tommy Lee Jones never loses the plot here, and gets his points across, but there are some serious tonal and narrative problems that threaten to undermine the whole venture.  I suspect a lot of it comes down to George Briggs not being nearly as interesting onscreen here than the other major characters, and Jones' performance being tasked with supporting more than it could handle.
"The Homesman" is still a very impressive sophomore effort for Jones, and there's so much in it that I find myself still thinking about in very positive terms.  It's a beautiful character piece, a subversion of a subversion of a genre, and really makes me wish Hilary Swank would get more work. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mad Men: "Severance"

It's my intention to write up analysis posts for each episode of this last season (or half season) of "Mad Men," like I did for "Breaking Bad," but a quick warning first.  My available time to consume media is still fairly limited, so the posts aren't going to conform to a standard schedule.  I hope I'll be able to get them up before the next episode airs, but honestly I doubt that's going to happen. 
Spoilers ahead.
"Severance" was a mostly agreeable premiere, a place setting episode that situates us in early 1970.  Initially everything seems to be back to the original status quo for Don - he's attending casting calls and tomcatting with Roger, master of the universe again.  But now there's no Megan to make him feel old and out of date, and no Betty to remind him of his responsibilities.  He's reasserted himself at work at things are looking up.  However, Don isn't out of the woods, not by a long shot.  Multiple portents of death still haunt him, the bloody wine stain on his apartment floor and a vision of a dead woman in furs, presage the passing of Rachel Katz nee Menken, the client we were introduced to in the very first episode of "Mad Men," who Don of course had an affair with.
He's drawn to a waitress who reminds him of someone - perhaps many someones - she resembles several of his past encounters including Rachel.  Or maybe she doesn't.  Don's fixation on her reveals a need for closure, a need to process the loss.  Despite falling into his old behaviors, on some level Don instinctively seeks to acknowledge the passage of time.  Over the past few seasons we've watched Don disconnect and reconnect, destroying and rebuilding his image.  Here, he's faced with the unpleasant reality that Rachel moved on after their affair, likely to a much greater degree than Don did.  He seems torn between trying to reaffirm the connection and trying to distance himself - he tells Rachel's sister that he's been through a second marriage, but seems unsure how to parse it.
So the old conflict is still very much alive in Don Draper.  Even after grappling and reconciling with his demons for the past several seasons, confirming he's better off with this job, with this lifestyle, and without a long term romantic commitment, he's still trying to figure out how to live with being himself.  He's still obsessed with lost opportunities and looking backward - he's not grieving for Rachel, as it's made clear that he didn't really know her anymore - but the life he might have had with her.  The waitress insists that the loss doesn't mean anything, not really, but Don has always had a terribly hard time admitting defeat and letting go.  Here he's forced to, as he was forced to let go of Bert Cooper last year, and perhaps he'll be forced to let  go of far bigger things in the weeks to come.
Other characters were busily trying to break out of the status quo this week, as time quietly slips by in the background - look at the facial hair on Roger, Ted Chaough, and Stan.  Part of me was really hoping that Ken was going to make it out of the advertising business with his soul intact and go off to write his Great American novel.  But despite a supportive wife and a helpful kick out the door from Roger and Pete, Ken follows his pride instead of destiny, and gets himself even more fully entrenched in the advertising world.  And while I love seeing Ken get the upper hand, it still feels like our favorite tap-dancing cyclops has lost and lost badly.  I don't think there are any characters left on the show that I can remain remotely idealistic about - well, except maybe Bobby and Gene Draper.
Peggy is still Miss Lonelyhearts and getting bitter about it, but this is really starting to get repetitive.  After Abe and Ted, Peggy's love troubles have gone from mostly entertaining to a worrisome slog, even if it's to prove a point.  And I still love Peggy, so it irks me that her personal life is such a bore and that she's turning into a sourpuss.   We don't know if the lawyer is going to be Peggy's new beau or only a only a single date, but he's certainly not distinguishing himself so far.  With only so many episodes left to go, are we going to be left with Peggy the brilliant workaholic grump?  Compare with Joan, who is understandably frustrated at being on the receiving end of more catcalls, but happily indulges in a little retail therapy to soften the blow.
Even if she's more unsatisfied about where she is than Peggy, at least she's better at pretending to be happy.  And that's probably why she's going to come out of the series better than anyone else when the series wraps up.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rise of the Video Film Essayists

Initially I was planning to do this post in a list format, spotlighting some of my favorite online film critics and commentators who create digitally distributed videos to discuss films and filmmaking.  However, upon reflection I decided that the topic really needed more of a proper write-up.

There have been online movie reviewers with their own web programs for a while now, and various film commentary web series that analyze films, mostly comedically.  The popular Red Letter Media dissections of the "Star Wars" prequels are a good example.  They're often described as reviews, but are really analysis pieces.  They go into far more depth and detail than you'd want for an opinion piece meant to inform the viewer about whether or not they're likely to enjoy watching the films.  I was never much of a fan of Red Letter Media because I wasn't too fond of the serial killer persona he adopted as his main gimmick.  However, his basic arguments and his nicely edited presentations of them appealed to me.  This was somebody who was really using the looser, free-form web video format to its fullest.   

However, recently we've seen a new crop of content creators whose first goal is to inform rather than entertain, while using many of the tools of the mashup culture.  The most prominent of these is Tony Zhou, creator of Every Frame a Painting.  The series is about analyzing filmmaking techniques, mostly cinematography and editing.  Some of the early entries had snarky voice-over and digs at bad filmmakers, but over time the commentary has been refined and focused so that the explanations and examples of various filmmaking concepts remain center stage.  Zhou is excellent at breaking down films into their basic components and showing how they work.  Each installment is devoted to a particular artist or element of film.  My favorite of his videos so far is his look at the work of Jackie Chan, particularly where he compares Chan's Hong Kong films to the ones he's made in Hollywood.

Then there's Kyle Kallgren, whose webseries Brows Held High initially started out as a more typically comedic commentary series, meant to poke fun at the pretensions of arthouse films.  However, over time the videos became less about mocking the arthouse and more about exploring it.  With an academic background in film, Kallgren creates videos that are well researched with lots of cultural and historical context to back up his analyses.  I knew he was someone to watch when I found one of his early videos on the notoriously vile exploitation pic, "A Serbian Film," contained an impressive rundown of the history of Serbia as part of the commentary.  Kallgren still employs his share of gimmicks, but it's all in service of bridging the gap between casual film viewers and the often alienating world of highbrow cinema.  His more recent  videos have been his better ones, including an analysis of Gus van Sant's "Gerry" that turns into broader look at how recent films have started incorporating the visual language of video games. 

However, the video that really got me excited was something completely different from the traditional web series   It was the latest installment of critic David Ehrlich's annual top 25 countdown of his favorite films from the past year.  Countdown videos are extremely popular, and they're a common first project for new web talents trying their hand at making web videos.  Ehrlich is the Senior Editor of and writes text reviews like a traditional critic.  However, his countdown video is in the style of the year-end movie supercuts created by amateur editors like Matt Shapiro and Gen I.  There's no voice over and barely any onscreen text at all in this thing - just the names of the films and a few title and credit screens. What drives it is almost solely the editing - films clips and music.  And it's so much fun to watch.  Clips of the Japanese comedy "Why Don't You Go Play in Hell" set to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," recently heard in the opening of "Guardians of the Galaxy," were a better recommendation for the movie than Ehrlich's text review.  He completely reinvigorated both the supercut and the year-end critic's top ten list by mashing them together.

The term "video essay" has popped up to describe the new crop of informative film-related web videos in this vein, and they're quickly becoming popular with my fellow media nerds both as an educational resource and as conversation pieces.  Pop culture comedy commentary like "How it Should Have Ended" and "Honest Trailers" are still a lot of fun and have plenty of fans, but I really like the new trend of more substantive content that's been emerging.  We have so much more access now to the classics and to world cinema, and it's great to see more informed, more thoughtful pieces starting to emerge, reflecting that.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Director Fit For a Franchise

Neil Blomkamp's plans for an "Alien" sequel recently surfaced, and drummed up enough attention to get him placed at the forefront of a bona fide new "Alien" project.  This set off the usual round of debates over what that meant for the franchise, particularly in light of Ridley Scott's existing plans for his "Prometheus" sequel.  There was also some smaller discussion of what it meant for Blomkamp, whose latest original science-fiction film "Chappie" has been floundering at the domestic box office.  It used to be that a promising director taking on a big, franchise film was seen at best as a stepping stone to something better, or an unfortunate detour at worst.  Unless they originated the franchise, it was inevitable that the directors of James Bond films and "Superman" films and even "Star Wars" films would be lower-profile talents, who would often end up being best known for those lesser sequels.

This changed as franchise films became blockbusters, of course, and we started seeing longer film series lke "Harry Potter" and reboots of older series like "Star Trek" and "Planet of the Apes."  Since Jim Cameron made "Aliens" back in 1986 it was recognized that a director could turn out a good, memorable sequel with their own personal stamp on it, but it wasn't until you had well established names like Alphonso Cuaron making "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and Ang Lee doing a "Hulk" movie without any discernible negative impact on their careers, that the stigma of sequel work really dissipated.  While franchise films and reboots are still often handed to newcomers like Colin Trevorrow ("Jurassic Park") or dependable workhorse directors like Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale," "Green Lantern"), these days we've also got Sam Mendes directing the latest Bond films and Kenneth Branagh getting his best notices in years for "Cinderella."  And it feels like a mutually beneficial development when Rian Johnson gets to make one of the highly anticipated new "Star Wars" films, or Paul Feig agree to help revive the "Ghostbusters" series. 

While "Alien" fans might not have Neil Blomkamp as their first choice to be helming a new "Alien" movie, and Blomkamp fans might be wary of the director choosing a franchise project over something original, as someone with some experience on both sides it looks like a pretty good match of talent and material to me.  More importantly, the timing is right.  Though "Prometheus" has its defenders, and everyone appears to be committed to making "Prometheus 2," it didn't galvanize much passion from general audiences, leaving the "Alien" movies in a bit of a slump.  Also, "Chappie" is Blomkamp's second disappointment after the massive critical and financial success "District 9."  He's certainly capable of putting a good looking science fiction movie together, but he might do better working off of other people's scripts and concepts for a while.  So Neil Blomkamp making "Alien 5" (or is it "Alien 7"?) could help both the franchise and the director. 

There have been many cases where similar pairings haven't worked out, of course.  Guillermo Del Toro wasted far too much time on "The Hobbit" and Edgar Wright deciding to part with "Ant-Man" is downright tragic.  The "Alien" franchise has been a notoriously difficult one, resulting in the worst films on the resumes of David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  Then again, neither of those directors had much experience with science-fiction and have mostly stayed out of the genre since.  Neil Blomkamp cut his teeth on the best alien-themed film in a decade.  What gives me more cause for concern is his ability to maintain the darker horror/thriller tone, and possibly insisting on bringing along Sharlto Copley.  Well, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.  Copley would make a good successor to Paul Reiser as a slimeball Weyland-Yutani suit. 

Best case scenario is that Blomkamp's "Alien" movie goes well, and he gains the experience and the clout to move on and make more original projects like Paul Greengrass after the "Bourne" sequels or Christopher Nolan after rehabilitating Batman.  Crossing paths with a major franchise can be a good career choice, and it's become impossible to discuss the work of some major directors without also discussing their contributions to the blockbuster culture. A sad sign of the times?  Maybe sometimes, but not always.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

My Top Ten Farscape Episodes

It took me a while to get on board with "Farscape," since I found the first season very bumpy (oh, those awful dutch angles) and the appeal of various characters was not immediately apparent.  Frequent cast changes and recurring production issues didn't help either.  However, "Farscape" turned out to be one of the most unique space adventure shows, and I genuinely miss it.  Below are my top ten favorite episodes in chronological order, and as as always I will totally cheat and count multi-parters as single entries.  Minor spoilers ahead.
"Premiere" - The first episode of the series had a lot of flaws.  Ben Browder's lost astronaut John Crichton was still a work in progress, and frankly didn't come off very well.  The villains were all pretty dull.  The aliens and the effects work though, were awesome.  The level of the makeup and the costuming and other practical effects were very inconsistent throughout the run of "Farscape," but in the first episode, everyone was clearly giving it their all.   "Premiere" does a great job establishing the look and feel of this universe, and distinguishing it from similar shows. 
"Through the Looking Glass" - The fun of science-fiction series is that they can do very high concept stories that other shows don't, in ways that they often can't.  The premise of "Through the Looking Glass" is wild enough on its own - Moya is fractured into four different dimensions that all require navigating in different ways.  However, it's the depictions of these different dimensions, and the use of color and sound and space that really caught my attention.  Learning the rules and figuring out the puzzle along with Crichton is a lot of fun to experience.    
"Nerve" - Along with the preceding episode "A Bug's Life," and following one, "The Hidden Memory," this is where "Farscape" really kicked into high gear.  The main villain Scorpius is introduced here, along with Stark the complicated madman, and we get the beginnings of all sorts of fun plot arcs that will carry through the rest of the series.  Crichton gets a lot of development during these episodes too, taking big strides toward becoming the badass action hero he'll eventually become.  And he finally ditches the spacesuit for cooler Pecekeeper duds.
"Crackers Don't Matter" - One of the early "mind frell" episodes, where all the usual rules go out the window due to alien elements messing with the characters' perceptions and mental processes.  The crew becomes paranoid and turn on each other, finally culminating in a very silly showdown between Crichton and the monster of the week.  "Crackers" is a fan favorite because of its humor and tone, which the show was finally getting a handle on.  There would be similarly nutty jaunts into the absurd in the future, but few that were as much fun as this.
"Won't Get Fooled Again" - We've already had one episode where Crichton wakes up back on Earth, so when it happens again in the second season, we know it's just aliens messing around  in his head, and the premise can be played for laughs.  To some degree this episode is an excuse for the writers to come up with outrageous, off the wall things to do with the characters - Rygel in bondage gear! - but it's also one of the most important in terms of the ongoing story with Scorpius's neural clone, Harvey, who plays a big part here.
"The Ugly Truth" - I love "Rashomon" episodes because they're so much fun to pick apart.  Here, the whole crew get captured and interrogated about a crime that, or course, they all remember differently.  The different accounts offer a glimpse of how the various characters view one another, but then there's a twist at the end that puts everything into an entirely different light, so you can rewatch it with the new motives in mind.  I always love it when an episode clearly done quick and cheap outshines the bigger, fancier installments around it.
"Liars, Guns and Money" - Then again, there's plenty to be said for gorgeous effects, big action scenes, and putting a lot of money on the screen.  "Liars, Guns, and Money" is a three-parter that helps bring the excellent second season to a close.  What starts as a big mission to rescue D'Argo's son turns into a showdown with Scorpius with all kinds of complications.  This was the biggest thing that the show had attempted at this point in its run, and boy did they pull it off.  Also, quick kudos to my favorite one-shot character, Scorpy's gal-pal Natira.
"Infinite Possibilities" - I loved the double Crichton storyline in the third season and everything that it let "Farscape" do, but it's difficult to single out specific episodes for praise.  So to represent the whole arc, I'm highlighting the two-parter "Infinite Possibilities," where a lot of the big climaxes happen and we wrap up a few of the ongoing plots.  The Crichton-Aeryn relationship in particular is handled just right, cementing the pair as one of my favorite science-fiction power couples.  And this was without question the best use of Rygel ever. 
"Terra Firma" - Another big warning for spoilers here, because it's impossible to talk about this episode otherwise.  So one thing leads to another and the crew of the Moya end up on present-day Earth.  For real this time.  "Farscape" gets to speculate as to what humanity's reaction to the aliens would be, while Crichton has to come to terms with certain uncomfortable realities about his relationship with Aeryn and about his place in the universe.  It's a big turning point for the show, which leads us to the unfortunate reality of...
"The Peacekeeper Wars" - The cancellation of "Farscape" was harsh and mashing an entire season's worth of story into one miniseries was definitely not ideal.  However, the fact that we got an ending at all was something of a miracle, and there's plenty in "The Peacekeeper Wars" to love.  With amped up production values, big goodbyes, big hellos, and just about everybody getting the spotlight one last time, this is a love-fest of epic proportions.  And sure, it's a bit of a mess, but "Farscape" was always a bit of a mess anyway.  So it was an appropriate way to go out.
Happy watching.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Too Much Diversity?

It has been a fantastic year for supporters of more racial diversity on television.  Shonda Rimes successfully launched "How to Get Away With Murder," new sitcoms "Black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" have been doing well, and "Jane the Virgin" got a lot of love.  And then "Empire" happened.  Now every casting director is adding more actors of color to the new crop of pilots for next season. And, perhaps inevitably, this has lead to some awkwardness from people in the industry and the media, backlash over perceived or actual quotas, and other signs of discomfort over the shifting status quo.  And this is a shift in status quo, not simply a trend.  

That brings us to the unfortunate Deadline article that has been making the rounds, originally titled Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of A Good Thing?  (They've since removed the second half of that title).  Deadline has been roundly scolded for the tone of the article, and for suggesting that with regards to diverse casting, "the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction.”  Is it legitimate to worry about the studios' copycat tendencies leading to a slew of inferior "Empire" knockoffs?  Sure.  Is it okay to point out that executives are way too fixated on the predominantly African-American cast being one of the reasons for the show's success?  Of course.  Is it acceptable to suggest that the rush to cast more non-white actors is therefore a mistake?  Oh, hell no.

It's likely that the high demand for "ethnic" actors is probably going to taper off at some point, but that doesn't mean that it should, or that it's how things are supposed to be.  The underrepresentation of anybody who isn't white on television has been a problem that Hollywood has very good about ignoring for years.  Now they finally have some big incentives to address the issue, and it's disheartening to find that the immediate reaction from some corners is resistance and defensiveness.  And it's so damn disingenuous.  The complaints about the best actor not being hired for the job just because of their race, are as old as the hills.  Why are we only supposed to care now that the hypothetical slighted actor is white?

Acting has always been a job where optics are part of the job description, so the fight has been about changing roles and changing artistic and business sensibilities so that casting more diverse actors is seen as a plus.  We are finally, finally  at that point where the industry is investing serious resources into creating content around non-white talent, or at least talent that is no longer race-specific.  And that means promoting and developing non-white talent has become a priority.  And all the support systems around them too.  Hollywood is seeing some long overdue change for the better.  Right now this is only on the television side of the business - films are still depressingly behind the times - but hopefully the shift in attitudes will spread.

But getting around to the title of this post, should we be worried that there will be so much emphasis on casting non-white actors going forward that white talent will end up being neglected?  Is it possible to have "too much of a good thing" when it comes to diversity?  Again, acting is one of the few professions where race can actually be a qualification for a job.  According to the Deadline article there are quotas being enforced on some shows to ensure diverse casting - which could be entirely appropriate depending on the show.  Theoretically we could end up with an industry where white actors end up in the minority.

I think that is extremely unlikely to happen.  What's driving the current pro-diversity trend, after all, is audience demand.  If television audiences hadn't made "Scandal," "Empire" and "Fresh Off the Boat" into hits we wouldn't be seeing the rush for shows with more non-white cast members now.  Audiences clearly aren't going to get tired of watching shows about white characters even though they're no longer the default protagonist on television, so white actors shouldn't be concerned. 

Ultimately, "too diverse?" is a question that is entirely up to the viewers at home.  And right now, they have yet to show any indication that they're unhappy with seeing more black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Middle-Eastern, and other minority faces.  So you can hardly blame Hollywood for giving people what they want.