Friday, May 22, 2015

My Top Ten "Mad Men" Episodes

With the finale still rattling around in my head, I don't think there's any better time for this list.  I'll caution that it's been a long while since I've seen the episodes from the earlier seasons, and there are some minor spoilers ahead in the various entries.  As always, episodes are unraked and ordered by airdate.  And since "Mad Men" refrained from multi-parters, no need to cheat this time out.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" - The pilot episode that introduces us to Don Draper and his world.  It so wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the series, showing us the ins and outs at Sterling Cooper, giving us a peek at forgotten gender dynamics of the era, and setting up all the questions and conflicts the show wants to tackle.  I love that the divide between Don's work and home life is already hinting at his duality.  The pilot was lauded for its unusually high production values, and no surprise that it still looks great today.

"The Wheel" - One of Don's defining moments is the Carousel pitch to Kodak.  After an episode full of family crises big and small, Don takes comfort in nostalgia.  The irony, of course, is that it's nostalgia for something that doesn't exist.  Don's marriage has been built on constant deception, resulting in him coming home on Thanksgiving to an empty house.  Trying to leave his past behind leads to his brother's awful goodbye.  The first season ends with the divide between Don's image and his inner world more incompatible than ever.

"Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" - We simply must have the episode where the new London executives arrives at the firm in the midst of Joan's farewell party, and there is a terrible accident involving lawn care equipment.  Nothing can match the climactic moment for sheer, visceral, jawdropping, impact.  However, I also love the subplot where Sally is convinced that baby Gene is a reincarnation of her recently departed grandfather, which is resolved by one of Don's best - and too rare - paternal moments.

"Shut the Door. Have a Seat." - The gang pulls off a thrilling heist in this episode, stealing away the firm's biggest assets and clients from under the noses of their overseas superiors.  It's a lot of fun watching everyone band together, raid the offices, and strike out on their own.  However, this is also the episode where a far more sobering separation takes place.  Betty demands a divorce from Don, and no matter what he promises or threatens, she won't back down.  She's the one who ends up pulling off the harder, more daring departure.

"The Suitcase" - Don and Peggy spend an eventful evening together trying to come up with ideas for a Samsonite campaign.  In the process, they address many of the long-simmering tensions and resentments between them.  It's an excellent, focused, small-scale piece of drama featuring the show's two best characters.  The performances are excellent and the writing is spectacular.  We learn so much about Don and Peggy as they clash, commiserate, and finally connect on a deeper level than we've ever seen before.

"The Other Woman" - By far the most controversial episode on this list, and possibly of the show's entire run, as it provoked strong responses when it aired.  Joan is asked to sleep with a loathsome Jaguar executive to secure the much-needed account, which prompts varied reactions from the SCDP partners.  Meanwhile, Peggy is wooed by Ted Chaough to leave the firm.  Several storylines come to a head here, but it's Peggy and Don's tumultuous mentor-protege relationship that ends up stealing the show again.

"Commissions and Fees" - Lane Pryce's downfall is the darkest point of "Mad Men's" darkest and most unforgiving season.  The episode is also absolutely gorgeous, with its chilly visuals and nocturnal intimacy.  I was tempted to include "Signal 30" for Lane and Pete's fisticuffs, but Jared Harris's performance here is a heartbreaker.  I found his suicide attempt in the damn Jaguar more affecting than anything that came after, though Don taking matters into his own hands at the end of the hour comes awfully close. 

"In Care Of" - You could have ended "Mad Men" at the close of the sixth season, with the Hershey pitch serving as a mirror to the Carousel pitch, and the pair of them bookending the whole series.  Don's inner turmoil is finally affecting his work in ways that can't be ignored, and we see the first real signs of impending change.  Pete and Peggy also hit low points, including the capper to Pete's season-long struggles with the infuriating Bob Benson.  It would have been a glum way to go out, but in some ways very fitting. 

"Time & Life" - Another big crisis is looming for the firm, and another daring plan is executed by the Sterling Cooper team.  Except this time, things don't go the way anyone expects.  The established patterns are being broken and "Mad Men" is quickly drawing to a close.  The episode draws heavily from the characters' past exploits together, and it's here that we see everyone starting to say their goodbyes, or at least planning them.  The show's creators could be abrupt, but they understood it takes a while to let the big things go.

"The Milk and Honey Route" - Betty was always a complicated character, but ultimately one of the most rewarding to follow over the course of the show.  She gets the most satisfying ending, along with Sally, though it's certainly the saddest.  Pete also sorts out future plans while Don is out west exorcising his demons, but the main event is really Betty's fate and the reactions of everyone around her.  Don's ability to reform will forever be in doubt, but Betty demonstrated that she could and did change with the times. 

Honorable Mentions: "Meditations in an Emergency," "My Old Kentucky Home," "A Little Kiss," "Signal 30," "Faraway Places," "The Phantom," "The Strategy," "Waterloo."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Men "Person to Person"

Spoilers ahead.

So, no time jumps.  And only one cameo by a minor character from a past season, and it wasn't even someone from the firm.  And perhaps the most surprising thing about last night's finale, considering the often apocalyptic feel of past seasons of "Mad Men," was that our cast of characters was left with mostly happy endings.  Maybe too happy, even.

But first, let's sort out the episode's particulars.  After weeks of trying to guess whether it was going to be the last time we saw this character or that character, all the regulars we started the season with came back for a final goodbye, even Kenny.  Pete and Betty's stories had their conclusions last week, so we only got codas for them here, but that didn't mean they didn't also have a part to play in the stories of other characters.  The final hour really belonged to Joan, Peggy, and Don, with some quick tying up of loose ends for Roger and Sally.  I couldn't be prouder of Sally for stepping up and becoming the much-needed surrogate mother figure for Bobby and Gene.  I'm much less sure of Roger's long term chances with Marie, but slowing down and being with someone who isn't a pushover will be good for him.

Joan's exit from McCann was a perfectly acceptable ending for her, but I'm so glad that she didn't accept that as her ending.  Instead, she put the rolodex to good use, started her own business, and let Richard walk out the door with hardly any fuss when he tried to apply the brakes on her career.  She and Peggy have long been opposite sides of the same coin, but their different challenges have never been so starkly delineated.  Joan had been letting her personal life get in the way of her career ambitions, and finally chose definitively to continue being a working woman doing what she loves.  And no hard feelings to Roger, whose final scene with her discussing each other's significant others, shows them operating on equal footing at last.

Peggy, of course, has always put her career ambitions ahead of her personal life, but gets a chance to correct this.  While I like Stan and pairing him up with Peggy isn't a bad outcome, the melodramatic way it happened was a little off-putting.  I thought Pete and Trudy's reconnection last week was pushing cheesy, but it was genuinely touching at the same time.  Peggy and Stan's big confession scene was exponentially more ludicrous, and I didn't buy it.  Considering Peggy's awful romantic track record, I just don't see her and Stan having more than a good fling.  Maybe that's all she really needs right now, but the episode really played the whole thing up like an emphatic happy ending.  And that just didn't sit right with me.

Everything else with Peggy was great - asserting herself at McCann, nervously considering Joan's partnership offer, and the final phone call with Don.  There were some dire predictions circulating about how she was going to fare at McCann, but clearly Peggy's going to be okay professionally.  Everybody is, even Meredith.  What irks me is that the immediate events Peggy is involved in during the finale feel unresolved, particularly that abrupt goodbye from Don.  Considering where the Don/Peggy relationship has taken us over the years, this felt like a perfunctory acknowledgement of the relationship instead of real closure.  But then, so what if we didn't get that closure?

Don's final fate is left wonderfully enigmatic.  Maybe he did go back to advertising and was responsible for the Coke ad.  Maybe the ad was just symbolic of Don finally moving on and connecting with the new age of the '70s instead of simply running away from the past.  For all the doom and gloom of the past few seasons, Don Draper emerges from the troubled '60s at peace, with himself and with the world around him.  He learns to let go of those final notions of how to be Don Draper, and to accept that he needs to help himself before he can help Betty or Stephanie or anyone else.

Initially I was skeptical about Don hitting rock bottom and ending up in the hippie retreat, but it's the closest he's ever going to get to much-needed therapy, and it eventually lead us to the wonderful visual of Don hugging and comforting his spiritual double.  My prediction for the finale was that Don would literally vanish into the West, leaving only his legend behind.  Ohming his way to spiritual transcendence of the physical world?  Close enough.  Jumping out of a building or a plane would have been sexier, but it's close enough.

Part of me still wants to reject the happy ending each "Mad Men" character found.  I kept looking for things that might point toward future doom, like the cocaine and the Halloween decorations and the Manson lookalike.  If the show has taught us anything, it's to be suspicious of good news.  However, if I think of the ending as a momentary respite, it's easier to swallow.  Betty's going to die, Peggy and Stan will fight, and Joan will still have to deal with cads ib the '70s.  And Don, for all his advancement, may never find "the real thing."

But he could.  He has a chance for happiness, a new aspiration for everything being better.  And even if real life doesn't turn out that way, it makes for one hell of a soda commercial.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The "SeaQuest" Post

Once upon a time in 1992, I went on a family trip to the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles, which was a rare treat because we lived a lot closer to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, so those were the default choices for theme park visits.  As always the place was plastered in advertisements for upcoming Universal movies and television shows.  The most prominent ones this time were for "seaQuest DSV," a new science-fiction adventure show "from Steven Spielberg," one of the Studio Tour guides told us.  It sounded fantastic.
I was eleven at the time, and it was right about when I was really getting the whole concept of television shows being aired weekly, and something that you followed and could be a fan of.  I got very attached to certain shows, and I remember insisting on watching every new episode of "Capitol Critters" and "Covington Cross," which were both cancelled after only half their episodes had aired in 1992.  In an effort to find more information to help keep track of them, I started scouring the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times.  And that's how I started following the development of "seaQuest," which didn't make it to air on NBC until the fall of 1993, Sundays at 8PM.  I was hooked immediately after over a year of letting myself get hyped up.  I wasn't alone, as the premiere enjoyed massive ratings. 
In retrospect, "seaQuest" was not a very good piece of science fiction or very good television.  Didn't hold a candle to "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which I would start watching the reruns of a few years later.  However, I was twelve and madly in love with teen idol Jonathan Brandis, so "seaQuest" became my favorite show.  I wrote my own episode guides.  I bought two of the spinoff novels.  I saved newspaper clippings that mentioned it - I still remember one pre-premiere story that speculated how "seaQuest" was going to fare against "Murder, She Wrote" on CBS and "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" on ABC in the same time slot.  My best friend was a "Lois & Clark" fan, by the way, having fallen madly in love with Dean Cain, something that bitterly divided us through sixth grade. 
And following "seaQuest" was how I learned about ratings and renewals and how television worked.  And as the show floundered through its second and third seasons, I learned about retooling and rebranding and format changes.  "seaQuest" is notorious for its rocky production history.  It was nearly cancelled multiple times before being abruptly pulled midway through the third season.  Episodes were aired out of order and constantly pre-empted, creating lots of continuity errors.  The show went from being billed as hard science based with a focus on existing technology and educational aspirations, to much sillier stuff featuring aliens and ghosts and even time travel.  Every year it came back with a different premise and a drasticaly changed cast list as actors bailed left and right.   
"seaQuest" also had a boisterous online fandom that clashed with some of the creators of the show, back in the early days of Usenet.  Alas, I wasn't on the Internet until after the series had ended, but stories about some of the fandom's antics circulated for years.  They were the best source of gossip about what had gone on behind the scenes and collected all the news stories and interviews I didn't have ready access to.  It was through the fandom that I learned about the unproduced episodes of "seaQuest" that would have gone to air if the third season had continued.  And it was through fandom that I realized that there were other frustrated fans of a once-promising science-fiction show that couldn't quite figure out how to let go.
Surely I would have become a media fan one way or another.  There was another genre show that premiered the same year as "seaQuest," with much less fanfare, that quietly took its place as my favorite television show by the middle of its second season: "The X-files."  But "X-files" never had me scouring the TV listings, trying to figure out what happened to pre-empted episodes, or holding my breath waiting for renewal announcements, or poking around online for explanations as to why the whole series had suddenly time-jumped a decade into the future.
"seaQuest" wasn't a very good show, but it sure was fun being one of its fans.  And I suspect that I'm the media junkie I am today because of it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"It Follows" Leaves a Chill

You've heard the old complaint about zombies, that they're not scary because they're so slow and easy to run away from.  Of course, the thing about zombies is that they're awfully persistent.  You get tired, but they don't.  You need rest and sleep and to let your guard down eventually, but they don't.  Now imagine that no one can see the zombie but you.  Imagine that the only person it's interested in chasing and killing is you.
The monster in "It Follows" is not a zombie.  We never learn what it is exactly, but we are clued into the simple rules that it abides by.  Our chief protagonist is Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student who attracts the attention of the monster after sleeping with Hugh (Jake Weary).  He explains that she can only be free of it's attentions if she sleeps with someone else and passes along the curse like a supernatural STD.  If she doesn't, the monster will stalk and kill her, then resume stalking Hugh.  Jay doesn't believe him, even when he shows her the monster, who first appears in the form a naked woman, but can change its appearance to look like anyone.  However, she eventually has to acknowledge that she is being followed, and enlists the help of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi).
I love horror movies that use the simplest elements to evoke dread.  Here, the unease of being watched and being followed are slowly built up, and built up, to the point of absolute panic and terror.  The scenes of violence we see aren't nearly as chilling as the ones that simply show people walking - forcing the audience to guess whether they're looking at the approaching monster or just another passerby.  Viewers are often invited to search empty frames for hints of movement, to scan crowds for suspicious figures.  There are a few scenes that employ gruesome special effects and slasher-style action, but the majority of the film conjures up terrific tension from our heroes simply being followed or anticipating being followed.  And I haven't seen a horror film in a long time that fundamentally understands the value of not showing something onscreen.
The primary actors aren't all that memorable, but it makes all the difference in the world that they're working off a good script and not playing your typical horror movie characters.  They get us to care about them.  They're not stupid or ignorant.  They talk to each other when they have problems, and they behave exactly like you'd expect a group of young adult friends who have known each other for years to behave.  I fully expected this movie to feature multiple instances of sexual assaults and sexual coercion, but it's not, because Jay and her friends simply aren't the kind of people who would do that.  There is instead a love story that unfolds as the movie goes on, but it's a restrained one, complicated and constrained by the horror. 
Many have pointed out that "It Follows" can be treated as a metaphor for sexual morality.  Hugh fails to disclose the danger that he's putting Jay in before sleeping with her.  Jay's choice in partners is influenced by her desire to stay safe.  Everyone's first instinct is to run away from the invisible monster, which often appears in the forms of naked or partially unclothed people.  The movie is far too busy orchestrating its excellent thrills and chills to address any of this explicitly, but the ideas are there, and provide excellent food for thought.  Even better, there are many different conclusions you can draw from how the film plays out.
I don't count myself as much of a horror fan because I'm put off by the genre's more typical excesses.  Most mainstream horror ends up disgusting me instead of properly terrifying me.  I like horror films like "It Follows" though.  And it did get to me.  After my viewing, I found myself second-guessing whether I was alone or not, and whether someone might be watching me or not.  The hypervigilance the movie demanded took a while to fade.  But the memory of it won't go so quickly.   

Friday, May 15, 2015

The 2015 Upfronts

Another television season is quickly reaching its end, and we're in the thick of Upfronts, when the various television networks present their new programming slates to advertisers.  This means that all the decisions about cancellations and renewals and pickups have been announced, and we know what next year's network TV landscape is going to look like. 
Let's look at the cancellations first, including the shows that are only being renewed for one more season.  "American Idol" and "CSI" will both come back next year for curtain calls, but after fifteen years, they've worn out their welcome, having long ago ceded their cultural relevance to other programs that followed in their footsteps. It's odd to realize that there are high schoolers running around who haven't known a time before "Idol."  That suggests that the show will probably be back in a few years with some of the old judges for a reboot.  As for "CSI," with multiple spinoffs and a revolving door cast, the flagship's demise probably won't hurt the franchise much.  Meanwhile "Person of Interest" was only renewed for a half order of episodes, suggesting that it's probably not long for this world either.   
Other significant titles on their way out the door include "The Mindy Project," which was impressive for holding on as long as it did, "Revenge" and "The Following," which couldn't maintain the momentum of their early storylines, and "About a Boy," which was once NBC's highest rated sitcom.  Once promising freshmen series like "Backstrom, "Battle Creek," and "Cristela" will be missed.  I know a lot of people liked "Constantine," but I was always disappointed that it wasn't really the "Hellblazer" show I wanted, so I can't say I'll miss is much.  Ditto all those unnecessary remakes of better foreign programs like "The Slap," Gracepoint," and "Resurrection."  Instead, let's breathe a sigh of relief for renewed bubble shows like "Agent Carter" and "Galavant."   
Out with the old, in with the new.  So what looks interesting for the upcoming fall season?  ABC's "Muppets" revival didn't make sense to me on paper, but after the trailer I get what they're going for.  It's going to be "30 Rock" with Kermit and Piggy, aimed at nostalgic adults but safe for kids a little more blatantly than the original "Muppet Show," which was aimed at adults but safe for kids more subtly.  As much as I like Ken Jeong, and as much as Asian solidarity compels me though, I hope the death of "Dr. Ken" is quick and painless.  I'm so, so glad "Fresh Off the Boat" is still here for me to point to as a better option.  Still on the fence about "Uncle Buck" with Mike Epps.  The concept is fine, but Mike Epps?  The only one of the dramas that looks interesting is the terribly named "The Family," headed up by Joan Allen and Allison Pill.
CBS is leaning heavily on formula with shows like "Code Black" and the new "Criminal Minds" spinoff, and is home to the most new film-to-TV projects: "Supergirl," "Limitless," and "Rush Hour."  Even with Bradley Cooper dropping by occasionally, I don't think the chances of "Limitless" are very good.  "Supergirl" should probably be on the CW, possibly paired with "Legends of Tomorrow," but at least it looks better than CBS's other new fantasy series, "Angel From Hell," with Jane Lynch.  Too early to say anything about "Rush Hour" yet because it's being readied for the midseason, but yay for diversity!  Over at FOX, "Lucifer" looks like a lot of fun even if it doesn't remotely resemble the comic book porperty it was based on.  I'm also cautiously optimistic about Ryan Murphy's "Screem Queens," described as a horror-comedy anthology.  Sounds like "American Horror Story" with more laughs and less creeps.
And finally, there's the glut of stuff from NBC, because there's always a glut of stuff at NBC.  First, I question the wisdom of giving Neil Patrick Harris a variety show, because have we learned nothing from Rosie O'Donnell's attempt in 2008?  Ditto the Jennifer Lopez detective drama "Shades of Blue."  "Heroes Reborn" doesn't inspire much confidence, but I am glad to see "Emerald City" back on the slate.  Reports of what the creators originally had planned were intriguing.  Also, it's good to see America Ferrara back headlining "Superstore," a new workplace comedy, alongside Ginsberg from "Mad Men."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mad Men "The Milk and Honey Route"

Spoilers ahead.
Of all the characters I speculated might meet their demise in these final episodes of "Mad Men," I never considered Betty - at least not without a time jump a few decades into the future.  Betty always seemed invincible and unchangeable, even when she temporarily lost her looks.  She was surely meant to stay emotionally stunted, and keep damaging her children and deluding herself to the bitter end.  Except she didn't.
Sometime in the past season or so, after Bobby's field trip, but before sending Glen off to Vietnam, Betty developed some empathy.  She long ago grew a backbone - last night Betty expressed exactly what she wanted, took charge of a terrible situation, and refused to compromise her wishes.  However, it's only been very recently that she's stopped lashing out, and has shown signs of more maturity.  And though the supportive words for Sally were late, maybe they didn't come too late to mend fences.  I feel a bit cheated that we didn't get to see more of Betty's transformation over time. 
Stepping back to look at the big picture of Betty's character arc, is this a satisfying conclusion for such a difficult and polarizing character?  A fatal illness seems like such an old-fashioned, melodramatic device, compounded by the irony of the Lucky Strikes probably having contributed to the development of her lung cancer.  But as a catalyst for Betty's seizing her final opportunity to direct the course of her own life, it worked for me.  At first I thought she was being portrayed as too much of a saint in this episode, but upon reflection, she's not. Her instructions to Sally are still all about maintaining her facade. Her decision not to fight the cancer can be seen as a very selfish one, especially considering the impact on Henry and the boys. Is she being a realist about the situation, or is this her final act of stubborn self-indulgence?  In either case, what matters is that she commits to the decision and has made peace with her fate, as she tells Sally firmly that she's not "a quitter."
Fate and luck are the prime movers in this episode.  Betty is struck down by misfortune, but Pete gets an extraordinary windfall, engineered by the wild machinations of Duck Phillips.  Oh Duck, it was good to see you again.  As with Betty leaving on a sad note, I never imagined Pete would come through "Mad Men" with such a happy ending.  Even last week, as I noted that a reconciliation with Trudy looked possible, I didn't suspect that we'd actually see them get back together, or Pete going so far as to sweep her off her feet with the most unapologetically romantic declaration we've ever seen from anyone on this show.  And I don't begrudge him a second of it, because Pete stopped being a resentful, malevolent little brat at some point.  He learned from his many, many mistakes.  He's still far from perfect, of course, but like Betty he finally figured out what he wanted and went to bat for it.  Chekhov's Rifle is nowhere in sight.   
And Don?  Still looking for his future, and stumbling through his past.  His storyline with the broken down car (more bad luck), the motel, and the veterans was a bit of a slog this week.  He's essentially forced to take a detour into his past, and while it's fun to see Don squirm in discomfort, and bits of the bygone midwestern small town milieu, a lot of the developments really felt forced.  There were surely other ways to get Don to interact with Andy and swap war stories that didn't require getting stuck in Oklahoma.  Next to Pete and Betty, Don's storyline this week felt positively sluggish.   
Well, until the end anyway, when he sheds another piece of mental baggage and another significant tie to his life in New York, which is rapidly becoming part of his past.  At this rate Don Draper will be gone by the end of next week, and Dick Whitman will be somebody else, just as Betty and Pete have become other people.  And Sally too, before I forget.  Betty more or less just handed her adulthood with those final instructions.  Would the news of Betty's impending end be enough to get Don to go back to New York?  If he does, will he still be Don when he gets there?
Three former SC&P partners down.  Who will be left at McCann after next week?

Friday, May 8, 2015

The 2015 Summer Movie Wager

Because I'm on a never-ending quest to find a new way to talk about the upcoming summer movie slate, and because I skipped my usual October survey last year, I'm going to take part in this year's Summer Movie Wager, which the guys over at Slash Film and various others take part in every year. The game is simple: predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer. This requires putting aside both my inner pretentious movie snob and my inner fangirl, in favor of my penny-pinching inner accountant who would hire Michael Bay to direct anything based on the strength of his financial track record.

Anything being released between May 1st and Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

1. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" - because, obviously. This is the most hyped up event movie of the summer and is already breaking records across the globe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the box office for the past several summers, including a surprise win last year by "Guardians of the Galaxy," which nobody was expecting. It was released in August, for Pete's sake.

2. "Minions" - Kids' movies traditionally do very well, and I'm expecting big numbers for the "Minions" movie because the "Despicable Me" series has cleaned up in its prior two outings. A note of caution, though, because the movie is going to have some competition from "Inside Out" and "Ant-Man." Also, last year Dreamworks had two highly anticipated sequels, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "The Penguins of Madagascar," underperform.

3. "Jurassic World" - Chris Pratt heading up the return of one of our favorite nostalgic franchises of the '90s? That certainly sounds like a winner to me. Both of the "Jurassic Park" sequels were box office champs, even if the last one took a significant dip. The mystery here is the untested director, Colin Trevorrow, who has never handled a film this size. Nobody knows what the "Jurassic World" is actually going to be - but the strength of the franchise will get it an enormous opening weekend anyway.

4. "Ant-Man" - To reiterate, never underestimate the power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, losing Edgar Wright and following up so close behind "Avengers" is sure to take its toll. I'm extremely skeptical about this one personally, but with the marketing push and the Marvel ties, "Ant-Man" is guaranteed plenty of attention. If it does underperform, it'll probably be because of competition. July is awfully crowded this year, and I'm not sure why Disney isn't trying an August slot again.

5. "Inside Out" - The PIXAR name still holds considerable clout with the parents of young children. PIXAR movies haven't always been chart toppers, but when they do have a hit, it tends to be a big one. This is their first original movie since "Brave," and looks considerably more appealing. However, it is also more high concept and potentially confusing the mindless antics of "Minions," which brings its prospects down a bit. I think it'll perform well, but not as well as a "Nemo" or "Toy Story" would.

6. "Ted 2" - There's always a big R-rated comedy in the mix, and "Ted 2" is the likeliest contender. It's a sequel to a movie that a lot of people loved, it doesn't have much competition for its adult audience, and the trailer was great. There's no question that this is going to make money, but how much money? The original "Ted" came in fifth in 2012, right behind "Brave." This year is a little more crowded, so I'm going to place "Ted 2" a spot lower, right behind "Inside Out."

7. "Pixels" - History also tells us to never underestimate the drawing power of Adam Sandler, though he's been in an awful slump lately after "That's My Boy" and "Blended." I'm guessing that if you combine Sandler with the eye-candy wrangling powers of Chris Columbus, though, you'll get plenty of undiscerning kids into the theaters. "Pixels" is coming at the end of July after a barrage of big kids' movies though, so it might end up slipping through the cracks.

8. "Tomorrowland" - I believe in Brad Bird. I don't believe in him enough to put "Tomorrowland" any higher than this, but there isn't a single one of his movies that I haven't liked, and he gave up a "Star Wars" movie for this one. So my prediction is that "Tomorrowland" will be a good family adventure flick, and that word of mouth will be enough to get people into the theaters. Also, note that with a May release date, it'll be coming out before most of the other kids' films on the slate.

9. "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" - Sure, Tom Cruise had a bomb last summer, and a terribly undeserved one, but the "Mission: Impossible" franchise should still have some good legs. "Ghost Protocol" was a solid hit, and by all indications "Rogue Nation" is shaping up to be a worthy follow-up. My only concern is that since "Furious 7" went took that franchise into the spy genre, "Mission" is starting to look a little old hat. And it's coming awfully late in the season.

10. "Terminator Genisys" - Good lord, this franchise just won't die, will it? I hate that they're rebooting the timeline. I hate that Jai Courtney is playing Kyle Reese. But it's "Terminator" which means that it has a built in audience and the movie is going to make money. I think enough people are as fed up as I am so this isn't going to make that much money, but it'll make enough to ensure that the next two films in a planned new trilogy get made. God, that's depressing.

Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

Mad Max: Fury Road
Magic Mike XXL
Fantastic Four

I think "Mad Max" looks awesome, but not enough people remember who he is, and the R rating is going to limit who can see it. I'm also hopeful for the new "Fantastic Four" movie, in spite of the stories that have come out about its troubled production. As for "Magic Mike XXL," let's not forget that women are a moviegoing force to be reckoned with. The first "Magic Mike" just missed the number 10 spot in 2012, and I wouldn't be surprised if he squeaks through this time. Also, just missing the cut are "Pitch Perfect 2," "San Andreas," and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Resurrection of the Anime/Manga Adaptations

Eons ago in 2011, I wrote up a post about several anime and manga adaptations that were stuck in Hollywood development hell.  The "Akira" adaptation was threatening to go forward at the time, and it seemed likely that we would see a surge in media with similar origins. The American "Akira" never went forward, but several others on the list look to have a good chance of being made at last.  I waited a bit before doing this post, because projects like this are on one minute and off the next - the "Noir" series at Starz never did go forward - but it's looking pretty solid right now for at least two of these titles.

The likeliest one is the Dreamworks adaptation of "Ghost in the Shell," which has two of the big indicators that the movie is really going to make it to theaters this time: a release date of March 31, 2017, and a star - Scarlett Johanssen.  After the success of "Lucy," the role of the Major is a perfect match for Johanssen.  Yeah, I'm well aware of the racebending worries, but there's no chance that the main character is still going to be a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi instead of a Caucasian equivalent in Hollywood's hands.  I'm okay with this, since unlike "Akira" there was little in the original "Ghost in the Shell" that had to be Japanese.  You could transplant the story into a Western milieu with very little fuss.  Rupert Sanders has signed on to direct - you might remember him for those oddly Miyazaki-esque visuals in "Snow White and the Huntsman."

And when one big anime project heats up, several of them do.  So a few days ago, it was reported that James Wan, fresh from "Furious 7," is in talks to helm "Robotech" for Sony, which acquired the rights from Warner Brothers earlier in the year.  No word on whether Tobey Maguire, previously onboard to produce and possibly star, is still involved.  Plenty of other directors have come and gone from this project before, but the switch in studios and the involvement of James Wan suggest that this could be ready to take off.  Then again, keep in mind that Wan is also being courted for Warners' "Aquaman" movie, and he has more "Fast and Furious" sequels on his plate.  I never thought that "Robotech" was a very promising candidate for an adaptation since it's always been a little obscure and very dated.  The fans it does have are very fervent ones though.

Then there's the "Death Note" adaptation at Warner Brothers, which now has Adam Wingard of "The Guest" attached to direct.  That's a definite step down from Shane Black or Gus van Sant, who were previously reported as being involved, but I thought "The Guest" was a fun genre movie with a good sense of humor.  And "Death Note" definitely needs someone with a good sense of humor.  Honestly, I don't think that this one is going to make it out of limbo anytime soon, but its chances are better than some of the more high profile projects like "Akira" or "Voltron" because "Death Note" still has a lot of name recognition and it would be relatively cheap to make.  Remove the demon character, Ryuk, and you've got a pretty typical supernatural thriller.
There are a few other projects still kicking around, like Justin Lin's  "Lone Wolf and Cub" and rumors of "Evangelion" coming back to life after the success of "Pacific Rim."  It seems like the studios are acquiring the rights to some property or other every day.  However, most of the live action films based on anime and manga  lately have been coming from Japan: the "Rurouni Kenshin" movies, "Space Pirate Captain Harlock," and soon "Attack on Titan." The effects are getting better, even if the production values are still nowhere near Hollywood's standards.  I expect this will continue for the foreseeable future unless something major changes - "Ghost in the Shell" becoming a big hit, for instance.

Anime and manga fans shouldn't hold their breath.  Video game based movies have been facing similar troubles, and we're just starting to see some of the big franchises like "Warcraft" and "Assassin's Creed" make their way to the screen after ages in development hell.  But as long as anime and manga remain popular, eventually Hollywood's interests will follow. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A "Map" From David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is one of those directors whose work I fell in love with just when I was getting into cinema.  I committed myself to watching every new film he made, a promise that's been hard to keep over the past decade.  His last two features, "A Dangerous Mind" and "Cosmopolis," were not only misfires but didn't feel like Cronenberg's work.  Really, nothing has since Cornenberg largely stopped writing his own scripts in the late 90s (ironically, he did write "Cosmopolis").  His latest, however, "Maps to the Stars," suggests he's getting back to his roots. 
"Maps to the Stars" takes us back to the director's favorite subject matter: the freaks.  And where are there more examples of human freakishness than Hollywood?  The chief attractions here are Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a teen idol fresh out of rehab.  They are both horrible human beings whose behavior is enabled by their wealth and fame.  Benjie also gets plenty of bad influence from his parents Stafford (John Cusack), a prominent celebrity psychologist, and Cristina (Olivia Williams), Benjie's manager.  As Havana and Benjie journey toward their emotional nadirs, they keep seeing ghosts.  Havana is terrified by visions of her abusive dead mother Clarice (Sarah Gadon), a more successful actress who still has a cult following.  Benjie sees a young fan (Kiara Glasco) who recently died after he visited her in the hospital.  And then into their lives comes a young woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowsa), fresh off the bus from Florida, whose first act upon arrival is to employ a limo driver named Jerome (Robert Pattinson).
At first the movie is a satire of celebrity culture.  We watch Havana and Benjie and their handlers network and negotiate deals for new acting jobs.  The dialogue is full of namedropping, evasive language, and empty pleasantries.  We watch the handlers go to extraordinary lengths to placate and protect Havana and Benjie's egoes, and the worse they behave, the more they're catered to.  Everyone speaks in coded terms, and it gets exhausting trying to keep up with the onslaught of aggressive insincerity.  I was expecting the absurdity of the doublespeak and the depravity of the scummy stars to be the point of the movie - and it would have been a pretty decent one.  But then about halfway through, "Maps to the Stars" gradually becomes something stranger and weirder and more wonderfully Cronenbergian.
The key to the film is Agatha, given a wonderfully enigmatic air by Mia Wasikowska.  She slips into the part of enterprising Hollywood up-and-comer and uses all the same networking and namedropping tricks to position herself exactly where she wants to be.  And then she reveals that what she wants has nothing to do with Hollywood or celebrity.  She's the agent of far more primal, mysterious forces.  Unlike the denizens of Tinseltown, she has no regard for her reputation or fear of scandal.  She repeats old movie lines not as a mantra, but almost as words to a ritual.  Just as "Videodrome" was only peripherally about television and "eXistenxZ" was only peripherally about video games, "Maps to the Stars" starts out in show business and then goes off to explore dysfunctional families, the aftereffects of terrible tragedy, predestination, and, of course, body horror. 
Sadly, the movie gets to the juicy stuff fairly late, and only after the audience has been forced to endure many of Havana and Benjie's spoiled brat antics, which wear very thin.  Cronenberg's picture of Hollywood doesn't sit quite right either, or is perhaps a few years out of date.  Social media is ignored completely.  "Battlestar Galactica" is apparently still in production.  Perhaps the most egregious miss, however, is Benjie, whose bad boy behavior is not remotely as extreme as those of the actual young celebrities he was clearly modeled on.  Evan Bird's bland performance doesn't do Benjie any favors either.  Far from being troubled, or in recovery, he mostly just looks bored. 
Julianne Moore, fortunately, delivers a good turn as the narcissistic, fame-hungry Havana.  She walks a very fine line between hateable and pitiful, and is occasionally very, very funny.  Mia Wasikowska is quickly becoming indispensable to every film she appears in.  I liked Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, and Olivia Williams here too, though I wish they'd gotten more time and attention.  A lot of their best moments happen on the periphery, in little throwaway bits here and there. 
What made "Maps the Stars" for me, though was the mood and the tone, the dreamy dissonances and the haunting evocations of the unknown.  There are horrible things that happen, but this isn't a horror film or a thriller.  It's something more meditative and measured.  Like Agatha, there's a quiet, unshakeable certainty in its attitude as we watch each star-crossed lover careen toward their doom.  And it's all weird as hell.  That's the David Cronenberg I love.
There's plenty in the movie that I don't like, but I recommend it nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mad Men: "Lost Horizons"

Spoilers ahead.
"Mad Men" occasionally has what can be described as trippy existential episodes, often involving drugs.  The borders of reality blur a bit, dreams and visions come into play, and we get such memorable incidents as Roger hallucinating the 1919 World Series and Ginsburg losing a nipple.  Things can get silly, but they can also get horrific or profound.  I wasn't expecting another one of these trips so late in the game, but the show had a good excuse.  "SC&P" is shutting down and the staff is going through a bumpy transition as they get "settled in" at McCann Erickson.  Suddenly our regulars have been flung apart, separated by different floors and different places in the new hierarchy.  Everything is uncertain and up in the air.
The first scene with Don in his office feels like such a tease.  There's the New York skyline and there's the window, just waiting for Don to open it and jump.  He does take a metaphorical leap later in the hour, leaving the meeting with Miller to go off in search of Diana, who is clearly now meant to be a version of Don himself, or a possible future he's not keen on giving up.  It's another episode of Don trying on different roles - dutiful husband and father, prize-giver, and concerned friend.  Some fit better than others, but the role he absolutely doesn't want is to be Don Draper from McCann Erickson, Jim Hobart's golden boy.  I have no idea where Don is heading, but I don't think he's going back to New York or advertising this time.  The old patterns are no longer holding, and Don really has nothing to go back to.  Apartment, family career - all gone.
He clearly sensed that he would only become a cog at McCann, unable to work the way he wanted to, which it took Joan a while to figure out.  After her failed attempts to problem solve through the boorish McCann executives, it was incredibly rewarding to see her go full feminist on Jim Hobart.  This is a confrontation that has been building for ages, and was heavily foreshadowed the last time we saw Joan and Peggy meeting with McCann staffers.  I so relished Joan finally putting her foot down and making Hobart take her seriously.  She only left for Roger's sake, and god bless Roger, but he completely missed it.  Exit Joan with her photograph of Kevin, her rolodex, and her self-worth intact.  This was surely her swan song, and it was a fine one. 
But what about Peggy?  Joan fought her battle before Peggy even got into the building.  Clearly some women can advance at McCann, but they have to hide away their femininity to do it, from the looks of Joan's welcome wagon.  This was impossible for Joan, clearly, but could Peggy fare better?  The final scene of her coming in with the lit cigarette and Bert Cooper's tentacle porn under her arm surely suggests it.  I couldn't help thinking of Peggy as Joan's relief pitcher, stepping in to increase the offense.  Hobart may have gotten rid of the most powerful woman at SC&P, but he's got more to contend with, especially as "Mad Men" keeps signalling that Peggy is also stepping up to fill Don's shoes.  That conversation with Roger and Peggy as they're getting drunk on Vermouth?  In an earlier season that would have been Don drinking with Roger.
And how great was it to see Peggy and Roger finally spending some quality time together?  It's still strikes me as a little strange that Roger and Peter are being so chummy with Joan and Peggy, but they've all been on the same ship together for years, and both men have had to learn the hard way to give the women in their lives their due.  And in unfamiliar new surroundings, you tend to grab hold of anything familiar - even the African-American second secretary you nearly fired last week.  Okay, the bit with the organ and the roller skates was a little forced, but after Peggy spent most of the hour in the uneasy limbo of the empty, post-apocalyptic offices of SC&P, we were due for a few final drunken antics.   
So where is Don aka Major Tom going to end up?  And how will everyone else fare at McCann?  I expect another time jump coming up, but who knows how far into the future we're going?