Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mad for "Max"

I'll be honest.  After all the hype and all the hosannas that have been heaped upon "Mad Max: Fury Road," I was expecting something a little more off-the-wall and well, um, mad.  Don't get me wrong.  "Fury Road" is loads of fun, and a welcome departure from the humdrum, by-the-numbers action spectaculars we've been seeing in theaters lately.  It's not the be-all and end-all of action movies, though.  Frankly, no movie, especially one as pulpy as this, should have to live up to expectations that high and mighty.

Now with that little caveat out of the way, let's get to the juicy stuff.  If you've never heard of the "Mad Max" series before, rest assured that you don't need any knowledge of it whatsoever for "Fury Road."  A lot of the fun is exploring the weird, wacky post-apocalyptic Australian outback, and this is a new corner of it that we haven't seen before: the Citadel, ruled by the terrifying warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his War Boys.  Max, our hero, was once played by Mel Gibson, but is now Tom Hardy, who has no trouble filling his shoes.  Max is a Man-With-No-Name type, a wanderer of few words and great survival skills, hesitant to get involved, but willing to put everything on the line for a cause once he's committed to it. In this outing, he's taken prisoner by the forces of Immortan Joe, and his escape coincides with a daring breakout committed by one of Joe's lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping to liberate Joe's five young "wives" from their captivity.

Now, if you are a fan of "Mad Max," or really any older action films from the '70s and '80s, "Fury Road" is sure to be a treat.  There's plenty of CGI prettying up the desert landscapes, but the bulk of the action is good, old fashioned, practical machine v. machine and man v. machine mayhem.  And what machines!  Max and Furiosa spend most of the film driving a stolen "War Rig," a gasoline tanker modified with weaponry and various steampunk gadgets.  In hot pursuit are scavengers driving VW bugs covered in metal spikes, nomad motorcyclists wielding grenades, and Immortan Joe's vast war party of pursuit vehicles.  It even includes a moving stage covered in amps, reserved for his musical accompaniment.  Even wilder than the cars are the drivers.  Immortan Joe heads a cult of personality that has become a religion, where the War Boys worship him and perform insane feats of physical daring in the hopes of winning a place in the shiny chrome afterlife of Valhalla.

The best part is that the action is entirely coherent and easy to follow.  And it retains all the same grime and dust and sweat and anarchic glee of "The Road Warrior," made over thirty years ago.  It's almost miraculous that the seventy year-old George Miller has lost none of his enthusiasm or his radical vision for this universe.  The only real difference seems to be the expanded budget, which has allowed for more stylized visuals, crisper picture, and a more saturated color palette.   The characters, as ever, are simply constructed with little time to impart much psychological depth.  Yet still there's so much suggested about them so quickly and efficiently - Max's visions of a little girl who seems to embody his survival instinct, Furiosa's recitation of her origins, the painted slogans left behind by the wives, and the fervent devotion of the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), all help to provide little details that enrich the fascinating Mad Max universe.

And all this makes "Fury Road" a very good movie, but not quite a great one.  There's not enough meat here for that, not enough substance to really chew on.  If Miller had pushed a little deeper with Max or Furiosa and let there be some real emotional stakes beyond simple survival, maybe the film would have left a more lasting impression.  Immortan Joe reminds me so much of Thulsa Doom - another memorable cult leader who builds his own little society in the desert - but isn't nearly as compelling.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a good popcorn movie, and more plot probably would have just gotten in the way of the adrenaline-pumping fights and stunts. 
I guess all I can hope for is more "Mad Max" movies in the future, so we can explore more of George Miller's strange, mad desert world.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Great Directors Non Update

It's been over a year since my last "Great Directors" post, and honestly over a year since I've spent much time watching older films.  I've had so much to catch up on and so little time to do it, the classics have fallen by the wayside.  I do hope to pick up the series again soon, so as a little tease (and to try and give myself a push), I'm listing out a couple of the eligible directors I'm considering for spotlights, along with what I've seen from each - essentially all the possible films from each that I might write about.  Looks like the French are overdue for some attention here.

Robert Bresson
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Pickpocket (1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Mouchette (1967)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
The Devil Probably (1977)
L'argent (1983)
John Cassavetes
Shadows (1959)
Husbands (1970)
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Opening Night (1977)
Gloria (1980)
Love Streams (1984)
Clint Eastwood
Play Misty for Me (1971)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Pale Rider (1985)
Unforgiven (1992)
A Perfect World (1993)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Mystic River (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Gran Torino (2008)
Invictus (2009)
Hereafter (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)
American Sniper (2014)
Sergei Eisenstein

Strike (1924)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928)
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Ivan the Terrible (1944-46)
Jean-Luc Godard
Breathless (1960)
A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
My Life to Live (1962)
Contempt (1963)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Alphaville (1965)
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Masculin Féminin (1966)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)
Weekend (1967)
Number Two 1975)
Every Man for Himself (1980)
Hail Mary (1985)
Goodbye to Language (2014)
Elia Kazan

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
On the Waterfront (1954)
East of Eden (1955)
Baby Doll (1956)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Wild River (1960)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
America America (1963)

Kenji Mizoguchi

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
The 47 Ronin (1941)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1947)
The Life of Oharu (1952)
Ugetsu (1953)
A Geisha (1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)
Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)
Roman Polanski
Knife in the Water (1962)
Repulsion (1965)
Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Macbeth (1971)
Chinatown (1974)
The Tenant (1976)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Pianist (2002)
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Carnage (2011)
Jean Renoir
Night at the Crossroads (1932)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
Toni (1935)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Human Beast (1938)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The River (1951)
The Golden Coach (1953)
French Cancan (1954)
Francois Truffaut
The 400 Blows (1959)
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Jules and Jim (1962)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
The Wild Child (1970)
Bed and Board (1970)
Two English Girls (1971)
Day for Night (1973)
The Last Metro (1980)
The Woman Next Door (1981)
Luchino Visconti
La Terra Trema (1948)
Senso (1954)
White Nights (1957)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
The Leopard (1963)
The Damned (1969)
Death in Venice (1971)
Ludwig (1972)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

So Kristen Stewart Can Act

The claim that Kristen Stewart is a terrible actress has been in circulation for a while now, mostly due to her work in the "Twilight" series. I've never been able to comment on this before, as I still haven't seen any of the "Twilight" movies, and I've managed to miss just about every other movie that Kristen Stewart has had a significant role in over the past few years.  The only exception was "Snow White and the Huntsman," where she looked dazed and not quite all there for most of her scenes.  But in the last few weeks, I've seen all three of the 2014 releases that Stewart appeared in, and I think I have a much better picture of her as an actress.  And not only can she act, I think she's awfully good in the right role.
Let's start with "Still Alice," the Alzheimer's drama that Julianne Moore won her Oscar for.  Stewart plays the title character's youngest daughter Lydia, an aspiring actress who becomes one of her mother's strongest sources of support as her disease progresses.  It's not a very big or interesting part, but substantial enough to get a sense of Lydia's place in her family's changing dynamics, her hopes and aspirations.  Stewart has no trouble holding her own in her scenes opposite Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, who plays her father.  And unlike her blockbuster turns, here Stewart was fully engaged, brought plenty to the role, and made a very good impression on me overall.  No sign of a disastrously wooden bad actress to be found.
Next was "Camp X-Ray," where she plays a young guard at Guantanamo Bay who becomes friendly with one of the prisoners.  I found the film itself fundamentally flawed, but Kristen Stewart was perfectly fine as the lead.  She's onscreen constantly, in practically every scene as Private Cole, who quickly becomes disillusioned with her work in the prison.  Stewart is very credible as a soldier, thanks in large part to the script taking pains to show her strictly regimented daily routine, interactions with other soldiers, and the impact of the military culture on her behavior.  Stewart manages to give Privale Cole a strong presence though, and here you can definitely see her characters fit a certain type - introverted, insecure to a certain extent, and struggling with some inner turmoil.  Stewart is also also likeable, engaging, and very good at conveying her character's often difficult emotional state. 
And that brings us to "Clouds of Sils Maria," the one that Stewart won a Cesar for, the French equivalent of an Oscar.  In "Sils Maria," She plays Valentine, the awkward assistant to Juliette Binoche's aging actress, Maria Enders.  It's one of Olivier Assayas's terribly thoughtful character dramas, one I found a little too indulgent for my taste.  However, I really enjoyed Kristen Stewart here.  Binoche is excellent as she always is, but Stewart is the standout in the film.  As Valentine she's still reticent, but far more talkative and expressive than either of the other two roles allowed.  She gets to be playful.  She gets to be funny.   Especially delightful are a few meta bits where she gets to comment on her own past work in terrible genre pictures.  You can certainly see why the French got excited. 
I think Kristen Stewart's bad reputation comes from taking roles in big blockbusters that don't suit her.  She works best in smaller, more intimate films.  Unlike Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway, she doesn't have the larger-than-life quality of a marquee movie star.  And many of our best actresses don't.  If you didn't see Michelle Williams as Glinda in "Oz the Great and Powerful," count yourself lucky.  You could say Kristen Stewart doesn't have a lot of range, or that she still has a long way to go before reaching her full potential.  She's certainly made some terrible choices.  However, there's no question that she can act.  And I look forward to her getting on with her career and putting the whole awful "Twilight" business behind her.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Revisiting "A Little Princess" v. "Casper"

This has been an exciting summer at the movies, full of giant tentpoles and franchises, with a few original properties staunchly holding their ground too.  Yet, none of these clashes have been as gripping to watch as the one that happened between two children's films twenty years ago, a clash that you can still see the repercussions of in how the movie industry operates today. 
In early May of 1995, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," to huge critical acclaim.  It was lauded by practically everyone who saw it, and several prominent critics got the behind the movie.  The trouble was the Warner Brothers couldn't sell it.  Everything about the film's marketing seemed lackluster, from the posters to the trailers, failing to capture the film's low-key charms.  There wasn't much marketing either, as Warners opted for a smaller release, initially only opening "A Little Princess" in about 1300 theaters, with plans to expand later.  That expansion never happened.
The week after "Princess" hit theaters, "Casper" from Universal was released.  "Casper," which had been heavily marketed for weeks as the big summer kids' film from executive producer Steven Spielberg, opened to crummy reviews, but raked in $22 million its first weekend.  "Casper" opened in twice the number of theaters that "A Little Princess" did and completely steamrollered it for the rest of the summer.  When all was said and done, "Casper" had a domestic gross of $100 million.  "A Little Princess" made $10 million, even after an attempted rerelease in August.  And the only reason I know this is because the Los Angeles Times was documenting all of it. 
All through that summer they published op-ed pieces, analysis pieces, and plenty of readers' letters speculating as to why Warners couldn't get anyone to watch "A Little Princess."  Again and again people pointed to the release strategy and the marketing.  It looked like a movie aimed only at little girls.  It had "Princess" in the title.  It was clearly a holiday picture rather than a summer one.  Nobody knew it existed because the ads were so sparse.  There were no toys or tie-ins to create extra awareness.  This was 1995, when summer movie season wasn't totally dominated by big event movies, and you could still take risks with prestige films now and then - but suddenly everything about "A Little Princess" looked foolhardy.
There were a few stories featuring interviews with the Warner marketing execs themselves, who apparently took all of these criticisms to heart.  One even joked that they should have released "A Little Princess" under the title "Batman 4."  What came across, though, is that they believed in the movie and that everyone at the studio had tried wholeheartedly to do right by it.  And so I always think about them and the fate of "A Little Princess" whenever I hear complaints about the studios not having the guts to put out more challenging, more ambitious summer fare.  This is what happens, kids.  Your heartfelt, life-affirming masterpiece gets beaten up by CGI cartoon ghosties making fart jokes.
Twenty years later, I don't think any major studio would even finance "A Little Princess," let alone try releasing it in May.  Sadly the film has passed into almost total obscurity, though some of its chief creative talent has flourished.  This was director Alphonso Cuaron's English language debut, long before "Children of Men" or "Gravity."  Emmanuel Lubezki picked up an Oscar nomination for the film's gorgeous cinematography - his first of many.  I'm also gratified that actor Liam Cunningham, who plays the title character's father, is getting more attention these days - you might recognize him as Davos from "Game of Thrones."
Note that "Casper" has also quietly disappeared from the public consciousness too, despite several direct-to-video sequels and a Saturday morning cartoon following in the movie's wake.  The character is reportedly being prepped for yet another reboot over at Dreamworks, but the 1995 film seems to be remembered chiefly for James Horner's lovely, melancholy score.  Looking at it now, "Casper" is very much a product of its time, with little that holds up, though I still have some nostalgic affection for it. 
And what of the summer movie season?  Well, we're not getting any more delicate adaptations of Victorian era children's novels, but there are still a few studios attempting to try something new and different every year - Disney/PIXAR's "Inside Out" about the inner world of a little girl inspires a lot of optimism that audiences can still be drawn to quality over pandering, even when the subject matter might be difficult.
Provided that the marketing campaign takes no prisoners, of course. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Jupiter Ascending" and "Kingsman"

Roger Ebert made a point of evaluating films based on the kind of experience they set out to be.  The same scale wouldn't apply to "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List," for instance, even though they were made by the same director.  I'm trying to keep that in mind while sorting out my reactions to "Jupiter Ascending" and "Kingsman," a pair of action films from earlier this year.  These are both clearly escapist popcorn films, but there are distinctions to be made within this classification.  "Jupiter Ascending," for instance, resembles the Wachoswski siblings' last film "Cloud Atlas" aesthetically, but it's not remotely as ambitious.  Rather, it's about the fluffiest, campiest action movie to come out of a major studio since Joel Schumacher stopped making Batman movies.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a poor young Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who cleans houses with her mother while dreaming of a better life.  After being targeted for assassination by a group of alien beings, Jupiter is rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a disgraced alien supersoldier now working as a gun for hire.  Jupiter turns out to be space royalty, an exact genetic match for (and thus the presumed reincarnation of) the deceased matriarch of the powerful Abrasax family.  The Abrasax's fortunes depend on "harvesting" the human beings they've "seeded" on various planets.  Earth is next, of course, except that Jupiter's royal status means she technically owns the planet, running afoul of the plans of her past self's three children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth).
And sadly, it's all a bore.  As you might expect, the plot is really beside the point.  The movie is far more concerned with flashy action scenes, wild overacting by everyone (but especially Eddie Redmayne), and a fuzzy romance between Jupiter and Caine.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  There have been plenty of silly, weird, self-indulgent sci-fi romps like "Barbarella" and "The Fifth Element" that are loads of fun without making a lick of sense.  "Jupiter Ascending," though, is just badly executed from top to bottom.  There is way too much exposition being lobbed at viewers constantly.  Some of the visuals are nice, but the action scenes are frequently too murky, and the tone is far too self-serious.  Kunis and Tatum do what they can, but their characters are too busy being shuttled from one ludicrous, overexplained dilemma to the next to engage in much banter or bonding.  Most of the humor falls flat.  The movie wants to be a romp, but it's a slog. 
At the same time, there's good stuff here, in bits and pieces.  I chuckled at the "Brazil" homage in the middle of the film where our heroes have to navigate a nightmare bureaucracy, capped off with a cameo by Terry Gilliam.  Lots of the concepts were interesting, like the treatment of reincarnation and the genetically engineered aliens.  And for all the digs that have been made at Eddie Redmayne for his performance, at least he was able to hold my attention when he was onscreen.  That's better than a lot of the villians in recent Marvel films have managed.  I think "Jupiter Ascending" could have been a much better film if it had been lightened up, and embraced the cheese.  I mean, we have characters that are part dog and part deer and part dinosaur, and one of the major plot points involves stopping an incestuous space wedding.  This could have been a total riot.
"Kingsman," by comparison, has a better idea of what it's doing.  There's a scene about a third of the way into the film, where two characters share a discussion about James Bond movies over junk food, heavily winking at the audience that they're well aware that they're playing with beloved old tropes, and none too gently.  "Kingsman" is based on a comic book, but is much more directly an update of the broadly comedic Bond films of the Roger Moore era, complete with fancy gadgets and outlandish villains.  This was co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, creator of "Kick-Ass," so there's a lot of graphic violence, constant profanity, and a fair bit of raunch too. 

Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a young, lower-class Londoner of promising talent, but an awful home life that has derailed his prospects.  He's recruited one day by Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad (Colin Firth), a gentleman secret agent for an independent spy agency, the Kingsmen.  While Eggsy undergoes training and testing with several other young recruits under Kingsmen quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry investigates a series of disappearances linked to tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his lovely assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).  Of course Eggsy and fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) end up getting involved as the mystery unfolds.  Michael Caine and Mark Hamill also appear as the leader of the Kingsmen and an environmental scientist respectively.
"Kingsman" has a solid, funny script, full of little meta moments, subversions, and homages.  Occasionally it can be crass and very mean, with R-rated content in abundance, but never to the point of causing any real offense.  The tone is light, the action scenes are a blast, and the performances are exactly what they need to be.  I'm especially impressed with Egerton, a newcomer who easily holds his own in scenes opposite Firth, Strong, and Caine.  Sam Jackson seems too over the top at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that's exactly as it should be.  And he's clearly having so much fun in the role, I can't really begrudge him.  Ditto Colin Firth, who tackles his superspy role with gusto.
The visual style plays a big part in the movie's effectiveness.  It's very kinetic and colorful, suffusing the film with an infectious energy.  There are a lot of fanciful little touches in the fight scenes, lots of classic spy iconography and cartoon physics, deployed with loving dollops of blood and gore.  It's easy to mistake this as a film meant for the YA crowd, because of the younger lead and comic book stylization, but it's definitely got an adult sensibility while remaining gleefully juvenile.   I felt guilty about laughing at the series of assassinations choreographed to look like a morbid fireworks display, but also impressed that the filmmakers had gone through with it.
So I recommend "Kingsman" with some reservations - it's not a film that's going to appeal to many outside its bloodthirsty young target audience.  However, for that audience it's going to be a treat, which is more than can be said for "Jupiter Ascending," which will be a chore for even the most committed Wachowski fans.


Monday, June 15, 2015

"Game of Thrones" Year Five

Spoilers Ahead.
What a bumpy, ugly, gorgeous, weird, and fascinating season it's been.  The highs were high, the lows were low - and in some cases very low, but you couldn't say any of it was boring.  This was the year that "Game of Thrones" started moving into "off-book" material, and we got a better sense of the storytelling sensibilities of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.  And frankly, the show has never felt sloppier or more rushed.  Or like more of a grim endurance contest.  Horrible things happen all the time in "Game of Thrones," but never have they happened with such alarming regularity to the weakest and most innocent characters - Shireen, Myrcella, and Sansa in particular.  It's getting harder and harder to wait for the comeuppances and payoffs that may never come.  While the spectacle of Hardhome was impressive, that doesn't make up for the slog through the deeply compromised Dorne storyline.  While watching Jon, Danaerys, Arya, and Tyrion gain new victories was invigorating, on the other side of the equation you have Stannis, Ramsay, and Jamie killing the mood.  And as much as the creators might deny it, you can tell they're stalling on some fronts to give George R. R. Martin more time to finish the next book.
As usual, it's fairest to go down the list of characters and consider each storyline individually.
Let's get the worst one out of the way first.  Dorne, for all its prominence in the preseason marketing, for all the nice costumes, strong acting talent, and the picturesque shooting locations, was a total wash.  There was clearly a much richer, more complicated storyline here originally that was boiled down to bare bones and then executed terribly.  The new characters were left shockingly shallow archetypes, the narrative felt like a bit of side quest filler to keep Jamie occupied, and Dorne felt weirdly uninhabited next to Bravos, Mereen, and King's Landing.  I knew we were in trouble when the Sand Snakes didn't show up until the fourth episode, and then had a sad little scrap with Jamie and Bronn upon their big confrontation in the sixth.  Indira Varma, Alexander Siddig, and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers are among the season's MVPs for salvaging what they could of Ellaria, Doran, and Tyene.
Over in Winterfell, it was so frustrating to have Sansa poised as a mature player in the game at the end of the last season, only to heave her tossed into Ramsay's clutches this year for more torture.  I suspect that her involvement here was just to give her, Theon, and Brienne something to do, but surely the writers didn't have to make Sansa into such a victim again - haven't they established that's she's learned how to manipulate from Cersei, Margaery, and Littlefinger?  Her grappling with Ramsay intellectually would have been so much more interesting than more of the usual sadism.  And good grief, but Littlefinger's actions here don't make any sense.  I didn't find the depiction of Sansa's wedding night nearly as upsetting as some of the other violence against women and girls we saw later in the season, but I'm glad the controversy happened anyway, because these are important conversations to have. 
Arya's training at the House of Black and White has been one of the most consistently strong stories this year, and it finally feels like Arya's getting somewhere in her quest for revenge.  I loved that we got Tom Wlaschiha back for Jaqen H'ghar, and the addition of Faye Marsay as the Waif.  Personal and spiritual growth can be difficult to depict, and the show's been doing a great job with Arya and the strange religion of the Many-Faced God.  The effects in particular, while not as flashy as what we see in Mereen or Beyond the Wall, have been a highlight.  And it's been so nice to see Maisie Williams get a few costume changes this year, and acknowledge that Arya's quickly growing up.  She's one of the last few characters on this show I can really root for, and I'm glad the creators have been doing right by her.
King's Landing, usually home to the more central plotlines, took a bit of a backseat this time out because most of the action was happening elsewhere.  It's been almost comical how quickly things have gone awry without Tywin or Jamie keeping Cersei in check.  Her hatred of Margaery prompted her to hand power over to Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow and a pack of religious zealots, and of course it backfired on her.  This paints Cersei as a much weaker figure than we've seen in previous seasons, but boy has it been fun to watch her this year. The petty machinations, getting the tables turned on her, and the most jaw-dropping nudity scene in "Game of Thrones" history have been absolutely great for Cersei as a character.  The list of power players in King's Landing may be growing short, but there's still the potential for drama in abundance.
If you want to talk about hard downfalls, though, there have been none worse than Stannis Baratheon's campaign against Winterfell this year.  It was often difficult to watch Stannis, one of the most promising contenders for the Iron Throne a few seasons ago, brought so low so quickly.  After he came to the rescue of Castle Black last year, he won a lot of new fans, but I was never onboard, and wasn't all that shocked when he sacrificed Shireen - a little shocked that they showed as much of the act as they did, but not at the decision he made.  It was the people he dragged down with him that really hurt - Shireen of course, Davos, Selyse, and to a certain extent Sansa and Theon.  I was really looking forward to Stannis squishing Ramsay like a bug.  It may still happen eventually, but I'm still disappointed at how the storyline was tied up. 
Let's lump Tyrion's story in together with Dany's, because the really important part of both is that they get together and start making bigger plans toward the show's endgame.  Tyrion makes pretty much everyone he interacts with more interesting, so thank goodness he's joined up with the Mereen crew, who have now spent two seasons mucking up the job of ruling the place.   Danaerys doesn't come off as incompetent after all this, thankfully, just inexperienced and naive.  Tyrion getting shuttled off into a new adventure was a little rushed, but I can buy his newly flippant attittude and eventual conversion to Dany's side - the two shared some great scenes together.  I'm still not so keen on the rest of the side characters - Jorah, Daario, and the lovebirds - or where Dany ended up in the finale, but clearly things are getting back on track.
Finally, there's Jon Snow.  He's had a great year, becoming Lord Commander, kicking butt at Hardhome, and sticking his neck out for the Wildlings.  He may know nothing, but he stands for something now, and has become a character worth rooting for.  Too bad about that last bit of the finale, but I'm not convinced that Jon or Stannis are actually dead yet.  It's nice that the scenes at and beyond the wall have been some of the most compelling in the show's run.  The two storylines that were boring me to tears three seasons ago have become two of the most compelling, and currently driving the show towards its conclusion.  Yes, this season of "Game of Thrones" was less satisfying than many of the others (still better than Year Two), but it's doing enough right and clearly going somewhere.  And I want to see how it all ends.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Mommy" and Me

Diane Després (Anne Dorval), called Die, is a woman who it's tempting to roll your eyes at when you first meet her.  She's well past forty but wears unflattering clothes meant for someone much younger, has streaked hair, and affects a brash, devil-may-care attitude that veers dangerously close to trashy.  When she arrives to pick up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a treatment facility for troubled youth, it's hard to imaging that he'll be better off in her care than staying at the facility.  However, Die and Steve don't have much of a choice.  Steve's latest bout of violence - setting a fire that severely burned another boy - got him kicked out of his program.  Now Die has to take on the responsibility of keeping him from ending up in jail or a mental institution.
I had difficulty connecting with Xavier Dolan's last film, "Laurence Anyways," which was about the life and loves of a transgender woman.  "Mommy," on the other hand, hit me right where it hurts.  I identified so quickly and so completely with Die after only a few short scenes, despite her all her flaws.  Yes, she drinks too much, often behaves like a teenager, and is clearly in way over her head trying to parent Steve, but fundamentally she's a good person who wants to help her son.  Anne Dorval is wonderfully raw and funny, balancing the total mess of Die's self-indulgent lifestyle with the fierce maternal protectiveness just under the surface.  You're angry at her one minute for behaving like a brat, and then terrified for her the next when Steve has a horrific meltdown.
Then there's Antoine-Olivier Pilon, who matches Dorval beat for beat.  He's an intense presence onscreen, constantly moving, cursing, dancing, teasing, and getting into every variety of trouble he can.  Already bigger than Die, fifteen year-old Steve is physically intimidating and completely unpredictable emotionally thanks to ADHD and other issues.  But there's also a awkward sweetness to him and a capacity to be something more.  Xavier Dolan includes several sequences, set to a soundtrack of '90s pop songs, where Steve has these joyous, bright moments of happiness.  The soundtrack is brilliantly uncool - Eiffel 65's "Blue"?  Dido's "White Flag"?  "Wonderwall"? - but instantly evocative.  Add the gorgeous visuals of Steve skateboarding, dancing with shopping carts, and losing himself in the sound, and it's breathtaking cinema.  There's one particular, heartbreaking montage near the end that is hands down my favorite piece of filmmaking of 2014.
There's also a third major character, Kyla, played by Suzanne Clément, who is Die and Steve's new neighbor, and serves as the catalyst for their gradual reconnection.  She's in recovery from a trauma that's never directly addressed , but after she gets caught up in Die and Steve's lives, the situation improves for all three of them.  Suzanne Clément provides a strong presence, and though Kyla is the least developed of the leads, she's never overshadowed by the other two.  I only wish that Kyla was given more to do, as her big scenes are among the highlights of the film, but her role in the narrative is very limited.  I'd call her subplot the weak link of "Mommy," but her character certainly isn't.
And good grief, we can't forget about the director. I could write about the daring of Xavier Dolan using a 1:1 square aspect ratio that extends to widescreen for pivotal scenes, the influence of his background in queer cinema, or all the awards that "Mommy" racked up at the Cannes film festival last year.  But honestly, the art house bona fides just feel like distractions. I love the film because it made me feel so deeply for these characters, and that's all that matters.  "Mommy" is far from perfect, with pacing issues and logic gaps, but this is one of the best onscreen portrayals of a parent-child relationship in recent memory. And there are moments here of pure cinematic bliss the likes of which we see far too rarely.  
Go watch this movie.  Don't let the fact that it's French language, or artsy as hell, or that the main characters are a pack of hooligans dissuade you.  This is human drama at absolute its best.

Friday, June 5, 2015

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Sopranos"

There is no question that "The Sopranos" is the most influential dramatic television show of the past twenty years, and one of the biggest reasons that we're enjoying the unprecedented boom in quality television that we have now.  It's not one of my favorites - mob stories never held much appeal for me - but I respect it top to bottom and enjoyed may episodes greatly.  Below, my top ten episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate.
Moderate spoilers ahead.
"Pilot" - I was expecting "The Sopranos" to be a more comedic show after the pilot, which really pushes the mobster in therapy premise, and ends with a gun-toting Carmela.  In retrospect some of these early antics look a little silly.  However, the introduction of Tony is so strong, and creates the foundation for so much good character-building to follow.  It's actually a little heartbreaking to see him back at the beginning, when we could still pretend he was a regular schmuck at heart.
"College" - Now here's where the show really started to pick up steam, as Tony and Meadow drive around Maine to tour a few colleges, and Tony takes it upon himself to execute a rat while his daughter's not looking.  In addition to the fun of breaking a lot of narrative conventions left and right, this is where Tony's domestic versus mob obligations really clash for the first time, and we see the toll that it takes on him.  Many point to this episode as a good gateway to the rest of the series.
"I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" - The first season closes with lots of good plotty stuff as Tony's family troubles come ot a head, and they directly impact Dr. Melfi.  I love how the subplot with Artie Bucco and the restaurant arson plays out.  And Paulie and Christopher give us a brief preview of "Pine Barrens."  If the series had ended here, relatively happily, it still would have left one heck of an impression.  Fortunately it didn't, and we got to see the fallout play out over the following seasons.
"The Knight in White Satin Armor" - One of the best shockers of the whole series comes courtesy of Tony's sister, Janice Soprano, who has always been a severely underrated member of the "Sopranos" roster.  This was the second-to-last episode of the second season, and may have started the trend of prestige shows building up to a big climax in similar fashion, setting off the fireworks in a penultimate episode and leaving the finale to tie up loose ends and provide a quieter denouement. 
"Employee of the Month" - One of the last episodes where Dr. Melfi gets anything really interesting to do, as the show quickly backgrounded the "mobster in therapy" device, and the character became a peripheral presence by the end of the third season.  This is a controversial one with some cringeworthy content, but it pushes Dr. Melfi into the kind of moral crisis I'd been waiting for since the first season.  Lorraine Bracco gives it her all here, and makes Melfi's personal victory feel well earned.
"Pine Barrens" - Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods chasing a Russian goon has become one of the undisputed highlights of "The Sopranos."  It's one of the most out-and-out comedic episodes, featuring wonderfully quotable dialogue, absurd situations, and Bobby Bacala's hunting outfit.  The show didn't have the greatest track record when it came to comedy, especially where Christopher was involved, but when they did get it right, you could forget you were watching a show about lethal mobsters.  
"Whitecaps" - My favorite episode.  The lead-up the famous showdown between Tony and Carmela is so hopeful, and even idyllic when they're looking at the new property and discussing the future.  And then there's the fateful phone call and James Gandolfini and Edie Falco go to town earning their Emmys - both won specifically for this episode, and it was so, so well deserved.  The show had been building to this from the very beginning, and it was so satisfying to see everything detonate at last.
"Long Term Parking" - Poor Adriana.  And poor Christopher.  This was probably his last chance to get out of the business with his soul intact, but he failed to take it, and paid the price.  The effectiveness of the ending hinges on the suddenness and cruelty of the events, along with the juxtaposition of it with Tony and Carmela's queasy reconciliation.  Big kudos to the (mis)directing here too.  I'd seen the climax out of context before, and didn't even realize it was coming until Sil turned into the woods.
"Kennedy and Heidi" - Yeah, it's the episode where *that* happens, but what stuck with me was really James Gandolfini's performance.  The episode is really about Tony, and his mental state in the wake of committing a mortal sin.  And it's terrifying to see him rationalize and justify his actions, finally turning to gambling and drugs to help him put any feelings of guilt or shame behind him as quickly as possible.  It's impossible to pretend after this episode that Tony is anything but a monster and a menace.
"Made in America" - The notorious final scene is divisive, but it worked for me.  I think you really need to watch certain earlier episodes to get it the way the creator intended.  However, the rest of the episode is a winner regardless.  We check in with all the Sopranos for a final time, seeing them repeating old patterns and turning away from hard choices.  Has anyone learned anything?  Has anyone figured anything out?  Are they happy and do they deserve to be?  It's a challenging, merciless goodbye.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Judging "19 Kids"

Oh dear.  Have you heard about the child molestation accusations that have come out about Josh Duggar, the oldest of the Duggar children featured on TLC's "19 Kids and Counting"? This marks the second TLC reality series that has gone down in flames this year due to a sex offender.  The other was "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," where the tiny beauty queen's mother was revealed to be romantically involved with a convicted child molester. 
The internet's wrath was swift.  "19 Kids and Counting" was pulled from TLC's schedules, and debate erupted over how much blame should be assigned to Josh versus his parents versus the uber-conservative Christian lifestyle that they promoted.  We all had a grand old time being distracted from anything actually newsworthy going on - anyone hear about the mess that is the latest version of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement?  No? - and adding fuel to the bonfire being made of the Duggars' reputations.  Plenty of people weighed in who had not only never seen an episode of "19 Kids and Counting," but were quick to ask that outraged question that so many of us have asked about trash television: "Who watches this stuff?"
The answer should be obvious by now.  We all watch this stuff.  Oh, sure, not everyone watches "19 Kids" or "Honey Boo Boo" specifically.  I haven't seen a single episode of either.  But I watched a lot of Maury and Jerry Springer when I was younger, and still find myself poking around online advice columns to read about dysfunctional relationships.  My significant other is an unabashed fan of "Judge Judy."  My co-workers love chatting about horrible crimes and accidents they heard about on the local news.  Several of my very respectable friends know who all the regular players are in the gossip magazines are, though they'd never admit to purchasing them.  And even good old Mom loves chatting about what kind of trouble her friends' kids and grandkids have gotten themselves into this week.  In one way or another we all love drama, and putting in our own two cents on someone else's business. 
I don't know that there's really anything wrong with that fundamental urge.  It's a natural social mechanism to want to judge our peers and shame bad behavior.  Reality stars certainly can't say that they didn't invite the scrutiny, putting themselves in the spotlight for attention and financial gain the way that they do.  There's a reason why privacy laws are different for private citizens versus "public figures."  And since Josh Duggar was an adult when his family's reality show began, you can't say that he was too young to appreciate the risks of putting himself out there, unlike Alana Thompson of "Honey Boo Boo" or the Gosselin kids from "Jon & Kate Plus 8."  Certainly, nobody forced him to pursue a career based on an image of being a squeaky-clean promoter of proper moral values.  And should we really feel guilty for feeling satisfaction at seeing a hypocrite get his just desserts?
The danger comes in the cumulative effect of all this negative attention, particularly as it's magnified by social media and the anonymous nature of the internet.  There's the potential collateral damage that could affect the younger Duggar kids or other innocent family members.  We've seen the internet tear apart people's lives practically at a whim, and the media scrum surrounding the Duggars right now is already getting out of hand.  Many people have been critical of the Duggars since they first appeared in the public eye and already think of them as deeply troubled people living an unhealthy lifestyle.  It is very easy to get caught up in the simple narratives that have been created by TLC and the larger media, with their easy answers and cardboard characterization, and now they've all turned emphatically negative  Situations like this are never simple though. 
The culpability of the various adult Duggars is best left to the authorities, and I don't have much of an opinion on Josh's actions one way or another.  There is simply not enough information available for me to feel comfortable about defending or castigating him.  The show going off the air, however, is something I definitely support.  There's something clearly off about these reality TV families, and TLC's exploitation of their attention-seeking behavior has never sat right with me.  There's a whole lucrative industry built around our worst impulses to gawk at catfights and bridezillas and young idiots behaving badly.  There have been freak shows as long as there have been freaks.
But do the freaks understand that they're meant to be freaks?  That despite everyone's good intentions, the scandal and disgrace were probably expected from the start?  Having nineteen kids isn't normal, no matter how nicely the commercials try to frame it.  And you could clearly tell that there are a lot of other things about the family that aren't normal either.  The Duggars are now a cautionary tale, a prime example of a broken family, which is surely the opposite of what they intended.  And the stigma may never go away. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Considering "Ex Machina"

Movies about newborn artificial intelligences and their creators have been resurgent lately.  The concept has been around for decades, of course, but with the new rise of the Silicon Valley enterpreneurs and the cults of personality that have developed around figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, it's the perfect time for cautionary stories about new technology and the often accompanying hubris of their inventors.
The genius entrepreneur at the center of "Ex Machina" is Nathan Batemen (Oscar Isaac), the head of a Google-esque internet company.  He has secluded himself at a remote estate in the wilderness that is only accessible by helicopter.  One of his employees, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a mysterious contest where the prize is to spend a week with Nathan at his retreat.  Caleb quickly discovers upon his arrival that he's really there to help Nathan run tests on the secret project he's been working on: an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander).
After years of movies like "I, Robot" and "The Machine," where this kind of story inevitable devolves into action sequences and large scale pyrotechnics, one of the nice things about "Ex Machina" is how small scale and intimate it is.  There is some violence and plenty of special effects, but writer director Alex Garland has made a piece of science fiction where the relationships, moral dilemmas, and existential questions are put front and center.  It's very close in spirit to "Her," though "Ex Machina" is a thriller at its core with much darker themes.   "Her" and "Ex Machina" both involve a young man and a female-identifying A.I. getting to know each other and establishing a relationship.  And both rely heavily on good performances, strong aesthetic choices, and careful worldbuilding.
Now Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are excellent here, but the lynchpin performance is Oscar Isaac's.  Nathan is intelligent, charismatic, persuasive, and gracious toward Caleb, encouraging him to treat Nathan as a friend rather than an employer.  He's also clearly a little off-kilter due to the isolation and lifestyle - think of a Tony Stark who has been taking to himself and his robots for too long.  However, when Nathan talks about Ava and his work, the coldly rational scientist-playing-god emerges.  Nathan is so personable and displays such sympathetic human flaws, it's easy to overlook his capacity for evil. 
Then there's Vikander's Ava, who is one of the most compelling A.I. characters I've ever seen.  A great deal of the plot involves a Turing test, where Caleb converses at length with Ava over the course of several sessions to determine to what degree she behaves the way a human would.  Like Nathan, there's more going on inside Ava's head than there appears to be at first glance.  Vikander plays on the audience's expectations - A.I., particularly female A.I., are often portrayed as childlike, naive, innocent, and victimized.  Ava is all of these things, but only up to a point.  Vikander is excellent at embodying this.
For a movie that revolves around conversations in a claustrophobic setting, it feels very dynamic.  A lot of this has to do with the pacing and the actors, but I think the special effects work also deserves a lot of credit. For most of the film Ava appears as an unfinished gynoid with partially transparent, synthetic body parts except for her human face and hands.  It's completely convincing and effective, and goes a long way toward there always being something interesting onscreen to look at.  Nathan's decor is also nicely sinister and thematically relevant if you're paying attention.
There's also the dialogue, which presents some very interesting, lively debates between Caleb and Nathan, and then Caleb and Ava, about the nature of A.I. and the human experience.  I like that Garland assumes a level of knowledge about A.I. and genre savvyness a few notches higher than the norm.  All of these characters are smart, which allows the story to be smart, which means that the points that Alex Garland wants to make hit a lot harder than we usually see in similar movies.
And it doesn't hurt that it works just fine as a traditional thriller, with one heck of a finale.  Just because it doesn't involve expensive CGI explosions doesn't mean "Ex Machina" doesn't deliver some heady thrills.