Monday, August 24, 2015

The State of the Superhero Movie 2015

Here we are in the waning days of summer, with another year's worth of superhero movies behind us.  It's a good time to take stock of where we are and what lies ahead.  2015 turned out to be a fairly lean year for superhero films - only three titles - and feels a bit like the calm before the storm.  2016 has seven major superhero movies on the schedule and 2017 will have at least six.

First, the new releases.  Marvel's "Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man" lived up to expectations.  "Ultron" didn't quite hit the box office numbers of its predecessor, but it's close enough that nobody can complain.  Audiences didn't embrace it quite as eagerly either, but nobody could call it a disappointment.  Meanwhile, there weren't particularly high hopes for "Ant-Man," but it made money and the reviews were actually pretty good, so that's a potential crisis for the Marvel brand that's been averted.  There are still some lingering feelings of ill will about what happened behind the scenes on that film, which may be indicative of some worrying trends.  More on that below.

"Fantastic Four," by contrast, was a complete disaster on every front.  Most of the blame has been pinned on director Josh Trank, who apparently self-destructed under the pressure.  It's rough watching a once promising career go down in flames, but this also leaves FOX's future franchise plans in deep trouble.  The announced 2017 sequel is almost certainly dead.  Crossover plans with the "X-men" universe films are surely cancelled.  Fans and industry watchers alike are hotly debating whether it would be better for FOX to sell the rights to the property back to Marvel or to attempt yet another "Fantastic Four" reboot once the heat is off.  FOX's superhero hopes are now pinned solely on the aging "X-men" franchise, which somehow has three films scheduled for next year: "X-men: Apocalypse," and the spinoffs "Gambit" and "Deadpool."   

The "X-men" universe is diverse enough to support that kind of gamble, though, and I think FOX is still in a far better position than Sony.  After cancelling two sequels and benching the "Sinister Six" spinoff thanks to "The Amazing Spider-man 2's" underperformance, Spidey is in limbo.  The deal with Marvel that will allow him to appear in the MCU is supposed to help pave the way for yet another "Spider-man" reboot, starring newcomer Tom Holland and directed by Jon Watts.  I don't know if that's going to be enough to drum up interest though, as the new film is being fast-tracked for 2017, and that's not much time to distance itself from the Andrew Garfield films.  The casting choice already shows that Sony isn't willing to stray too far from formula to really distinguish this "Spider-man" from the previous ones.

With film slates being drastically reorganized after the failure of only a handful of films, a lot is also riding on what happens with "Batman v. Superman" next year.  Warner Brothers and its stable of DC superheroes have always been the only real possible rivals of Disney and Marvel.  Next year we're going to see if they've finally gotten their act together enough to start challenging their dominance.  I have my doubts about Zack Snyder, but at least "Batman v. Superman" and David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" are offering some riskier alternatives to the standard Marvel movie, which is starting to feel more and more familiar with each new installment.  Between "Suicide Squad" and FOX's "Deadpool," some superhero movies are going to get more adult and subversive in a hurry.  At the same time these two are clearly atypical productions with much smaller budgets and much smaller anticipated audiences.

There have been many indications that there are too many constraints on the big blockbuster superhero films for anything really interesting to come out of them.  Over the past few months we've seen several high profile directors part ways with or turn down superhero films, citing an inability to come to terms with what the studios wanted creatively.  So, we won't get to see what Michelle McLaren could have done with "Wonder Woman," or how Ava DuVernay would have portrayed "Black Panther."  "Ant-Man" seems to have come out all right in spite of Edgar Wright's departure, but the loss of his singular comedic vision surely hurt it.  James Gunn may have enlivened "Guardians of the Galaxy," but it's nowhere near as daring as what he did with superheroes in "Super."  It's frustrating to see so much potential wasted in these projects, over and over again, as the studios insist on safer, broader, more commercial fare.

Out of all the superhero films coming our way in the next few years, I'm supporting the more diverse entries like "Wonder Woman" and "Black Panther" on principle, but there aren't may that I'm really excited by.  Next year's batch of superhero films look the most promising - it'll be fun watching Batman fight Superman, and Iron Man fight Captain America (which finally solves the MCU villain problem).  And if FOX can pull off "Deadpool," that'll be great.  However, everything else coming after looks repetitive and familiar.  I won't be surprised if WB surpasses Marvel and Disney as the MCU really is starting to feel like it's in a rut.  However, WB is going to find itself in the same rut pretty quick if it doesn't innovate too.  Dark and dour only go so far, especially once you get away from Gotham City.

The television DC universe figured that out - but that's a post for another day. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"While We're Young" on Getting Old

I fully expected a new Noah Baumbach film starring Ben Stiller to be another round of awkwardness, as the last time the pair collaborated they made the aging Gen-X manchild navel-gazer "Greenberg," which I found glum and uncomfortable to watch.  "While We're Young," however, takes on middle age woes from a completely different angle, and surprised me in the best ways possible.  And despite some early misgivings, it's become one of my favorite films of the year.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia Schrebnick, a pair of forty-something New Yorkers who work in documentary filmmaking and have become dissatisfied with their lives and each other.  Josh, once a promising young director, has been trying to finish an ambitious project for years, and also teaches at a local college.  In one of his classes he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a twenty-something couple who the Schrebnicks befriend and become fascinated with.  Josh becomes caught up in trying to be a mentor figure to Jamie, while simultaneously struggling with his own insecurities about his work and his relationships with Cornelia and her father Leslie (Charles Grodin), a famous filmmaker.

I like Ben Stiller as Josh Schrebnick, and I haven't liked Ben Stiller in much of anything in years.  Here, I found him completely relatable, sympathetic, and easy to root for, even though Josh is in many ways the kind of self-centered New York intellectual that commonly populate Noah Baumbach films, and have left me cold in the past.  While Roger Greenberg stubbornly resisted change, Josh is very aware of his own inadequacies, and eager to embrace what he views as a possible way out of his rut - connecting to the new generation.  It's a lot of fun watching him try to throw himself into Millennial culture, only to realize that he's simply not equipped for it.  You can't get more obvious about your themes than your main character literally trying on a new hat - but it's all in how he wears the hat.  And in "While We're Young," the generational divide was never more gently, poignantly mined for so many laughs.   

The whole ensemble is great.  Every character feels so lived-in, every performance so unfussy and unconstrained.  Naomi Watts has less screen time than I was hoping for, but she gets some great scenes trying to navigate Mommy cults and hip-hop classes, before getting to the tender stuff with Stiller.  Grodin and Seyfried are decidedly minor players, but make the most of their appearances.  And then there's Adam Driver, who practically runs away with the whole movie.  This is the most substantial role I've seen him in to date, and he's a perfect embodiment of all the things that everyone seems to love and hate about Millennials.  They're charismatic, enlightened, DIYers who aren't scared of trying new things!  They have no respect for personal boundaries and promote lax morals!  They're insufferably pretentious!  Or model egalitarians!  Or both!

As a viewer right smack between both of the couples in age, I'm in a good position to sympathize with both positions.  "While We're Young" definitely keeps the POV with Stiller and Watts' characters, marveling at the weird and wacky activities the younger pair enjoy, while also bemoaning the encroaching afflictions of middle-age.  Most of Baumbach's films are semi-autobiographical, and here he's clearly feeling his age.  However, he does it in a way that's very universal and inclusive.  It never feels like he's making generalizations or writing anyone off.  Topics of discussion range from fatherhood to career woes to changing social mores, and in the second half of the film, right when I was least expecting it, the story took a turn and we wound up somewhere completely different.  The plot sort of sneaks up on you in this movie, which doesn't happen often anymore. 

I found this to be a very easy watch - briskly paced and sharply written.  The humor was a little broader than usual, including a sequence at an absurd ayahuasca ceremony that is flat-out the funniest thing I've seen this year.  For Baumbach newbies, especially those of a certain age, I think I'm going to recommend starting with this one.  His early career sharpness has mellowed into something warmer and more empathetic, which I like very much.  And "While We're Young" is the closest thing to a crowd-pleaser he's ever made.   

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

And What Didn't Make the 2014 List

As a companion piece to my Top Ten list, every year I write a post to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of positive attention, in order to give some context to my own choices. I find this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my list and the year in film as a whole.  I wish more critics would do similar write-ups, as what's not on someone's top ten list can be as fun to discuss as what is. Please note that I will not be writing about films listed among my honorable mentions like "Whiplash" or "Wild."

Let's start with the most obvious omissions.  Where's "Boyhood"?  Linklater's "Before Midnight" made my last list, so this should have been a shoo-in, right?  While I liked the first half of the film well enough to keep it in my honorable mentions for some time, the second half was a slog, and the character of Mason ultimately wasn't particularly interesting.  The unique structure and the storytelling made up for a lot, and Patricia Arquette gave one of my favorite performances of last year, but at a fundamental level the movie didn't win me over the way it did so many others.

And what about "Birdman"?  While I'm glad to see Alejandro Iñárritu striking out in a new direction, and I thought all the filmmaking gimmicks worked, the one thing that didn't was supposed to be the movie's biggest selling point: Michael Keaton's performance.  There were too many scenes where he completely fell flat, and the movie never recovered.  It's a shame, because the rest of the ensemble is excellent, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone.  Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne were clearly the best things about "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" respectively, but that wasn't enough to elevate otherwise pedestrian films.

Other awards season contenders I should mention include "Nightcrawler," which was too single-mindedly depraved and lacking in a sense of humor, "Foxcatcher," which never quite gelled in the same way that Steve Carrell's featured performance was never quite convincing, and "Mr. Turner," which was admirable for committing to a warts-and-all portrait of its grunting subject, but simply wasn't very memorable.  "Citizenfour" was an important, riveting film, but I couldn't say much good about it as a film.  "Interstellar" had its good moments, and even some great moments, but was overall a pretty severe disappointment coming from Christopher Nolan.  Finally, there was "American Sniper," which I still can't fathom why anybody liked outside of Clint Eastwood's fan club.

Turning to the art house, I expected great things from "Ida," and found a beautiful, melancholy film I admire to bits, but it somehow left me strangely cold.  I feel a rewatch is in order at some point.  "Force Majeure" was too impenetrable for me, and both of the main characters are terribly unlikable.  I wanted too much from "We are the Best!"  We parted on amicable terms, but won't be friends.   "Timbuktu" left me too dissatisfied, and "White God" just left me hanging.  As for Godard's "Goodbye to Language," I didn't see it in 3D, which was apparently a mistake.  Then again, I've never really understood Godard and I doubt it really would have made much difference in the end.

On the populist side of things, I still can't get over how "Guardians of the Galaxy" was such a perfect kid's film that insisted on being inappropriate for younger audiences.  "The LEGO Movie" was clever and heartfelt in the best way, but also such a constant barrage that it was exhausting to watch.  "Snowpiercer" probably doesn't belong in this category, but it is a genre film the likes of which we've never seen before, and should be lauded for its daring. Of course, it's also quite a mess and should be called out for that too.

Finally, the film that almost made the list was "Mistaken for Strangers," a documentary that starts out being about the rock band The National, but is eventually revealed to be about the journey of the documentarian, Ross McElwee style. Two others that almost made the honorable mentions list were "The Homesman" and "Pride."

And that's my 2014 in films.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Top Ten Films of 2014, Plus One

It has been a rough year personally, and there were times when I honestly wasn't sure I was going to have a list at all.  However, I made my compromises and feel pretty good about the results below.  There were so many films that I found admirable, but just didn't connect with me on a personal level.  That was my biggest requirement this time out.  A film that made my top ten had to be something that made an impact, that was memorable, that I felt strongly about and was ready to champion.  I don't think I was as diverse in my viewing choices as I've been in the past, but I took every opportunity to chase down the titles I felt strongly about.  And I got better about letting things go.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2013, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count.  Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list.  Here we go.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - I've always admired Wes Anderson's films, but I found the prickly characters often difficult to connect to.  Not so with "Grand Budapest," where Ralph Fiennes' lovable M. Gustave leads a massive, wonderful ensemble through Anderson's love letter to pre-war Europe and the early days of cinema.  There's no end to the cinematic delights here - the picture book settings, the slapstick humor, and the delightful score are only the most obvious.  However, what really made the movie for me was its underlying melancholy and affection for a bygone era.

Under the Skin - By turns frightening, suspenseful, and transcendent, this is easily the best film about alien invaders - or really the whole idea of being something "other" - that I've seen in ages.  Scarlett Johanssen's performance is fearless and essential.  Mica Levi's score is an eerie masterpiece.  However, it's Jonathan Glazer's impressionistic visuals, use of candid encounters, and intense, merciless direction that give the film its teeth.  After a string of high profile disappointments this year in the genre, I'm glad to see art house science-fiction continuing to reach new heights.

Gone Girl - Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn deliver a twisted psychological thriller with plenty to say about gender politics and the dangers of the 24 hour news cycle.  Ben Affleck gets his best role in ages as the imperfect husband under suspicion, but it's Rosamund Pike who totally dominates the film as the unforgettable Amazing Amy.  It's so gratifying to see a film that's so intelligent and so insightful about the nature of men and women, even as it gleefully feeds the audience's appetites for lurid tales of psycho exes and perfect relationships gone very bad.

The Babadook - It's always great to find a horror film that takes care to be artful and inventive as it delivers its thrills.  There's nothing particularly new about "The Babadook," where a strained mother and her troubled young son do battle against a fairy-tale monster, but Jennifer Kent's execution is exceptional.  The chilling picture book narrative, the dreamy transition scenes, the sound design - there are so many little touches that help to give the film its impact.  Special kudos for lead actress Essie Davis, particularly in the climactic scenes where she undergoes a chilling transformation.  

Two Days One Night - The Dardennes brothers make such deceptively simple films about characters in terrible, but all too familiar predicaments, usually involving family troubles or economic crisis.  Here, Marion Cotillard's Sandra visits over a dozen co-workers one by one, trying to win their support to save her job.  You'd think this would become repetitive, but each encounter is different and unpredictable.  Cotillard's performance becomes a driving force.  It's a good reminder that creating powerful, moving human drama needs little more than the right actors with the right opportunities.

Winter Sleep - Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's excellent character study of a petty, vain landlord who exerts considerable influence over a small town and its inhabitants.  At over three hours in length, the pace is slow and the atmosphere languid, but the film builds to a series of incredibly tense confrontations that force the characters to examine their lives and relationships.  The unhurried, natural way that the story unfolds through meetings and conversations helps to give the story and characters an uncommon sense of cohesion.  This one is challenging, but worth the effort.

What We Do in the Shadows - The vampire spoof we've all been waiting for, courtesy of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.  Featuring a quartet of desperately uncool vampire roommates living in New Zealand, "Shadows" delves into all aspects of the vampire mythos from the bloodsucking to the minions, and holds them up for sublime ridicule.  It also gets in some good jabs at documentary filmmaking conventions, male group dynamics, and werewolves.  This is yet another case of a band of indie filmmakers with a miniscule budget putting Hollywood's best efforts to shame.

Mommy - My favorite sequence of the year is the final montage of "Mommy," where the title character fantasizes about her troubled son growing up and leaving all his problems behind.  It's one of several beautiful, joyous moments that stand out in a heart-tugging melodrama about an unstable mother-son pair trying to learn to get along.  It's a marvel how director Xavier Dolan can evoke such heightened, spectacular cinema from a combination of art house aesthetics, trailer-trash kitsch, and overplayed 90s pop songs.  And the trio of thunderous performances certainly don't hurt either.

Selma - A picture of the Civil Rights movement during the famous events in Selma, Alabama, rather than the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic many were expecting.   Ava DuVernay includes many different points of view, many different voices and perspectives.  It's a refreshingly inclusive, thoughtful approach that allows the film to explore many of the smaller stories from Selma and address the controversies and ambiguities of the movement in greater detail.  David Oyelowo surely gives us one of the most nuanced and balanced portrayals of Dr. King ever put to film.

The Salt of the Earth - Wim Wenders turns his camera on a photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, whose work documenting the human condition and the natural world has spanned decades and continents.  It's an often sobering, but enlightening introduction to a truly remarkable man and the power of social photography.  The documentary often feels like a collaboration between Salgado and Wenders, because the most powerful images are indisputably Salgado's, but the strength and clarity of the film's narrative adds immeasurably to their weight.

Plus One

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - Likely the final masterpiece of Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata, and it's a stunner.  Despite the classical brush painting style and the 10th century setting, this is a decidedly modern retelling of the Japanese folktale.  Our lovely heroine wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary girl rather than the princess she's destined to become.  She strains at the bounds of propriety, and sometimes at the very brushstrokes that make up her delicate, painted world.  The film feels like the end of an era, a sad but fitting farewell.

Honorable Mentions

Dear White People
The Double
Inherent Vice
The Edge of Tomorrow
A Most Violent Year
Mistaken For Strangers
Song of the Sea


Monday, August 10, 2015

Welcome to "Jurassic World"

The original "Jurassic Park" was a wonderfully fun, breathless, gee-whiz action-adventure movie that included a few broad warnings about human beings meddling with the natural world.  "Jurassic World" is a somewhat less adept, but still perfectly serviceable summer action movie that warns of the dangers of making reboots and spinoffs.  Oh yes, I'm serious.

You see, "Jurassic World" is a self-aware film.  It's titular dinosaur theme park is built on the foundations of an earlier iteration, the new generation is no longer impressed with simply seeing natural dinosaurs, and the people in charge are constantly under pressure to come up with flashier attractions to perk up attendance numbers.  When it comes down to it, the whole plot of "Jurassic World" is clearly a retread of the first film with some predictable variations and whole lot of appeals to our nostalgia.  Things go wrong at the theme park due to sabotage and bad luck.  The dinos get loose and things quickly spiral out of control.  The meta just adds a little extra fun to the predictable action beats being played out by a set of very stock characters.

After Jurassic Park was abandoned, a new theme park called Jurassic World was eventually built on Isla Nublar. It's been running successfully for several years without incident, but its popularity is waning.  As the film opens, the park's operations manager, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) courts potential sponsors while readying an upcoming attraction, a genetically engineered new specimen called Indominus rex.  She's too busy to look after her two nephews, teenager Gray (Nick Robinson) and excitable youngster Zach (Ty Simpkins) who have come to visit, so they are left to explore the park largely on their own.  The bad guy head of security, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, (who is so obviously the bad guy that there's no point identifying him as anything else) heads up his own spinoff project, aimed at training velociraptors for the battlefield.  The primary trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt), gets good results from his raptors, but scoffs at the idea of exploiting them.  We get a few scenes here and there with Irrfan Khan as the park's idealistic owner, and B.D. Wong as a shady geneticist.  Oh, and then there's Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus doing worker bee comic relief from the Jurassic World control room.

So we are firmly in disaster movie territory, with a big cast of very thin characters.  There's nothing wrong with that, and "Jurassic Park" was put together much the same way, but here the assembly is far more haphazard, and the results are severely hit-or-miss.  Chris Pratt nicely fits the role of charming rogue, despite having to rattle off a lot of tin ear dialogue.  Ty Simpkins brings a lot of welcome energy to Zach, who is more or less a clone of Tim from "Jurassic Park."  However, Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't fare nearly so well as Claire, who is saddled with a weird maternal awakening subplot and stumbles through her chase scenes in high heels.  Even worse is Nick Robinson's Gray, who is the most insufferable kind of mopey, killjoy teenager through the first half of the film.  Vincent D'Onofrio is tuned to about the right level of scummy, but his character is barely present long enough to deliver a few lines of exposition.

Of course, the main event is the dinosaurs, which is what elevates "Jurassic Park" above your standard Roland Emmerich destruction-fest.  There are lots of new species to marvel at, lots of old favorites in new scenarios, and plentiful carnage.  Everything's still fairly kid-friendly, but some sequences involving park patrons get very intense and people do get eaten.  I'm sure there will be plenty of debate about how the CGI in this film compares to the effects in the original, but I was suitably impressed with the spectacle.  My favorite was not the new Indominus rex, who is a bit oversold, but the gigantic aquatic Mosasaurus, who lunges upwards from his tank to feed before adoring audiences in a Shamu show on steroids.

That brings us to the Jurassic World park itself, which I found to be the movie's best asset.  So much of the film's humor and creativity can be found in all the little touches we see at the gorgeously rendered park - the way the rides have been constructed, the announcements over the PA system, a Jimmy Fallon hosted ride safety video, and the corporate sponsorship.  The big climactic fight takes place in a shopping area that contains a Starbucks and a Pandora bracelet store - which would be completely plausible at a real theme park.  It also keeps the stakes high, as the audience may not be all that invested in Claire or her nephews, but hundreds of vulnerable families in danger still inspire plenty of anxiety.

And that's still the film's biggest obstacle.  The action scenes are competently staged and a most of the humor works, so "Jurassic World" is an easy watch.  However, the story problems and crummier characters kept me from getting fully engaged.  Attitude shifts and transformations happen in the last act with none of the work done to get the characters to that point.  It's very difficult to root for or connect to anybody.  And it's only when the film appeals to our nostalgia that it manages to elicit any sort of emotion beyond the immediately visceral.  As for messages, well, the park seemed to be operating swimmingly for years, negating the warnings of the first film.  It's only when the operators tinkered with generics in an effort to stay relevant (and prolong the franchise) that things went so wrong.

I give "Jurassic World" all the credit for being ambitious, and for resisting the urge to be cynical, crass, or cheap.  I just wish there had been a little more care.  The film could have been so much better than this.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

My Top Ten "Roseanne" Episodes

This one had a few stops and starts, because I like to be very thorough about putting together these lists, but I don't remember much of "Roseanne's" early seasons.  I was constantly watching "Roseanne" as a teenager, but the show had a nine year run, and I simply wasn't old enough or wasn't exposed often enough to its first few years for those episodes to stick.  Going through the summaries from seasons one and two, little was familiar.  George Clooney was a semi-regular?  However, brainstorming separately, I easily came up with six episodes I would put on my top ten.  So even if I can't claim that this is a particularly well-informed or comprehensive list, it comes from a longtime fan.  As usual, the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate.  I will also cheat and count two-parters as single entries. 

Lots of spoilers ahead.

"Inherit the Wind" - "Roseanne" was a groundbreaking show for a lot of reasons.  It was about a blue collar family, tackled all kinds of sensitive subject matter, and its stars looked and behaved like ordinary people.  Sometimes this manifested in subtle ways.  On the surface, "Inherit the Wind" has a familiar family sitcom plot.  Becky is embarrassed at school and needs some consoling.  However, it's how Becky is embarrassed, Darlene's gleeful recounting of the incident, and Roseanne struggling to help that made it stand out.  No other family show at the time would have devoted a whole episode to *ahem* cutting the cheese, but clearly more of them should have.

"Trick or Treat" - The Halloween episodes were always a blast, but I always appreciated this fairly low key one most for its playful subversiveness.  DJ's insistence on dressing up as a witch confounds Dan, while Roseanne opts for a male lumberjack outfit, complete with a full beard.  This let the writers poke some fun at gender expectations and stereotypes, a prelude to the LGBT material they would tackle in later seasons.  What really sells it is that Roseanne does pass fairly well for a burly, squeaky-voiced man the way that most television actresses couldn't.  Her shenanigans at the bar may not have been very spooky, but they were a real eye-opener when I was a kid 

"Terms of Estrangement" - The Conners face dark days as the motorcycle shop and the Robdell's luncheonette both go belly-up.  The Connor parents aren't too caught up in their woes to notice that Becky's in crisis, but the bombshell that drops at the end of Part 1 is possibly the show's best shocker.  There is no better example of the Conners' almost unique blue collar status in the TV landscape than this run of episodes, where the family is buffeted by economic troubles and Becky does the unthinkable.  Except, of course, it's really not so unthinkable in the real world.  The show does an admirable job of showing Becky taking her leap, and her parents summoning up the strength to let her go.

"Crime and Punishment" and "War and Peace" - Not technically a two-parter, but I have no idea why you'd want to watch one without the other.  Now, we all know that domestic violence is serious business.  And, for most of the hour, the show absolutely treats it that way, as we discover that Jackie's been beaten up by Fisher.  However, it's very hard to keep a straight face when Dan comes home with bruised knuckles and bucket of chicken after beating Fisher up.  And even harder when Dan gets arrested.  And when Darlene goes to bail him out of jail, it's downright impossible.  Juggling the difficult emotions of a topic like this with "Roseanne's" typical brashness must have been a tall order, but they make it look so easy.  Speaking of which...

"Wait Till Your Father Gets Home" - Roseanne's abusive father dies, and she and Jackie try to deal with the emotional fallout while making arrangements, wrangling relatives, and settling affairs.  Jackie's phone call to announce the death to a hard-of-hearing aunt is one of my favorite moments in the entire series.  The whole episode is a wonderful mixture of pathos and wry gallows humor, particularly as the Conners have to deal with all the little bureaucratic details of death that nobody really talks about.  Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote this episode, when she was still Amy Sherman, one of many notable comedy writers along with Chuck Lorre and Joss Whedon who cut their teeth on "Roseanne." 

"A Stash Form the Past" - The "Roseanne" spin on the common "very special episode" plot where drugs are discovered in a sitcom household.  In this case, the bag of weed turns out not be the property of one of the kids, but Dan and Roseanne's own long-forgotten stash from decades ago.  They briefly relive the glory days, with Jackie along for the ride, resulting in the priceless scene of the three of them hiding in the bathroom, while stoned out their gourds.  It's the adults who have to learn the life lesson this time, and it's not really about drugs.  After sitting through way too many of those alarmist "very special episodes," as a kid, this one was a refreshingly sane departure from the norm.

"Be My Baby" - I always loved Jackie, especially as she got goofier in the later years, but pregnant Jackie was something else.  I adore this whole arc culminating in Jackie breastfeeding at the altar, but the beginning of it was such a joy to watch.  Jackie telling Roseanne about her pregnancy, Roseanne telling Bev, and then Jackie telling Bev ("I'm naming it Gidget"), and the whole blow-up afterwards were gut-busting.  It's so perfectly illustrative of the love-hate relationships among the three of them while turning the usual expectations about pregnancy announcements on their heads.  Plus, we have Dan and Roseanne's bedroom conversations on trying to conceive, happily demystifying the whole process.     

"Homeward Bound" - Just when you thought that "Roseanne" had run out of difficult subjects to talk about, DJ starts spending too much private time in the bathroom and everybody has an opinion on how to deal with it.  I love the dialogue in this one, full of zings about masturbation without ever being too lewd for prime time.  DJ often gets lost in the shuffle, but when he has the spotlight he makes it count.  Here he hits all the right notes, completely not getting Darlene's jibes and freaking out when Roseanne overshares.  As with most of these episodes about the kids' growing pains, the problem isn't really solved and nobody's right, but acknowledging the problem at all was a battle won.   

"Spiringtime for David" - After Disney bought ABC, all the network's popular sitcoms were obliged to do Disney episodes, so the Conners spent a two-parter living it up at Disney World.  The next week, David got a job at a Disneyland knockoff called Edelweiss Gardens, and it was no holds barred.  David's Nazi bunny cult indoctrination is hysterical enough, but when Roseanne gets involved we're treated to some of her funniest, most blistering, and oddly patriotic tirades.  "Roseanne" would later be heavily criticized for going too far with its fantasy episodes, but I couldn't resist this one.  I especially love the ending tag where Roseanne is deprogramming David from his corporate dronehood. 

"Into That Good Night" - Season nine went off the rails, as everyone knows, but the final episode was a fitting end for the series as a whole.  It gave everyone their happy ending, and then injected a sobering dose of reality with a final twist.  Retconning not only the final season but several of the seasons before that infuriated some fans, but it felt appropriate to me.  "Roseanne" was always a semi-idealized version of its own star's life, and this was just another way of acknowledging that.  It also pointed out that as good as "Roseanne" was about reflecting the reality of a blue-collar family, it was still a network sitcom beholden to certain audience expectations.  The last episode poses the question, would you rather have watched the silly, fantasy-heavy version of the last season, or the dark, depressing real-world version of it? 


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Goodbye, Jon Stewart

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I first saw "The Daily Show."  My best guess is that it was probably the year 2000, right around when I had access to cable television for the first time in my college dorm.  That would have been the second year of Jon Stewart's tenure as host, when they were still doing a few of the "local news" segments left over from the Kilborn era.  However, the political coverage was also ramping up, and quickly attracting the attention of other youngsters like me.  My initial impression of "The Daily Show" was that it was a lot like SNL's "Weekend Update," except a full half hour.  The satire felt more well-considered, and the presenters more committed to the jokes.  It wasn't quite appointment viewing for me, but I found myself watching a lot of Jon Stewart and his merry band of correspondents, including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

So even before rise of Fox News, it was worth watching.  However, 9/11 and its aftermath were what really made "The Daily Show" what it became known for.  The news media landscape was changed forever for the worse, and "The Daily Show" emerged as an important counterweight to the babble of the 24-hour news cycle, and particularly to the paranoid right-wing sentiments that fueled the second Iraq War.  I kept watching "The Daily Show," not only because I found it funny and informative, but because it was one of the few media outlets at the time that was presenting a view of the world that made sense to me.  I made sure to keep myself very informed through other outlets - I was watching the BBC World News and reading the New York Times daily - but Jon Stewart's editorial voice was invaluable for making sense of post 9/11 America.  The fact that it was being presented through a half-hour satirical talk show on Comedy Central that used to air after junk like "Crank Yankers" didn't dissuade me.

And as the show changed, the host changed too.  Jon wasn't my favorite part of "The Daily Show" in the beginning - the Steph/vens were much more entertaining to watch.  However, Jon could cut through the hypocrisy like few others, which lead to moments like the "Crossfire" interview that took down Tucker Carlson.  I didn't see the first post-9/11 "Daily Show" with Jon's famous monologue until a few years after it aired, but it's required viewing.  You can see his stubborn optimism, his intellectual rigor, and his formidable ethical fiber coming to the fore.  You can see the man who would devote an entire show to pressing the cause of post-9/11 responders, the man who took months off from "The Daily Show" to make a movie about a wrongly incarcerated Iranian journalist, the man who has become the most trusted name in media as so many of the legitimate newsmen of our day were lost to scandal or corruption.  Jon Stewart used to downplay his work in interviews, pointing out that he was a comedian.  He's stopped doing that in recent years, as "The Daily Show" and its offspring have grown in influence and impact.

As much as I'd like Jon Stewart to stay, part of me knows that it's probably time for him to go.  I've watched "The Daily Show" regularly for about fifteen years now, and Stewart's go-to shtick has become a little too familiar.  That would be fine if he were on a network late night show, but "The Daily Show" is another matter entirely.  If it is to remain the satirical institution it has become, it needs new blood and some freshening up.  Stewart's already been surpassed in many ways by "Daily Show" alums Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.  I have high hopes for Trevor Noah, though he's going to have his work cut out for him, especially as an interviewer. Stewart's always given even his most contrarian rivals a fair shake, and I suspect many of them will be as sad to see him go as the rest of hie audience.  It's going to be strange not to see Stewart behind the desk, doodling over his note cards and doing his terrible-yet-endearing impression of George W. Bush.

David Letterman's retirement made me pause last year, but Jon Stewart's imminent departure is hitting me much harder, and not just because I still watch his show.  Stewart is almost certainly the major comedic influence of my late Gen-X, early Gen-Y generation.  I was there to see his rise and subsequently followed his career through thick and thin and an ill-considered Oscar hosting gig.  And now I'm here to see him go, after sixteen years.  We're not part of the same milieu, and I don't really identify with him in any way except politically and intellectually, but that's enough.  I'm firmly convinced that "The Daily Show" helped to keep the political discourse in this country from becoming worse than it already was in troubled times, and for getting many of us to pay attention to boring but vitally important issues.  Jon Stewart, in his own unlikely, fascinating way, made a difference, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Trip to "Slow West"

The western has been dead for years now, if the internet is to be believed, and yet good ones keep being made year after year.  We've gone from classic westerns to spaghetti westerns, revisionist westerns, post-modern westerns, and urban westerns.  I'm not quite sure how to categorize "Slow West," the directorial debut of musician John Maclean.  Its main characters are the odd couple pairing of a cynical bounty hunter, Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), and a naive Scottish teenager, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is newly arrived in America and travelling through dangerous, lawless western frontier in search of his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius).  After a chance meeting and a close brush with death, Jay pays Silas to guide him through the wilderness, but of course Silas has his own agenda.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the title, but "Slow West" is a decent description of the film's storytelling approach.  Though there is the constant presence of danger, and our heroes are forced into several violent situations, the film's pacing is fairly leisurely, allowing plenty of room for character building and soaking up the atmosphere.  We learn about Jay and Rose's past gradually, through several flashbacks.  Silas and Jay are not the best of traveling companions at the start, but eventually find common ground after enduring several trials and tribulations together.  There's a refreshing clarity and straightforwardness to the film's messages, which are embodied by Jay, the perhaps foolishly hopeful youngster who refuses to give in to cynicism and doubt despite having every reason to.  It's a strangely old-fashioned and romantic outlook for a western that is so clearly revisionist at its core.

I'm not familiar with John Maclean's earlier work, but he clearly had a strong enough reputation to attract a stellar cast.  In addition to Fassbender and Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann, and excellent newcomer Caren Pistorius do fine work.  I'm especially impressed with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is making a nice transition from child actor to adolescent actor, and hopefully beyond.  He uses his physical awkwardness to his advantage, but never cedes any presence.  And he provides a great contrast to Michael Fassbender, in the hypermasculine, lone wolf part that he's always been so good at playing.  Silas is a bit underwritten, but Fassbender still does an excellent job of giving him an inner life and suggesting bits and pieces of an eventful past.

John Maclean's inexperience in features shows, particularly in the scripting, but so does his wonderful visual sense, his strong storytelling sensibilities, and a very particular sense of humor.  One of the best moments of the "Slow West" comes toward the end of the second act, when the film is taking a breather after an action sequence.  Jay and Silas happen across the skeleton of a man crushed by a fallen tree he was trying to cut down.  It's a morbidly funny moment, but after the senseless violence we've seen the pair subjected to, it's also a strangely reassuring sign that death visits everyone both bad and good.  It gives Jay and Silas something to bond over, ruminating over natural selection and its strange exceptions.

Maclean builds a version of the old west around them that is fascinating to explore.  It's a harsh and unforgiving place, where death lies in wait behind every hill and tree.  Hostile natives, roving bands of outlaws, and bounty hunters are only the most obvious dangers.  Yet there's a palpable sense of wonder that colors the film, an almost magical realist approach to the way this world is presented.  The visuals gradually become more and more stylized as the movie goes on, leading up to one of the most visually striking shootout sequences I've seen in a long time.  There are some uneven tonal and pacing issues in the early going, but that climax on the picture perfect golden prairie is absolutely magnificent.

I'm still not convinced that "Slow West" is the best title for this film.  It's fairly brisk and runs a lean 84 minutes.  However, its charms did build on me gradually and incrementally.  It revealed itself eventually to be quite a different film than I had originally anticipated.  And it made me wish for more westerns like this one.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Kumiko" and the True Story

When I first read the description of "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter," I got a little upset.  "Kumiko" is based on the story of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who mysteriously died in Minnesota in 2001 after wandering around the Minneapolis area for several days, speaking little English.  A story circulated that she had been trying to recover the buried money depicted in the Coens' brothers film "Fargo," but this turned out to be a misunderstanding she had with a local policeman.  Konishi was depressed from her breakup with an American businessman, who she'd visited the area with before, and likely committed suicide as a result.  Paul Berczeller cleared everything up in his 2003 documentary about Konishi's final days, "This is a True Story."  But now here came "Kumiko," which appeared from the trailers to be a deliberate attempt to cash in on the fictional, sensationalized story.  "Fargo," despite famously declaring that it was based on a true story, wasn't.  "Kumiko" isn't based on a true story either, but on a mistaken interpretation of real-life events.  I felt indignant that the filmmakers seemed to be obfuscating what actually happened, whether intentionally or not.  The notion rankled me something fierce.

Crucially, however, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" isn't about Takako Konishi and never pretends to be.  It's about that curious treasure-seeking figure from the urban legend that was created before we learned Konishi's circumstances.  What kind of person would believe that "Fargo" was a documentary and that it pointed to a real hidden fortune?  What kind of person would travel halfway around the globe in search of it?  I was expecting "Kumiko" to be some kind of pulpy genre film featuring a plucky, exotic heroine.  Instead, it's a melancholy portrait of a young woman slowly losing her grip on reality.  Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives a solitary existence in Tokyo, working as an Office Lady, and quickly aging out of the position.  Everyone agrees that she ought to get married and have a family, but this doesn't interest Kumiko.  Instead, she obsessively watches and rewatches an old "Fargo" VHS tape that she found secreted away at the seashore, and comes to believe the story is real.  She starts making maps based on the information from the movie and preparing for the journey ahead.  And when her situation becomes unbearable, and the opportunity presents itself, Kumiko goes to Minnesota to begin her great treasure hunt.

The very particular, delicate mood created by the Zellner brothers is what allows "Kumiko" to walk that thin line between tragedy and uplifting adventure, to reconcile a fantasy of a woman that didn't exist and the harshness of a real woman's death.  The carefully constructed environments and Rinko Kikuchi's performance are extraordinary to take in.  Much of the film is spent in near-silence as we follow Kumiko through her daily routines, on her early excursions, and finally to the frozen Midwest.  We experience the world as she does, always throwing up obstacles and challenges in her path, full of people who don't understand her on both sides of the ocean.  She never says much, and much of her behavior remains a mystery, but we see Kumiko's resourcefulness and her daring, her little moments of triumph and heartbreak.  She's eccentric, but rarely confused.  The rest of the world simply doesn't understand things the way she does.

I especially admire how the Zellners make Minnesota and its inhabitants feel so foreign to the viewer.  Perhaps they go a little overboard with the colorful dialogue, which pokes gentle fun at some of the folks Kumiko encounters along the way.  However, this America is clearly the America of "Paris, Texas," and "Stoszek," a strange, evocative land that it's very easy to become lost in.  Kumiko transforms into a fairy tale figure as the film goes on, with more than a few visuals echoing "Little Red Riding Hood."  There's also the way that "Kumiko" is self aware of its own relationships to "Fargo" and to Takako Konishi.  The false "Fargo" notice screen, claiming "This is a true story" appears repeatedly in "Kumiko," perhaps helping to convince our heroine that the lost money is real.  But if Kumiko doesn't resemble Konishi the way that "Fargo" doesn't resemble true events - well, who's to say that in her universe, in her reality, the money isn't real?

"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" doesn't do right by Takako Konishi, but it does right by Kumiko.  And now, along with the "Fargo" television series, it's a wonderful example of media building on other media in unconventional, transformative ways.  I got so much more than I bargained for with this film, and a good reminder that what's real and what's true are often entirely different things.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Community," Year Six

Here we are, at what I'm pretty sure is the end of the road for "Community."  I admit I put off watching the final Yahoo! funded and presented season for much longer than I should have, but once I went and watched the first episode, I quickly marathoned the rest.  I was afraid that the show was going to be horribly diminished in some way because of its transition to a web platform.  Instead, aside from a few cast changes, "Community" is largely the same as it always was, thought more hyper-focused on Jeff and Abed.  And this season is actually better and more cohesive than the last one that aired on NBC.

First, some thoughts on the cast changes.  Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley got a brief goodbye and Jonathan Banks' Hickey did not, which was regrettable but clearly necessary.  Much more time is devoted to introducing familiar character actors Paget Brewster and Keith David to the group, and very successfully for new additions arriving so late in the show's run.  Brewster's Frankie is an administrative consultant hired by the Dean to essentially be a competent adult watching out for Greendale's interests in a way that he can't.  Keith David's Elroy shows up a bit later as a programming guru fallen on hard times, who becomes Greendale's primary IT guy.  They're both nicely delineated as very imperfect adults, who aren't going through the same growing pains as the core cast, and thus very much supporting players in the same way that the Dean is.  Also, note that the group is now comprised of more teachers and admin figures than students.

The writing is back on track, with most episodes in the vein of the school-centric, character-centric first season.  The study group has transitioned to the Save Greendale Committee fully, and Jeff's status as a teacher is firmly cemented, so the show can put all the worries about graduation dates and classes mostly behind it.  There are very few wild high concept episodes, though paintball does get trotted out one last time.  References and running jokes have been pruned, but there is a lot of meta - Abed's penchant for using pop culture as a crutch is simplified to making observations on the group like it's a television show, leading to a fantastic finale episode where everybody pitches ideas for Season 7.  Dan Harmon and company have fun acknowledging the show's format, cast, and platform changes where they can.

More vitally, however, it felt like the characters are themselves again, after the fourth season without Dan Harmon, and the extremely rushed, extremely compromised fifth season that left a lot of loose ends.  Britta and Jeff both get great episodes examining their current dissatisfaction with their lives from new angles.  Chang is still a trainwreck, but used better than he has been in ages. Ditto Annie, who at least gets a great closing scene for her character.  We learn enough about Frankie and Elroy to help us connect to them, and if this is the only season where they appear, it's still enough that I'll miss them.  As for Abed, I wish we got more of him this year because there's so much of his journey that feels like it happened off screen.

All and all, season six had the usual ups and downs.  There were some episodes, like the one about grifting and the one with the robot convicts that didn't work, but they still felt of a piece with the rest of the season.  And there were some big highlights, like Abed's epic science-fiction Z-movie, Garrett getting married, and Dean Pelton trying out the role of token homosexual.  It's fascinating how the entire premise of "Community" has been almost completely upended now, but it feels closer in spirit to its earliest episodes than it has in ages.  I think it has to do with the writers embracing the show's instability instead of trying to hide it.  "Community" never got over the departure of Donald Glover, but at the same time the constant reinventions have kept it from sliding into complacency or over-indulgence.  

The best example is this season's epic tags.  The format and length of "Community" didn't change much in the move to Yahoo!, with the exception of the show's closing credit segments, which just kept getting longer and wilder as the season went on.  The tags were always a highlight, but this year they exploded.  My favorite was Shirley's new NBC detective show with Stephen Weber, though the cybercrimes kid and the man who bought Dean Pelton's giant hand statue were up there.  And how fitting was it for the show to end on that meta-tastic "Community" board game ad?

Six seasons done.  Now settle in for the long wait for the movie.