Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Love and Sex and "The Duke of Burgundy"

Peter Strickland's 2012 film "Berberian Sound Studio" was an homage to Italian giallo horror films on its surface, but underneath it was an arthouse picture through and through.  You saw it for the sound design as much as you did for the screams.  And while his newest feature, "The Duke of Burgundy," has a plot synopsis you could mistake for a "Fifty Shades of Grey" knock-off, it likewise simply provides the framework for a rich, sensual cinematic experience for more open-minded audiences.

When we first meet Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), she appears to be working as a maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), a cruel and severe older woman who abuses Evelyn mercilessly for any minor faults in her housework.  However, we quickly discover that the relationship between the two women is far more complicated, involving a consensual sado-masochistic arrangement where it's ambiguous as to who actually is in control.  Despite the highly sexual subject matter and much discussion of erotic activities, there's very little nudity or objectionable onscreen content to speak of.  Instead, this cinematic seduction is all about aesthetics and atmosphere, about the sound design and the art design, the costumes, the music, and the glowing cinematography.

As with "Berberian Sound Studio," there is a very clear, strong narrative, but the storytelling is often impressionistic and indirect.  Aside from a humorous interlude involving a bedmaker, Cynthia and Evelyn are almost never straightforward about what they want from each other, so the film often clues us in on what's really going on in their heads via carefully orchestrated action and reaction shots.  The first time we see their daily routine, the film tells one story.  In subsequent repetitions and variations, the camera lingers on their expressive faces, glimmering soap bubbles, troublesome garments, and delicate moths, and the story becomes something very different.  "Burgundy" builds its best moments from scintillating sensory impressions.  It provides a kaleidoscope of heightened images, sounds, and moods that reflect the emotional journeys of the protagonists, while letting the director indulge in all the lovely stylistic exercises he so enjoys.  

Strickland's love of 1970s cinema is apparent from the very first frames of the dreamy opening sequence, where Cynthia traverses the rural countryside on her bicycle, halted occasionally for freeze-frame shots accompanying the credits.  The tempo of the music is unhurried and lulling, the lighting design soft and nostalgic.  I wasn't familiar with either of the lead actresses, who are excellent, and if it weren't for some of the more elaborate CGI-aided special effects, I could have easily believed that this really was a film from the '70s, some long-lost exploitation flick from an especially artful European director.  It's simultaneously high-minded and playfully trashy in the best ways, creating an intimate, private world of entomology lectures and fetish equipment.

However, the most vital thing Strickland gets right is that the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia comes across as genuine.  Though their desires are more extreme and their acts of devotion more unusual, the women struggle with very familiar relationship troubles.  Wants and needs, boundaries and emotions, and the constantly shifting give-and-take between the two have to be carefully balanced.  Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babbett Knudsen have wonderful chemistry together, and it's easy to understand their attraction even when they're at odds with each other.  The many-layered, very physical performances are fascinating, particularly the roleplay elements and the often contradictory nature of how Evelyn and Cynthia express their feelings.

I think there's enough going on here that most viewers would enjoy "The Duke of Burgundy" on some level, in spite of all the lascivious trappings.  It works perfectly well as a serious art piece and as a more titillating form of entertainment at the same time.  It worked for me as a poignant romance.  This is the best portrayal of a BDSM relationship I've seen on film in some time, and it's certainly one of the most gorgeous.  I like that it doesn't ask why, or how, or try to explain Evelyn and Cynthia.  It simply gives us a little window into the inner emotional reality of a pair of unusual lovers, who it turns out aren't quite so unusual at all.
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Friday, September 25, 2015

A Different Kind of "Thief"

I revisited "Manhunter" this week in the wake of the "Hannibal" finale, and then decided to take a look at another Michael Mann film that's long been on my "To Watch" list.  "Thief" was Mann's feature debut, which saw a resurgence of interest recently thanks to Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive," often referred to as its spiritual successor.  I've had a hit-or-miss relationship with Mann's work.  I liked "Manhunter" and "Collateral," but found "Public Enemies" and "Blackhat" wanting.  There was so much hype around "Heat" that it inevitably disappointed me, but I was very young when I saw it, and I know I owe it a rewatch someday.   "Thief," however, may be the first of Michael Mann's films that I've really loved unreservedly.

The heist film is a fixture of popular cinema, and thieves are familiar protagonists.  There's an appealing fantasy image of the professional safecracker that's been created over the years.  He's a smart, skillful operator who happens to be down on his luck for one reason or another - usually some sympathetic personal troubles or a weakness for some common vice - and understands that continuing the criminal lifestyle is a dead end.  One more big job, and he'll walk away from the whole sordid business for good.  Frank (James Caan) fits the bill perfectly, an ex-con who is quietly building up quite a reputation by pulling off impressive burglaries.  But as he reveals to the pretty waitress, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), Frank is working toward the goal of having a home and family.  A quick path to that goal appears in the form of Leo (Robert Prosky), a local crime boss, who convinces Frank to work for him on a major diamond heist.  The cost of doing business with Leo, however, is very high.

"Thief" is a product of its time, with the Tangerine Dream electronica soundtrack and early appearances by James Belushi and Dennis Farina in supporting roles.  Surveillance systems require digging into the guts of a building's electrical wiring, but Frank and his crew don't have to worry about cameras, because they weren't widely used yet in 1981.  Mann shot on location in Chicago, and captures the city as it never will be again.  His famous night scenes are on display here, the style already fully developed and self-assured.  And then there's James Caan, robust and dangerous, who exudes the kind of presence that's largely missing among our modern movie stars.  One of the film's highlights is an early scene in a coffee shop with Tuesday Weld, where they simply have an intimate conversation about their pasts and their hopes for the future.

So as much as "Thief" should be lauded for its carefully constructed heist scenes, viscerally violent confrontations, and a whole lot of Mann's famous nocturnal atmosphere, what's really impressive is the attention it gives to the psychology and the growth of its main character.  That's what allows it to spring some of its best surprises and take the third act in a direction that would seem contrived in other circumstances.  "Thief" is very much a genre film and power fantasy, one that executes many of the usual tropes to great effect.  However, it also subverts some of the big ones, especially that image of the safecracker hero who just wants a normal life.  I love the way that everything is built up to Frank's realization that what he has to do to get by as a thief, and perhaps his fundamental nature, are incompatible with the lifestyle he wants and the dreams he aspires to.

I know that Michael Mann had a long career in television prior to "Thief," but it's still difficult to believe that this was his first feature.  The look of it is so bold and the details so meticulously laid out.  Extensive research was done on the technical details, and boy does it make a difference.  I can't remember any other movie heists that involve so much heavy industrial machinery, which is how real safecrackers open safes.  The film is worth a watch for these sequences alone, particularly the one involving a spark-throwing cutting lance that requires a three-man team to operate.  "Thief" joins "Rififi" as one of the most realistic heist films as far as the actual heists go.  Outside of them, the film's depictions of crime and mayhem involve much more creative license.

Frank may not be a traditional movie thief, but he's still a genre film hero.  There are certain obligations that come with that, which the filmmakers fulfill brilliantly.  Many of Mann's later films can be daunting because of their subject matter or complexity, but "Thief" is pure entertainment.  And in the end, that's probably why I like it so much.
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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Jean-Luc Godard Film I Dislike the Least

I don't understand Jean-Luc Godard.  I don't understand his politics, his philosophy, his sense of humor, or his aesthetics.  Despite watching most of his filmography, I've concluded that I do not understand the majority of his films the way I'm meant to.    I find most of the early ones obtuse, and the later, more experimental pieces just plain incomprehensible.  And yet, there's no doubt that Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most influential and important directors who ever made a movie, so it's high time I wrote something about him.

I've decided to write about "Masculin Féminin," the Godard feature I watched over and over one weekend in my late twenties, trying to get my head around the director's trademark style.  It's very clear about its aims at least, providing a reasonably clear narrative through fifteen loosely connected vignettes.  Young idealist Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and pop singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya) fall in love and romp about Paris together, embodying the French youth culture of the times - "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola."  Interspersed with their story are candid interviews with various young people, mostly on the subject of love.  Godard shot the film vérité style, included candid sex scenes, and constantly broke the fourth wall with his sarcastic intertitles.

More than one critic has noted that "Masculin Féminin" is really "Masculin v.Féminin" depicting the clash between the serious, political worldview of Paul with the frivolous, commercial lifestyle of Madeleine.  However, Paul's revolutionary ideals are often expressed in very juvenile ways, and Madeleine's focus on her career often reflects more maturity and responsibility.  As with most Godard films, we spend a lot of time just hanging out with the characters, who are constantly discussing the issues of the day and questioning each other's existence as they meander along through a loose, almost non-existent plot.  There's an abrupt ending but no real resolution offered, an array of opinions expressed but no conclusions other than that there really are no conclusions that can be drawn.  The characters are left still trying to sort out priorities, identities, and emotional attachments in a swiftly changing world where everything seems to be up in the air.

The parts of "Masculin Féminin" I enjoy the most are the quasi-documentary segments, the little snippets of interviews with a diverse selection of Parisians from all walks of life.  They help to create a good snapshot of the era, specifically the summer of 1965 in Paris.  You can see gender roles starting to loosen up, and attitudes toward sexuality shifting.  Racial, political, and other social issues are referenced frequently.  People young and old, black and white have their say.  There's even a brief moment where Paul spies two homosexual men making out in the bathroom, who chide him for peeping.  And as much as Godard tries to equate "Féminin" with the shallow and superficial, the women are certainly more interesting creatures than any of the men.

As for the filmmaking, the spontaneity and the immediacy of the vérité style certainly stands out.  There's a youthful energy to "Masculin Féminin" that is very inviting, and the leads are attractive and charismatic.  Godard is usually too deadpan for me to tell when he's being snarky, but here I could definitely pick out some of the more ridiculous bits.  This is definitely one of the most accessible Godard films, one that requires little foreknowledge of the times.  Some familiarity with the social climate is helpful though.  I think that it also made a difference that I had already seen a handful of other Godard films by this point, and was getting better about identifying his favorite tricks and tropes.

At the same time, I can't really say that I like "Masculin Féminin."  I never managed to work up any kind of emotional connection to any of the characters, and Godard's preoccupation with Marx and the failings of the bourgeoisie continue to hold little interest for me.  I've theorized before that I simply don't have enough context to appreciate Godard's work, that I don't know enough about communism and pre-May '68 France.  Maybe I'm not just receptive to his brand of social critique.  Or his incidental, plotless storytelling.  Or the torrents of impenetrable political babble.  Anyway, there's no question that Godard is brilliant, and it's easiest to appreciate that in "Masculin Féminin."
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What I've Seen - Jean-Luc Godard

Breathless (1960)
A Woman Is a Woman (1961)
My Life to Live (1962)
Contempt (1963)
Bande à part (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)

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Fargo," Year One

How do you make a television series out of the Coen brothers' chilly Minnesotan neo-noir "Fargo"?  Well, there's the straightforward approach, which is what MGM tried when it produced a pilot for a "Fargo" television series back in 1997, starring Edie Falco in the continuing adventures of Marge Gunderson.  That one never got off the ground, and thank goodness, because otherwise Noah Hawley's far more interesting take on "Fargo" for FX in 2014 might not exist.

Technically, the television series is a sequel to the film, set in the same universe.  However, the show is better described as a loving pastiche of "Fargo," with a few major elements taken from other Coen brothers films.  The story is entirely original, about a series of different crimes committed over two decades later, but constructed in such a way that many themes and characters and events echo between "Fargo" the film and "Fargo the series: snowy landscapes, violent murders, desperate men, moral quandaries, and a noble policewoman at the center of it all, putting the pieces together.  It's not necessary for the viewer to have seen the original "Fargo" to enjoy the series, but non-Coens fans will miss out on all the little references, particularly the way that the show takes some of the iconic images from the film and finds ways to work them into the new story in different contexts.  

On to the plot.  Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a lowly insurance salesman, lives in Bemidji, Minnesota.  After a terrible day of being henpecked by a resentful wife and menaced by an old bully, Lester has a chance meeting with a sinister man whose name will eventually be revealed as Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton).  Malvo is a terrible fellow who murders people for a living and also for his own enjoyment.  Soon he and Lester are involved in a terrible series of crimes that attracts the attention of Bemidji police deputy Molly Salverson (Allison Tolman) and an officer in the neighboring town of Duluth, Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks).  And if that weren't enough star power, among the supporting players you many recognize Bob Odenkirk as Chief Oswalt, Keith Carradine as Molly's father, Joey King as Gus's daughter, Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as a pair of hitmen, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of FBI agents, and Oliver Platt as a local supermarket mogul.

I've never seen a show this good on basic cable before  It's not just the high production values or the sterling cast, but just how well-conceived and beautifully executed the whole show is.  It's been so long since I've seen the "Fargo" film, that it didn't hit me how well Hawley and his collaborators managed to capture the rich moral complexity of this universe until several episodes in.  The show is often jarringly dark, not only because of the graphic violence, but the cruelty with which that violence is meted out, and because of how the perpetrators are portrayed.  "Breaking Bad" and other modern television series have been all about examining and often romanticizing the anti-hero.  In "Fargo," we may be occasionally invited to sympathize or to admire the wrongdoers, but not for long.

There's this wonderful sense of existential dread, a growing dismay that builds episode after episode as we realize that Lorne Malvo keeps doing horrible things, and a few rural police officers, as smart and resourceful as they are, simply aren't a match for him.  There is also a very Coens-esque sense of cosmic justice, a hand of fate at work throughout, but it only ensures that bad choices lead to bad outcomes, not that the evil are punished or that the innocent are saved.  Death is cold and harsh and bleak, mirroring the winter landscapes the players traverse.  And as each ten-episode season is being treated as a separate miniseries with different casts, no character is guaranteed to survive for appearances in the following season.

I have no idea what kind of budget the show's creators were working with, but the "Fargo" series looks magnificent.  The visuals are easily feature quality, though it wisely doesn't try to ape the Coens' style.  Instead, it goes about evoking the same tone and mood, that wonderful mix of dark humor, small town pleasantries, sing-song accents, and inclement weather.  It manages the wonderful trick of never seeming like it's trying to cross paths with the movie, but instead occasionally stumbling across the same images, or snatches of dialogue, or a similar character by accident.  While Lester Nygaard may remind you of Jerry Lundegaard at first glance, he's a complete different and equally compelling reprobate, operating on a different scale.      
   
Special mention must be made of the lead performers here.  Martin Freeman's inherent likeability is used to wonderful effect to get us to root for Lester, and distract us from the less savory parts of his nature.  Billy Bob Thornton's Lorne Malvo seems to share quite a bit of DNA with Anton Chigurh from "No Country For Old Men," and makes for a wonderful Devil figure.  He's the flashiest and most quotable villain of the piece, and probably the guy that everyone will remember this series for.  However, "Fargo" also benefits from strong turns from the dependable Colin Hanks as one of our heroes, and Allison Tolman, emerging from almost total obscurity, as the other.  Tolman is an especially wonderful presence here, playing the kind of female character we don't see on television much, and sorely need to see portrayed more often.

The "Fargo" series is a massive accomplishment for everyone involved, and this includes FX, which can't be ignored as a source of great television after this.  I hope that Noah Hawley will be able to keep the same level of quality going forward, but after the second season of "True Detective," that may be asking for too much.  Fortunately, the first year of the "Fargo" television series stands perfectly well on its own, and is about as good a series based off of a feature film could ever possibly hope to be.  If Noah Hawley gets the urge to make a "Raising Arizona" or "Barton Fink" series in the same vein, that would be very all right by me.
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Thursday, September 10, 2015

The First Five of "Deadwood"

I don't have it in me to keep watching "Deadwood."  It took quite a bit of effort to get through these first five episodes, and there's no way I'm getting through thirty-one more in a hurry.  Perhaps I've heard too much praise for HBO's acclaimed 2004 western, too much hyping of Ian McShane's career-making turn as the villainous Al Swearengen.  Perhaps I'm just not in the mood for something this gleefully crude and venal and nasty right now.  Whatever the reason, "Deadwood" was a disappointment in too many respects.  I respect the hell out of the show for what it is, but I'm done with it for the foreseeable future.

The year is 1876, and the gold-mining encampment of Deadwood, located in what has yet to be established as South Dakota, attracts the best and the worst of the era.  The Gem Saloon and brothel is owned by Al Swearengen (McShane), who has a hand in every kind of con and grift and vice operation in the area, and most of the legitimate business too.  He rents a plot of land to the newly arrived ex-lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes), who intend to open a hardware store but get caught up in the local politics.  Swearengen and hotel owner E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) are also key figures in the sale of a questionable claim to gold-seeking gent Brom Garrett (Timothy Omundson), whose wife Alma (Molly Parker) is a laudanum addict.  Finally, there's great excitement at the arrival of an aging Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), accompanied by Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert).

The goal of the series is to present a more candid, true-to-life, and true-in spirit account of how life was lived in the Old West than the prettied-up romanticized version we've been presented with in westerns so often.  And so Al Swearengen beats up one of his prostitutes and uses the f-word 43 times in the pilot episode alone, despite the f-word being an anachronism.  And Calamity Jane is a violent alcoholic "sewer mouth," and yet still one of the most sympathetic miscreants in the cast.  The town of Deadwood is suitably muddy and inhospitable, populated by grime-caked extras.  Deadwood is a real place and most of the characters like Swearengen and Bullock were real people, so there's plenty of history informing the events of the show.  However, the creators definitely took artistic liberties in order to emphasize the lawlessness and cutthroat nature of how they lived.

McShane gives the most memorable performance, and it's not hard to see how Al Swearengen became "Deadwood's" headliner, often held up as one of the best anti-heroes of the current television golden age.  He's the 1870s version of a mob boss, who becomes a stabilizing force almost in spite of himself because chaos is bad for business.  McShane dominates every scene he's in and sets the standard for everyone else in the cast.  I also enjoy Olyphant, a man who was clearly born to star in westerns, and Brad Dourif as the local physician, Doc Cochran.  The scope of "Deadwood" is wide enough to support a big community of interesting characters, who are given plenty of opportunity to distinguish themselves.  It helps that the show was willing to push the content boundaries and adopt a very modern attitude toward its subject matter.

However, "Deadwood" somehow also feels terribly old fashioned and I'm afraid it hasn't aged well.  I was immediately put off by the dingy cinematography and by the barrage of profanity and violence.  It feels like it was trying too hard to shock and awe - and after ten years where harder adult content has become the norm, the approach seems positively juvenile.  At the same time the basic structure of the show is very reminiscent of the soapy TV westerns of my youth, like "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" and "The Young Riders."  The languid opening sequence with the running horse is positively retro.  Maybe it's the lingering effects of watching too many bad shows in the past, but I really have no interest following the "Deadwood" characters on this familiar path toward lawful Statehood and civilization again.

In short, my disinterest in "Deadwood" is mostly due to my own preferences and viewing history.  I certainly understand why it's earned such a loyal contingent of fans, and I'm glad that they may finally be getting the ending for the show they've waited on for so long.  In a couple of years I may be in the mood to revisit and finish it.  Maybe if my viewing queue weren't so overstuffed with more appealing options, I'd have more patience.  But as it stands now, I've seen enough "Deadwood."
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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The September, 2015 Follow-up Post

It's that time again. The "follow-ups" are the semi-regular posts where I write about recent developments related to topics I've blogged about in the past, but which didn't warrant a whole new write-up to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience. This time we're digging back in the archives a bit to look at some older trend pieces.

The GamerGate Post - But first, let's get some nastiness out of the way.  The 2015 Hugo Awards have come and gone, and Vox Day's slate of nominees was denied at every turn.  Winners had a noticeably more progressive and inclusive bent to them, and in the categories where there were only the Vox Day nominees available, Hugo voters declared "No Award."  As expected, the GamerGate crowd lost no time in shaking their fists at the perceived injustice, insisting that this meant there was really a sinister cabal controlling the voting all along.  Changes to nomination rules will mean they can't pull this trick again next year either.  I expect we'll see more of these cultural skirmishes in the future, but a year after the original inciting incident that created the GamerGate "movement," this specific configuration of angry gamer goons is quickly losing steam.

China's Getting Animated  - The top grossing Chinese film of all time is this summer's family film "Monster Hunt," which has made over $375 million to date.  It mixes live action and CGI animation and was directed by DreamWorks Animation vet Raman Hui for the Beijing effects house Base FX. And then there's the fully animated CGI feature, "Monkey King: Hero is Back," which was also released the same month, and is now the highest-grossing animated film released in China, beating previous record holder "Kung Fu Panda 2."  Directed by Tian Xiao Peng for October Animation, the production got a boost from crowdfunding and social media campaigns.  With at least a dozen other Chinese produced animated films in theaters this year, Chinese animation is booming - in China at least.  "Monkey King" is being readied for an English language adaptation, and "Monster Hunt" is in discussions with international distributors, but it's not clear if their charms will translate.  However, with China poised to become the biggest film market in the world, even rescuing Hollywood flops like "Terminator: Genisys," Chinese animated films clearly don't need the rest of the world to be successes.

I May Have to Give Up On TV - Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks that there's too much good television to be able to keep up with it all.  At the TCA press tour last month, John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks made his now notorious remarks on the current state of television, which boiled down to, "This is simply too much television." Predictions had previously been made that with all the new ways of consuming content and all the new players on the scene, we'd end up with a bubble, but never from an executive this high profile and well regarded.  The television landscape is still changing quickly, with cordcutting on the rise and streaming growing ever more influential, so it's hard to see how this is going to play out in the long run.  If the bubble is going to burst, I guess I'd better just enjoy the glut while it lasts and keep a tally of the good stuff to catch up on when we hit the lean times.

The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown -  Speaking of streaming, can you believe it's been less than three years since Netflix premiered their first series, "House of Cards"?   Since then, their original content has expanded to the point where we're seeing major new titles drop every month.  2015 has already seen the premieres of the well-received "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Bloodline, "Daredevil," "Grace and Frankie," "Wet Hot American Summer," "Narcos," and more.  Though we don't have exact metrics, Netflix has been pretty successful at creating their own content to offset what the studios have been steadily removing from the service.  A few days ago, Netflix announced that they will be ending their deal with Epix, that provided access to many recent releases such as "The Hunger Games" and "Transformers."  However, Netflix has still got Disney in their corner, and the Weinsteins, and enough subscribers that the impact shouldn't hurt them much.
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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Hannibal," Year Three

Spoilers ahead.

I liked the third season of "Hannibal" about as much as I liked the first, which is to say I enjoyed it sporadically, and felt that it was wildly uneven.  There were terrible episodes and concepts that simply didn't work, but there were also very good ones containing some of the show's best moments.  This season was split into two distinct parts, so let's take them separately.

When last we left "Hannibal," most of the cast was on the verge of death and Hannibal Lecter was en route to Europe with the lovely Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson).  I liked the portrayal of Hannibal and Bedelia's strange relationship and where it went, but these episodes were altogether a little too meandering and a little too unfocused.  The show doubled down on its obtuse arthouse stylizations, which increasingly felt like a desperate bid to hide weaker scripts and a decreased budget.  Was there ever any question that the really important characters from last season would survive?  Was it necessary to shoehorn Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), Hannibal's childhood friend into the story?  Nothing about her worked at all.  I did like some of the material involving the Vergers.  Joe Anderson replaces Michael Pitt with hardly any fuss.  There are some good shocks to be had.  However, the crazy events of the finale aren't as effective without the proper narrative buildup that previous storylines had.

What should have been a nice break from the show's formula, a change of scenery, and an opportunity for more character development instead becomes a bit of a slog.  "Hannibal" reintroduces all the players one by one, and is more interested in hearing them talk out their interpersonal issues than bothering with the whole manhunt storyline.  It's a relief to discover that some of last year's doomed minor characters are finally, really dead, though there's a lot of time devoted to saying goodbye.  Again.  There is also the change in the visual style - most episodes were directed by Vincenzo Natali, who put in a lot of murk and distortion, removing a lot of the viscerality.  The gory tableaux, which were often the centerpieces of early episodes, have been severely cut back - technically there was only one in the premiere, plus a few later kills that you could argue fit the pattern.  Du Maurier was the centerpiece of the marketing campaign, and she gets plenty of time and emphasis in these episodes.  No one else, including Hannibal Lecter, comes off nearly as well.

The second half of the season, retelling the events of the Thomas Harris novel "Red Dragon," is altogether cleaner and more satisfying.   After a multi-year time jump, Will Graham has married a woman named Molly (Nina Arianda), and Hannibal is incarcerated.  Will is drawn into the search for a serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy," Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), and enlists Hannibal's help, which introduces complications.  Roles and events are switched around to better reflect the relationships that have been established in the show, and some familiar events are given unexpected new twists.  Raul Esparza's Dr. Chilton shares the Freddie Lounds role, for instance, and there's much more interaction between Will Graham and Hannibal.  I also appreciated the casting of a black actress, Rutina Wesley, as Reba McClane, Dolarhyde's blind love interest, and Alana Bloom getting the more beefed up role of Hannibal's jailor.

This is the third filmed version of the story I've seen now, after "Manhunter" and the "Red Dragon" film.  It's the least of them, but that doesn't mean the adaptation isn't worth a watch, especially in the context of the rest of the show.  Richard Armitage is an excellent Francis Dolarhyde, and briefly becomes the show's third lead.  The increased running time allows for much more character drama and psychological exploration.  Boundaries are pushed, and some startling questions asked.  Where "Hannibal" really can't match up, however is the production quality.  Despite the good use of stylized visuals and CGI fantasy elements - this is the first version where the Great Red Dragon gets literal wings - the events are smaller scale and staged much more simply.  Also, a huge amount of the tension and the terror is diffused by the story being told over so many more episodes, and so many more characters and side-plots being involved.

I can't say I'm sad to see the series go at this point.  It definitely peaked in year two, and the creators clearly had trouble maintaining the show's quality.  The shocker of an ending they came up with feels like the right one anyhow.  The series was about the relationship of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, and the later Thomas Harris books beyond this point are not.  I'm more than satisfied with this season of "Hannibal," and I think it's time to say goodbye.
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Monday, September 7, 2015

Summer Wrap-Up 2015

Another summer at the movies has come and gone, and it's been a wild one.  The year's big winner, thanks to the massive runaway success of "Jurassic World," is Universal.  There's been a lot of chatter about them being in the top position in spite of no superhero films, but one glance at their slate reveals franchise film after franchise film, so they're hardly bucking the trend.

Nobody was all that surprised to see "Age of Ultron" and "Minions" having big opening weekends.  However, this was also the year of "Spy" and "Trainwreck" and "Straight Out of Compton."  This was the year PIXAR got back on track with "Inside Out" and "Pitch Perfect 2" couldn't be stopped.  The franchises certainly made money, but they didn't dominate the landscape the way many expected.  It's tradition to try and suss out the hot trends in moviegoing, but the most important one as far as I'm concerned, is that few of the box office winners this year were egregiously awful, the way they have been in the past.  "San Andreas" and "Minions" were about as bad as it got.  The once bulletproof Adam Sandler, however, saw his much-derided "Pixels" bomb, and stateside audiences and critics were both equally hostile to "Terminator Genisys."  On the other hand, I'm disappointed that "Shaun the Sheep" and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." slipped through the cracks.  No comment on "American Ultra."

You could make a lot of premature pronouncements looking at this year's bombs.  Does "Hot Pursuit," mean the female buddy comedy is dead?  Does "Aloha" mean travelogue rom-coms are out?  Should we be worried about smaller science-fiction films after "Self/Less"? Modest successes like "Paper Town" and "Magic Mike XXL" suggest that midrange films aren't quite dead yet though.  And it's too much to hope that the tepid performances of "Poltergeist" and "Vacation" will mean any slowdown in the reboot craze.  The "Fantastic Four" disaster surely doesn't say anything about the state of superhero movies, but then again "Age of Ultron" and "Ant-man" weren't as profitable as some of their Marvel Universe predecessors.  There's no question why the  "Entourage" movie flopped, though.  Seriously, who decided to spend $30 million making an "Entourage" movie?

But enough negativity.  There were some great surprises this summer too.  Three cheers for George Miller for finally getting to make the "Mad Max" film he wanted to.  Hooray for Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy for silencing their critics.  "Straight Out of Compton" brought out an underserved audience and hopefully Hollywood will see fit to make more movies for them in the future.  "Jurassic World" wasn't one of my favorites, but it turned out much better than I was expecting, and I hope that Colin Trevorrow uses his newfound power wisely (and doesn't screw up "Star Wars" Episode IX).  And also, kudos to the Rock for proving that he's still a headliner with "San Andreas."

Summer was traditionally the season for kids' movies, but the specifically family friendly titles have actually been shrinking in recent years with the superhero takeover.  Of course "Inside Out" and "Minions" made a big splash, but there wasn't much else for the youngest kids.  There were only two PG rated live action films released by studios - G rated films have disappeared entirely.  Warner Brothers had the rescue dog movie "Max," which went mostly unseen, but made a little bit of money.  The other was Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland," one of the big financial disappointments of the year.  The lean pickings make the poor showing of "Shaun the Sheep" even more bizarre.

The arthouse had a rough time, without many breakthrough hits aside from the Amy Winehouse documentary and a handful of films aimed at older folks like "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "I'll See You in My Dreams," and "Far From the Madding Crowd."  Even Woody Allen couldn't catch a break.  I still have my fingers crossed that some of the Sundance favorites like "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," "The End of the Tour" "The Stanford Prison Experiment," and "Dope" might find some love during awards season.

Finally, below are my results of the summer movie wager.  I failed pretty miserably, having picked a bunch of flops in the second half of my list, but since many of those choices were very cynical, I'm actually very happy with how the rankings shook out.  It's far more heartening to see "Pitch Perfect 2," "Mad Max: Fury Road," and "Straight Out of Compton" making money than "Pixels," "Ted 2," and "Terminator Genisys."  Also, keep in mind that the worldwide rankings are different, with "Genisys" notably having gotten a boost.

Actual Domestic Box-Office Rankings:

1. "Jurassic World"
2. "Avengers: Age of Ultron"
3. "Inside Out"
4. "Minions"
5. "Pitch Perfect 2"
6. "Ant-Man"
7. "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"
8. "San Andreas"
9. "Mad Max: Fury Road"
10. "Straight Outta Compton"

My Predictions

1. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" - 7 points
2. "Minions" - 5 points
3. "Jurassic World" - 5 points
4. "Ant-Man" - 5 points
5. "Inside Out" - 5 points
6. "Ted 2"
7. "Pixels"
8. "Tomorrowland"
9. "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" - 5 points
10. "Terminator Genisys"

Wild Cards

Mad Max: Fury Road - 1 point
Magic Mike XXL
Fantastic Four

Final score: 33 points out of a possible 100
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Friday, September 4, 2015

My Top Ten Movie Posters

I've never been hit by such a paranoid sense of "I don't know what I'm talking about" than when I decided to put this list together.  And so, research, research, research.  I've spent weeks poring over galleries, reading up on artists, and second guessing whether I really liked a poster, or if I was just impressed by a poster, or maybe just nostalgic or familiar with a poster.  I started out knowing the names of exactly three film poster artists: John Alvin, Saul Bass, and Drew Struzan, and wound up picking none of their works for the final list.  Heck, none of the movie posters currently hanging in my house made the list (which makes me think it's time to redecorate).

The volume of material was so vast, I did make some effort to include pieces representative of different eras and from several different artists, but let my own particular tastes dictate specific pieces.  You can tell that the '70s and '80s were my favorites.  Entries are unranked and ordered by date below:


"Fantomas" (Gino Starace) - For more than a few of these entries, I was entranced with the posters long before I became familiar with the films.  So it was with the master criminal Fantomas, an early figure of French cinema, seen here looming over Paris in his domino mask and tuxedo.  The poster image was taken almost unaltered from the original "Fantomas" novel cover, except the dagger in his hand was removed, signaling that the film serial would be less lurid than the books.


"Metropolis" (Heinz Schulz-Neudamm) - That Art Deco typography!  Those Futurist buildings!  The angles, the lights, the robot woman!  "Metropolis" isn't my favorite of Fritz Lang's films, but the imagery is so powerfully evocative of the cinema of the 1920s - of the whole era, really.  What film fan could resist?  An original German one-sheet notoriously sold at auction for $1.2 million in 2012, making this easily one of the most expensive movie posters in existence, as well as one of the most iconic. 


"Gilda" (Unknown Artist) - If I'm going to have a poster featuring a screen siren, it's got to be Rita Hayworth.  Hayworth posters have popped up in film many times over the years, most notably in "Bicycle Thieves" and "The Shawshank Redemption."  There are many, many different "Gilda" posters, and it was a close race between this version and the more famous theatrical release poster that declares "There NEVER was a woman like Gilda!"  But here she's smiling, and that makes all the difference.


"The Exorcist" (Bill Gold) - Now we're jumping ahead past several decades and several graphic design eras to the '70s.  There are a wealth of great horror movie posters, but the amazingly subtle, atmospheric black-and-white image of the priest arriving at a suburban house on "The Exorcist" poster remains one of the most indelible of the genre.  Bill Gold is one of the unsung masters of movie poster design, with a staggering seven decade career, and I think this may be the best thing he ever did.

 
"Chinatown" (Jim Pearsall) - I wanted a good noir poster, and somehow 1974's "Chinatown" was the one I couldn't say no to.  I love everything - the silhouette, the line work, the coloring and the imagery.  The elements are clearly reminiscent of the classic noir of the '40s, but the style of the illustration is much more common of the '70s.  The one major flaw is that the poster isn't very representative of the movie itself, but rather seems to portray the kind of romantic notion of being a private eye the film was keen to dispel.


"Raiders of the Lost Ark" 1982 rerelease (Richard Amsel) - Of all the artists I discovered while researching posters, Richard Amsel is my favorite.  There are so many of his posters that I remember fondly, and so many that still make me light up.  Amsel draws faces, and captures personalities on paper like nobody else.  There were too may good options here, but I had to go with his second - and most famous - "Raiders of the Lost Ark" theatrical poster.  Other artists' Indy posters are wonderful, but Amsel's are essential.


"Amadeus" (Peter Sís) - This looks a bit like the "Fantomas" poster, doesn't it?  The image of the masked Commendatore from "Don Giovanni" is one of the earliest I remember from any movie poster.  I love the ominous, mysterious tone this massive, dark figure sets, and the sweeping theatricality of the poster design that serves as a nice prelude to the film's legendary art direction.  And it was such a wonderful realization, the day I spotted the tiny Queen of the Night at the center of the sunburst pattern. 


"Brazil" (Unknown Artist) - The winged warrior escaping from the filing cabinet is the far more popular image associated with Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," but I distinctly remember finding the VHS cassette for the movie at my local Blockbuster sporting this poster as its cover art, and nearly whooped out loud in the store.  I just fell in love with the image instantaneously, never mind that it was promoting a film.  I regret I've never been able to identify the artist, which is a far too common problem with many of these posters.


"V for Vendetta" (Concept Arts) - And now we enter the Photoshop era, wherein poster art did not die an inglorious death, but it became a lot tougher to find interesting pieces.  Lots of good work came out of the 'V for Vendetta" campaign, with its heavy Soviet propaganda influences.  The limited color palette and tilted axes really help the promos stand out from the crowd.  I like this poster in particular because it also hearkens back to "Vendetta's" graphic novel roots, though the style is quite different.



John Carter (J. C. Richard) - The alternate poster trend has brought a welcome infusion of talent and interest to the movie poster world.  One of my recent favorites is this poster for the deeply flawed "John Carter" movie, created by Mondo, which was only distributed via a free giveaway for certain midnight premieres.  With barely any text or even a credit block, this looks like a piece of concept artwork.  It's also a complete and very welcome departure from the rest of the film's much-criticized marketing materials. 

Honorable mentions: "The Kid" (Unknown Artist), "Le Million" (Jean-Adrien Mercier), "Gone With the Wind" (Tom Jung / Howard Terpning), "The Forbidden Planet" (Unknown Artist), "Joe Kidd" (BIll Gold), "The Sting" (Richard Amsel), "Return to Oz" teaser (Drew Struzan), "Star Wars" 1997 rerelease (Drew Struzan), "Where the Wild Things Are" (P+A / Mojo), The Informant (Kellerhouse, Inc.)
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Son of a Podcast Post

I never got to listen to the Dissolve podcast before the website folded, so I figure I'd better appreciate the media-related podcasts that I'm still able to listen to now.  Along with my regular favorites, Filmspotting, /Filmcast, and Firewall & Iceberg, there have been some new additions to my playlist that I wanted to spotlight here:

The Projection Booth - My current addiction.  What I love about the podcast format is that there are much looser time constraints, so movie reviews and discussions can get pretty in-depth and run as long as they need to.  Most film podcasts still tend to have self-imposed limits, though, especially if they tackle more than one title at a time.  That's why I love The Projection Booth.  Each episode is devoted to a single film or series of films, and between wonderfully well-researched group discussions and interviews they often run two or three hours apiece.  The selection is very eclectic, so one week the hosts will be analyzing the layers of symbolism in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," and the next they'll be exploring the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued "Alien 3."  The hosts are a blast, the level of the discussion is consistently high, and I love how much information they manage to pack into every installment.  I'm saving their mammoth six-hour "Star Wars" episode for a rainy day.

How Did This Get Made - Comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas make fun of some of the worst and most bizarre movies ever made.  There are plenty of podcasts devoted to taking down awful cinema, but these folks are professionals, with a good rotation of celebrity guest, lots of industry experience, and killer joke delivery at their disposal.  As their theme song proudly declares, they want to "wallow in the mediocrity of subpar art" and have a good time doing it.  All the usual suspects like "Battlefield Earth" and "The Room" have been held up for mockery, but they'll also devote occasional episodes to "crazy" movies that they actually adore, like the "Crank" series.  I find that some familiarity with the movies being discussed is necessary, but otherwise this is one of the more accessible film podcasts out there.  Only film nerds will likely be interested in Filmspotting or The Projection Booth, but listening to the HDTGM hosts skewer "Junior" should be hilarious to anybody.

Talkin' Toons - You may not know the name Rob Paulsen, but you know his work.  Paulsen is the voice-actor behind popular characters from "Animaniacs," "Pinky and the Brain," Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and many other cartoons.  And having worked in voice acting for over four decades, he's friends with just about every other voice actor and actress out there. And that's how he got all of them to be on his podcast.  A couple of caveats for this one. Paulsen is a wonderful, energetic presence who - bless his heart - occasionally gets completely carried away with the schmoozing and lets conversations get too impenetrable to outsiders.  Also, there have been some significant technical issues with various episodes, particularly the ones done in front of live audiences.  But if you're a cartoon fan, this podcast is such a joy and brings back so many good memories.  I recommend starting with any of the talks with Billy West and Maurice LaMarche.

The Nerdist Writers Panel - Ben Blacker hosts informal chats with film and television writers.  Lately it's mostly been television writers and creators, from shows as diverse as "Sesame Street" and "The Colbert Report."  Contrary to the title, the show isn't always done in a panel format, and will feature individual interviews like the recent ones with James L. Brooks and Chris Carter.  I'm constantly astounded by the guests that they've managed to bring on the show.  The discussions often emphasize people's experiences in the industry, so this is a good podcast not only for burgeoning writers, but for anybody with an interest in how their favorite media is made and what goes on behind the scenes.  One of my favorite discussions involved charting what happened to an ambitious "Wizard of Oz" TV project that had the plug pulled before it made it to air.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Orphan Black," Year 3

Minor spoilers ahead.

I was on the fence about continuing with "Orphan Black" at all, after a very shaky second season.  I'm glad I did, because "Orphan Black" managed to deliver a pretty entertaining new batch of episodes, despite not fixing most of the problems that I pointed out last year.  The ones that it did address, though, made a lot of difference. 

First, there have been some good adjustments to the unwieldy cast.  The show struggled to keep Sarah's multiple male allies in the mix, but now it's cut back on their involvement considerably.   Michael Mando has departed to "Better Call Saul," so no more Vic.  Art is now the Clone Club's cop friend who is hanging around out of obligation to Beth, and the entire subplot with Angie Deangelis appears to have been dropped.  Cal and Kira have both been neatly sidelined after two episodes, and the show is much better for it.  Paul, meanwhile, who was the most neglected of the bunch, finally gets something substantive to do that also guarantees a much more limited role in the future.

This lets the series put more focus on the secondary characters it's elected to keep around for the long term - Donnie Hendrix, who is now fully Allison's partner in crime, Mark and Gracie still on the run, and Delphine, who works much better as a conflicted antagonist to Clone Club rather than a conflicted ally.  Our four main clones, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena, remain mostly cordoned off in their own little worlds, but there's much more crossover among their stories thanks to the supporting players, including the beefed up team of Felix and Mrs. S., acting as important bridges between them.  While there are still a lot of different characters with different agendas to keep track of, there aren't many that feel extraneous anymore. 

On to the plot.  Cosima's still searching for love, and gets a new romantic interest in Shay (Ksenia Solo), but she's also locked in a power struggle with Delphine, the new head of Dyad, while trying to decode the notes Professor Duncan left behind last year.  She's way more active this year, and her storyline nicely connects to Sarah's in the last half of the season.  Alison and Donnie are up to their usual suburban criminal hijinks, which involve local politics, drug dealing, soap, and Portuguese mobsters.  Though their plot is more or less self-contained, it's consistently entertaining throughout, and the way they manage to work in appearances from Helena is just fantastic.  Speaking of Helena, she's stuck in a fairly passive role as Project Castor's prisoner for the first half of the season, while Sarah's big goal is to find and rescue her.  However, Helena sure doesn't take captivity lying down, and she's how we learn about the Big Bad of this season, Project Castor.

Freaky Topside operative Ferdinand (James Frain) is introduced as a new baddie this year, but Ari Millen has the juiciest villain assignment as all the different Castor clones.  Millen is not operating on the same level Tatiana Maslany, but does a good job with Mark, Rudy, and Seth, the main trio of clones who operate out of a Mexican military base under the orders of their twisted "mother," Dr. Coady (Kyra Harper).  Sarah has her hands full trying to keep up with them and figuring out their plans, which is a lot more fun than the stalemate she was trying to navigate with Dyad last year.  It helps that there are significant personal stakes this time out - Sarah's relationship with Helena takes center stage.  There's a lot more sisterly bonding this year, which is a nice change from Sarah's previously Kira-centric worldview. 

The tonal issues have also been largely smoothed out, so this all feels like the same show most of the time.  Scott's larger role in Cosima's story brings a welcome dose of goofy humor, while the Portuguese mobsters add some real tension to Alison's.  Also, there's Helena and her imaginary talking scorpion, which somehow works really, really well.  I'm getting used to the wild plot twists, ridiculous resurrections, and silly moments of fanservice.  The show has embraced the inherent nuttiness of its genre premise in such a way that it's never going to be great television, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  We're in guilty pleasure territory now, and that's perfectly okay. 

I don't know how much longer the show is going to be able to sustain itself, but I'm glad that it has answered a lot of the big questions and can't be accused of dragging things out.  I'm satisfied that "Orphan Black" has graduated from mystery show to a more typical action-adventure show, with a good collection of characters I'm interested in following for at least a while longer.  Can't wait to see what kind of mother Helena's going to be and what happens to Rachel.  And I kinda think that Art and Krystal would make a cute couple.

See you next year, Clone Club.
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