Wednesday, October 28, 2015

So They Gave Ken Jeong a Sitcom

Asian-American solidarity requires that I have an opinion about Ken Jeong's new sitcom, "Dr. Ken."  I wasn't looking forward to this, after hearing reports about how bad the pilot episode is.  I've liked Ken Jeong in "Community" and his movie roles, but he strikes me as one of those actors who works better in small doses as a wacky supporting character.  I wasn't looking forward to his often obnoxious weirdo persona being at the center of a whole show, particularly such a by-the-book network show.

As the commercials have relentlessly told us over and over again, before Ken Jeong got into comedy, he was a practicing medical doctor.  So he should be well suited to playing a doctor on television, right?  Here, he's Dr. Ken Park, a brilliant physician with a terrible bedside manner.  He practices at an HMO clinic with nurses Damona (Tisha Campbell Martin) and Clark (Jonathan Slavin), and resident Dr. Julie Mintz (Kate Simses).  In the evil sitcom boss role is Dave Foley as the clinic's administrator, Pat.  Ken juggles his duties at work with being a husband to wife Allison (Suzy Nakamura), a successful psychiatrist, and overprotective father to teenage Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and middle-schooler Dave (Albert Tsai).

So far I've seen four episodes.  The pilot is as terrible as everyone has said, but the other three episodes settle into something decent, if pretty unoriginal.  The workplace hijinks are straight out of any middling 90s sitcom you could name, like "Just Shoot Me" or " Veronica's Closet."  Dave Foley is playing the sleazy version of Jimmy James from "NewsRadio," which helps, but he doesn't get a lot of screen time.  Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Suzy Nakamura does an excellent job as Dr. Ken's lovely spouse, who has her hands full curbing his worst impulses.  The kids are very familiar types, but get some good moments.  There's enough good talent in the supporting cast that both sides of the show could develop into something solidly entertaining. 

Unfortunately, one of the major stumbling blocks is Ken Jeong himself.  He's clearly putting in a lot of effort, but he just doesn't have the charisma or the comedic chops to keep my interest as a leading man.  He's toned his usual obnoxious shtick way, way down here, but I wouldn't call him likable.  Frankly, I haven't made up my mind what to think of him.  I think the trouble is that Dr. Ken Park is still an awfully inconsistent character, sometimes a jerk, sometimes an angry little man, sometimes just thoughtless and obtuse, sometimes awfully reminiscent of "Community's" deranged Senor Chang, but sometimes entirely unlike him.  There are occasional instances of mild shock humor that he pulls off well, but at the same time they don't seem to fit the softer tone of the show.  Jeong could get better, I'm sure, but it's going to take some time.  I can't help thinking that the show would probably be much more fun as a simpler medical workplace comedy with Jeong and Foley co-starring. 

We're still at a point that having an Asian-American lead actor in such a high profile part is something worth noting.  "Dr. Ken" is taking the "Mindy Project" route, acknowledging that the Parks are Asian-Americans, but treating the race of the characters as a minor aspect of their lives.  They could be any ethnicity, and nothing would really change.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, though from the second episode where Ken's parents drop in for a visit, the show probably could tackle racial issues head-on if it wanted to.  I just don't see it ever wanting to.  This is altogether a much safer and more formulaic sitcom than "Fresh Off the Boat," and though I'm a little surprised that it's been picked up for a full season order already, I've got a good idea of why it's been successful.  It's familiar, palatable, and pleasantly brainless.      

I don't think I'll be watching much more of this one, and I don't feel guilty about it.  It's nice that "Dr. Ken" is finding some success, and giving the Asian-American presence on prime time network television another boost, but it wouldn't have been much of a loss if it had been cancelled early.

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Back in Time With "Back to the Future" Day

October 21, 2015 was the far-off future date that Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled to in "Back to the Future, Part II," the 1989 film that was the middle installment of the "Back to the Future" trilogy.  Few time travel films have been as popular, and fewer yet have provided such specific dates for their visions of the future.  There have been jokes for years about hoverboards and power laces being right around the corner, and a popular online gag involved sharing photoshopped screenshots from the movie with the wrong dates edited in, so people would think that the "Back to the Future" future was already at hand.  And slowly, inevitably, the October 21, 2015 date started to be hyped up, taking in an unusual degree of significance as we got closer and closer to it.

And so we had a "Back to the Future" pop culture holiday.  The trilogy was released back into theaters for one day, complete with a "Jaws 19" trailer, and topped the box office with $4.8 million worldwide.  A special 30th Anniversary Blu-ray set was also released, of course.  USA Today published a special version of their front page, based on the one that appeared in the movie, which generated huge sales of the print edition.  Then Nike announced the impending arrival of their new MAG shoes, which come with working power laces, in Spring, 2016.  Meanwhile, Pepsi Perfect quickly sold out.  And then Michael J. Fox Foundation offered limited edition T-shirts as part of its fundraising push.  And the Puente Hills Mall, where the original films were shot, turned into the Twin Pines Mall for a day, complete with Doc Brown's van in the parking lot.   Even organizations with no ties to the movie got in on the fun - IKEA released an assembly guide for a hoverboard, called the HÖVA, while the Austrian transport ministry issues regulations on their usage.

The fans - and there is no shortage of them - happily went out and cosplayed, and sang karaoke to Huey Lewis songs, and made jokes about the Cubs being in the playoffs for the umpteenth time.  The Universal Studios theme parks, home to the Back to the Future rides, were the destination of choice for many meetup groups.  An Arizona couple had a themed wedding where they tied the knot at 4.29 PM,  the exact time that Doc and Marty were due to arrive from 1985.  Social media was flooded with people all over the world linking to "Back to the Future" trivia and articles, some of them reflecting on how the real 2015 compared to the version from the movie.  And you might have heard about the fan documentary, "Back in Time," which looks at the creation of the franchise and its impact.  It was picked up by a distributor and released on VOD, Blu-ray and select theaters - on October 21, 2015 of course.

Everything culminated in the appearance of Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox as Doc and Marty on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"  When the Delorean appeared on the stage and Alan Silvestri's theme music started playing, my heart was in my throat.  When Fox and Lloyd climbed out of the Delorean in costume, the crowd erupted and suddenly I was ten years old again, watching the old "Back to the Future" VHS tapes on the living room rug.  But then the applause died down, and Kimmel came out to perform a brief skit with Fox and Lloyd.  And it was all too apparent that neither actor was in very good shape.  There were several uncomfortable pauses as Lloyd struggled to navigate the teleprompter dialogue, and Fox kept his hands in his pockets to help stave off the affects of Parkinson's.  He wasn't quite successful.  And as they were played off by Huey Lewis, the whole thing made me feel a little sad.

And it struck me that it really had been thirty years, and a whole generation since "The Back to the Future" movies.  It was fun seeing the power of nostalgia give so many people a taste of their childhoods again for a day, but for me it was bittersweet.  As I get older, these fan events have been losing their appeal, because I like being a grown-up and feel less and less attached to the experience of being a kid.  The 2015 of "Back to the Future, Part II" still looks cool, but the real 2015 is not one I'd give up easily.  I worked very hard to get here, and have concluded that going back in time is best left to the movies.
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Saturday, October 24, 2015

How's the Television Meltdown Coming?

About a year ago, a dear friend of mine, who swore me to secrecy, went on a very entertaining rant over lunch about how the television broadcast business was on the verge of collapse, and all the major networks were thinking of calling it quits entirely, and migrating all their best content to pay cable and the internet.  He painted a not-entirely-unappealing picture of a future where the only remaining broadcast TV stations would be the local outfits running news programs, syndicated reruns, and lots of infomercials 24/7.  PBS might end up the last major network standing.  

This vision of the television apocalypse doesn't take into account that cable subscriptions are also declining.  A few weeks ago it was reported that cable subscription growth was negative for the first month ever.  Media stocks have been losing value quickly as business prognosticators have been signaling further declines at the potential end of lucrative cable channel bundles.  As cheaper online alternatives continue to grow, the long term expectation is that cord-cutting will increase.  Some have speculated that it might get so bad that the only people left paying for cable will be the sports enthusiasts who can't get their favorite content any other way.  In short, ESPN (and Disney) wins and everyone else loses.

Keep in mind, however, that there are still 100 million households with cable subscriptions in the US right now, and they're not all going to disappear overnight.  Even though the broadcast networks are seeing declining ratings, there are still plenty of people watching "The Big Bang Theory" and "Empire."  We're definitely going to see the business change, but it's not clear to what extent yet.  So far the biggest changes have been in programming - a wider variety of shows, greater diversity, and an emphasis on quality, which has resulted in the current "Golden Age of Television."  It hasn't been enough to retain viewers, so expect more drastic changes, including changes to the nature of the content delivery itself.  Online and on-demand content has been rolled out by many networks, still seen by some as supplementary offerings, but they might end up becoming the main event.  Advertising has steadily been increasing to make up for revenue losses - you may have noticed older reruns being sped-up or edited down to make room for extra commercials.

The biggest change looming is the inevitability of unbundling.  Canada recently enacted legislation that will force cable providers to offer a la carte options next year.  "Skinny bundles" containing fewer channels are being prepped in the US.  Comcast is launching Xfinity Stream, targeted largely at Millennials, which will offer a selection of broadcast channels and HBO Now for $15 a month.  It doesn't require their hated set top box or even a television - but it does require paying up for Comcast's notorious internet service.  Speaking of HBO Now, Time Warner still refuses to provide subscription numbers, but it seems to be doing well.  If other channels continue to spin off their own streaming services, that's effectively going to end up creating the a la carte option online.  We shouldn't forget about Hulu either, which is now aggressively trying to following the Netflix model, snatching up their old Epix contract and introducing a new (mostly) ad-free tier.

So keep in mind that as we're watching the old business contract, we're watching a new one being built in its place.  There are pros and cons here, mostly favoring viewers who have already cut the cord and consume most of their content online.  Those who are still depending primarily on broadcast television - and it's not an insignificant number - will bear the brunt of the decline.  With audiences and ad revenue shrinking every year, at some point the major broadcast networks will have to decrease operations significantly.  Cable consumers will get more choices eventually, but the rollout will be slow as providers are still wary of online offerings cannibalizing the existing, more lucrative business.  As for online viewers enjoying the benefits of ad-free on-demand services, don't get too comfortable.  It's inevitable that we'll be seeing more ads once the pecking order gets hashed out.  Remember back in the 80s when cable was supposed to be ad-free?

Television as we know it is probably on its way out, but television is going to be around in one form or another for a long, long time.
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Friday, October 23, 2015

The EEOC Comes to Hollywood

You've probably heard about Jennifer Lawrence taking Hollywood to task about the gender pay gap that favors her male co-stars.  However, there's another gender gap debate going on in the industry right now that's just as important, but getting far less press.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, is officially investigating claims of gender discrimination regarding the hiring of female directors.  Complaints were initially filed by the ACLU back in May.  If they do find evidence of discrimination, we could be looking at a class action lawsuit against the major studios.

The statistics have long been cringe-inducing.  As reported by Deadline, in 2014 only 7% of the top grossing 250 films were directed by women.  16% of television episodes in the 2014-2015 season were directed by women.  The numbers for minority directors is similarly low across the board.  Because artistic professions have always had so much leeway in hiring practices, Hollywood has largely remained a boys' club. Over time there have been significant improvements related to the financial side of the business - there have been several women running studios since Sherry Lansing won the top job at Paramount in the '80s - but diversity on the creative side has lagged badly.  There have been some gains in the past decade, particularly in television where the amount of content being produced has recently increased, but the opportunities for women directors are still noticeably lacking.

There's been noticeable shift, however, in the attitudes toward this problem recently.  There have been several surveys and reports tracking the demographics of directors and other professions in the entertainment industry that have fueled more discussion.  Katheryn Bigelow's Oscar win for directing "The Hurt Locker" was a major turning point, as the win was expected to help improve the numbers of women directors, but didn't appear to have much impact in subsequent years.  The internet has provided avenues for traditionally tight-lipped industry professionals to share experiences.  I'm particularly fond of http://shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com/, where women directors and others women working behind the scenes have been sharing stories about the discrimination and harassment they've been through.  The stories are heinous and often difficult to read, but I'm thrilled that they're finally being told.  Everything points to the lack of opportunities for female creatives being a systemic problem, starting in films schools and training programs, and going all the way to the top.

I expect that any legal action that the EEOC takes is going to be fairly limited in scope, but it's still going to make quite an impact.  Hollywood is all about optics, and its denizens love a good cause to get behind.  The major studios are already feeling the pressure to hire more inclusively on their biggest upcoming films.  Marvel and Disney have very publicly courted female and black directors to helm upcoming superhero movies.  Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has responded favorably to the idea of seeking a female director for one of the upcoming "Star Wars" films.  Prominent female directors are getting bolder about promoting themselves and speaking out.  And then there's the Twitter scrum that "Jurassic World" director Colin Trevorrow got himself into a few months ago, when he suggested that female directors aren't interested in directing superhero or sci-fi films.  The vehemence and the volume of the negative response was something I don't think we would have seen ten years ago, or even five.    

The hope is that the entertainment industry won't just see improvements in acting and directing, but across the board in every department.  The last few years have seen some huge gains in the diversification of onscreen talent, with new television shows like "Empire," "Transparent," and "Fresh Off the Boat" paving the way.  However, that's just made the areas of Hollywood where inequalities persist all the more obvious.  The entertainment industry is in the middle of monumental changes, as the business increasingly globalizes and the internet has upended the old business models.  There's no better time to take action and ensure that women have a fairer shot at making it big in Hollywood.

I've seen some push back here and there, claiming this shouldn't be a big issue.  I'm really looking forward to the day when it's not.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Advantageous" and "Beasts of No Nation"

I promised a review of the Netflix distributed film "Advantageous" a while back, and I thought I'd pair it with their latest release, "Beasts of No Nation," which is currently making waves.  The two films have nothing at all to do with each other.  They're in different genres, with different audiences, and their releases are being handled very differently - "Beasts of No Nation" is being prepped for awards season while it doesn't appear that "Advantageous' got any sort of theatrical release at all.

Of the two, "Advantageous" is the more niche film, directed by Jennifer Phang.  It takes place in a dystopian future where jobs have become so scarce that keeping one can be a matter of life and death.  Meanwhile, social advancement has become much tougher, and getting into the right schools and the right programs determines a child's whole future.  Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) works a s spokeswoman for a cosmetics company, and has a bright young daughter named Jules (Samantha Kim).  Gwen's loses her job, which endangers Jules' enrollment at an elite school.  A possible solution is a new process created by her company that would allow Gwen to transfer her consciousness into a younger, more marketable donor body.  There are, however, some terrible risks and side effects.

I want to point out up front how heartening it is to see a genre film directed, written by, and starring Asian-American women.  The special effects are minimal, but the ideas are certainly ambitious.  "Advantageous" is exactly the kind of low-key, small scale, terribly intimate science-fiction film that could only be made these days as an independent film, and I'm so happy that Netflix took a chance on it.  I only wish it were a better film than it is.  It starts out well enough, slowly revealing the ins and outs of a ruthlessly automated future that has made more and more of the population obsolete.  I like the mother-daughter relationship too, which is warm and genuine without feeling overly precious.  Jacqueline Kim carries the film easily, and she's very sympathetic as her situation becomes increasingly dire.  

Unfortunately, the final third of the film doesn't live up to the rest.  The POV shifts from Gwen to Jules, which doesn't go well.  There's also a big build-up to Gwen's decision, the consequences of which are difficult to parse.  The most damaging issues is that the movie completely loses all the previous momentum at this point.  Phang's prone to languid, dreamy scenes of private introspection, which just feel more and more indulgent as the film goes on.  While I admire the simple, minimalist nature of the filmmaking, and the avoidance of big, flashy gimmicks, occasionally it seems to forget that it's telling a dystopian story and seems more interested in being a mood piece.  The ending in particular is awfully pat and oddly cheerful, offering a resolution that is tonally incongruous with the rest of the movie.  While I see a lot of promise in Phang's work, this doesn't feel like a finished product.

Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation," however, feels like a complete film, and it is a relentless one.  Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, "Beast of No Nation" follows the tragic life of an Africa boy named Agu (Abraham Attah), who loses his family to war, and is then forced to become a child soldier under the command of a brutal rebel Commandant (Idris Elba).  He participates in countless brutalities as the rebels fight their way toward the capital, but Agu also faces threats from his fellow soldiers, harsh conditions, and the dangerous whims of the Commandant.  He manages to becomes with another boy named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), but otherwise Agu feels hopelessly trapped.  Though the film was made largely in Ghana with local actors, the country in "Beasts of No Nation" is never specified.

This is not a viewing experience for the faint of heart.  Though bookended by quieter segments of tranquility, once the bullets start flying the violence rarely pauses for long.  Fukunaga, who was also the film's DP and writer, constructs some fantastic sequences here, including a battle where a drug-addled Agu sees the jungle literally turn red, and a long tracking shot where the boys callously murder a woman and child.  Abraham Attah turns in an exceptional performance as Agu, and Idris Elba won't want for villainous roles after this.  I can find little fault with the film's aims or its tenacity in authentically portraying so much of the pain and suffering experienced by African child soldiers.  At the same time, the film felt overly familiar and oddly shallow.  I can't help thinking that we've see quite a few of these narratives before, in films like "War Witch" and "Blood Diamond."  "Beasts" is probably the most direct in its aims, and the most gorgeous of them visually, but I found it difficult to connect to the characters on anything more than a visceral level.

Fukunaga depends heavily on the shock and awe of all the awful things that Agu experiences, and doesn't spend as much time examining what's happening to him on a more personal scale.  The few times he does try for introspection are all through overbearing narration or very blunt, obvious monologue, often accompanied by somber music.  It makes the whole film feel too much like a parable rather than a real person's genuine experiences.  I also found it very distracting that though most of the dialogue in the film is in the Ghanese language Twi, all the narration and several important scenes have Agu speaking English, which is heavily accented and takes effort to understand.  It's an odd choice, one that seems to point to an uneasy distance between the director and the material.  Fukunaga's accomplished something very admirable with "Beasts of No Nation," but there are some flaws here that left me ill at ease.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fingers Crossed for Trevor Noah

It's probably too early to be writing this post, with only a few weeks with Trevor Noah behind the desk at "The Daily Show," but I want to put down some initial thoughts before we get too far into his tenure.  From what I've seen of him so far, I think Trevor Noah is going to be okay, and "The Daily Show" has been left in good hands.  The first few shows were tentative and lower-key, but there were also several instances of trying new things, testing new ground, and playing with the status quo.  And keep in mind that all the correspondents and writers have remained after Jon Stewart's departure, so Noah already had a good, solid base to start with.  There's definitely the potential here for "The Daily Show" to ramp back up to being can't-miss television.  Things are slow now, but they're getting back on track.

With several of the "Daily Show" alumns, Colbert, Oliver, and Wilmore staking out other territory on other late night programs, it feels a little crowded in the satirical news landscape these days.  Initially, I was worried that Trevor Noah would be completely overshadowed.  He isn't a complete novice, having hosted his own comedy program in his native South Africa at one point, but he's not at the same level as Colbert and Oliver.  The reason why the announcement of his getting the "Daily Show" gig caused such a ruckus is because he's largely an unknown quantity.  He's funny, but had only done a handful of pieces for "The Daily Show" when he got hired to succeed Jon Stewart.  The vast majority of his work was done either in South Africa or England.  Nobody knew if his humor was going to translate to the U.S., or how his POV and persona were going to play with an American audience.  

Well, it turns out he's a natural in the desk segments.  His repartee with the correspondents is great, his joke delivery is solid, and his style and charm come across very well.  There are line flubs here and there, but he recovers without skipping a beat.  He's very good at looking like he knows what he's doing, which is half the battle.  He's tailoring his humor to the material more than the material is being tailored to his sensibilities at this point, but there have been some nice exceptions.  The segment where Donald Trump was compared to various African dictators was a highlight, and a great example of Noah's international perspective bringing something different to the mix.  Also, as much as I loved Jon Stewart, it's nice to see someone with a little more energy and a little more optimism on the job.

Where Noah still needs some work, however, is as an interviewer.  He's still making a lot of rookie mistakes, and the political guests in particular are getting away with things that Stewart and Colbert would have never let fly.  The few times where he's had to address the audience for heart-to-hearts, like trying to offer his condolences after the recent shooting in Oregon, have come off as stiff and perfunctory.  We haven't really seen him get passionate about any particular issue or injustice yet in a way that conveys that he really cares deeply about what he's discussing.  I'm not sure whether it's the kind of skill you can learn, but right now that's the biggest difference I can see between him and Jon Stewart.  Stewart cared, perhaps too much so  sometimes.  I don't see that from Trevor Noah yet.

Of course, it's very early in the game.  As we all know, it took Jon Stewart until Indecision 2000, over a year into his tenure, before he really hit his stride.  Trevor Noah has delivered some very good shows already, and he's noticeably improved since the premiere.  I find him far more engaging than Larry Wilmore or Seth Meyers, and with time and the right opportunities he could be up there with the greats.  I think Colbert's the winner so far this year, bringing his own brand of comic daring mainstream in a big way, but Trevor Noah's victories deserve some praise too.  It's a big relief to know that not only will "The Daily Show" go on, but that it's going on strong.
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Monday, October 19, 2015

Did Someone Ask For Another Youtube Playlist?

Time for yet another Youtube playlist of assorted clips related to movies, television, and web media with a strong musical element.  As usual, these are a mix of nostalgic selections and assorted pop culture ephemera that it's difficult to recommend in other contexts.  Commercials, promotional tie-ins, oddities, and more await.  They have absolutely nothing in common except that I enjoyed them and thought they were saving the links to and worth passing along.  Hopefully you'll find something in the mix that strikes your fancy.

Night Call - I think that Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive" is far enough in the past that we could do with a reminder of how drop-dead gorgeous it is.  The title sequence set to Kavinsky's "Night Call" immediately recalls the 1980s, and sets a mood of scintillating coolness and isolation that carries through the rest of the film.  Take note that this clip is from a workprint with errors in the credits - notably the score is attributed to David Lynch's familiar collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, instead of the actual composer, Cliff Martinez.

Mitzi Gaynor: Let Go! - Singer, dancer, actor, and all-around entertainment bombshell Mitzi Gaynor was a fixture of 1950s film musicals.  She also headlined several television specials in the 1960s and 1970s featuring elaborate song-and-dance numbers.  "Let Go!" opened her Emmy-winning 1969 NBC special, and provides a good example of her energy and sexiness.  Bob Mackie is responsible for the dress, but the curves are all Mitzi.

Deep Deep Trouble - Remember the "Simpsons" album, "The Simpsons Sing the Blues"?  Timed to release with the second season after the show became a hit, the album spawned two hit singles that had specially animated music videos that ran with new episodes of the show in 1991.  Everyone remembers "Do the Bartman" written and produced by Michael Jackson, but I think "Deep Deep Trouble," with lyrics credited to Matt Groening, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the Fresh Prince (yes, that Fresh Prince), also deserves some love.  The music video was directed by Greg Vanzo.

Sound of Noise: Doctor Doctor - The 2010 Swedish musical "Sound of Noise," depicts the crimes of a gang of rogue musicians, who hold impromptu concerts in strange places, using everyday objects for instruments.  "Doctor, Doctor," is their first successful outing, where they take over an operating room during a news reporter's hemorrhoid surgery.  This is the full, uncut version of the musical number that appears in the finished film, released as a DVD extra.

I Never Harmed an Onion - The Muppet Show ran two minutes longer in the UK than it did in the US, which lead the creation of the "UK Spots," quick little songs or sketches that would help the UK episodes fill in that extra bit of time.  So Rowlf's rendition of "I Never Harmed an Onion" from the fourth episode of the first season was never available to US audiences until the DVD sets came along in the early 2000s, and the Henson folks started using the UK Spots as internet content.

Head: Daddy's Song - One of the most memorable moments from the notorious Monkees movie "Head," which was either a complete commercial disaster or a subversive cult triumph depending on who you ask.  This is the film's only musical number that actually resembles the kind of classic musical number that audiences were probably expecting, with Davy Jones singing vocals and a dance sequence.  Jones's partner here is Toni Basil, who was also the film's choreographer, and a few years later would be best known as the singer of the MTV favorite "Mickey."

X-Men OP 1 - When the '90s animated "X-men" series ran in Japan in 1994, entirely different opening sequences were created for it, along with different theme songs, to better appeal to Japanese audiences.  Considering the American one had so much English text, I think they have a point.  The Japanese opening is noticeably better animated than the original, with lots of action and more cameos by familiar characters.  The new song is "Rising" by the band Ambience.

A Bit of Fry and Laurie: Mystery - Some of my favorite bits of "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" were Hugh Laurie at the piano, performing his ridiculous songs.  I considered "America," which has a great punch of an ending, but I decided to go with "Mystery," from the 1987 pilot, which is longer and has a good slow build.  He also performed this one on an episode of "Inside the Actor's Studio" in 2006, which is easy enough to find online - but I prefer the delivery in the original.

Pork and Beans - Yes, it's the Weezer music video celebrating the memes of the pre-2008 internet.  Web media is definitely eligible for these playlists, and when I thought about all the various viral videos I could include, I kept coming back to "Pork and Beans," which pays tribute to dozens of them at once.  Hey, it's the Numa Numa guy!  And Afro-Ninja!  And Mr. Leave Britney Alone!  And History of Dance dude!  And Dramatic Chipmunk!  Other music videos have attempted similar conceits, but nobody's quite managed to capture the early days of Youtube fame quite like Weezer did.  There's also a follow-up version from 2009 out there that includes even more internet celebs.

Dilbert - Fifteen years ago, "Dilbert" briefly had its own cartoon series on the UPN network.  Without a doubt, the best part of the show was its Emmy-winning opening sequence with theme music by Danny Elfman.  The actual series was never as dynamic-looking, or wildly creative.  I always wondered why nobody ever tried to revive the show after UPN sank, but we already have "The Office," don't we?

D-TV Valentine: Hello - In the 1980s, somebody at Disney had the bright idea to take clips of their old animated films and recut them to modern pop songs, creating MTV style music videos, branded "D-TV."  Years later anime fans would flood the internet with AMVs using essentially the same concept, but the "D-TV" videos were official Disney product and they were very commercially successful.  Initially used as Disney Channel filler, "D-TV" ended up spawning three NBC prime time specials and a home video line.  To give you an idea of their appeal, I've linked one of the videos from the "D-TV Valentine" special, that sets the "twitterpation" sequence form "Bambi" to Lionel Richie's "Hello."

Boom De Yada - Just when you'd gotten the song out of your head.  The Discovery Channel's 2008 "I Love the World" campaign is still one of the best I've ever seen.

Conan's Free Bird - This one's not on the Youtube playlist linked above because I couldn't find a decent quality version anywhere on Youtube.  However, I had to end the list with this one.  Whatever you want to say about Conan O'Brien's short stint on "The Tonight Show," he went out on a very high note, rocking with Will Ferrell and friends to the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

5 Franchise Disappointments

I've toyed with writing a list of my most disappointing films for a while, the ones I'd built up in my head for years before their release and was ultimately let down.  Most of these have been the big budget franchise films, which always get hyped up and oversold.  However, the ones I really felt I had something to say about were the movies I had very specific expectations for.  In some cases the films were fine, and it was my expectations that were out of proportion.  Sometimes the films were bad, and the disappointments were actually symptomatic of bigger contributing problems.  I've looked at five examples below:

Harry Potter - The Battle of Hogwarts as described in the final "Harry Potter" book, "Deathly Hallows," was a chance to throw all our favorite characters, major and minor, together for one last big fight.  The film version cuts this down considerably.  You do see some quick glimpses of Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, and a few others, but it's quickly apparent that there are far more cast members missing.  Moreover, you only see a few major characters like Harry, Hermione, Ron, Mrs. Weasely, and Professor McGonagall really doing any fighting.

Of course, the logistics were against getting every actor who appeared in the films back for that final battle.  Scheduling was probably already a nightmare.  And if you gave all those extra characters their own little moment, the fight scene would have needed to be abut ten times as long and the narrative would have probably become incoherent.  Director David Yates did manage to preserve a few of the more memorable moments, and the shot with the trio facing down enemies from all of their past movies in quick succession was pretty neat.

TRON - "TRON Legacy" was a disappointment for a lot of reasons, but what really got to me was that after thirty years of advancements in computer technology, it refused to broaden its horizons.  What would the internet look like in the "TRON" universe?  What about viruses and bots and adware?  I still have no idea, because "TRON Legacy" decided to simply upgrade the visuals of the existing universe instead of going out and exploring a new one.  As a result the film looks great, but feels stale.

I understand that Disney wanted to capitalize on people's nostalgia for the first film and the neon '80s designs were a big part of the original's charm.  However, the whole movie played it way too safe, extrapolating only the safest of variations on the original work.  This actually mucks with the whole premise of "TRON," where the Recognizers and Light Cycles reflected the 8 bit nature of video games we saw in the first movie.  Without that context, what's a modern audience to make of the new versions?  How do you restart a franchise with a film that can't seem to find its own footing?

Lord of the Rings - I was so looking forward to Sam and Frodo's heartbreaking ascent of Mount Doom, which took a lot longer in the book, and was altogether a more bleak and harrowing experience.  While you do get a sense of Frodo being worn down and affected by the One Ring's power, there isn't nearly the same degree of desperation and physical exhaustion from the journey.  I don't think the final sequence in the film took more than twenty minutes of screen time.  Instead, Peter Jackson spent far more time on battle sequences and big effects.

Then again, Jackson having to cross-cut between the two storylines necessitated condensing and adding more action to the Sam and Frodo storyline.  Otherwise, the film would have been constantly been going hot and cold, bouncing between high octane action and slow-paced survival drama.  Frankly, the kind of adaptation I wanted didn't fit the tone or the mood of the films that Jackson was making.  He and Sean Astin did nail the most important part of that sequence, though, where Sam carries Frodo.  I have to give them credit for that.

Star Wars - I was never really all that interested in the infamous duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi.  What I was looking forward to was seeing the pair of them as friends during the Clone Wars.  I imagined that their relationship would have been like an earlier version of Luke and Han's except with both of them wielding lightsabers.  No such luck.  The prequels initially have them as master and apprentice, though they become closer to equals by the third film.  However, the movies are so plot-heavy and action-heavy, we barely see them interact casually, and it's hard to get a sense of how they really relate to one another.

Now I haven't seen the "Clone Wars" television series or the other spinoffs, and I'm sure they go into much more detail about Obi-Wan and Anakin's adventures together.  In the films, however, their friendship is poorly established.  Obi-Wan is too often stuck being the stand-in for all of Anakin's issues with being a Jedi, so they're constantly at odds.  This, along with the awful Padme romance,  makes it difficult to view Anakin's turn to the Dark Side as being all that tragic, since the stakes were never properly laid out.

Superman - There are two major things that I've found to be missing from "Man of Steel" and "Superman Returns": romance and humor.  I doubt this is going to go over well with the current group in charge at Warners, but while gloomy and dark works great for Batman, it's been a pretty awful approach for Superman.  He's such an iconic figure, I think Superman needs a little lightening up to be sympathetic.  The romance with Lois Lane also does a great deal to humanize him, and both of the reboots took pains to minimize that.  .

The trouble is, the last time Warners tried a lighter tone with a superhero property, they ended up with the half-baked "Green Lantern."  And pretty much every attempt to inject some romance into the Batman movies hasn't gone well.  Moreover, the irreverent, one-liner slinging approach as seen as the Marvel movies' schtick.  So the DC movies are now taking the opposite position and committing themselves to being super-serious and super-fraught.  I'm just glad this hasn't spilled over into the DC animated Superman - really the only version I've enjoyed since Christopher Reeves and Richard Donner.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Where's the "Home Alone" Nostalgia?

Hey, Fathom Events is putting "Home Alone" back in theaters for its 25th anniversary!  Err, has it really been 25 years since "Home Alone"?  Anyway, its fans should be happy.  The kids who saw it in 1990 should be all grown up now, and primed for some nostalgia, like the "Back to the Future" fans.  "Home Alone" still has fans, right?  I mean, this was the highest grossing film of 1990, which held the top spot at the box office for three solid months, and was briefly the third highest grossing film of all time based on domestic numbers.  It spawned four sequels, two theatrical and two made for television, and turned child star Macaulay Culkin into a household name.

But curiously, I've hardly heard a peep about "Home Alone" in recent years.  It seems like everyone has seen it and treats it as a cultural touchstone, but it's not one of those movies that anyone is particularly bothered about if you reveal you haven't seen it.  "Hook," which came out roughly a year later, still has a large and vocal fanbase, particularly among viewers who were small boys at the time it was released.  You'd think that the same audience would have similarly fond memories for the antics of Kevin McAllister, but this doesn't seem to be the case.  A few interesting "Home Alone" related bits of media have popped up on the internet over the last few years, namely Grantland's "Did Kevin From ‘Home Alone’ Grow Up to Be Jigsaw? A Deadly Serious Investigation" piece and the Week's "Diagnosing the 'Home Alone' burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in" and related videos.  However, there's very little by way of the usual fanmade media, parodies, re-edits, mashups, or spoofs.  It's still referenced all the time, but the movie doesn't really seem to have made an impact on pop-culture aside from a few years of dodgy Macaulay Culkin vehicles and a spot on the regular rotation of Christmas movies.  And at the time of writing, as the studios are still busy mining every old franchise they can find for new hits, there is no "Home Alone" reboot in development.  That can't be right, can it?

But if you look into the aftermath of "Home Alone," it starts to make more sense.  The success of "Home Alone" was largely attributed to the precocious Macaulay Culkin, who the media latched on to immediately.  He became tabloid fodder for ages, with a notoriously difficult stage father, and his career as a child star fizzled after four years.  To be blunt about it, everybody got sick of him quickly. I remember a magazine article where a studio exec expressed relief that "Richie Rich" had bombed.  Culkin only appeared in a single "Home Alone" sequel, and though it did very well, nobody was clamoring for more.  FOX tried to continue the series without him a few years later, and it didn't work.  A reboot would probably be met with the same response, though I can still see one happening.  Also, keep in mind that the movie landscape has changed considerably since 1990.  Live action children's films aren't in high demand, and fewer and fewer of them are made each year.  Really, all PG rated films are scarce these days.

As for nostalgia for the film itself, that's trickier to account for.  I haven't seen any of the "Home Alone" movies in a long time, but I suspect a big issue is what the original has become associated with.  First, it's a Christmas movie, and while that means it's still regularly broadcast, people aren't likely to think much about "Home Alone" out of this context. Second, while I think it's aged fairly well, the movie is very much a '90s kids' movie with lots of slapstick and over-the-top humor.  I can get some chuckles out of it as an adult, but there's just not much to talk about beyond the Coyote v. Roadrunner mechanics of the story.  The characters are one-dimensional, the messages terribly simple, and there's a heavy dose of sentiment that most people forget.  The elaborate traps, that were considered unusually violent in 1990 - and thus a treat for chaos-hungry kids -  just seem silly today when the current generation of tots is watching "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent."

I also suspect that the unusual success of "Home Alone" had something to do with it never really developing a fanbase.  It's easier to champion mediocre movies like "The Iron Giant" and "Hocus Pocus," which were relative obscurities that needed championing, and fans could bond over their underdog status.  "Home Alone," however, permeated the popular culture to the point where it was assumed that you liked it if you were a certain age.  At the age of ten, I remember reading the kiddie novelization and being gifted the "Home Alone" board game, despite not having seen the movie.  At eleven, I remember thinking I knew way too much about Macaulay Culkin's life and career.  At twelve, I remember telling a friend that the volume of commercials for "Home Alone 2" was getting annoying.

And then, like all passing fads, suddenly "Home Alone" was gone.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Trouble in "Tomorrowland"

A few years ago, I remember all the film sites buzzing about a new mystery project that Disney and Brad Bird were cooking up, that had something to do with the year 1952 and Nicola Tesla.  Bird was a newly minted big name director after the successes of "The Incredibles" and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."  He was apparently being given carte blanche by Disney to pursue a dream project, and everyone was very excited, myself included.  

However the finished product, "Tomorrowland," doesn't mention the year 1952 at all, and only briefly discusses Nicola Tesla.  It's also very oddly pieced together, with a less than satisfying ending.  I would suspect that there was some studio meddling behind the scenes, except that this is clearly Brad Bird's movie through and through, exploring all his favorite ideas and themes and nostalgic subject matter.  I simply have to conclude that he's primarily responsible for the flaws of "Tomorrowland," which is easily his weakest directorial effort to date.  However, it's also one of his most fascinating.

"Tomorrowland" starts out well enough, introducing us to Frank Walker (George Clooney in the present, Thomas Robinson in the past), who was once a promising boy inventor, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a Florida teenager with a knack for sabotage.  Through their various misadventures and interactions with a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), we learn about Tomorrowland, a place of wonders that exists in another dimension, founded and inhabited by some of the brightest scientific minds on earth.  Getting there, however, is very difficult, especially as a force of deadly "Audio-Animatronic" androids disguised as humans is on the hunt for our heroes.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind about "Tomorrowland" is that it is designed to be a children's film.  That might seem odd to emphasize, but there aren't really many live-action adventure films these days that are squarely aimed at kids, instead of young adults.  So it's much more earnest in its aims than most jaded viewers will be expecting, and far more shameless about trying to inspire wonder and awe.  The messages about optimism and hopefulness get especially heavy-handed, but since those messages are aimed at eight year-olds, the approach is understandable.  If you're solely looking at the thrills and spectacle, "Tomorrowland" is pretty solid, offering jet pack rides, rocket launches, lots of robot blasting, and chase sequences galore.  The action-heavy first two thirds of the film could go toe to toe with just about any other summer blockbuster that came out this year.  Unfortunately, when we finally get down to the business of sorting out character arcs, big ideas, and those awfully important messages, the movie comes up short.

What's so frustrating is that Bird's aims are so clearly in the right place.  I love what he's trying to say about how buying into an apocalyptic future is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that we can get through any crisis with the right attitude and perspective.  I love how he pokes fun at our apocalypse-obsessed culture repeatedly in the opening scenes, and lovingly offers a shining alternative.  However, this makes the gaps in the worldbuilding and the odd ellipses in the storytelling all the more obvious.  An awful lot is implied about Tomorrowland, about the characters, and about sad events in the past that are never fully fleshed out the way they need to be.  The characters of Frank and Athena, for instance, have a relationship the audience is meant to be invested in, but there are key pieces of the story that have been curiously left out.  Then there's the villain, Tomorrowland leader David Nix (Hugh Laurie), who gets a great monologue in the last act that fills out a lot of character details wonderfully, but Nix doesn't have nearly enough screen time to justify it.

The way the film is structured that I think exacerbates a lot of problems.  Britt Robertson's Casey is positioned as the main character, and her performance is a good one.  However, there's so much more going on with the other leads, the narrative feels lopsided.  I can't decide whether it would have been better if Frank were the main character or a much smaller one, if we should have seen more of Tomorrowland in the past or less.  The movie does a great job of selling Tomorrowland as this space age wonderland, but I think it was a huge oversight that we never really learn much about how the community operates or the people who live there.  A huge chunk of the movie is built around getting us to Tomorrowland, to the detriment of other important pieces of the narrative.  It felt like there were flashbacks and exposition scenes taken out late in the game, particularly those involving Athena.  There are hints and allusions to offscreen events, but nothing explicit.  And that's an odd choice when the film is anything but subtle about what it's trying to tell the kids.  The final scenes lay on the sentiment so thick, it's hard to keep from rolling your eyes.

There's a lot I admired about "Tomorrowland," so much that I'm really tempted to let a lot of my criticisms slide.  You could never accuse Brad Bird of not caring about the film, or not doing his best to make it great.  There are so many talents who made laudable contributions here, so many fun little moments and charming concepts.  The filmmakers had something special here, and mostly delivered on what the ads promised - thrills and fun and a real sense of wonder.  But when it came to the kind of storytelling that I've come to expect from Bird, I wonder what on earth went wrong?
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Monday, October 12, 2015

My Top Ten South Park Episodes

I haven't been a very consistent "South Park" viewer.  I started watching regularly from around the fifth season in 2001 until the 13th season in 2009.  That's roughly the same amount of time covered by the early episodes of "The Simpsons" I wrote up a previous list for, so while this one isn't all-inclusive, I feel sufficiently well-informed.  And as I don't think I'm a typical "South Park" viewer, some of these choices are probably going to strike more ardent fans as a little odd.

As usual, episodes are ordered by airdate, and I will cheat and count multiparters as single entries.  Spoilers ahead.

"The Spirit of Christmas" - The first episode of "South Park" to air may have been the one with Cartman and the anal-probing aliens, but the true genesis of "South Park" was a pair of crudely made short films depicting beloved Christmas icons fighting for domination over the holiday season.  Jesus and Frosty the Snowman brawled in the first short, a student film, and Jesus went on to fight Santa in the follow-up, commissioned by a FOX executive as a video Christmas card.  The shorts were viral videos in the pre-internet age, and are still very funny and impressive today.

"Scott Tenorman Must Die" - The episode where Cartman went too far.  "South Park" was always known for pushing people's buttons with its unapologetic crudeness and adult humor.  Kenny dying every week was already considered plenty subversive.  However, the sordid tale of Cartman seeking revenge against Scott Tenorman is where the show really started testing the limits and seeing how far it could go.  What sells it for me is how self-aware the creators are about what they're doing, with the Radiohead cameo and the Looney Toons bullseye as the perfect finishing touches.

"The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers" - As much as I respect their way with social commentary and more ambitious "Imaginationland" style high concept epics, many of the best episodes of "South Park" are the ones that are actually the truest to life.  The boys accidentally getting ahold of a porn VHS was taken directly from the childhood experiences of one of the directors, though the various wild hijinks that ensue (and digs at "Lord of the Rings") reflect the present times.  And I love Butters turning into Gollum and obsessing over his "precious."  He's probably my favorite character.

"Ginger Kids" - I don't find Cartman entertaining, but he's such an important part of why "South Park" works.  Here, he starts a wave of oppression against redheaded kids, and when the other boys try to give him a taste of his own medicine, essentially creates a Nazi cult in retaliation.  I love the ridiculous and very specific complaints against the "gingers," the way that the commonly used "Black Like Me" teaching tactic backfires completely, and how of course Cartman doesn't learn a thing from the whole escapade.  And what really gets me is that "Ginger Kids" was actually inspired by a real anti-ginger bullying incident.

"Trapped in the Closet" - I'm not going to say that "South Park" was responsible for turning Scientology into the laughingstock it is to most of us today, but boy did it help.  The creators didn't hold back, strongly implying A-list movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta are gay, excoriating Scientology texts as nonsense ("This is what Scientologists actually believe"), and flat out accusing the "church" of being a scam.  The controversy only put the show in a better light, and gave Trey Parker and Matt Stone more of a spotlight.  This is the point where "South Park" started being recognized for its satirical fearlessness.

"The Return of Chef" - Alas, the "Closetgate" controversy spurred the end of one major relationship.  Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef, left the show over "Trapped in the Closet."  Hayes hadn't made regular appearances for some time, but it was still a bit of a shock.  Parker and Stone gave him a fitting sendoff, pasting together a final performance from previously recorded dialogue, depicting his character as brainwashed by child-molesters, and then graphically killing him off.  It was simultaneously very touching, totally disgusting, and petty as hell.  And I'm so glad that "South Park" had the guts to do it.

"Fantastic Easter Special" - The "South Park" kids try to figure out what bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with Jesus's resurrection, revealing a secret society that reveres rabbit popes, who were wrongly ousted by the Catholic Church long ago.  The story pokes a lot of fun at Christianity and various religious figures, but not in a particularly provocative or confrontational way.  I just find it endlessly charming and creative, from the Latin version of the "Peter Cottontail" song to the delightful return of ass-kicking Jesus.  There aren't many Easter cartoons out there, but this is by far my favorite.

"Britney's New Look" - This is my favorite episode of "South Park" because of how utterly sick, and yet how perceptive and humane it is.  Britney Spears comes to South Park fleeing the paparazzi, and is driven to attempt suicide.  She fails, and goes through the rest of the episode with most of her head missing, which nobody seems to notice.  The ending involving ritual sacrifice, Miley Cyrus, and the boys essentially giving in to peer pressure, is very disturbing and uncomfortably on point.  During Spears' meltdown debacle, she got a lot of sympathy, but not many were willing to call out who was actually responsible - the audience.

"The China Problem" - As the child of very pro-China immigrant Chinese parents who wouldn't be caught dead in a P.F. Chang's, this episode was meant for me.  I found Cartman's paranoia towards yellow invasion absolutely hysterical.  However, the episode is better known as the one where Steven Spielberg and George Lucas violate Indiana Jones physically, having already done the job metaphorically in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."  The pair had been ragged on before in "Free Hat" for going back and "fixing" their older films, but this time Parker and Stone went full "Deliverance" and really let them have it.

"201" - Finally, we close out with the most notorious episode of "South Park" to date, and I still haven't seen it in the way that the creators intended me to.  This is because Comedy Central caved under pressure, and not only censored the image of Muhammad from the entire episode, but bleeped all mention of him as well.  I fully admit that "201" is on this list purely because of what it represents in the American media landscape, rather than for its actual content.  Parker and Stone figured out exactly how far artistic speech could go in this country, and got everyone to pay attention.
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Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Robert Bresson Film I Dislike the Least

I don't like the French director Robert Bresson much.  I don't like the way he views the world, his filmmaking methods, his aesthetics, or his depressive misanthropy.  I don't deny that he was a vital and important voice in cinema whose influence was far-reaching and impactful.  Some of my favorite films probably wouldn't exist without him, and he's clearly overdue for a "Great Directors" post.  I certainly respect his work and the opinions of the many critics  and filmmakers who admire him.  However, after working my way though the majority of his filmography, I have to conclude that I have no particular fondness for any of his films.  I outright despise some of his most famous ones, like "Au Hasard Balthazar," where he harps on how miserable the world is for 95 painful minutes.

I find that the most tolerable of Bresson's films are those dealing with crime and punishment, where his nihilistic opinions on spiritual matters are the least apparent.  I suspect his views grew more pronounced with age, since his earlier films tend to be less confrontational and offer a more palatable view of humanity.  In 1959's "Pickpocket," the thief Michel (Martin LaSalle) is an amoral ne'er-do-well who lives a troubled, unhappy life. but at least there's some hope to be found through his relationship with the lovely neighbor girl Jeanne (Marika Green).  Also, the scenes of criminal activity in "Pickpocket" are tense, dramatic, and quite enjoyable to watch.  This makes Michel's constant ruminating on their moral significance much easier to take.

Style is always important in Bresson's films, and he was notoriously particular about it.  His images are spare and efficient.  All traces of artifice are minimized or removed, particularly in the acting.  LaSalle, like many of Bresson's leads, was a non-professional actor at the time, who would have been told to avoid giving a performance.  Natural action is often highlighted, and plot is always subordinate to mood and tone.  "Pickpocket" follows Michel as he steals from various victims, each theft presented with a terrific amount of suspense to mirror Michel's state of mind.  He knows he needs to quit before his luck runs out, but finds himself taking greater and greater risks instead.  It is suggested that Michel steals not only for the money, but because it is a growing compulsion for him, fulfilling some psychological need.  In his regular interactions with other people, he's cold and unfeeling.  His narration of the story reveals feelings of alienation and apathy.  Stark, simple black and white close ups of hands and pockets are used to convey the strongest emotion in the film: anticipation.

The pickpocketing itself is well researched and executed, and the sequence of multiple thieves working in concert to rob a group of train passengers is beautifully choreographed.  We've seen countless imitators over the years in other films, but the thefts here are still impressive in their simplicity and daring.  Bresson reportedly got the idea for "Pickpocket" from observing Henri Kassagi, a thief and magician who served as a technical advisor on the film, and played Michel's primary accomplice. While Bresson doesn't make pickpocketing look like a particularly attractive option to the audience, we can understand why Michel is so fascinated by the act, and can sympathize with is struggle to resist temptation.  His subsequent abandonment of his moral and intellectual reservations in favor of a criminal career also feels very true to life.

"Pickpocket" has been cited as an influence by many filmmakers, notably Paul Schrader in the writing of "Taxi Driver."  It helped to kick off a new breed of more psychological crime films about social outcasts and outsiders.  Bresson, however, left the genre entirely after "Pickpocket," quickly moving on to more spiritual films about martyrs and saints, none of them ultimately happier than poor Michel.   Along with the prison escape drama "A Man Escaped," "Pickpocket" is probably the most accessible of Robert Bresson's films, because it tells the most conventional story.  Michel, for all his philosophical ramblings, is a Raskolnikov figure, and the plot heavily resembles "Crime and Punishment," including a mildly uplifting conclusion.  Past this point, Bresson's films became too obsessed with unrelenting misery for me to take.


What I've seen - Robert Bresson

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
Pickpocket (1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Mouchette (1967)
Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
Lancelot du Lac (1974)
The Devil Probably (1977)
L'Argent (1983)
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The First Five of "Rick and Morty"

Dan Harmon, one of the creators of "Rick and Morty," has described the animated show as a combination of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."  The main characters, the grossly immoral mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his timid teenage grandson Morty Smith (both voiced by the show's other creator, Justin Roiland), go on wild science-fiction adventures, often traveling to other dimensions.  Meanwhile, the rest of their family, mother Beth (Sarah Chalke), father Jerry (Chris Parnell), and sister Summer (Spencer Grammer), deal with more typical domestic issues back home - though Rick's presence often introduces unpredictable elements and escalate situations quickly.  I think the show also shares a great deal of DNA with Seth McFarland's "Family Guy," due to its adult content, shock humor, and often anarchic, morally ambivalent attitude.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot smarter than "Family Guy," though, and much, much weirder.

As you might suspect from the visual similarities, "Rick and Morty" originally started out as a series of "Back to the Future" parody shorts.  Harmon and Roiland made the characters distinctly different for the Adult Swim version, however.  Rick is a selfish, greedy, drunk and very, very dangerous, but you can tell he cares about Morty,  He just doesn't have the capacity to  help him without also simultaneously scarring him for life.  Morty, meanwhile, is a high-strung, nebbish, high school loser who nervously objects to being dragged along on his grandfathers' deranged schemes, but doesn't have the backbone to really say no.  The relationship between the two is wildly abusive, yet also oddly sweet at times.  I also like the rest of the Smith family, who aren't the oblivious suburban zombies you might expect.  They're intelligent and perceptive to varying degrees, but hampered by their own personal baggage and easy for Rick to manipulate.  Beth still has abandonment issues.  Jerry is pathetic and insecure.  Summer is self-centered and status-obsessed.  They don't have an outwardly unhappy household, but there are a lot of resentments and dysfunctions beneath the surface.  Some of their interactions are startlingly well observed and true to life.  

And here's where I should drop the quick reminder that Dan Harmon was also the creator of my dearly departed "Community," a show that also indulged in crazy high-concept premises, multiple universes, and unusually deep existential self-examination by its main characters.  "Rick and Morty" is a lot sicker and more cynical than "Community," but I can already see some of the same approaches to character-building and relationship-building being applied to the core cast.  Also, the animated format gives free reign to Harmon's notoriously complex, metatextual, pop culture homages.  In one episode we have "Jurassic Park" crossed with "Fantastic Voyage."  Another is built around "Inception" style nested dreams. The writers do a great job of imposing some structure and thematic depth on what could have easily been another "Family Guy" ripoff relying on simply being dark and twisted.  There's a lot more going on here, which is why I think "Rick and Morty" is going to be a be able to sustain itself for a good long while.

I also want to give some love to the production, which deftly handles a lot of complicated environments, characters, and concepts in every episode.  This is one of the most impressive-looking things I've ever seen out of Williams Street.  The designs are simple, reminiscent of a lot of current Cartoon Network shows, but animated with care.  There are always fun little details to look out for, like the empty liquor bottles cluttering up Rick's spaceship or the various items in the garage laboratory.  Everything feels looks a little grungy and a little alienating, and I know it takes a lot of work to maintain that.  Rick's constant burping and hacking, for instance, all has to be carefully recorded and timed and animated.  "Rick and Morty" could easily be a network show if it weren't so committed to content that no network would want to touch with a ten foot pole.  

Like all Adult Swim shows, "Rick and Morty" aims for the niche, and its humor will not be to everyone's taste.  My SO dropped it quickly, finding Rick's behavior too annoying to take.  But I think I'll stick with it for while, as these first couple of episodes impressed me enough that I'm willing to overlook some of the more sophomoric shtick.  I've heard good things about some of the later episodes and I feel I could do with a little of its uniquely sick and twisted outlook in my life.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Roger Ebert Movie Love Questionnaire

I generally try to avoid posting questionnaires and quizzes, but once a year I'll fill out something that's caught my interest to help me reasses my media junkie status.  This year, I'm going with the "Movie Love Questionnaire" that was given to the writers over at Roger Ebert's site a few years back. 

1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in Southern California, Orange County.  Very suburban, very safe, and too quiet for some of my friends, but I didn't mind.  I was a bookworm, and then a nerd, very academically focused all the way through school.  I had caring, busy parents, and a younger brother who I more or less got along with.  There was a good community of other second and third-gen immigrant families to keep us in touch with our roots, and some of the best weather in the entire country.

2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

Both of my parents liked movies, and eventually got into the habit of renting a few video cassettes from the $1 place every week.  However, they were never more than casual viewers.  They didn't track movies the way I did, or anticipate particular ones.  My dad was very vocal about not liking particular types of films and got fussier about his preferences with age, but would end up watching just about anything we put on.  My mom just didn't like the ones with too much cursing, or the horror films that were so dark "you couldn't see anything!"

3. What’s the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

The first movie I saw in a theater was "Oliver & Co." in 1988.  I vaguely remember a few Disney movies before that, particularly "Dumbo," which we had on VHS.  I've been a lifelong Disney addict and animation enthusiast as a result.  I still feel absolutely no shame in watching children's films by myself.

4. What’s the first movie that made you think, “Hey, some people made this. It didn’t just exist. There’s a human personality behind it.”

The Coen brothers' "Raising Arizona" had such a distinctive style and sense of humor.  I knew to expect certain things from Disney and Steven Spielberg films, but only in terms of quality.  I never associated them with a particular artistic voice.  It wasn't until I was in high school that I was exposed to more films for grown ups, and started noticing that they would reflect their director's personalities.  Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" was another one, with this very calculated atmosphere of menace that I grew to associate with him.

5. What’s the first movie you ever walked out of?

I have yet to walk out of a theatrical movie.  Even "The Stupids" with Tom Arnold. 

6. What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?

The movie I had the best time at was "Borat," which I first saw in theaters a college crowd.  I need an audience to fully enjoy a comedy, as I'm far less self-conscious in a group setting.  "Borat" is far from my favorite comedy, though.  "Trading Places" makes me laugh more consistently - really anything involving young Eddie Murphy does, while "Raising Arizona" and "Groundhog's Day" are far, far more entertaining as a whole.  However, there's no denying that "Borat" got me laugh harder than anything I've seen since.

7. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever seen?

I've watched "Grave of the Fireflies" multiple times, but now that I'm older and have small children in my life again, I don't think I'll be able to revisit it anytime soon.  "Fireflies" cuts so deep because it's so personal, so well-observed, and so matter-of-fact about the tragedies that befall its young protagonists.  There's no attempt to make any larger points about war or violence - it's simply concerned about the fate of a boy and his sister, who have the misfortune of being children in wartime.

8. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?

Oddly, it was a trailer to the 1994 "Nostradamus" film that gave me the worst nightmares when I was younger.  I saw it in front of a print of "Pocahontas" when I was in Taiwan, and something about the apocalyptic tone (I was paranoid about apocalypses when I was a kid) and the strange environment spooked me in the worst way.  I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks.  Today, as a grown up, I'd say "The Shining" and Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake still get to me.  I wish Snyder would go back to making horror movies.

9. What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?

It's got to be "Gone With the Wind."  The antagonism between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler is what really made that movie for me, and helped me to understand that a good romance could be just as exciting and involving as any adventure story.  

10. What’s the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

My parents were very careful about the kind of programming me and the younger brother watched when we were young.  It was all "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers" for ages.  Meanwhile, I mostly remember them watching the nightly news and "60 Minutes."  So it was quite a while before I understood that most people watched TV for entertainment instead of information and education.  Now, the first television show that I understood to have some real artistic ambitions was a 1988 Chinese-language miniseries about the Last Emperor that my relatives sent us on recorded VHS tapes.  I don't remember all that much about it, except that my parents treated it as something Very, Very Important.

11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?

I had a copy of the "Watchmen" graphic novel stashed at my parents' house for years, that I'd reread over the holidays whenever I visited.  Then the film version came out, and I didn't like it.  As a result I've had many contentious arguments about my position, and the book inevitably gets brought up.  I got a bit sick of it at all one point, and just avoided any talk of "Watchmen" entirely. 

12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Popular music was never my forte.  I think I owned a grand total of one album - They Might Be Giants' "Flood."  Everything else was movie soundtracks, musical recordings, and some classical.  My favorite recording artist is still Weird Al Yankovic, because he's awesome.

13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

I have a substantial list of films like this, usually the ones that are very emotionally overwhelming.  I've already mentioned "Grave of the Fireflies," but I'm also wary of "Dancer in the Dark," "Requiem for a Dream," "Johnny Got His Gun," and "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  They get me entirely too worked up for me to really enjoy them.

14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?

The animated "Robin Hood" that Disney made in the '70s.  My brother and I learned to use the VCR with our copy, and watched it constantly.  One summer it practically became daily viewing.

15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

My parents were fairly permissive when it came to movies as long as they were watching with us, so I saw R-rated films pretty early on as a kid.  "Conan the Barbarian" was one of my mother's favorites, and I liked it too.  The first R-rated film I remember seeing in a theater was the Beethoven biopic "Immortal Beloved" with Gary Oldman.  That one had several embarrassing instances of unexpected nudity, which was awfully distracting.  I'd gone with my mother and preteen brother, and everything afterwards was just awkward.

16. What’s the most visually beautiful film you’ve ever seen?

There are some great candidates, but I'm going to have to go with "Fantasia," namely parts of the "Nutcracker Suite" and "Night on Bald Mountain."   There's nothing more breathtaking than traditional animation done by old masters at the height of their craft.

17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Depp, and currently Michael Fassbender

18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Kathleen Turner, and currently Tilda Swinton

19. Who’s your favorite modern filmmaker?

Hayao Miyazaki, which is a bit ironic as I don't think there's anything particularly modern about him.  He and his films have this quality of timelessness that is very rare, and very precious.

20. Who’s your least favorite modern filmmaker?

Michael Bay.  There are worse, but few are so visible and influential in their excess.

21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

I'm not sure what so many people had against Wally Pfister's "Transcendence."  It's got a lot of flaws and a crummy ending, but I liked its treatment of AI and the cautionary messages about trusting too blindly in science and technology.  Also, the production was just fabulous to look at.

22. What film do you hate that most people love?

Most raunchy comedies don't do it for me.  "This is the End" was absolutely insufferable and I have no idea how It made anybody crack a smile, let alone laugh.

23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget – not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

The one and only time I was ever carded going to a movie was in 1999, upon the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." I went with a group of friends who were curious about all the controversy over the adult content, and none of us were really sure what we were in for. Coming out of the theater, after two and a half hours of obtuse erotic imagery, and very little of the actual nudity or graphic sexuality many were hoping for, I remember one friend vocally expressing his displeasure with the film. I countered that "I kinda liked it."

He responded, wearily, "You would."

 And thus, on that day a pretentious cinema geek became self-aware.

24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

Sadly, it's too expensive for me to go as often as I'd like.  The ticket prices in my area have risen to the point where I've stopped going casually.  I always plan out long in advance what movies I want to see in theaters.  Even the second run places are mostly gone - I used to love going to $1 or $2 screenings of random flicks that were already on video.

25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

I miss the social aspect.  Matinees used to be cheap enough that I'd go to movies like "Lord of the Rings" or "Titanic" multiple times with different friends.  I don't feel like I can justify that anymore.

26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

No.  My mother disliked "Amelie," which disappointed me, but that's about it.  People have different tastes and reactions to media that can be very unpredictable.  I don't think it really says anything about the individual, unless their response is particularly abnormal. 

27. What movies have you dreamed about?

I've had dreams about being in a movie, or dreams that unfolded like a movie, but not specific movies.

28. What concession stand item can you not live without?

All of them.  I traditionally sneak in my Junior Mints.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Is Black Widow a Problem?

I'm conflicted over the necessity of writing this piece, but the only conversation anybody seems to be having about "Avengers: Age of Ultron" concerns whether Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, was unfairly shoehorned into the token girlfriend role, and by Joss Whedon of all people.  So I want to put down some thoughts.

Spoilers ahead.

Scarlett Johanssen returns in "Ultron" as Black Widow for her fourth appearance in the MCU.  Previous films have established her as a Russian-born spy, a resourceful member of the Peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., and best friends with the sharpshooter Hawkeye.  None of this has changed in "Ultron" except that she's become romantically involved with Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and we learn more about her unhappy background.  The objections to her portrayal seem to boil down to two major issues.  First, that the Widow's connection with the Hulk allows her to use a technique called the "lullaby" to calm him down during his rages and help him turn back into Bruce Banner, essentially putting an awful lot of importance on her role as a romantic figure.  Then there's the revelation that she was sterilized during the training process to become a spy, which some saw as losing a big opportunity to examine the shades of gray in her morality in favor of a rather cliché infertility crisis.

Now, Black Widow also gets spiffy new weapons, a new costume, and has one major action sequence nearly all to herself.  She and Bruce Banner get about the same amount of narrative emphasis - she gets a bit more, really - so she's certainly not being sidelined or deemphasized in any way.  She gives us no reason to doubt her competence or her heroism at any point.  Whedon even pointedly includes some of her interactions with Hawkeye's family as Aunt Nat, nixing any speculation about a possible romance on that front, and underlining the point that men and women can simply be good friends.  Her story arc is a little rushed and ungainly, but that's true of pretty much everything in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."  It is a messy film with too much going on, and the problems with the portrayal of Black Widow seem to reflect the problems of the film in general.  I think a contributing issue is that most of the other major characters like Iron Man and Captain America have been featured in their own films, so we have more context for their actions.  Black Widow and Hawkeye have not, and Whedon trying to delve deeper into their characters here, with a fraction of the available screen time, ran into trouble.  With Hawkeye it wasn't so bad, because his story is pretty simple and straightforward.  Black Widow, however, is more complicated.

Once again, we have to ask why Black Widow hasn't gotten a solo film yet.  Many of the bits and pieces of her story in "Ultron" would have played so much better if they had been part of a whole film that focused on her character.  The romance, the sterility - I can see all of it working if they had been presented better, and there were more time to explore the implications.  Fleshing out those flashbacks to her time as a spy and her other relationships would have helped too.  Others have pointed out that the Widow's search for redemption, which was a big part of her arc in the first "Avengers" movie, hasn't really come up since.  There's been an irritating inconsistency to Black Widow from film to film.  To some extent her personality (and hairstyle) have been adapted to whatever each movie needs - Iron Man's femme fatale assistant, Captain America's cool gal-pal, and now the Hulk's paramour.  The suddenness of the match with Banner doesn't help, making it feel like the filmmakers have reworked her role yet again, instead of revealing new dimensions of her character.  With her story being told so piecemeal like this, Black Widow simply isn't on the same footing as the rest of the Avengers.

I give Joss Whedon credit for trying to do right by the character - and I look forward to what extra tidbits might be revealed in his Director's Cut of "Ultron," but I'm afraid it's not enough.  The real problem with Black Widow is that her origin story is too big for a subplot, and I don't think she's ever going to get more than that in a Marvel movie.  She's due to appear next year's "Captain America: Civil War," another team-up movie overstuffed with interesting characters.  Is she still going to be with the Hulk in that one, I wonder, or back to being the super S.H.I.E.L.D. agent?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

"Monster Hunt" Makes it Big

When I got the opportunity to see "Monster Hunt," now the highest grossing Chinese film ever made, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Chinese animation is very inconsistent stuff, and even with a Dreamworks Animation vet, Raman Hui, at the helm, I had my doubts.  I'm not a big fan of films with CGI characters in a live action world in general, after years of watching Hollywood churn out "Alvin & the Chipmunks" and "Scooby Doo" reboots.  On the other hand, "Monster Hunt" is definitely not a Hollywood production.

Long ago the yaogwai, monsters of Chinese legend, had a civil war that left the pregnant former Queen and her remaining supporters on the run in the human world.  With a reward out for the capture of the Queen and her baby, human "monster hunters" and evil monsters are searching for them.  Our hero is Tianying (Jing Boran), a cheerful young man who is the son of a famous monster hunter, but spends his days running a restaurant and doing odd jobs around his village.  He ends up in the middle of a fight between a pair of monsters trying to protect the Queen, Zhu Gao (Eric Tsang) and Pang Ying (Sandra Ng), and the rival monster hunters Luo Gan (Jiang Wu) and Xiaonan (Bai Baihe).  Tianying, after various shenanigans, ends up pregnant with the baby monster, and partnered up with the feisty Xiaonan for a wild adventure.

There was far less animation in "Monster Hunt" than I was expecting, though it is integral to the film.  This is very much a live action martial arts comedy that happens to feature some CGI characters, and it's a pretty good one.  The leads have strong chemistry and their slapstick hijinks are loads of fun.  The action's not particularly impressive, but there are some standout sequences that are very memorable.  The whole thing reminded my of the goofy, but awfully entertaining old fantasy wuxia films I used to watch as a kid, except that the monsters were no longer people in costume, but big, roly-poly cartoon characters.  And while there's some mild gender subversion humor aimed at grown ups, especially all the silliness with the pregnant man, "Monster Hunt" is clearly a kids' film.  It's aimed directly at the same audience that went to see the "Minions" movie in droves this summer.

Is the animation of "Monster Hunt" up to the same level, though?  I have to say no, but they're getting close.  Even allowing for the considerable differences between Chinese and Western aesthetics, the rubbery character designs for the monsters are much more simplified and primitive than anything you'd see in an American theatrical feature today.  You can tell that the Chinese animators had a much smaller budget and had more limitations to work around than comparable American productions.  However, with that in mind, the animation itself is pretty good.  The integration of the animated and live-action elements, particularly involving the monster baby and the various monsters in "human suits," is sophisticated and well executed.  The filmmakers deserve praise for being ambitious and pushing the envelope.  There's a brief scene with a talking door knocker that easily could have been cut out, but they took the trouble to design and animate a complicated character that doesn't appear anywhere else in the movie for it.

I'm not optimistic that the charms of "Monster Hunt" will translate well overseas.  As much as it apes movies like "Shrek," including the now ubiquitous dance number over the closing credits, the animation just isn't quite good enough to be a selling point.  Notably, the opening scene featuring a monster battle is very weak.  It's not until the human characters show up that the film finds its footing.  The movie is also far too family friendly to appeal to the usual martial arts crowd, and probably too silly for the arthouse.  I enjoyed it though, and I'm grateful to have a Chinese language fantasy film that I could actually show to small children, that they might actually sit through.  And I'm sure that the success of "Monster Hunt" will mean more films like it in the future, and continuing advances in the Chinese film industry.  This could be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and I'm looking forward to them.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can We Justify "The Jinx"?

It's now been over six months since the finale of Andrew Jarecki's crime documentary miniseries, "The Jinx," aired its final controversial episode.  It feels a little silly to warn for spoilers, but on the off chance that someone reading this hasn't heard about what happened to Robert Durst, now would be the time to go and watch "The Jinx," which is an excellent crime documentary by every conceivable measure, before upcoming events inevitably spoil all of its surprises.  For the rest of us who are more well-informed, I feel enough time has passed that we can talk about the actions of the documentarians and the fallout from the broadcast and surrounding events.

I don't know if this is the first time that the news media has spoiled a television show, but the collision between Jarecki's miniseries and the unfolding events of the Robert Durst arrest on March 15th created one of the biggest television events of the year.  I'd never heard of Robert Durst, but suddenly he was all over the news, and at the center of a furious debate about the extent to which it was permissible for documentary filmmakers to insert themselves into the events they were documenting.  Jarecki's not the first to have done his own investigating for the sake of the film.  Heck, "The Jinx" isn't even his first work about a criminal case.  "Capturing the Friedmans," made a decade ago, seemed to throw a pair of child molestation convictions into doubt, though Jarecki was criticized for misleading editing and other tricks to make his film more suspenseful and entertaining.  Many of the same criticisms have been levied against his work on "The Jinx," where several events didn't play out the way the series suggests that they did.

I finally got a chance to marathon the six-part series this week, and it's a knockout piece of entertainment.  I can't speak to its overall veracity, but "The Jinx" offers the tantalizing chance to hear Robert Durst have his say about the various crimes that he may have played a part in over the years.   Durst is absolutely fascinating to watch, and the show's biggest asset.  I have absolutely no qualms about the first four episodes, which explore each of the three murders Durst has been connected to.  I especially enjoyed the fourth episode, where the case against Durst for murdering an elderly neighbor falls apart in spectacular fashion during the trial.  It's a riveting look at how money and privilege can tip the scales of justice, even in the most egregious cases.  The last two episodes, however, raise an awful lot of questions.  Suddenly we're not simply watching a profile of Durst, but the documentary team's efforts to nail him based on evidence that they've independently uncovered.  And this builds to that holiest of holy grails in any true crime documentary - getting an apparent confession on tape.

The ending is amazing, but at what cost?  Jarecki's team insist that they turned over all their evidence to the authorities long before "The Jinx" aired, but is any of it admissible in court now?  If Durst was able to beat a murder charge despite admitting that he dismembered the corpse, the new trial will be a cakewalk.  Think of all the ammunition his defense will have this time, provided by a documentary crew known for muddling some very basic facts.  If there's anything that "The Jinx" made clear, it's that Robert Durst is a disturbed individual with way too many resources at his disposal.  Jarecki's actions and all the media attention may have gotten him locked up, but I'm worried that the process was tampered with too greatly to keep him there.  And I keep coming back to the lead-up to that final interview, where the sequence of events was entirely fabricated.  Why include the later arrest for violating the restraining order at all?  The interview was plenty suspenseful without pretending that Jarecki's cooperation with Durst's lawyers had anything to do with it.  What else did Jarecki invent or enhance or tweak to suit his own ends?

Too much of "The Jinx" reminded me of a documentary that Andrew Jarecki did not direct, but did produce: "Catfish."  To date, nobody is clear on what was real, fake, or recreated in that film, but it was a smaller personal story and the stakes weren't nearly as high as they are here.  The integrity of "The Jinx" seems fundamentally compromised, and its conclusions therefore untrustworthy.  I'm very interested in the legal ramifications for Robert Durst, and the possible consequences for Andrew Jarecki.  Ultimately "The Jinx" is one heck of a miniseries - but a terribly flawed documentary.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sympathy For the "Buzzard"

There have been movies about characters like Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) before.  He's a small time con artist and lowlife who makes one bad move too many in Joel Potrykus's "Buzzard."  Marty resembles the slacker heroes of the '90s superficially, but he's also very distinctly a creature of post-Great Recession America, a man-child reprobate with a very particular set of vices: pop-culture and video game fixations, a junk food diet, and an almost pathological need to scam and cheat the system wherever he can.

I know guys like Marty, the guys who never grew up or got anywhere in life, and are ashamed of it to some degree.  However, they hide their insecurities with outsized posturing and bragging, devoting their energies to spinning webs of lies and deceptions to make themselves look good.  Marty is a temp office worker for a bank, but spends most of his time running little scams and grifts.  When we first meet him, he's in the process of closing and reopening a checking account to take advantage of a fifty dollar promotion, all during a three hour lunch break where nobody important notices that he's gone.  Then he steals office supplies and makes false returns at a nearby store, pocketing the cash.  Marty is a scumbag to be sure, who is easy to hate for his brazen disregard for other people and social rules, but at the same time it's impressive how well he navigates the infuriating corporate bureaucracy, and makes it work for him.  Until, of course, he overreaches and everything starts to unravel.

"Buzzard" is very low budget, with lots of hand held camera, natural lighting, and guerilla setups.  A good chunk of the film takes place in the basement of Marty's friend Derek (Potrykus), who lets him crash on the couch for a few nights.  The shoestring aesthetic is very appropriate, as Marty resembles more than a few vloggers I've come across online recently, sending out their cheaply produced video missives from their basements and bedrooms.  However, Potrykus also successfully creates this wonderful sense of larger, darker forces looming over the story.  Marty's paranoia grows as his scams start backfiring, he goes on the run, and he realizes how badly equipped he is to survive away from the corporate world he's cultivated this parasitic relationship with.  It's one of the more fascinating depictions of an individual versus American society I've seen in a while, especially when you realize the extent to which Marty has been shaped and controlled by his environment.

A lot of credit should go to Joshua Burge for his performance.  Burge is sickly, smarmy, and strange in all the right ways.  Initially you want Marty to get his comeuppance, to suffer the consequences of behaving so horribly.  When the tide starts turning against him, however, he becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic.  And dangerous.  His best scenes are where he's pretending that everything is all right, during what should be humdrum transactions with clerks and cashiers.  Because Marty is increasingly frightened that one of these encounters will expose him as a fraud, they become tenser and tenser as the film goes on.  The film gets pretty indulgent at times, including a long take of Marty eating spaghetti that was probably included to emphasize his oddness, but Burge held my attention throughout.  He got me invested in Marty, even if I was never really on his side.

What I think makes "Buzzard" especially compelling is the way that it captures such a captures a piece of the current zeitgeist and the plight of a generation of young Americans so well.  Marty's going to be very familiar to a lot of Millennial twenty-somethings stuck in the economic limbo of dead-end temp jobs, still reliant on their parents, and zoning out on video games.  A bleakly hostile Detroit serves as the backdrop for the later parts of the film, and there are jabs at the absurdities and cruelties of corporate culture everywhere.  And you have to wonder, would someone as screwed up as Marty be possible if his circumstances weren't equally as twisted?

Marty, for all his bravado, isn't very smart.  "Buzzard," however, is a lot more insightful than it looks at first glance.
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