Monday, November 30, 2015

On Watching Too Many Movies

"One-movie-a-day" challenges are often tackled by young, neophyte movie fans who are trying to get into film more seriously.  Usually they're paired with some activity like reviewing or blogging about the experience, and tend to last in duration from a month to a year.  I always have to restrain myself from being cynical when I run across some excited college kid thinking that he or she is about to do something exceptional by embarking on one of these challenges.  A movie a day for a year isn't particularly difficult as challenges go.  The average person watches four or five hours of television a day, and the average length of a mainstream American film is only a little north of two hours.  And if you get into the habit, it can be very hard to stop.

A movie a day is perfectly doable for anyone who has the time and inclination, especially now that we have Netflix and Amazon and iTunes, which allow almost instantaneous access to massive online catalogs of movies.  And despite being so busy these days that I often can only watch half a movie at a time, I'm over two hundred films for the year so far.  In my more intense Miss Media Junkie years of yore, that number would easily be doubled.  My record was 532 movies in my first year out of grad school, where I had no internet and awful television reception in my crummy apartment, but I was only a short walk from the main branch of my city's library.  I was taking home Criterion DVDs ten at a time for a few months.  Not normal or healthy, clearly, but we all have our ways of distracting ourselves during tough times.  Movies were a lot cheaper than drinking.

And a few years before that I had an internship near Washington DC, and had rented a room from a woman with a house in the suburbs.  Again, no internet, limited access to television, and I only had time to go to see the touristy stuff on weekends because I was reliant on public transportation.  However, I trudged past the doors of a Blockbuster Video store on the way home every night, and eventually paid for a month of their unlimited two-at-a-time rental plan.  I think the cost was $35 and I wound up watching 52 movies that month on my laptop.  I wasn't particularly interested in becoming a movie buff - I just liked movies and had grown up regularly watching an hour or two of television in the evening with my parents before bed.  It felt odd not to have something on.  So that was how I first saw "The Conversation" and "Midnight Cowboy" and "Harold and Maude."  I was back at school a few weeks later, and only watched about thirty movies the rest of the year.

By the way, I'm getting the numbers from an Excel spreadsheet I've kept of all the movies I've watched since 2004.  I've been using Icheckmovies as a backup for the past few years, but the spreadsheet is still my main record.  I started it for fun and just got into the habit of logging a quick one-sentence review and star score after every viewing of a new movie.  I've gotten behind on the recordkeeping a few times over the years, but always caught up again eventually.  I like having it in this format for reference, easily sortable by year or score or even viewing format.  I can pinpoint pretty clearly when I had subscriptions to various rental services, and when I switched from DVDs to online streaming.  I keep thinking that one of these days I'm going to start a new spreadsheet, something better formatted with more information, but I don't know if I ever will.

And somewhere along the way I realized that I had turned into a movie buff, and watching a movie every day or two felt completely normal.  It became a part of my life, and something I don't really question.  It's only when I see my own viewing patterns referred to as a "challenge" by someone that I'm reminded that I really am a media junkie.  Not quite the one I used to be, but still a media junkie.
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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Oscar Season 2015

As usual I haven't seen most of the contenders yet, but the Oscars have always been more about politics than merit, and we're definitely deep into the season at this point. The various critics' circles will start announcing their nominees soon, followed by the guilds and the other major awards organizations. What am I hoping for this year?

Well, it's going to be an interesting race because there aren't a lot of front runners yet and no clear favorites.  Thomas McCarthy's "Spotlight" has been singled out as a possible winner, but it's a quieter picture with a modest campaign so far.  The populist choices are "The Martian," and "Inside Out," but neither seems to have the support for a win.  We've been hearing a lot about what it took to make "The Revenant," but who knows if it's any good or not.  That leaves us with a lot of films from familiar names that sound like safe bets: Todd Haynes' "Carol," David O. Russell's "Joy," Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl," Quentin Tarantino's "Hateful 8," Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs," and Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies."  There are also some smaller, more interesting titles from relative newcomers in the mix: John Crowley's "Brooklyn" and Lenny Abrahamson's "Room."  I'm also gunning for longshots "Love & Mercy" and "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Best Actor looks like it's going to be a fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender.  I wouldn't mind if either of them won, because they're both due some recognition.  Eddie Redmayne will almost certainly be back for "The Danish Girl," and I'm guessing Johnny Depp for "Black Mass," since he's gotten enough good press for the role.  Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, and Will Smith are all in contention for the last spot.  In the Best Actress race, Brie Larson is our early frontrunner for "Room."  Saoirse Ronan for "Brooklyn," Cate Blanchett for "Carol," and Jennifer Lawrence for "Joy" are also very likely.  The fifth spot is a lot harder because there are so many smaller, actress-led films that tend to fly under he radar but get nominations with a good campaign.  Julianne Moore won with the completely pedestrian "Still Alice," remember.  I'm going to guess that Carey Mulligan swings a nod for "Suffragette."

The supporting categories are a lot harder to gauge, but I'm rooting for Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks for "Love & Mercy," and Jane Fonda for stealing the show in "Youth."  The ones to beat will be Mark Rylance who seems to have bee the only part of "Bridge of Spies" worth talking about, and Rooney Mara for "Carol."  Who I'd love to see in the Best Supporting category, but who will almost certainly have no shot, is Oscar Isaac for "Ex Machina."  Instead, this is usually where we see token nominations for minority actors, like Idris Elba for "Beasts of No Nation" and Benicio Del Toro for "Sicario," or older favorites like Joan Allen for "Room" and Sylvester Stallone for "Creed."  Who ends up with a nomination could depend largely on which picture picks up momentum as we get closer to the deadline.

For the rest of the categories, a miscellaneous assortment of thoughts: Cinematography is going to see yet another Deakins and Lubezki showdown.  I'm rooting for Deakins, just because Lubezki's already won twice.  Otherwise, this would be a good place to recognize Cary Fukunaga for "Beasts of No Nation," and "Mad Max: Fury Road."  In Documentary, the Amy Winehouse profile "Amy" is the frontrunner, and "Going Clear" is going to have to fight simply secure a nomination.  I'm rooting for "The Look of Silence" personally.

In the Foreign Language category, the only major contender seems to be "Son of Saul" from Hungary.  I'm also curious about Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "The Assassin" and the Icelandic "Rams."  For Animated Film, as much as I loved "Inside Out," I'm rooting for Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" sight unseen, because it would set such a good precedent for this category is something for grown-ups finally won.

And then you have all the wild cards and dark horses, of which there are plenty this year. Will controversy help "Truth"?  What's going on with "By the Sea"?  Is "99 Homes" going to get lost in the shuffle?  What about "Concussion," "Macbeth," The Program," and "The Lobster"?

And what of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"?
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Friday, November 20, 2015

My 2015 Holiday Wishlist

Dear Hollywood,

It's that time again!  This year for Christmas, I want:

For women directors to get a fairer shake.  Now I understand that there have been some great efforts made in recent months, and I know there are a lot of systemic problems that can't be corrected quickly.  But when you've got the EEOC conducting an industry-wide investigation of gender discrimination, you have to acknowledge that there's something wrong with this picture.  Yes, I know that Ava DeVernay said no to "Black Panther," and Michelle Monaghan said no to "Wonder Woman," but we need to get to the point where female directors turning down these high-profile gigs is no longer newsworthy.  At the time of writing, there are only seven films directed by women on the 2016 movie schedule, two of them animated films.  On television the numbers are better, but still not what they should be.

For the DC films to score some wins.  I still don't know how I feel about Zack Snyder having the reigns for "Batman v. Superman" leading into the "Justice League" movies, but I hope that it does well enough to get the DC cinematic universe back on track.  Keep in mind that we also have David Goyer's "Sinister Six" movie coming, which could provide an alternate avenue of success if the capes end up going down in flames.  As much as I've enjoyed many of the Marvel films, and as much as I'm looking forward to "Captain America: Civil War," it's not healthy for the industry and the superhero genre if Marvel keeps dominating the field like this.  I also have high hopes for FOX's "X-men," which include "X-Men: Apocalypse,"  "Deadpool," and possibly "Gambit," though it's likely that one will be pushed back to 2017 because of production troubles.

For Renee Zellweger to get back on her feet.  A year ago she reemerged after a five year hiatus from acting with a dramatically altered appearance.  I find it very sad that she thought she had to resort to such drastic measures to be marketable again, and we'll see how it's affected her screen work soon.  Zellweger has three films coming out in the next year, including "Bridget Jones's Baby."  While she was never one of my favorite actresses, I really hope Zellweger pulls off this comeback.  I always respected her work, and we need more forty-something headliners like her onscreen.

For Messrs. Sepinwall and Fienberg to regroup and find new podcasting homes.  The sudden cancellation of "Firewall and Iceberg" at the beginning of October was one of the saddest events of 2015 for me, as it was by far the best television podcast out there.  I have no idea how I'm going to get through the midseason without these two.  Oh, and for all the writers from The Dissolve and Hollywood Prospectus to land on their feet.  This was a rough year for the media reviewing community all around.

For the 2016 presidential election coverage to maintain some semblance of sanity.  With Donald Trump involved until the primaries next year, it's going to be tough, and probably very entertaining.  But as I get older, I find that I have less and less tolerance for political shenanigans.  I hope Bernie Sanders holds out for as long as possible, though, if only for more Larry Sanders appearances on SNL.  Thank goodness I've stopped watching live television.

For the return of "The X-files" to go smoothly.  I don't think that the revival is particularly necessary, and there's a pretty good chance that it'll be a disappointment.  The original had some pretty major ups and downs in quality, after all.  I'll be happy with "The X-files" if we get a few decent updates on the "monster-of-the-week" installments, which were always my favorites.  Oh, and if they could clear up what happened to Gibson Praise and the Lone Gunmen, I'd really appreciate that.

For all the new films and television shows coming out this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve.  Especially "Dr. Ken," because it looks like we're stuck with him for a while.

And for the "Sherlock" Christmas special and the new "Star Wars" movie to be as good as their promos.

Happy holidays!
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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Marvelous "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

There have been so many spy movies this year from "Furious 7" to "Spy" to the latest James Bond movie.  I think I've found my favorite of the year, a loving throwback to Cold War spy films based on the 1964 series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."  Guy Ritchie puts together a stellar group of acting talent, with a lighthearted script, gorgeous locales, and a sensational soundtrack to tie the whole thing together.  There's not as much action in it as some might hope for, but it doesn't lack for excitement.

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) helps a young woman named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape from Communist East Berlin, hoping that she can help lead them to her father, a nuclear engineer who has disappeared.  A KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), is hot on their tails.  However, having determined that Gaby's father may be working on a nuclear bomb for Nazi sympathizer Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the CIA and KGB decide to team up, and stick Solo and Kuryakin together as reluctant partners.  They go to Rome, where Gaby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is working for Vinciguerra, to try and infiltrate the operation.  Kuryakin poses as Gaby's fiancé, to her dismay, while Solo poses as an antiquities dealer to cozy up to Vinciguerra directly.  And of course there are dangerous missions, double crosses, daring escapes, a little romance, and a lot of witty banter.

The plot is an overcomplicated jumble, as it was in Guy Ritchie's last "Sherlock Holmes" movie, but here the performances are so much fun, I didn't care.  Cavill's square-jawed Napoleon Solo oozes charm and just the right amount of cavalier nonchalance.  There's a lot of Cary Grant in his performance in a good way.  Hammer's Kuryakin is a sympathetic, if touchy soul, and definitely a co-lead.  It's nice seeing the two of them having some fun after the gloomy "Man of Steel" and the muddled "Lone Ranger."  They make a very good comedic pair, constantly bickering and trying to one-up each other before becoming grudging allies.  The ladies are no slouches either.  Vikander's feisty gamine has no trouble keeping up with the boys, while Debicki's icy femme fatale steals every scene she's in.  After this and "The Great Gatsby," I hope Debicki gets a lot more work, because her presence is fantastic.

Ritchie throws himself into recreating the 1960s as it only existed in the movies, with a playful sensibility that makes it accessible to young and old alike. I've found the director a little hit-or-miss, since he can go overboard with his visual tricks and elaborate stylization.  In "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." I noticed that he has a tendency to repeat gags: something mundane happening in the foreground contrasts with something crazy happening in the out-of-focus background, the narrative doubles back on a scene to insert extra bits of information that makes it play out in a different way, and there are two rounds of split screen montages.  They work most of the time, though, are well executed.  Really, there's little here that I haven't seen in other spy movies, but it's all done with such an admirable level of care and craft.  There's so much retro eye candy, from the fashions to the Roman locales, to the cars.  The substance is lacking here and there, but the style is good enough to carry the film.

I've never seen any of the original "Man from U.N.C.L.E.," but I can't imagine any of the old fans would have any strong objections to the reboot.  It's definitely putting its own spin on the material rather than aping a past success, and more importantly it's not garishly modernized like "The Green Hornet" or "Get Smart."  This is one of the only spy films in recent years that I can think of that really romanticizes the profession of being a secret agent again.  Oh, it's winking terribly whenever Solo drops a double entendre, but there's definitely a nostalgic taste of the old exoticism from the early James Bond days in the mix.  I didn't realize until now that I've been missing it, just a bit.  There are so many spy movies these days, but so little to intrigue.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Going Clear" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"

Oh yes, we're doing this.

I saw the latest "Mission Impossible" movie recently, and it's great fun.  Christopher McQuarrie picked up the reins, and sent the Impossible Missions Force members Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) off on another globetrotting adventure with lots of great action set pieces, lots of zippy humor, and all the usual spy shenanigans.  It's always a good sign when you can identify multiple sequences for praise, and here there were plenty - the opera house sequence, the underwater sequence, the crazy car chase, and so on.  Heck, the big airplane stunt that's been at the center of the film's marketing campaign happens in the opening pre-title sequence!  I don't think this was the best installment of the franchise, but it was a pretty strong one, signaling that there's a lot of life left in the almost twenty year-old franchise and Tom Cruise's career.  Rebecca Ferguson got a lot of good notices for playing double-agent Ilsa Faust, but Cruise is clearly still the main event.

And then I had to go and watch the HBO documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," directed by Alex Gibney, which strongly suggests that Cruise is complicit in some of the worst abuses of the Church of Scientology.  "Going Clear" is an excellent summary of Scientology's long and sordid history, from its origins as a self-help philosophy created by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard to the soul-sucking runamok cult it's become today.  For those already familiar with Scientology's antics the documentary doesn't offer much new information, but it backs up a lot of the most important claims with riveting interviews with former Scientologists who were high up in the organization, and experienced the insanity first hand.  Some of the most disturbing images came from the Church's internally distributed promotional videos, several of which featured Tom Cruise essentially being worshiped as a Scientology deity - and set to the "Mission: Impossible" theme music no less!  That certainly put a dampener on any enthusiasm I had for Tom Cruise's resurgent career.   

So "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is now the latest sad, stark example of good media coming from distasteful talent.  Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby are the usual names we should bring up in these conversations, of course.  The individual viewer can (and should) draw their own conclusions from the material presented in "Going Clear" as to how much responsibility Tom Cruise has for the amount of power and influence Scientology currently enjoys, and whether they want to keep supporting his movies.  Personally, I don't think that he should be condemned for simply being friends with people like David Miscavige, but his status as Scientology's most famous promoter suggests that Cruise is either condoning the abuses or has been manipulated to the point where he's essentially a puppet figure.  Either way, Tom Cruise is clearly a troubled man who is in way too deep with a pack of dangerous zealots and con-artists.  Though he's not particularly vocal about being a Scientologist these days, he's not exactly doing anything to distance himself from them either. 

However, Cruise personal failings don't change the fact that he's still an excellent actor and is a big part of why "Rogue Nation" is one of the better summer action movies this year.  As a producer he was directly responsible for the hiring for McQuarrie, who Cruise also worked with in 2012's "Jack Reacher."  From interviews, it's clear he also had a big part in casting, writing, and all the stunt work.  I've never had trouble compartmentalizing in these situations, and considering the art separate from the artist.  Some of my friends can't bear to watch Bill Cosby's old work anymore, and I sympathize.  However, when I've gone back and looked at old "Cosby Show" episodes, I see Cliff Huxtable, not Bill Cosby.  It's the same with Cruise and "Mission: Impossible."  I look at the film and see Ethan Hunt, not Tom Cruise.  He doesn't remotely resemble the Tom Cruise in the "Going Clear" videos, who looks like he was going through some kind of extreme psychological crisis at the time they were made.

Is there any way to resolve the cognitive dissonance?  Not easily, no.  I can try to justify watching "Mission: Impossible" as supporting all the hundreds of other people who worked on the film, but honestly without Cruise it probably wouldn't exist.  Supporting Cruise's isn't directly supporting Scientology, but the organization still benefits from counting a big movie star among its ranks.  Cruise seems to have become more self-aware at least and has clammed up about Scientology in public, but there's still something off about him.  He appeared on the Nerdist podcast last year and sounded like a guy who had been stuck in press tours and junkets for far, far too long.  Being a movie star is about maintaining an illusion, and Cruise is still very good at it.  But we've seen him lose his footing before, and he probably will again.  "Rogue Nation" was a high point for him, but I have to wonder how many more he's got left.

As for the Church of Scientology, its days are surely numbered.  "Going Clear" is damning, but it's also notable for how much it left out of the narrative, for all the terrible, well-known stories it didn't tell.  In popular culture, Scientology has been a laughingstock since the "South Park" guys introduced us to Xenu, and a much easier target for criticism since the Internet got involved.  What resources the organization has amassed will ensure its vestiges stick around for a while, but its power is quickly dissipating.  And if Tom Cruise or John Travolta or any other major star made any visible efforts to help them at this point, they'd probably go down with them. 

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Watching Shia LaBeouf Watching Shia LaBeouf

Last week, Shia LaBeouf and several collaborators created a unique piece of performance art, titled #Allmymovies.  Over three days, the bulk of his filmography was screened at New York's Angelika Film Center in reverse chronological order, and LaBeouf marathoned all of it, from the recent indie film "Man Down" to the Disney dub of Miyazaki's "Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind."  Only brief breaks were scheduled, so he slept through several of the films, and ate during others.  The goal was for him to remain in his seat for as long as possible.  The whole thing was livestreamed, and curious fans could also drop by the theater and join the audience at the screenings - admission was free.  The Gothamist covered what was going on outside the screening room.

I logged in briefly to the livestream site during the first day, and was greeted by the image of LaBeouf's passive face as he watched one of the films.  You could also make out a couple of other spectators sitting behind him, but not very clearly.  The lighting constantly changed because of the flickering screen, but you could clearly see LaBeouf's expressions, or the lack thereof.  I only lasted a few minutes before quitting the stream.  I don't feel like I really got the full effect of the piece, but I didn't have the time or resources to really commit to the experience.  No sound from the movies was supplied because of copyright issues, so following along required some work.  A schedule of the films was supplied so the curious viewer could sync up with LaBeouf, but was it worth the effort?

I've tried to keep an open mind about Shia LaBeouf's artistic ambitions and offscreen foibles.  His plagiarism of a Daniel Clowes comic two years ago was definitely a low point, but his very public string of apologies (several of them also plagiarized) and jaunts into performance art have been intriguing, if not always very effective.  Marina Abramović he ain't.  The marathon strikes me as an original idea, at least.  A famous actor watch his own films isn't something we've seen before, and it's a perfectly appropriate piece of programming for the Netflix generation, who have made marathoning television shows and watching livestreams of other people playing video games popular.  Heck, just a few days ago Twitch streamed the entire run of "The Joy of Painting" with Bob Ross to a not-inconsiderable audience.  Just because I haven't the time or inclination to watch Shia LaBeouf watching "Dumb and Dumberer" doesn't mean that others online don't.

I've written a bit before about the pleasures of secondhand and communal viewing, and how the internet is creating new forms of both.  Reaction videos, liveblogging, and livestreaming are commonplace these days.  As I've read over some of the reaction pieces to the Shia LaBeouf marathon, what struck me was how familiar it all felt - the speculation about his intentions, the obsession over minutiae (someone gave him a can of Pringles!), and the nostalgia from younger viewers over LaBeouf's earlier films.  #Allmymovies is just giving us a new excuse to have the same conversations about Shia LaBeouf we've been having about him for years.  It's the fact that LaBeouf is instigating the conversation this time that's the interesting part.  While the stunt is inherently attention-seeking, there's no sense of desperation about it, no indication that it's meant to be anything more than exactly what it is.  LaBeouf's actually had quite a decent run of movies lately with "Nymphomaniac" and "Fury," and he seems to be successfully putting the "Transformers" phase of his career behind him.

But that doesn't mean he can't revisit it.  Interest in #Allmymovies seemed to peak during the screenings of the films people were the most familiar with: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the first "Transformers," and his Disney Channel era features like "Holes" and the "Even Stevens" movie.  Without LaBeouf providing any commentary, viewers could only guess at what he was thinking while watching the younger version of himself in these films, and many did.  Poking around on Reddit and Twitter, I found so many watchers sharing speculation: Did he seem bored by this one?  Was he embarrassed by that one?

I don't think that most of Shia LaBeouf's films are worth revisiting, but revisiting them alongside their star is another matter.  And LaBeouf keeps doing things like #Allmymovies, he's not going to lose the spotlight any time soon.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rank 'Em: The "Star Wars" Movies

Before "The Force Awakens" upends the franchise forever, I figured it was time to get my rankings in order for the existing six films.  No, I'm not counting the "Clone Wars" animated movie or the Ewoks movies.  The rest are ranked below from best to worst.  Sorry prequel fans, but I never much liked Episodes I-III.  They do have their good points, though, which I'll expand on below.  Spoilers below.

"The Empire Strikes Back" - I originally watched "Empire" and "Jedi" via edited television broadcasts in 1992, and I don't think I knew about the famous reveal beforehand.  I remember that the ending definitely made a strong impression, that suddenly this dazzling space adventure story I'd been enjoying had deeper, darker, more personal stakes than I'd anticipated.  After more viewings, I'd come to appreciate all the scenes with Yoda, the Hoth battle, and the increasingly dicey situation with Lando Calrissian on Cloud City.  What I think really makes this film for me, however, is Darth Vader, who becomes more and more powerful and threatening with each appearance.  After years of jokes and parodies, people forget how effective he was as a villain - and it still irks me that he was so badly undercut in the prequels.

"The Return of the Jedi" - This is the "Star Wars" movie I watched the most often as a kid, to the point where I had good chunks of the dialogue memorized.  I never really minded the Ewoks, and "Jedi" had the Jabba the Hutt sequence and the confrontations with Darth Vader and the Emperor, which are some of my favorite parts of the whole series.  I've heard some criticism over the years that there was too much reliance on action sequences, and that the series essentially backslid to being a kids' movie after "Empire" struck out in more adult directions.  I always thought of "Star Wars" as being a kid-friendly franchise first and foremost, though.  I especially appreciate the effects work in this installment, which significantly improved on similar scenes from the earlier movies.  When I think of the attack on the Death Star, it's usually this one.

"Star Wars" - I actually saw "Star Wars" after the first two movies, so all the innovation and the originality of its concepts were completely lost on me.  I was initially a little disappointed, even, because the characters were fairly flat, and some of the effects didn't hold up so well (until the 1997 Special Edition anyway).  However, I thought it was still a great time, especially the middle section on the Death Star where the humor comes out, and there's that great scene with the trash compacter.  The Death Star getting blown up is always fun too.  The older I get, the more I appreciate Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness's performances, which help to ground the space fantasy elements considerably.  And then there's John Williams' score, which is as vital to these movies as the special effects.

"The Phantom Menace" - It could be the nostalgia talking, but I really do think that "Phantom Menace" was the best of the prequels.  It had Liam Neeson, Darth Maul, the best score, and some absolutely stunning art direction.  Yes, it also had Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd, but if I keep in mind that I'm watching a kid's film, I don't find them intolerable.  The tin ear dialogue is pretty bad, but I like several of the fight sequences, particularly the final two-on-one lightsaber duel.  After fifteen years, it's become obvious that the heavy reliance on green screen effects really hurt the film, but some of those effects still look pretty impressive.  Most of all, I think that the way it's structured as a prelude to a bigger story helps to cover a lot of the flaws, which is why I was able to enjoy what I could.

"The Revenge of the Sith" - I really, really loathe Hayden Christensen's performance as Anakin Skywalker.  While I admit I enjoyed watching a good deal of his downfall, that awful final transformation scene just killed it for me.  And I still can't believe that Darth Vader's tragic backstory amounted to some dumb, reckless kid trusting the wrong people and jumping to idiotic conclusions about his closest friends.  "Revenge of the Sith" may have tackled more adult subject matter than the other two prequel films, but it's executed so ham-handedly, it never feels like Lucas is really taking his characters seriously.  The only thing keeping this one from the bottom of the list is that I do get the sense that the filmmakers were trying.  Sadly, it wasn't enough.

"Attack of the Clones" - Good grief, where do I start?  The leaden romance between Anakin and Padme?  The arena fight where all the lightsabers look like glowsticks?  The ridiculous Yoda and Dooku duel?  This was the film where it finally sunk in that the franchise had seriously gone off the rails.  I've only watched "Attack of the Clones" once, but I'm going with my gut on this one.  I walked out of the theater hating this movie, and it's been my worst experience with "Star Wars" to date.  So as far as I'm concerned, it's definitely earned last place.
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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tentatively Getting Excited About "Star Wars"

I've spent so much time trying to stay out of the way of the "Star Wars" marketing machine.  There have been toys on sale at Target since mid-summer.  Themed food items are showing up at the grocery store, with packaging that make it all too clear which characters are the good guys and which are the bad guys.  There are certain movie-related sites I just can't visit anymore for fear of running across more spoilers.  I already know way too much about who's playing who, who's making cameos, and who ends up with which lightsabers.  I'm guessing that many of my fellow old school "Star Wars" are getting a little burnt out.

So I'd like to just pause, take a deep breath, and remember that I actually am excited to see "The Force Awakens."  It has been a very long wait for most of us, and now we're only a little more than a month away from opening weekend.  2015 has been a very solid movie year, but frankly the new "Star Wars" movie still has the potential to dwarf all the other successes.  Those first two teaser trailers gave me goosebumps like nothing else in years.  I toyed with skipping the final one last month, but I eventually gave in.  The Comic-Con behind the scenes footage actually got me a little teary-eyed.  I've written before extensively about how I fell out of love with the "Star Wars" franchise after the prequels, but I continue to adore those first three movies.  They're my cinematic touchstones for so many, many things.

Realistically, I know "The Force Awakens" probably won't be the movie I want it to be. J.J. Abrams is a severely hit or miss director with a lot of bad habits, and the only movie he's directed that I've liked without reservations is the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot.  However, I can see his sensibility suiting "Star Wars" very well, as long as he doesn't get carried away.  From the promotional materials, he's made many choices that I can really get behind, like the diverse casting and the use of more physical props and effects.  I'm actually more thrilled at the prospect of Gwendoline Christie playing a "Star Wars" role we haven't seen a woman occupy before than any of the promised cameos by the old familiar faces.  And frankly, I can handle some lens flares if it means we get more visuals like the Super Star Destroyer wreckage from that second teaser.

I'm also getting very excited for the films coming after "The Force Awakens."  There's been a lot going on behind the scenes with "Episode VIII" and "Rogue One" that's been overshadowed by the current hype for "The Force Awakens."  Creating the spinoff anthology films and using different directors for each film were good ideas.  This means a slew of different creative voices will be in the mix, and the franchise will be flexible enough so that it can hopefully accommodate directors we wouldn't immediately consider for "Star Wars."  "Rogue One," for instance, seems to be aiming to put the war in "Star Wars," with a plot synopsis straight out of a WWII movie.  The international cast they've assembled for it, including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, and Alan Tudyk is jaw-dropping.  Not much is known about Episodes VIII and IX yet, but I'm hoping these will be the movies that Rian Johnson finally knocks out of the park.

I think what I find especially heartening is that Disney is clearly signaling that they're in for the long haul with "Star Wars."  They are doing their best to turn this into the next Marvel Universe, possibly with multiple sub-franchises and spinoffs.  Netflix is gunning for a "Star Wars" series to go with "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," of course.  So even if "The Force Awakens" turns out to be a disappointment, there will be multiple attempts to get it right using multiple approaches. Now looking at the current state of the Marvel Universe movies and shows, there's clearly both upsides and downsides to this kind of strategy long term, but I'm pretty confident that "Star Wars" fans are going to be getting some fun media out of it before the end.  
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Friday, November 13, 2015

Checking in With "Steven Universe"

It's been about two years and seventy-odd episodes since "Steven Universe" premiered, and high time I checked back in with one of the best animated shows currently on the air.  Minor spoilers ahead for the first season.

After my first few episodes of "Steven Universe," I expected the rest of the series to be a fairly laid back, easygoing romp with a lot of humor and some occasional low-stakes fantasy monster bashing.  And for a long time, that's exactly what it was.  However, about halfway through the first season, we started getting some pretty significant pieces of back story.  The more Steven learns about his powers, the more he learns about his mother and the other Crystal Gems. New concepts and skills are often introduced in lighter, funnier episodes first, only to come back later in darker contexts.  And soon it becomes clear that even though Steven and the audience don't know exactly what's going on, or what each new bit of information means, it's all adding up to something big.

This Is a really refreshing approach to worldbuilding and serialization, which we've been seeing more of in action cartoons.  More perceptive older viewers should be able to catch on to what's going on fairly quickly, but younger viewers who don't understand the specifics still get a sense of the impact on the characters.  Steven sees the Gems getting increasingly worried and upset with each new discovery.  He sees that many of his own personal victories turn out to have consequences he didn't expect, and his worldview becomes more complex as a result.  The Steven at the end of the first season has grown and matured considerable from the happy-go-lucky kid who was showing off his cheeseburger backpack at the start.  He's still a goofy optimist, but one who has had to deal with a lot of tough situation and emotions.  And the Gems have turned out to be far, far more complicated than they appeared to be at the outset.

What I makes "Steven Universe" particularly strong is its focus on relationships.  In this show, feelings matter and can be a source of power in a very literal sense.  But while there is a lot of emphasis on building bonds, more time is spent on healing old hurts and dealing with some unusually fraught emotional baggage.  There are a wide variety of insecurities, traumas, and fears explored by the characters, some of which are pretty dark and have the potential to get much darker.  The loss of Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, is an event that most of the main characters are still dealing with in various ways.  These aren't issues that come up in every episode, but they drive the main storylines and are at the crux of our young hero's journey.  It's especially apparent in the stories where some big, plotty, magical event happens, but the actual conflict is centered on Steven trying to deal with some smaller, side problem that the show patiently reveals is just as important to take seriously.

I really adore the Crystal Gems as characters, especially as their personalities and flaws have come into sharper focus.  Fussy Pearl may actually be the least in control of herself and the most potentially destructive.  Amethyst still has a lot of growing up to do, and appears to be on a similar arc to Steven.  Garnet is awesome and my favorite for reasons I can't get into without spoiling too much.  And all of them are so funny too.  I love that the Gems can be ripping on monsters one minute and engaging in silly bickering the next.  Their interactions with regular humans are a riot.  As much as "Steven Universe" is about fighting evildoers and learning about special alien powers, it's also very invested in Steven's day-to-day life as a regular human kid.  I love how involved he gets with helping out the various inhabitants of Beach City, even if some of them tend to get on my nerves.  Less of Ronaldo and the Cool Kids, please.

The one character who's grown on the me the most is Steven's dad, Greg Universe, especially as we've learned more about his past and relationship with Rose Quartz.  A balding, washed up rocker, living out of a van, it was hard to see him as more than comic relief for a long time, but a few poignant flashback episodes and present day bonding episodes have changed that.  I know that eventually we're going to get to his account of Rose Quartz's departure, and I'm kind of dreading watching him get his heart broken.  And the fact that I care about that more than I care about the impending arrival of the Big Bads and their sinister Earth-threatening plots just shows you what kind of show "Steven Universe" is.

The hiatus can't go by fast enough, and I'm already anticipating a third season.  Happy watching.
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The New Disney Fairy Tale Franchise

Disney has been making live-action adaptations of its older animated classics for some time, but since "Maleficent" and "Cinderella" cleaned up at the box office, they've become a much bigger priority for the studio.  At the moment, practically every traditional animated film in the vault has a live action adaptation in development or at least under consideration.  A few weeks ago, Disney announced new and adjusted release dates for a slew of Disney Animation, PIXAR, Marvel, and "Star Wars" films over the next five years.  Also conspicuously taking up a good chunk of the slate are next year's "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and "The Jungle Book," 2017's "Beauty and the Beast," and a whopping four "Untitled Live Action Fairy Tale" movies.

I took a guess at what some possible future live action Disney projects might be a few years ago in this post: New Disney Movies Based on the Old Disney Movies.  What I failed to take into account was the popular trend of revisionist takes on the old fairy tales.  Some of the more interesting features currently in the works are a Cruella De Vil spinoff from "101 Dalmatians," an "Aladdin" prequel focusing on the Genie, and a comedy about Prince Charming's loser brother, which will probably combine elements from multiple properties.  There have been several attempts to make a live action movie starring Tinker Bell from "Peter Pan," especially after the success of Disney's Fairies merchandise line.  Reese Witherspoon is attached to star in the latest version.  Also, there's a "Maleficent" sequel in the works, of course.

More straightforward adaptations include "Mulan," "Pinocchio," and "The Sword and the Stone."  I expect there will be others eventually, since "Cinderella" did so well by playing it so straight.  "Rapunzel" and "The Snow Queen" are probably inevitable after a few more years have passed.  Some odder current projects in this mold include a live action "Winnie the Pooh," to be scripted by Alex Ross Perry, Tim Burton's take on"Dumbo," and a possible movie based on the notorious “Night on Bald Mountain" sequence from "Fantasia," which is possibly the most un-Disney piece of animation to ever come out of the studio.  Live action/CGI animation hybrid projects include "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," and a "Chip 'n' Dale" movie.  I'm also not quite sure where to put the "Mary Poppins" sequel, as there are several other "Mary Poppins" books that a movie could be adapted from, but the sequel will surely be based on the first movie more than anything else.

Non-Disney fairy tale projects include a live action "The Little Mermaid" at Universal, though it recently lost director Sophia Coppola.  I'm guessing that Disney probably only held off on their own adaptation because it looked like Universal's version was going to get their first.  If Universal's doesn't go forward, Disney might mount their own adaptation.  Meanwhile, Universal's "Snow White and the Huntsman" is getting a spinoff/prequel called "The Huntsman" next year.  There are also at least two other "Pinocchio" projects in the works, one of them potentially written by Paul Thomas Anderson, and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Gepetto.  The other is Guillermo Del Toro's long-rumored stop-motion version. Finally, we should mention the multiple "Peter Pan" related movies, most of which will probably be stuck in limbo after the box office failure of Warner Bros' "Pan."

I'm not sure which of the Disney projects the four "Untitled" movies on the schedule are, as most of the ones announced so far are still in the scripting stage.  However, my best guesses are that before 2020 we can expect the "Maleficent" sequel, the "Aladdin" prequel, and maybe "Mulan," because Disney bought a treatment earlier this year.  The live action Disney fairy-tale movies have so far proven to appeal more to women and girls, the same way that their animated films do.  There are a couple of upcoming projects like "The Jungle Book" that will do their best to attract the boys, but I hope Disney doesn't push too hard in that direction - it's a tactic that has backfired on them before.  And honestly, it's nice having another female-friendly franchise universe on the same potential scale as Marvel and "Star Wars."  These movies haven't been very consistent, but they have a lot of promise.  Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella" was one of the year's better surprises.    

Finally, note that live action adaptations aren't the only way that Disney is reusing and reinterpreting their classic characters.  The ongoing "Kingdom Hearts" video game franchise was one of the first to feature Disney crossovers.  On television, "Once Upon a Time" and "Descendants" both take place in universes where all the fairy tale characters interact to some degree, and are much more direct about borrowing the old Disney tropes and iconography than the live-action films.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Spy" and "Trainwreck"

I've already written a little about "Spy" and "Trainwreck" in the context of their lead actresses making waves at the summer box office.  I think it's time I go into a little more depth.  A few general comments first though - it's important to remember that though both movies are unqualified hits, they're smaller titles with very modest budgets, aimed at very specific audiences.  Nobody's asking Amy Schumer to headline a "Jurassic Park" movie soon.  What's the most heartening to me, though, is the part these movies have played in challenging the male-dominated summer movie status quo and helping to reinvigorate some old formulas.

Let's start with Melissa McCarthy in "Spy," directed by Paul Feig.  Now, this was the first proper Melissa McCarthy vehicle I've seen, as she was sharing the spotlight with Sandra Bullock in "Heat," and had only a supporting role in Feig's "Bridesmaids."  Can McCarthy carry a film by herself?  Yes, and quite well.  Notably, here she's not playing a comic relief caricature, but an underdog lead that we're meant to relate to and root for.  Her Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst who stays behind a desk at headquarters, feeding information to James Bond analog Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on his daring missions, via headset.  However, after a crisis that grounds all the regular agents, Susan gets her chance to go into the field, hot on the trail of an international arms dealer, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne).  Cue the ridiculous disguises, the silly (but also pretty impressive) fight scenes, and Jason Statham as rogue agent Rick Ford indulging in some beefy self-mockery.

We've seen plenty of spy spoofs in the past, but "Spy" quickly distinguishes itself by simply letting things play out from Susan's unusual POV.  The CIA is presented as a far more typical workplace than we've ever seen before, mostly manned by underappreciated techies and analysts who never get any of the credit.  Susan's self esteem keeps taking hits from all sides as she tries to enjoy the glamorous secret agent experience other movies have promised, but just keeps getting stuck with all the downsides of the job nobody ever talks about.  The humor is on the crude and violent side, but the tone is much lighter than I expected, and there's a good amount of time devoted to Susan's romantic woes, friendship with fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart), and sentimental self-esteem building.  The movie is taking as much from working woman dramedies like "Working Girl" and "9 to 5" as it's taking from the Bond movies.

"Spy" offers a boisterous good time, though it's not a particularly clever film and comes off as a little slapdash in construction.  Most of the laughs come from good character work from McCarthy, Statham, Rose Byrne, and the rest of a strong ensemble cast.  I'm not sure that this kind of material is the best fit for McCarthy, but she's one of the few actresses who could have made this work.  As for Paul Feig, he commits no egregious cinematic sins, but I don't think he's as strong here as he could be.  If we think of "Spy" as the dress rehearsal for the all-woman "Ghosbusters" reboot coming next year, I admit that I'm a little worried.  McCarthy should be fine though.  "Spy" has proved she definitely has the action-comedy chops, and maybe she should get a "Jurassic Park" movie one of these days.

On to "Trainwreck."  I've only seen a few clips from Schumer's Comedy Central show "Inside Amy Schumer," but it was enough to convince me that she's talented, smart, and offers some good perspective.  There have been complaints that Schumer's only good at playing herself, but that's a persona that seems to have plenty of comedic mileage.  In "Trainwreck" she plays Amy Townsend, perhaps the most likeable female reprobate we've seen onscreen in a long time.  She's a functional alcoholic, parties and sleeps around with abandon, and is more of a walking mess than your usual Judd Apatow movie protagonist.  At the same time, Amy is clearly a woman of some talents, who writes for a men's magazine, and is dating a bodybuilder, Steven (John Cena), when we first meet her.  She's also close to her younger sister Kim (Brie Larsen) and father Gordon (Colin Quinn), who is making a bumpy transition to assisted living.

And then Amy meets Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor who works with basketball stars, which gives the filmmakers the excuse to write LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire into the story.  Amy is a commitment-phobe, but she and Aaron hit it off.  And what was a fairly raunchy sex comedy slowly navigates through more typical rom-com dilemmas.  "Trainwreck" pulls this off because it doesn't compromise its characters.  I love that Amy is so sexually open, and that the film doesn't vilify her for her lifestyle all that much.  Yes, she's the film's titular trainwreck, but it's because she's not regulating her appetites, not that she has them.  I could easily see the film having a male lead with many of the same issues and attitudes.  Dr. Conners is also an unusually strong romantic lead, one of several good performances that Bill Hader has given us lately.  I really want to see him in more serious roles after this.

What issues I do have with the film mostly stem from it being a Judd Apatow production, and subject to many of his bad habits.  As many have noted, it's too long and has too many distracting cameos, particularly an ill-conceived intervention scene which really should have been cut.  However, LeBron James does fine with the material he's given, and John Cena is absolutely brilliant.  Having so much of the movie taking place in and around the professional sports world also keeps the typical rom-com atmosphere mostly at bay.  It's not to the point where "Trainwreck" is pandering to the male audience at any point, but you can definitely see them being taken into account here, and a good balance being struck, which is nice to see.  I really hope we get more romantic comedies like this in the future, because this genre sorely needs more revitalizing.  
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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Fall Season With No Cancellations

Didn't I just write a post on the state of television?  Well, here's an interesting new wrinkle I thought was worth some discussion: this year, for the first time in several decades, we're over a month into the new fall season without a single new prime time series having been cancelled and pulled from the schedule.  Keep in mind that early cancellations are considered a normal part of television life cycle.  In years past media folks would even bet on which show would be the first to get the axe.  Now, there are several new series like FOX's "Minority Report" and ABC's "Blood & Oil" that are de facto cancelled, as they've had their episode orders reduced and are almost certainly not going to be renewed for another season, but the networks are letting them run out the clock.  We used to see the shows that bombed disappear before November sweeps, with the remaining episodes either burned off over the summer, or more recently released as online exclusives.

I suspect the reason is at least partially financial - it's probably cheaper now to just let the full order of episodes of a new show air than to pay for extra episodes of a backup substitute.  "Minority Report," for instance, only had a had a seven episode order and will be replaced by "Lucifer" in December.  With so many spots on the schedule becoming less competitive, there are a lot of places to stash an ailing show without pulling it completely.  Also, executives are clearly nervous about the uncertainties of the rapidly changing television ratings and scheduling models, and are willing to give struggling shows more time to improve.  The internet and DVR viewing have severely cut into traditional live viewing, such that the Nielsen ratings model was adjusted a few years ago to take into account audiences that watch a show via DVR within a certain timeframe, usually Live + 3 and Live + 7.  It's what kept more niche shows like "The Office" and "Fringe" on the air.  Now, with live audiences dropping even further, it's even harder to determine what might be worth keeping around. 

Audiences and content creators benefit to some extent, as new shows stay on the air longer and get more chances to connect with viewers.  Everyone can name a few ambitious, interesting shows that were cancelled because they couldn't deliver ratings quickly.  I used to get so exasperated when weird, cool little genre shows like Bryan Fuller's "Wonderfalls" or Tim Minear's "Drive" would only last four or five episodes on FOX (it was almost always FOX) before vanishing into obscurity.  Last year's "Selfie" probably would have survived a little longer this year on TV.  The downside, however, is that the shows that clearly aren't working will end up hanging around long after they should have gotten the boot.  Remember when "No Ordinary Family" got a full season order, but everyone stopped watching after three weeks?  Or the whole fiasco with the "Michael J. Fox Show"?

There's no telling if this is a trend that will continue, or if this season Is just a fluke, but the lack of cancellations seems to be the latest symptom of network television having to completely overhaul how they operate to keep up with its internet and cable competitors.  We've seen episode orders shrink, pilot season in disarray, shows skipping from platform to platform, and executives second-guessing everything as audiences continue to steadily migrate away from live television.  There have been some interesting experiments - ordering straight to series, FOX declaring an end to pilots outright, and increasingly aggressive advertising tactics.  You can definitely see Netflix's model having some influence, with the newly announced "Star Trek" series being earmarked for CBS's new proprietary streaming service, and NBC's releasing all of "Aquarius" online at once over the summer. 

At the moment, the only shows that have been cancelled in 2015 have been the ones that have already had more than a fair shot  - Syfy's "Defiance," CBS's summer series "Extant," and bunch of one-season cable wonders.  We also know that some shows' current or upcoming seasons will be their last, "American Idol" and "Person of Interest" among them.  I'm sure the bulk of the new shows from this season will be joining them, but we'll have to wait a while longer to find out which ones.  
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Sunday, November 8, 2015

What I Want Form a New "Star Trek" Series

CBS has announced that a new "Star Trek" television series in in the works, the first in over a decade.  I'm thrilled, but also a little worried.  It's been a long break, and television has changed drastically while it was away.  I think there's certainly an eager audience for the new show, and plenty of potential for excellent television, but I hope that the creators tread carefully.  There are some potential minefields ahead and some issues that are going to need to be addressed.

First, there's the big one: sexuality.  Though "Star Trek" has a history of diverse and inclusive casts, very few of its characters have been anything other than heteronormative.  A "Next Generation" episode had a gender neutral alien, and "Deep Space 9" character Jadzia Dax claimed to be bisexual, but that was about the extent of it.  Famously, a script was penned for "next Generation" that featured a gay couple, "Blood and Fire" but it was nixed by the studio.  The last series, "Enterprise," ended in 2005, notably the same year that "Doctor Who" was revived featuring several prominent gay and lesbian characters like Captain Jack Harkness.  "Torchwood," "Battlestar Galactica," "Orphan Black," and so many, many more followed.  And, of course, there's George Takei.  It would be very tempting for "Star Trek" to attempt to play catch up and put LGBT issues front and center, but it would probably just end up drawing attention to the previous deficit of them.  I'd certainly like to see the new "Trek" series include gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender characters, but to handle their sexual identity the same way they handled racial diversity - something that's no longer such a big deal.

And speaking of racial diversity, it's gotten a lot more colorful on television these days.  Back in the '90s and early 2000s, the "Star Trek" shows were the only ones I could count on having diverse casts.  Now Shonda Rimes has turned that into the status quo.  And I'm hoping that the "Star Trek" folks keep that in mind.  They're going to have to work a little harder to be the vanguard in this area that they used to be.  We've had a black Captain and a female Captain, and they were wonderful, but that shouldn't preclude more of them in the future.  Also, remember that the original "Star Trek" made a point of including Russian and Asian faces - recent enemies of the U.S. in 1966.  To really update "Star Trek" for the current era, I'm hoping for a Middle-Eastern crew member - one who comes across as more Middle-Eastern than the British-accented Dr. Bashir, ideally.  If the creators are really feeling daring, they could also delve into religious differences too.

I'm pretty indifferent to the actual format of the new "Trek."  Whether it's in continuity with the rest of the franchise or the movies or something new entirely isn't all that important.  I'd love a new starship-oriented show, but the Starfleet Academy concept we've heard about for years sounds perfectly decent, and there are plenty of other corners of the "Star Trek" universe that we haven't seen yet that could yield some good things.  Whatever the creators choose, I hope the format is flexible enough to accommodate many different kinds of stories.  I know the trend these days is towards darker, serialized narratives in genre programs, but I always thought the fun of "Star Trek" was that you didn't know what you were going to get from one episode to the next - a planet full of rock monsters, time travel, tribbles, holograms, the Borg, or that episode where half the crew are turned into kids.

And I guess that's the biggest thing I want out of a new "Star Trek": some fun.  The zombie apocalypses and techno-doomsdays have been great and all, but I'm looking forward to a little optimism in my science-fiction again.  Yes, space travel and aliens can be scary, but there' a lot of wonder there too that I've been missing.  "Star Trek" was always a forward-looking, idealistic franchise.  Sure, darken it up for the Millennials a bit, but as long as the new series retains the core values of its predecessors, it'll do just fine.
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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Life in "Review"

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a cocaine addiction?  To sleep with a celebrity or participate in an orgy?  To eat far, far too many pancakes?  Well, now there's a show that will explore these life experiences for you: "Review with Forrest MacNeil."  Your genial host takes review requests from viewers, gamely does his best to experience each one to the fullest, and then returns to his studio to recap and assign it a rating on a five star scale.  Of course, many of the life experiences that Forrest is asked to review are ones that no sane human being would ever willingly seek out in real life, and Forrest is forced to bear the brunt of the physical, financial, and psychic damage required to accomplish them - the cumulative effects of which wreak havoc on his personal life.

I've watched all of the available episodes of Comedy Central 's two seasons of "Review," which is based on the Australian mockumentary show "Review with Myles Barlow."  Reportedly, the original is just as dark and twisted, though the different host is an important distinction.  The American "Review" is a showcase for Andy Daly, a familiar face if you've watched much Comedy Central programming, who is only now getting a proper vehicle for his formidable talents to shine.  Resembling a bespectacled Conan O'Brien, Daly's Forrest MacNeil initially appears to be a pleasant, white-bread, well spoken man, always decked out in a tan suit jacket and khakis. However, it's slowly revealed that he has lurking insecurities and an absolutely fanatical devotion to the show, to the point where he's willing to turn his life and relationships into a complete shambles to live up to his lofty, exacting standards for reviewing.  As "Review" goes on, the big question becomes how far Forrest is willing to go, and how much he's willing to sacrifice in the name of fulfilling his duties as host.

Each episode of "Review" covers two or three reviews, allowing a wide range of subject matter to be examined in a quasi-sketch comedy format.  Forrest is given new assignments by his lovely co-host, A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) and then goes out into the world with a camera crew to document his experiences, ranging from "Road Rage" to "Curing Homosexuality."  He's often aided by his executive assistant Lucille (Tara Karsian) and unpaid intern Josh (Michael Croner), and later Josh's girlfriend Tina (Hayley Huntley).  Forrest enforces absolutely no personal boundaries in his pursuit of a review, so assignments like "Making a Sex Tape" end up involving his wife Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair) and their young son Eric (Kaden Gibson).  Other loved ones who are impacted include Forrest's father (Max Gail) and father-in-law (Fred Ward). Whenever Forrest wavers in the face of adversity or emotional devastation, he's gently encouraged by his evil producer Grant (James Urbaniak) to stay the course.

It's difficult to get into the particulars of why "Review" is so effective without getting into major spoilers - and even reading the episode titles gives too much away.  However, I think the whole conceit works so well largely thanks to Andy Daly, whose energetic performance sells the obsessive nature of Forrest MacNeil, makes it easy to laugh at his horrible misfortunes, and yet also gets you to care about him.  One minute you're giggling at his antics in "Being Batman" and then feel genuinely bad for him when those antics turn out to have some awful consequences.  Several developments involving Forrest's  family are genuinely poignant and heartrending.  There are also weirder, more conceptual reviews that play with the format, which are a lot of fun.  Of all the recent comedies that have embraced a bleaker, more nihilistic outlook on the world, "Review" is surely one of the most daring and well executed.

The first season, which unveils its cold, cruel nature bit by bit is one of the best debuts of a television show I've ever seen.  The second can't hope to match up to it, pulling bigger stunts with smaller returns, but it's still well worth watching.  So I hereby give "Review" its well-deserved five stars, and for Forrest's sake, I hope the show doesn't go on for too much longer.
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Friday, November 6, 2015

My Favorite Roman Polanski Film

I've struggled a lot with what to think of Roman Polanski, a great director without question, but also a man who has done some awful, criminal things.  I believe that art can be considered separate from the artist, but this is a "great directors" post, and the entire point is to talk about the directors via their movies.  Can I make the argument that Polanski the artist should be considered separate from Polanski the perp?  I suppose I'm going to have to, because I do enjoy Polanski's movies and he's primarily responsible for them.  However, I will point out that my favorite Polanski film, "Repulsion," was made twelve years prior to the assault of Samantha Geimer, and several years prior to him even meeting Sharon Tate.  It was only Polanski's second film, a black and white psychological thriller.

A young immigrant woman named Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a London apartment.  Carol works as a manicurist, but doesn't socialize with others, is emotionally remote, and has a particular aversion to men.  When Helen goes on a holiday with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), Carol is left alone in the apartment, where her neuroses and paranoias become much more severe.  She begins to hallucinate cracks in the walls and lurking invaders.  The apartment grows increasingly inhospitable as Carol neglects it, and unannounced visits by a would-be suitor (John Fraser) and the sinister landlord (Patrick Wymark) only make the situation worse.  As her mental state deteriorates, Carol decides to take drastic measures to protect herself.

It's hard to believe that "Repulsion" is fifty years old at the time of writing.  It's still an immensely effective thriller today, particularly in the way it creates an atmosphere of increasing dread and disorientation, and the way it mirrors the psychological state of the main character with her environment.  The visual and audio motifs here are so simple, but so wonderfully deployed.  The escalation of small, simple annoyances into grandiose horrors is slow and hypnotic.  Polanski manages to tease out lasting moments of terror from the mundane, and to get across the panic-inducing feeling of suffering from a phobia in a very palpable way.  You can trace elements of so many subsequent cinema chillers back to "Repulsion."  I'm convinced that the rotting rabbit carcass is the progenitor of both the "Eraserhead" baby and the wilted salad in "Queen of Earth."  The cracks in the walls, accompanied by that awful, heavy sound of impending doom, showed up in a recent season of "Doctor Who."  And then there's the corridor of grasping hands, still a breathtaking moment of Surrealist horror, which has been reproduced in too many zombie movies to list.

"Repulsion" was probably as important to Catherine Deneauve's career as "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was, as it was her first major international film, and the first that allowed her to play such a complex leading role.  Her aloof, ice queen demeanor here would become a major part of her screen persona, particularly in her films with Luis Buñuel.  I find the performance and the portrayal of Carol fascinating because the audience isn't really told what to think of her.  We're never told what the source of Carol's phobia is, though it's strongly hinted that an event in her past is responsible.  She isn't passive against her affliction, and it's easy to sympathize and identify with her, but the way that she chooses to take action makes her monstrous.   There's also the distinctly feminist undertones when we consider that Carol's rejection of unwanted male attention and victimhood only seem possible for her because of her insanity.  The androphobia is clearly abnormal, but the movie suggests that there is some justification for her fears.

Polanski would go on to explore many of the same themes in the other two films of his "Apartment Trilogy," "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant," which were far more elaborate productions.  I prefer the small scale intimacy of "Repulsion," though, as it helps the unfolding nightmare to feel more personal and immediate.  The simpler approach helps "Repulsion" to feel more timeless and universal.  The film's unhurried, sinister final shot has stayed with me longer than anything else the director has done.

What I've Seen - Roman Polanski

Knife in the Water (1962)
Repulsion (1965)
Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Macbeth (1971)
Chinatown (1974)
The Tenant (1976)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Pianist (2002)
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Carnage (2011)
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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Keeping Up With the Conversation

Time for a little self-reflection.  Skip this post if you're not interested in the latest Missmediajunkie "state of the blog" installment.

It's been about a year and a half since my massive life change, and I had to significantly reduce my consumption of media.  The impact actually hasn't been as severe as I was expecting, and I've been able to keep up with pretty much everything I consider a priority by cutting back on TV and classics.  With new movies, I just have to wait until they hit VOD/DVD since theater trips are going to remain rare events for me for the foreseeable future.  More importantly, I'm finding it very easy to keep up with the critical conversations around media, through some interesting avenues.

In the past, I'd rush to see a new movie during the first week it was in theaters so I could talk about it with friends and enjoy the media blitz surrounding its release.  When I saw "Inception," for instance, I got to follow various debates and interpretations for weeks on my favorite film sites, read various reaction articles, and watch how it performed form week to week at the box office.  "Inception" was one of the big hits of the summer of 2010 and widely embraced in the popular culture.  There were already jokes and references being made to it within days its premiere.  And all the hype and buzz helped to keep my interest in the film high, and fuel my own enjoyment of it.  If I'd had to wait until the following December, when "Inception" was released on home media, to see the film, I would have missed being part of the wonderful fuss, right?

Well, yes, but it turns out this can be mitigated in a lot of ways.  I couldn't manage a trip for my most anticipated film of the summer: PIXAR's "Inside Out."  So I carefully avoided every article and discussion thread about the movie (still ended up getting spoiled for a few things), and waited until November when it hit VOD.  Like "Inception," this turned out to be one of those films I really, really wanted to see people's reactions to.  So I hit the internet and started digging.  All the podcasts and online reviews for "Inside Out" were waiting for me.  Dozens of interviews, opinion pieces, and supplementary materials were there too.  I didn't have to wait for fans to start creating fanart.  It's everywhere and it's fantastic.  And I'm so glad that reaction videos have become a thing, because after watching a few of them, it felt like it had only been a few days since opening weekend.  Now I'm wondering whether there would be any interest in a website that helps to facilitate this sort of thing.

The one thing I can't replicate, sadly, is being able to participate in those early, breathless discussion threads online through various forums and message boards.  It's still fun to read over them and follow along the timeline of the box office speculation, but it's not the same.  However, I've found that it is a lot easier to have conversations about "Inside Out" with people in real life now, because there's been more time for people to see it.  Only the rabid die-hards like Yours Truly really prioritize the movie theater experience, after all.  Mostly, normal people wait and see movies when it's convenient for them.  Normal people don't follow the Oscar race and treat the winners as recommendations.  Normal people don't have a list of the 75 movies they have left to see for 2015 (which is probably going to be over 100 movies if we're being honest with ourselves).  Alas, I'm never going to be a normal person where movies are concerned.

But that's okay. I can compromise and I can be patient.  I know that by far the most important thing about movie fandom is the movies themselves, and it's been a great year.  I actually have a solid top ten list already based on what I've seen so far, and that hasn't happened in a while.  The fall and holiday season look promising too - heck, my boss just told everybody to go and see "The Martian."  I've gotta keep my priorities straight though.  "Star Wars" and "Spectre" are first in line.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Joys and Tears of "Inside Out"

When I first heard about the concept for PIXAR's latest film, "Inside Out," I thought I was on familiar ground.  I had seen plenty of media like "Osmosis Jones," "Herman's Head," and "Reason and Emotion" that showed human beings being populated and influenced by tiny, anthropomorphized aspects of themselves.  I thought I knew exactly what I was in for.  I severely underestimated Pete Docter, though, who directed and co-wrote "Inside Out" with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley.  The world that the PIXAR folks have created in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl is one of their best, and "Inside Out" is their most exciting and original films in years.

Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) is looked after by five emotions, Joy (Amy Pohler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kahling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).  Joy is the one in charge, who spends the most time at the controls of Riley's mind, and is the creator of Riley's most important "core memories," which power different parts of her personality, represented as different islands like "Family," "Friendship," and "Hockey."  But when Riley and her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan) leave their home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco, everything is thrown into turmoil.  Joy, Sadness, and the core memories end up ejected from the control booth and lost in other parts of Riley's mind.  They need to make it back to the control panel or Riley's emotional well-being will be in serious jeopardy.

I always love the worldbuilding in PIXAR films, but what they've built in the mind of Riley Anderson is a cut above the rest.  Not only is it beautiful to look at and full of clever ideas - we visit Imagination Land where dreams are made, the prison of the subconscious, and a literal train of though - but how the world functions is so well-considered and thoughtfully constructed.  The internal and external worlds are connected beautifully through the five emotions, whose interactions and conflicts manifest themselves in Riley's state of mind.  With Joy out of the control booth, Disgust, Fear, and Anger are left to try and fill in for her, resulting in moody preteen passive-aggressiveness and sarcasm.  Joy's antagonism toward the mopey Sadness is a big part of the story, reflecting's Riley's efforts to repress her unhappiness, which has disastrous consequences.

What really makes "Inside Out" something special, though, is how absolutely committed it is to taking Riley's emotional life seriously in a way that most films either avoid or tend to handle very superficially.  It's fitting that the PIXAR movie starring emotions should be it's most poignant, as it's slowly revealed that Riley is growing up and her personality is changing.  It caught me off guard how much of the story is about dealing with loss and learning to let go, not just for Riley but for Joy.  And PIXAR's not afraid of putting the audience through the emotional wringer right along with the characters.  Joy discovering what becomes of Riley's discarded, faded memories is bound to hit every parent where it hurts.  Sadness finally coming into her own is an incredibly cathartic, satisfying sequence - hopeful and yet very, very sad.

Rest assured that nothing ever gets too intense for the smallest children, and there are plenty of funny bits to balance out the pathos.  The collection of comedians assembled to portray the emotions are an excellent bunch.  Poehler's manic energy and motherly protectiveness bring so much to Joy.  Smith's a perfect bundle of moroseness.  And Lewis Black is Anger, because of course Lewis Black is Anger.  I often find PIXAR movies a little cluttered with minor characters, but the balance here was about right.  There are a few quick cameos by some famous names voicing the little workers running various parts of Riley's mind, but they don't call attention to themselves.  It's not that kind of movie.

I'm thrilled with "Inside Out" from top to bottom, and it's kind of a relief to finally have another PIXAR film I can say I adore wholeheartedly.  I'm fine with the studio making sequels and being mindful of its bottom line, as long as once in a while, when we need them to, they still make movies like this one.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"Dope" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

Every year brings a new batch of movies about awkward high schoolers transitioning to adulthood and learning important life lessons.  We've actually had a decent run of these lately, with "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "The Spectacular Now" still in recent memory.  This summer we had "Dope" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" within a few weeks of each other, both decent entries to the genre.  The two movies couldn't be more different in style and tone, but at their core, they're both about scruffy adolescent boys struggling with new relationships, being thrust into new situations, and facing that most terrifying rite of passage - the college application personal essay.

"Dope" is the stronger of the pair, because it tells its familiar story in a new context.  Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a black high school senior from a rough area of Southern California, but is determined to got to Harvard.  He and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) identify themselves as nerds: they get good grades, are obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture, and are regular targets for the neighborhood bullies and drug dealers.  However, after Malcolm is roped by a dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky) into helping woo back his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the nerds are forced to juggle drugs, girls, guns, viral videos, and way too much trouble.   

It's easy to be glib, to describe "Dope" as "Boyz in the Hood" crossed with "Pineapple Express," or as a prequel to last year's "Dear White People."  It's absolutely packed with current issues, buzzwords, memes, and other bits of Millennial pop culture, though the main characters are obsessed with the '90s.  At times, it comes across as trying to hard to hit too many points at once.  However, the characters and their viewpoints feel genuine, and there's a very appealing lightness to the way a lot of the topics are handled.  Metal detectors and drug searches at school are played for laughs.  Diggy is revealed to be a lesbian, but it's not a big deal.  The big themes and big speeches are held back until the very, very end of the film where Malcolm tells us what he's learned in a monologue that feels entirely earned.   

On the other hand, "Dope" is pretty chaotic and uneven, with a few too many subplots crammed together, a villain who fell completely flat, and one of the best characters shows up way too late in the movie.  Also, some of the old tropes like Malcolm misreading Nakia's intentions get very tedious.  The execution felt amateurish as often as it hit the mark, especially in the rocky second act.  I'd chalk this up to an inexperienced director, but Rick Famuyiwa has already made several well-regarded films like "The Wood" and "Brown Sugar."  He nails the ending well enough that I came away with the film feeling mostly positive about "Dope," but I find it too flawed to recommend wholeheartedly.  It's an energetic, ambitious feature that I hope connects to and gives a voice to the right audience, but I don't think I am the right audience.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is a far more familiar kind of independent feature, with a lot of familiar characters and familiar affectations.  Our lead character, Greg (Thomas Mann), is a white high school senior for the Pittsburgh area.  He's a self-declared lone wolf who only cultivates superficial connections with others, thereby making himself the most unobjectionable kid in school.  He's been long-term associates (Greg doesn't like the word "friend") with a black kid named Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who he makes funny spoofs of classic art films with as a hobby.  Then one day, Greg's mother insists that he go and befriend a girl in his year named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia.  Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon play assorted parents.

This one got a very warm reception at Sundance earlier in the year, probably because Greg is a struggling filmmaker and film nerd with impeccable taste.  However, I found it awfully similar to a lot of other films about teenage boys of the same age and temperament, and not the better ones.  I think whether you're apt to enjoy "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" really depends on how much you relate to Greg and his woes.  Personally, I found him to be the least interesting on the three leads, and Thomas Mann delivers the weakest performance.  The film is certainly well made and has some standout sequences, but it loses so much by being so tightly focused on Greg and his particular limited view of the world.  Did we really need his glum narration underlining every damn point?

I liked Olivia Cooke, though, and I found the portrayal of Rachel's declining physical state to be sensitive and appropriate.  I wish that the movie had been about her and Earl, with Greg left in the background, perhaps.  I liked the little references to other films, and was grateful to find that they were fairly minimal to the plot.  I even liked the weird little stop-motion cutaways, though they didn't really add up to much.  It's hard to really object too strongly to "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" because it's honest and it's well meaning.  The climax sequence is perfectly lovely.  But there are an awful lot of other films out there that do nearly everything here a bit better.
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Monday, November 2, 2015

Movies about the Best Movies Never Made

After "Jodorowsky's Dune" and "The Death of Superman Lives," I started wondering what other cancelled films might have generated enough material and behind the scenes drama to make a good documentary.  The George Miller "Justice League" seems to be next in line, but there are plenty to choose from.  Hollywood is littered with ambitious projects that never came together, or were cancelled at the last minute, after quite a lot of work had already been done.  Below are a couple of possibilities I find particularly intriguing.

"My Peoples" aka "A Few Good Ghosts" - I could fill a whole list with cancelled Disney animation projects like "The Gremlins," "Reynard," "Chanticleer," and "Musicana."  "My Peoples," however, has the distinction of being the film that Disney was working on when traditional animation operations were shut down in 2003.  It would have been a bluegrass love story set in Appalachia, about a motley collection of folk-art dolls and toys who come to life, and try to bring together a pair of star-crossed lovers.  Stars were cast, music was composed, characters were designed, and story reels completed, but the film was cancelled as a major chapter of the studio's history drew to a close.

"The Tourist" - In the 1980s, the most infamous unproduced science-fiction script in town was Clair Noto's "The Tourist," about a female executive in modern day New York who becomes involved with a group of alien refugees in hiding on Earth.  H.R. Giger, fresh off of "Aliens," was hired by Universal to create some concept artwork, which is about as far as the production ever got.  What's really promising for a documentary, however, is the dramatic twists and turns of what was going on behind the scenes as the script went from studio to studio, the chief creatives fought for control over the project, and in the end several people involved literally never worked in this town again.  

"At the Mountains of Madness" - Several films could also be made about all the cancelled movies that Guillermo Del Toro has been involved with.  The one I keep coming back to is his planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," which would have been a 3D action-horror film produced by James Cameron and starring Tom Cruise.  Universal balked after Del Toro insisted on an R rating.  There's a lot to chew on here, from the challenges of adapting Lovecraft, to Del Toro's refusal to compromise, to the ballooning financial risks faced by studio blockbusters at the time.  And there's no doubt that Del Toro has plenty of pre-production artwork squirreled away.

"Napoleon" - Kubrick's unrealized movies require a mention here, the most famous of which was his epic "Napoleon" project from the 1960s.  As with all his films he did massive amounts of research, much of it reproduced in a staggering Taschen's art book devoted to "Napoleon," that was published a few years ago.  A documentary on the project would really be a documentary on Kubrick and his process, which has already been covered to a some extent by other documentaries like "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes."  However, I still see a lot of promise here, particularly considering the scale and the ambition of the project.  Kubrick at one point intended for "Napoleon" to be "the best movie ever made."

"Star Trek: Planet of the Titans" and "Star Trek: The God Thing" - After the "Star Trek" series was cancelled, there were multiple attempts in the '70s to bring the series to the big screen before "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" would revitalize the franchise in 1979.  A documentary about two of those earlier attempts, "Planet of the Titans" and "The God Thing," would give us a glimpse of the "Star Trek" masterminds trying to find a new direction for the story as "Star Wars" was changing the science fiction landscape forever.  It's been long enough that the bigger egos involved have probably cooled off, but not so long that we'd be missing too many of the original players.  And we already know that the story has a happy ending.  

Honorable mentions: Francis Ford Coppola's "Megalopolis," Alfred Hitchcock's "Kaleidoscope," Alex Proyas' "Paradise Lost," Steven Spielberg's "Night Skies," David Lynch's "Ronnie Rocket," Terry Gilliam's "Watchmen," Paul Verhoeven's "Crusade," Ridley Scott's "The Train," Shane Carruth's "A Topiary," and about a dozen different versions of "Pinocchio."
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Sunday, November 1, 2015

"The Look of Silence" Says Volumes

The central figure we follow in the documentary "The Look of Silence" is never identified by name.  In the credits, he is only "Anonymous."  We learn he has a wife and children, seen in fleeting glimpses.  We don't know where he lives exactly, but it's near a place called Snake River, where a terrible massacre occurred half a century ago, part of Indonesia's anti-communist purges of 1965-1966.  One of the victims was our protagonists' older brother, whose name was Ramli.  His murderers were never brought to justice, because their supporters still remain in power, and the killings were either covered up or rationalized away over time.  However, the injustice still festers in Ramli's surviving family members - Ramli's brother, his elderly mother, his increasingly senile father, and others - who still live side by side with the perpetrators.

"The Look of Silence" is the follow-up and companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," which looked at the anti-communist purges from the killers' point of view.  When I reviewed that documentary, I wrote that the victims could not provide their side of the story, because they were either long dead or still being oppressed.  In the few brief encounters with survivors, we see them continue to be persecuted and harassed.  No one seems willing to confront the abusers for their flagrant crimes, which allows them to propagate their delusions of being righteous heroes.  Here, however, Oppenheimer does find someone brave enough to seek out and uncover the truth:  Ramli's brother.  And the risk is palpable, as we see him repeatedly intimidated and threatened throughout the film by the various figures he conducts interviews with.

Through Ramli's brother, we slowly learn the particulars of Ramli's death, what happened to everyone involved, and how the killings are remembered.  He interviews multiple people while giving them eye exams, a neat little metaphor for helping to correct their way of seeing things.  The responses to his questions vary - some are in denial, some are hostile, and a very, very few show remorse.  Others not directly involved, including the daughter of one of the killers, only learn about what happened during the interviews.  Again and again, Oppenheimer captures the reactions to Ramli's brother, the strained smiles and the nervous looks on the interview subjects' faces when they realize he's one of the persecuted and that he won't let them brush aside or minimize the old crimes.  The events of a half century ago are suddenly very immediate and the wounds are still open, even though most of the killers are either dead or incapacitated by age.

Initially, Ramli's brother doesn't press too hard, and doesn't say too much.  He doesn't need to.  It's the killers who are more talkative, a few openly boasting about their actions via older videotaped interviews.  Ramli's brother watches several of them with us, in meaningful silence.  It is only when his son comes home reporting that the teacher claims the communists deserved to be killed at Snake River, that Ramli's brother quietly, calmly tells him that it's all lies.  Ramli's elderly mother is the mostly openly bitter about the massacre and the continuing injustice, becoming upset as she recalls the details of her son's murder.  The interviews gradually become more heated, and the optician's tools set aside.  Ramli's brother mostly remains cool and collected, and it is the interviewees who lose their composure, accusing him of wrongdoing and intransigence.  But not always.

"The Act of Killing" was an extraordinary documentary, not only for its subject matter but for how Joshua Oppenheimer got his subjects to participate in the filmmaking.  "The Look of Silence" isn't nearly so innovative, with a much more familiar narrative of setting the record of a horrific event straight.  However, it's still a very impressive feature with moments of tension and horror that rival anything we've seen in fictional films this year.  The interviews are well staged and presented, with the moments with the protagonist's family providing an important counterpoint.  There's no question that "The Look of Silence" is a great accomplishment in its own right, and together with "The Act of Killing," are important accounts of history on the same level as Claude Lanzmann's films on the Holocaust.

You don't see films like this come along every day, and when they do, it's vital to pay attention.

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