Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The 2015 Movies I Didn't See

Traditionally I'd end the year with a summary post featuring my favorite Miss Media Junkie highlights of the year, or a post on my favorite classic films that I watched during the year.  However, with my posting count cut in half over the past two years, and my rate of watching classic films currently embarrassingly low, I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to be watching either of those posts.  Over the past few weeks I've been obsessively working on the list of all the 2015 films that I still want to see - and with the critics' lists coming out there have been plenty of new additions.  However, I thought it might be interesting to talk about some of the films that I've made a conscious decision to leave off for one reason or another.

So below are ten movies that didn't make the cut this year, where I actually did have to think about whether or not I wanted to see them.  I reserve the right to revisit and reverse these decisions in the future, particularly if they involve a long flight or an intractable online argument.  I've also left off "Fifty Shades of Grey," because I think I've written enough about not seeing that movie already.

"Goodnight, Mommy" - Austria's submission for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar this year is the highly acclaimed horror/thriller about a pair of twin boys trapped in a house with a convalescing woman they suspect is not really their mother.  I've already had this one thoroughly spoiled for me, and frankly there are way too many plot details that I cringed at.  In another year I might have forced myself to sit through this, but I just can't see the point today.

"Terminator: Genisys" - Oh, Arnold.  I'm happy that you're back with this franchise.  I really am.  However, after a couple of lackluster, spoiler-heavy trailers, middling reviews, and apathetic audience reactions, I couldn't muster up any excitement for this.  Maybe if they'd gotten a few of the other actors from previous installments back, or maybe if they'd gone for a more straightforward sequel instead of this screwy timeline rewrite, I could have latched on to something.

"Home" - A DreamWorks original from back in March.  I like that this one features a minority kid as a main character and contained some interesting concepts, but I couldn't get over how generic it looked.  Do the aliens look liked poor knockoffs of the three-eyed  "Toy Story" aliens to anybody else?  The preview short released last year, "Almost Home" sealed it for me that the humor wasn't working for me.  I'm glad it made money for the studio, but I'm leaving this to the kids.

"Child 44" and "Dark Places" - Two darker crime melodramas that I would have watched in the past simply based on the talent involved, and because I like the genre.  "Child 44" has Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace starring, while "Dark Places" has Charlize Theron and was based on a novel by "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn.  However, from the way their releases were treated and the sad critical reception they received, clearly nobody had faith in either of these movies.

"Maggie" - Arnold again.  More importantly, zombies again.  I'm so sick of zombies.  Sure, this one had a new twist on the concept and offered some character drama, but the thought of sitting through another bleak movie about a zombie apocalypse really put me off.  Also, I love Arnold, but serious, dramatic Arnold only works for me in certain projects.  If this had been our usual ass-kicking, gun-toting Arnold, I would have been onboard for "Maggie" in a second.  

"Hot Pursuit" - I keep rooting for Reese Witherspoon to hang on to her A-lister status, but I don't know if Hollywood is making the kinds of movies that really suit her talents anymore.  The trailers with her and Sofia Vergara flailing around were pretty painful.  Vergara's very talented, but not great in large doses.  Witherspoon looked out of her depth.  As much as I'm all for girl power and female solidarity, I had to draw the line.  Better luck next time ladies.

"Southpaw" - A boxing melodrama with Jake Gyllenhaal was s a tough sell from the start.  Not because I don't like Gyllenhaal, but because this kind of material does nothing for me.  During the schmaltzy trailer I kept flashing back to the MMA drama "Warrior," which bored me to death, and "Cinderella Man," which I don't think I watched all the way through.  This stayed on the list for a while just because it was so high profile, but after the middling reviews I cut it loose.

"Secret in Their Eyes" - I respected but wasn't all that fond of the original "The Secret in Their Eyes," which won an Oscar back in 2009.  The prospect of an English language remake initially didn't sound so bad.  Billy Ray's a solid director and the cast is full of strong talents, including Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Yet again, it was the trailer that decided things for me.  It just felt like a watered down, colorless imitation of the original film.

"Mustang" - I'm still wrestling with this one.  "Mustang" is the Turkish drama that has been chosen to be France's Best Foreign Language submission for this year's Oscars.  It's about five orphaned Muslim sisters who struggle against the restrictions forced on them by their insular community as they grow up.  Rape, forced marriage, and suicide are plot points.  This sounds soul-crushingly sad, and I'm not sure if I have the guts for this one.  Maybe next year.
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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas With "Tangerine"

We've seen Hollywood in the movies many times over the years, but we've never seen the Hollywood of Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch's new film "Tangerine," which was shot with three iPhones, in real clubs, apartments, and businesses located in the area.  Production even began on Christmas Eve of 2013, exactly when the story takes place.  This is the Hollywood that nobody talks about, the Hollywood of sun-baked sidewalks in December, of late night talks in donut shops and laundromats, and of a pair of no-nonsense transgender prostitutes who spend their Christmas Eve tracking down a cheating pimp and getting their due.

Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of prison, reunites with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and learns that her boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has taken up with a new "fish," Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) in her absence.  Sin-Dee is outraged at this betrayal and decides to find both of them and confront them.  Alexandra agrees to help her, but is more concerned about her singing gig later that night.  At the same time, an Armenian cab driver, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), tries to track down Sin-Dee when he learns she's back in town, while avoiding the scrutiny of his concerned mother-in-law Ashken (Alla Tumanian) and the rest of his family.

Rodriguez and Taylor are both transgender women, have history with the Los Angeles LGBT subculture, and radiate authenticity in these roles in a way that I doubt anyone else could.  Their lack of acting experience doesn't stop them from commanding the screen every moment they appear on it.  Both women are bursting with personality, particularly Rodriguez as she prowls her way around the city in her hunt for justice, demanding redress in a torrent of perfectly pitched dialogue when her targets are in sight.  The whole film is designed to reflect their endlessly diverse, eclectic urban universe, full of saturated colors, larger-than-life characters, and manic energy.  The style is rough at times, but also infectious and invigorating.  The soundtrack includes club music, mariachi music, Christmas carols, and a selection from Victor Herbert's "Babes in Toyland."  Significant chunks of the film with Razmik and Ashken feature Armenian dialogue.

All the characters that appear are on the low end of the economic ladder, if not underneath it, but they certainly don't act that way.  Love transcends class, race, gender, and sexuality, and a woman scorned is a woman scorned, no matter her chromosomes or her profession.  The glimpses of prostitution are often humorous, including a sequence in a makeshift brothel operating out of a seedy motel room.  Lonely Razmik, who is at one point frustrated in his furtive search for love by a prostitute with the wrong equipment, often comes across as less empowered than Sin-Dee and Alexandra, who are loud and proud about who they are.  The women don't see themselves as unfortunate souls or victims, ignoring those who would try to treat them as such.

If "Tangerine" sounds too unapproachable, I should also mention that this is a classic love farce at its core, the opposite of the kind of heart-rending sob story of oppression and surviving hard times that we usually get with characters like this.  It's frequently very funny, as Sin-Dee's misadventures snowball throughout the day, and finally end with the whole cast crammed into a donut shop, hashing out their grievances in front of an exasperated counter girl.  And yes, it's also a Christmas movie, in the best way.  At the end of the night, after all the love games are finished, the movie takes a lovely, poignant moment to recognize that the friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra is the one relationship in their lives that really counts.

A film like "Tangerine" would have never come out of a major studio, at least not in the form we see here, so raw and unapologetic about its characters and their lives.  Some may scoff at the rise of the microbudget filmmakers, but they made the Hollywood Christmas of "Tangerine" possible, and its unlikely leading ladies into bona fide stars.  And they've opened up new avenues in filmmaking to a whole lot of aspiring directors who will hopefully keep making wonderfully offbeat, unique films like this one.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

More Ups and Downs With "Doctor Who"

Spoilers ahead for the recently concluded season.

We come to the end of another year of "Doctor Who," the second with Peter Capaldi that also said goodbye to Jenna Coleman as his companion, Clara Oswald.  And thank goodness.  While I've grown attached to Capaldi over the past year, as I usually do with each successive Doctor at about this point in their tenures, I've come to the conclusion that I don't care much for Clara at all.  She was always too flat and entirely too clever, difficult to sympathize with because she was so lacking in human foibles and flaws.  She was at her best last year, during her tempestuous romance with Danny Pink, and without him she regressed into the too-perfect Impossible Girl who was occasionally more alien than the Doctor.

It's strange because the other two female characters who played big parts this season have strong similarities to Clara, but I enjoyed them far more.  First, there's Missy, embodied by the priceless Michelle Gomez, who was only around for the premiere episodes, but will surely be back for more appearances in the seasons to come.  She remains my absolute favorite part of the Capaldi era, a hilariously amoral, lunatic force who has completely drop-kicked the angst of the previous incarnations of The Master in favor of having more fun.  And she proved that having her for an ally might be worse than having her for an enemy, in a fun two-parter that started the year off with a bang.  I was disappointed when she didn't pop back in for the finale, especially considering where it was set.

Then there's the new girl, Ashildr, also called "Me," who becomes an immortal being thanks to the Doctor's intervention in an early episode, and pops up again in several subsequent ones.  Maisie Williams plays her as someone with a lot of potential for good or evil, who has to be reminded regularly that she's fallible and that she actually does have a heart.  Like Clara she's too clever and almost impossible to faze, but the show treats that as a symptom of her distancing herself from her own humanity, a flaw rather than a strength.  That's what makes her character easier to stomach.  Ashildr is intriguing, but I don't think that the show has made the best use of her - at least not yet.

I've heard many claims that this is the best season of "Doctor Who" in a while, particularly in the way that it returned to the old two-parter format.  Overall, I found it about on par with the last Capaldi season, but with stronger highs.  The beautifully bleak "Heaven Sent" episode is one of the series' best without question, featuring a tour de force performance from Peter Capaldi.  I like how his Twelfth Doctor has evolved, becoming softer-edged and more eccentric.  He's more vulnerable and less in control than he's been in a while, which makes me very excited for his post-Clara adventures.

However, I really disliked "Face the Raven," where Clara's fate is sealed, and had very mixed feelings about "Hell Bent," where she parts ways with the Doctor for the last time.  I admit that something about their relationship never sat right with me, and it's honestly a relief that it's over.  I feel bad, because Jenna Coleman's clearly very talented and I think she'd be fantastic in other roles - I preferred her as some of the other versions of Clara a few series ago.  I think a lot of it came down to Steven Moffat's writing and all the messy inconsistencies of who she was supposed to be.

Finally a couple of odds and ends.  I liked seeing Gallifrey again, and I hope that we'll get some more material involving the Time Lords that isn't just limited to saving them from or consigning them to oblivion.  The Zygon storyline still doesn't do much for me, but I like the direction that Osgood has taken, and the continued presence of UNIT and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  I'm missing the Paternoster Gang though.  At least we're getting more River Song this Christmas, in a special that looks nice and comedic.

So while I'm giving this series of "Doctor Who" a mixed review, I'm more optimistic about where the show is going.  Looking forward to next year and the next companion.
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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rank 'Em: The Phase Two Marvel Movies

I wanted to write up a post about the "Phase Two" Marvel Cinematic Universe films now that we're moving into Phase Three, and I think a "Rank 'Em" post makes the most sense so I can talk about all six films in relation to each other.  The last time I ranked the Marvel films was in 2013, after "Iron Man 3" but before "Thor 2," so there's not going to be much crossover.  Here we go, from best to worst.

1. Ant-Man (2015) - The more I think about this film, the more I like it because it gives us something different.  The hero is an ordinary guy with a different set of concerns than any of the other heroes we've met so far.  His shrinking powers open up a whole new visual landscape.  We've also got a real mentor-student relationship going on between Scott and Hank, which is an interesting new wrinkle.  There are some serious flaws, and I maintain that it's not the film that it could have been in different hands, but "Ant-Man" is more than good enough.  They didn't solve the villain problem, but they did offer a fantastic new variation on the third act final battle sequence, which I appreciate so much.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - Come and get your love.  I was pretty harsh on this one last year when I found out it wasn't kid-friendly, but I have to give it due credit for its wildly imaginative sci-fi universe and a strong cast of characters.  Chris Pratt's dudebro Star Lord, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot are especially fun additions to the Marvel pantheon, and the retro soundtrack is priceless.  If the rest of the offworld Marvel movies look like this, fans shouldn't have anything to worry about.  Again, points get knocked off for poor villains, poor treatment of the female lead, and a couple of jokes in poor taste that I'm not sure how they got away with under Disney's nose.  It's a fun movie, but one that left me with my guard up.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - I came away from this one so impressed with the direction of the Russo brothers, and I can see why they've been chosen to helm the upcoming "Avengers" movies.  The nods to political thrillers of the '70s were nice, and it was good to see Robert Redford, but this was still a superhero movie through and through.  Having action scenes more reminiscent of the "Bourne" series was a welcome change of pace, but we still ended up with the same, dull world-in-peril finale we've seen so many times before.  Also, I came away with no particular attachment to either the Falcon or the Winter Soldier, which is probably going to be a problem for the upcoming "Civil War" storyline.

4. Iron Man 3 (2013) - I'm surprised that I liked this so much more than the majority of viewers.  Maybe it's because I actually prefer Tony Stark out of the suit, and I really enjoy Shane Black movies.  The Mandarin bait-and-switch worked fine for me.  So did the kid sidekick and superpowered Pepper.  I actually like "Iron Man 3" about on par with "Winter Soldier," except that I didn't buy Tony's character arc or the ending of "Iron Man 3" at all.  Seriously, we all knew he was going to be Iron Man again for "Age of Ulton."  No, it doesn't live up to the original and I would have much rather have had a straight adaptation of "Demon in a Bottle," but after "Iron Man 2" I wasn't expecting this to be nearly as good as it is.

5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - So many things here just didn't work for me: smarmy Ultron, underdeveloped Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and most of the business with the Vision.  Joss Whedon made a valiant effort, but this movie was too long and overstuffed with too many characters and obligations.  It felt like an entire series of a television show crammed into a single feature.  Individual sequences were great - I loved everything involving Hawkeye's family and many of the action sequences - but I don't think this works as a film.  I'm hopeful that a stronger villain and a two-part structure will alleviate some of these problems for "Infinity War."

6 Thor: The Dark World (2013) - The first "Thor" was near the bottom of my previous list.  The sequel didn't manage to improve on it in many ways, and in others is quite a bit worse.  Some of the Thor and Loki friction is enjoyable, but the main villain is a terrible waste of Christopher Eccleston, the romance is as tepid as ever, and the humor continues to fall flat.  This movie exemplifies all the common complaints about filmmakers trying to use copious amounts of CGI destruction to hide the lack of interesting characters and a decent plot.  It feels like they weren't even trying this time.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

All About "Ant-Man"

"Ant-Man" is the Marvel film that I've enjoyed the most since the first "Avengers." However, it's a little difficult to parse who is ultimately responsible for it.  "Ant-Man" was Edgar Wright's dream project for ages, but he parted ways with Marvel over creative differences, and was eventually replaced by Peyton Reed.  However, Wright's name is still all over the movie - he has executive producer, screenplay, and story credits.  Several of the comedic and action sequences are clearly his work.  Reed's a decent director, but frankly has never displayed the kind of proficiency with comic-book visuals on display in "Ant-Man."  On the other hand, it's not fair to attribute all the good bits to Wright.  There's a lot of good dialogue and Marvel worldbuilding that definitely didn't come from him.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, who we first meet being released from prison, determined to go straight, ending his career as a skilled thief and burglar.  However, finding employment is tough for an ex-con, and Scott needs money quickly to pay child support and be reunited with his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  He's convinced by his ex-cell mate Luis (Michael Peña) to break into the house of scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to steal the contents of a mysterious safe.  It turns out the contents are a mysterious suit that allows the wearer to shrink to the size of an insect while retaining the strength of a full size man, and Pym engineered the whole burglary as a test for Scott.  Pym wants Scott to take on the mantle of the superhero "Ant-Man," and help him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) to stop Pym's former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from developing his own suit and selling it to the highest bidder. 

The familiar origin story formula has been shaken up in some good ways here.  First, it's largely structured as a heist movie, where Scott, Hank, and Hope spend the majority of the second act training, planning, and hashing out personal issues in preparation for stealing Cross's prototype suit from a heavily guarded facility.  Second, the shrinking powers allow for some very entertaining variations on the standard fight sequence.  Instead of a final showdown leveling cities or endangering planets, the finale of "Ant-Man" takes place in a child's bedroom amidst a heap of toys.  Other action sequences take place in a suitcase, in a bathtub, and in water pipes.  The conceit sounds very silly at first, but it allows for so much inventiveness playing with scale.  Scott also learns to command an army of loyal CGI ants, adding to the sense of epic in miniature.  He even rides a winged carpenter ant into battle.

I've never been much of a fan of Paul Rudd, but he fits into the role of Scott Lang nicely, giving him a sense of innate decency despite an impressive resume of wrongdoing.  However, Michael Douglas really stole the show as Hank Pym.  I love how much history and old, unfinished business the characters here have with each other, and how it plays into the story.  Pym's another version of the Tony Stark genius entrepreneur, one several decades further along who is now working to mend old relationships and address his mistakes.  Douglas really sells his stubborn pride and arrogance, with a mushy heart of gold underneath, of course.  He even gets the messy emotional stuff with his daughter to mostly work. As for Evangeline Lily, she was was decent but underused.  I can only hope this will be corrected in the upcoming sequel.

"Ant-Man" does suffer from some of the same issues that most of the other Marvel movies do.  Chiefly, the villain is a bust.  Corey Stoll isn't even trying to play Cross as anything other than a sober version of his character from "House of Cards."  Also, there are a few too many awkward tie-ins to the other Marvel movies shoehorned in there, from the pre-credits scene to the after-credits scene, to a contrived fight with one of the Avengers that probably should have been cut for time and pacing issues. The script could have used a few more passes too.  There are plot holes everywhere and the shrinking powers are terribly inconsistent.  Scott is awful at asking obvious questions.  And Hope having to spend the entire movie convincing her father to let her put on the suit made Marvel's problem with female superheroes all the more apparent.

Finally, I have to come back to the lack of Edgar Wright.  I enjoyed "Ant-Man" as it is, but I was also very aware of all the ways in which it probably would have been better if Wright had directed it.  I can't help thinking it's such a shame that we never got to see the movie he wanted to make.  Then again, we're lucky that the film did get made without him, and is as solidly entertaining as it is. 

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Victoria" Vexes

Sebastian Schipper's German drama, "Victoria," has rightly won praise for its daring camera work.  The entire 138 minute film is shot in a single take, following the title character during an eventful night in Berlin.  I found the film extremely difficult to sit through though, not because of the extensive shakeycam, but because the characters and story are an absolutely implausible mess.

Victoria (Laia Costa) is a recent immigrant from Madrid, who works at a café for scant wages, and doesn't speak much German.  Thus, most of the dialogue is in heavily accented English.  One night, on her way home from a club, she meets a group of young men including Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff), who invite her to hang out and party with them.  Victoria takes a liking to Sonne, and unwittingly gets caught up in a job that Boxer has agreed to pull for a local crime boss.

About ten minutes into "Victoria," as I watched our heroine agree to go off with a pack of drunken hooligans she had just met, I decided that Victoria was a complete idiot.  These guys start the movie off being refused entry to the club, spend a painfully long time talking Victoria into spending longer and longer stretches of time with them, and once they had her isolated they could have very easily assaulted her or worse.  Not knowing much about the film except that it was some kind of action thriller, I expected that this was going to turn out to be a human trafficking story instead of one about an entirely different kind of crime.  Maybe cultural differences explain away some of this, but I spent much of the first act wondering when Victoria was going to be roofied.

The pacing also drove me to distraction.  The first hour of the film is just following the group as they drink beers and meander around Berlin, in search of a good time.  Almost all the dialogue is improvised, and quite a bit of it is difficult to understand because of the thick accents.  At one point around the midway point of the movie, Victoria and Sonne are able to spend some time alone, and I became hopeful that the movie might turn out to be a low key love story - so little had happened by that point that surely this couldn't be an action film.   But, alas, after that one scene of decent interaction between our lovebirds, suddenly there's a small crisis that snowballs into a big one, and there are a barrage of illogical twists and turns.  Because of course the young woman you've known for less than two hours who speaks no German should be asked to be your getaway driver.  Of course.

it's a shame because when Laila Costa is actually given a few minutes to expound a bit on Victoria's past, she's quite compelling.  The rest of the time she comes across as painfully naïve, taking stupid risks and displaying a profoundly poor sense of judgment.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that not only was she careless and unthinking, but really an awful human being.  At least she fares better than Sonne and Boxer and the rest, who barely register as distinct personalities.  They all seem to boast and lie and panic in the exact same ways.  What really kills the film for me is how little it cares about showing you who these people are.  There's almost nothing to latch on to with any of them.  The guys are a standard collection of petty thieves who give the viewer every reason to think the worst of them, and nothing is ever really offered to refute that.  Sonne is maybe humanized a little more than the others, but not much.

The slowly escalating heist and chase sequences that make up the final parts of the firm are technically impressive and do provide some good thrills, but they're not worth sitting through the first half of the film to see.  And they're so hamstrung by all the weak contrivances and bad decisions that it took to get all the characters to that point that I couldn't enjoy them fully.  I wish the filmmakers had spent a fraction of the time they spent on the cinematography on a solid, cohesive script.  
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Monday, December 7, 2015

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Next March will be the tenth anniversary of the launch of Twitter, once derided as a micro-blogging services for the self-obsessed, and now considered such a massively important method of online communication that outages are front page news.  The rise of the Twitterverse seemed to happen so fast.  Initially, the service was greeted with skepticism.  What could you really say in only 140 characters?  Did you really need updates on the everyday course of another person's life?  Who would spend so much time composing and sending tweets?  And who would read them?  It turns out, depending on who was writing, everybody.  Texting exploded in popularity right around when Twitter began.  Within a year or two, everybody who was anybody had a Twitter account.  And maintaining that social media presence could have a noticeable impact on the celebrity and standing of public figures.  Companies and organizations have Twitter accounts.  Heads of state and religious leaders have twitter accounts.

I think when it really struck me that Twitter was becoming a major force was when the cable news programs started mining them for quotes.  Initially I thought this was in poor taste, discussing random netizen's commentary on various events in order to fill time.  However, the curation of tweets quickly became better and more focused.  Tweets started coming from notable figures, and some specific tweets were making headlines themselves.  Then relaying tweets gathered from people in the middle of disasters and crises became commonplace.  And we started seeing fights over Twitter censorship and Twitter blocking in various countries.  People got persecuted and arrested for tweets.  And then, of course, Arab Spring happened.  And before I knew it, following hashtags wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and I was creating my own Twitter account to follow the conversations between various celebrities online, and announce updates to this blog.

I wasn't very good at Twitter though, and after about a year or so of actively trying to participate, I stopped reading my Twitter feeds.  Around the time I went on hiatus, I stopped updating the Miss Media Junkie account for good.  I don't think I ever had more than a dozen subscribers at any point anyway.  What's so attractive about Twitter is the immediacy of it, the way you can be in contact with anybody in the public sphere with a few clicks, and amplify your message with enough retweets or the support of the right people.  However, I found I don't have much important to say, and no real desire to be in the spotlight.  Maybe in different circumstances, Twitter will be more useful for me, but I only managed to experience it as a time waster, and frankly I just ran out of time.

So I've watched the continuing Twitter takeover of the world mostly from the sidelines.  It continually astounds me how creative and versatile the platform can be.  I love the emergence of the fake Twitter accounts, like the glorious @NotTildaSwinton that dispenses absurdist Swintonesque nonsense, and @seinfeldtoday, which comes up with plot summaries of fake "Seinfeld" episodes featuring the daily annoyances of the 2010s.  And you've got @RealTimeWWI tweeting updates form World War I as if it were happening in the present.  And that British guy who tweeted the entire Bible over the course of three years.

And when people talk about social media campaigns, Twitter is the default method of getting the word out, for good or bad.  When people want to make a stand or have their say, they can do it on Twitter without spending a dime.  It's debatable how much of an effect it's having from one moment to the next, but it does have an effect.  And the media and the powers that be have taken notice.  I'm still a little resistant to the notion that measuring the incidence of certain key words or phrases in people's tweets can really tell you anything, but there are all kinds of trackers now, measuring just that for marketers and researchers.

And somehow the discourse hasn't become dumbed down or reductive.  Twitter is just a different way of communicating and getting ideas across.  It turns out that you can say quite a lot in 140 characters at a time, and there are no limits on the number of tweets, the length of Twitter conversations, or the number of people they can be directed to.  Yes, a lot of it is silly chatter, but once in a while, a few little tweets are anything but.
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Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Remake Rodeo

The announcement of an impending remake of Christopher Nolan's 2000 film "Memento" seems to have inspired some strong anti-remake feelings among film-lovers.  I can't blame them.  I mean, "Memento" is such a conceptually unique film, and executed so well that it's hard to imagine that anybody could successfully do another take on it without coming off as a retread. Not to mention that it's a relatively recent film - most of the properties getting remade at the moment are from the mid-90s, to take advantage of Millennial nostalgia.  As always, there's nothing inherently wrong with remakes, but there are certain expectations that they need to overcome, and a "Memento" remake would have daunting ones.

And I suppose it's as good a time as any to step back and take a look at how reboots and remakes have been doing lately.  2015 has four of note: "Cinderella," "Poltergeist," "Vacation," and the upcoming "Point Break," which is being released as Christmas counterprogramming and will likely be ignored and swept under the rug very quickly.  Frankly, I'm tempted not to count "Cinderella" since there have been several movies with the same source material, but the Kenneth Branagh version makes so many references to the 1950 Disney animated version, it's impossible to deny its roots.  Anyway, it's the best reviewed and best received of the bunch, and has made about half a billion dollars worldwide at the time of writing.  We can expect many more Disney live-action remakes to come.  "Poltergeist" and "Vacation" both got middling reviews and while neither was an outright bomb, they didn't make much at the box office either.  More importantly, they were discussed among hardcore movie fans for only a few brief days before being almost instantly forgotten.

This seems like very little to draw any conclusions from, so let's go back to 2014.  There were more remakes that year: "Robocop," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Left Behind," "Annie," and "The Gambler."  "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" made about the same amount as "Cinderella," and has a sequel in the works for next year.  Among the rest, "Annie" didn't do too badly, but "The Gambler" and "Left Behind" hardly made any impression at all, ignored by audiences despite having Mark Wahlberg and Nicolas Cage starring in them respectively.  "Robocop" was a more expensive flop that generated some critical discussions, but only tepid interest.  The best thing you could say about it is that thanks to the efforts of director José Padilha, it's not as bad as it could have been. Go back further to 2013, and you have the remakes of "Evil Dead," Carrie," and "Oldboy."  Oh, right.  There were remakes of "Evil Dead," Carrie," and "Oldboy," weren't they?

The pattern should be evident.  When films are remade from other films these days, they tend to be fairly cheap, uninspired affairs that sometimes make a little money, but are quickly forgotten and rarely affect people's memories of the originals.  They're low risk films greenlit by risk-averse executives, and rarely attract any significant talent or aspire to any major ambitions.  The big exception appears to be children's films, which the studios are more comfortable converting into bigger, riskier tentpole pictures, and these tend to reap larger rewards.  Maybe it's because the audiences are less discerning, or the material is easier to reinterpret. I also want to point out a few outliers, Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and Pete Travis's "Dredd" which shared source material with previous films, but I don't think are technically remakes.  Neither made much money, but they did win over some vocal fans by going off in completely different directions from their predecessors.

So keep that in mind about the reboots and remakes that are coming up in 2016: Jon Favreau's live-action "The Jungle Book," Paul Feig's gender-flipped "Ghostbusters," Timur Bekmambetov's "Ben-Hur," David Lowery's "Pete's Dragon," Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven," and a "Jumanji" remake, which we know almost nothing about, but it's slated for a Christmas Day opening.  Without even seeing a frame of these films, I already have a pretty good idea which ones are going to share the fate of the "Carrie" reboot and which might have a shot at being the next "Cinderella."  There are some interesting question marks, though, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that one or more of the iffy-looking ones will surprise me.
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Friday, December 4, 2015

The Return of Blockbuster Fatigue

The 2015 box office has been a year of monumental highs and dispiriting lows, the year that "Jurassic World" massively exceeded expectations, and "Fantastic Four" crashed and burned.  This was predicted to be a big year long in advance, with so many big franchise titles on the schedule.  Summer went as expected, with the major tentpoles like "Avengers" and "Furious 7" drawing the expected crowds.  Fall, however, has been a different matter.  Attendance has been off, leading to the worst October since 2007.  Prestige pictures have been noticeably sluggish, with few daring to expand after the high profile failure of "Steve Jobs."  What's really been worrying is that the two big November tentpoles, "Spectre" and "Mocking Jay Part 2" have both been underperforming.  They'll both certainly make money, but not nearly as much money as the studios were hoping for.

Some industry watchers have been pointing to "blockbuster fatigue" as a potential culprit.  Remember blockbuster fatigue?  The summer of 2013 was besieged by costly flops like "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth," "White House Down," and "R.I.P.D," leading some to conclude that the summer movie slate was overcrowded with too many big event pictures.  Critics have been warning since at least 2008 that there aren't enough audience dollars to go around, including Steven Spielberg, who speculated that the whole industry might implode if too many flops happened in the same season.  There have been enough hits to allay those fears over the last two years, but the hits appear to be cannibalizing the business for the more modest performers, leading to more disappointments.  "The Martian," a sizable but not exceptional hit, made almost three times what anything else released in October did.  Another possible factor is the industry's insistence that all prestige pictures be released in the fall, resulting in a log jam of well-reviewed Oscar contenders all going after the same audience.

And that's a continuing worry with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" still ahead of us, which is already breaking presale records and may lead to the biggest box office take of all time.  I worry that filmgoers won't come out for anything else, meaning more Oscar hopefuls and modest midrange films like "Room" and "Brooklyn" go unseen.  And  that counterprogramming choices like the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters" simply won't get greenlighted the next time around.  Moreover, I'm concerned that the "Star Wars" juggernaut will end up negatively impacting the 2016 box office, which is already predicted to be a slower one with fewer highly anticipated sequel films and more like "Warcraft" and "Deadpool," which studios are hoping will start franchises.  These are the riskier pictures that tend to become the biggest flops.  If the business of movies is about creating anticipation for these big blockbusters, it's going to be rough going for a while after "Star Wars."

Honestly, thinking back on Spielberg's remarks, 2016 looks like a pretty good candidate for the potential industry implosion. It's absolutely rife with iffy-looking projects like David Yates' "Tarzan," and Guy Ritchie's "King Arthur," plus some really desperate sequels like "The Huntsman: Winter's War," "Alice Through the Looking Glass" and the incredibly late "Independence Day: Resurgence."  I have no idea if audiences are going to be receptive to a "Harry Potter" spinoff or the female-led "Ghostbusters."  Sure, the big superhero films are all going to make money, but I'm betting that we're going to see a few of the smaller ones stumble this year.  And even if the industry manages to weather a bad 2016, can they weather multiple years like it?  

Finally, though it's not going to happen in 2016 or 2017, I now think that it's inevitable that we're going to see the lucrative Disney film franchises slow down.  A "Star Wars" film every year isn't going to be sustainable in the long run.  The Marvel Phase Two movies made gobs of money, but I only thought two of the six were really worth the price of admission.  I doubt that Phase Three is going to be much better, and Marvel is going to have to negotiate some tricky waters after that, with many of their original sub-franchises hitting their logical endpoints.  Frankly, I'm not going to be too sad to see it all end - I'm starting to get awfully tired of the same old superhero schtick.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Mistress America" is Familiar Farce

Noah Baumbach may have directed and co-written "Mistress America," but it's a Greta Gerwig film.  Here, Gerwig is playing another variation on the familiar Millennial free-spirit we met in Baumbach's "Frances Ha," Daryl Wein's "Lola Versus," and Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress."  And she does it so well that I can't say I really mind that we've seen this all before.  We have plenty of bigger stars making movies with the same plots over and over, with only a fraction of the charm.  At the same time, I can't help noticing that the formula is really starting to show.

The main character in "Mistress America" is actually Tracy (Lola Kirke), an incoming freshman at Barnard College who is having a difficult adjustment.  She isn't accepted to the school's prestigious student publication, stymieing her plans to become a writer .  Her fellow reject, Dylan (Michael Chernus), is the first person at college she really connects with, but then he quickly becomes attached to Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who proves to be a hostile and jealous girlfriend.  Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe), who will soon be getting remarried, suggests that Tracy get to know her soon-to-be sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who lives nearby in Manhattan.  Brooke turns out to be a young woman of big ideas, lively creativity, slight means, and endless, verbose discourse.  Tracy becomes fascinated with her and is swept up in Brooke's dreams of opening a local restaurant, while surreptitiously chronicling Brooke's life for her next story.

The high point of the film is an extended sequence in the second half where Tracy, Dylan, and Nicolette accompany Brooke out to the suburbs to try and persuade Brooke's ex-boyfriend Tony (Matthew Shear) and ex-friend turned mortal nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), to loan her money.  It's a fabulous piece of farce and more than justifies the rest of the movie existing, but it also highlighted for me how cobbled together "Mistress America" feels from previous films.  Tracy's woes at Barnard are well-observed and fairly well-grounded, but never examined in much depth and feel a bit tacked on.  Brooke operates on such a different wavelength, when she appears the whole film becomes more absurdist and freewheeling.  Then, when Mamie-Claire and Tony enter the picture, suddenly the film shifts gears again and becomes a more formally structured kind of comedy.  The humor and tone aren't always consistent from one scene to the next, and there are all sorts of loose ends and under-developed characters - Nicolette seems to have been borrowed wholesale from "Damsels in Distress."  Then there's Tracy's narration, via her short story, which is awfully self-aware and leaned on very heavily.  

The performances won me over, though.  Lola Kirke is excellent as Tracy.  The actress seemed familiar, but this is the first substantial thing I've seen her in, and I hope she goes on to bigger and better things.  I also liked Michael Chernus, who got enough time to make scruffy Dylan more memorable than similar characters I've encountered in other Baumbach and Stillman films.  Heather Lind and Matthew Shear play the most out and out comedic parts, and leave a big impression despite limited screen time.  As for Brooke, she's definitely not Frances or Lola or Violet, but comes off as almost a parody of those past roles, slightly too over-the-top to be real.  Gerwig's performance is very entertaining, but I have to conclude that just didn't find Brooke as convincing as she probably should have been.  Her repartee is just a little too glib, and she repeats signature phrases a few times too many.

I expect that Baumbach and Gerwig will collaborate again in the future, but I'm a little worried how many of these films about being shallow, immature and self-aggrandizing in New York they're going to keep making, especially as Gerwig's hit her thirties and "Girls" is wearing out its welcome on HBO.  "Mistress America" was a fun watch, but I suspect it's more fun if you haven't seen the other recent Greta Gerwig films, and that's not a good sign.  Now, Gerwig is terribly talented, and Baumbach just hit a career best with "While We're Young."  These two are very good at singing the same old song, but I think it's high time that they got a new one.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Favorite Kenji Mizoguchi Movie

The Japanese jidaigeki films, the costume dramas set in the country's eventful past, are largely associated with tales of battling samurai and assassins in the west.  However director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose filmography is full of jidaigeki, was far more interested in the women of these bygone days.  He often used their stories to highlight social and cultural injustices, to explore the more painful aspects of Japan's past, and to shed light on forgotten figures from history.  His heroines were mostly tragic, often lowly prostitutes and geishas, but their stories were epic and enthralling.  My favorite of them is the history of a fallen woman in "The Life of Oharu."

Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is initially a noble woman, the daughter of a samurai, Shinzaemon (Ichiro Sugai).  However, when she is courted by a lower-rank page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), their affair ends in disaster.  Katsunosuke is executed and Oharu's family banished and disgraced.  Oharu is then sent from one position to the next, first becoming the mistress of a daimyo, then a failed geisha, then the servant of a jealous woman, then the wife of an artisan, and then a nun.  Each time money troubles, unforeseen tragedy, or injustice require her to move further down the social ladder, bringing more shame upon Oharu and her family.  Her past constantly hounds her, ruining her chances for happiness.  By the end of her journey she has acquired a reputation for being an immoral and wicked woman.  She is scolded for her choices, but it's far from clear if Oharu really had much of a choice about the course of her life at all.

The strict social hierarchy determines everything in Oharu's world, and she keeps running afoul of it despite her best efforts.  The slights she commits seem so small, and her struggles for self-determination seem perfectly reasonable, but the consequences for non-conformity meted out by the implacable social institutions of the time are dire.  Mizoguchi paints his heroine as an entirely sympathetic figure, a victim of terrible misfortune and the cruelties of others.  A great portion of the responsibility for Oharu's fate is placed on her father, who views Oharu as little more than a source of income, and proves difficult to cut ties with.  This mirrors events from Mizoguchi's own life, as his father sold his older sister into servitude at a geisha house when Mizoguchi was a child, an act which profoundly affected the director's worldview.  While the story of Oharu is often lurid and melodramatic, Mizoguchi keeps the focus on her attempts to endure, her moments of personal and spiritual transcendence in the face of so much adversity.

Mizoguchi is generally characterized as the most poetic and contemplative of his contemporaries, with his long, meditative tracking shots and famous "once scene, one shot" style, that avoids close-ups, often keeping his characters at a distance.  He was also reputedly a fanatic about detail and historical accuracy, particularly in his recreations of period environments.  In "Oharu," I particularly love one of the closing scenes where she tries to glimpse a loved one from afar, the composition emphasizing the impossible social chasm that now exists between them.  There are also the various tragicomic episodes where Oharu keeps losing position after position in the different households she's sent to.  This allows Mizoguchi to be examine the pettiness and hypocrisies of both the highborn and the low, from the nobles to the nuns and everyone in between.  Oharu's revenge against a bad-tempered, balding mistress is a deliciously funny moment in film where levity is rare.

Oharu is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's most famous leading lady who appeared in the majority of his films and would later go on to direct a few of her own.  From tender youth to decrepit old age, Tanaka imbues Oharu with great dignity and passion, and a sense of steely determination even at her lowest point.  She's my favorite of Mizoguchi's tragic women because she yearns so stubbornly for what she dsires, heedless of propriety, to the very end.  And because she never gives in to despair, in my view she walks away at the finale with a strong personal victory in spite of all that she's lost.

Kenji Mizoguchi - What I've Seen

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
The 47 Ronin (1941)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1947)
The Life of Oharu (1952)
Ugetsu (1953)
A Geisha (1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)
Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Top Ten "Venture Bros." Episodes

I've long counted myself as a fan of "The Venture Bros.," but I've resisted doing one of these lists because I wasn't around for the first season.  However, going over the episode lists today, I realized that I have seen most of the missing episodes via reruns.  And as we continue the long, long wait for season six, it's a good time to look back on the series' high points.  Team Venture has been with us for over a decade now, and gone to some very strange and interesting places.  As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate below, and I will totally cheat and count multi-parters as single entries.  Minor spoilers ahead.  Go Team Venture!

"Dia de Los Dangerous!" - I'm not clear when exactly I first saw the "Venture" premiere, but it always stuck with me because of how neatly it sets up all the major characters and relationships.  Early on I was a big fan of the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend, who despite their oddities have a very healthy and warm relationship both at home and in the field. This is also a good example of the show's formula, which would gradually be subverted as time went on: bodyguard Brock has to protect the cheerfully daft Venture boys, Hank and Dean, and their selfish super-scientist father Doc "Rusty" Venture from myriad comic book dangers.  Many fans watched the show simply to see Brock beat people up, which he does here with great gusto.

"Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean" - More hijinks aboard the Cocoon after the Monarch manages to abduct the whole Venture family.  Dean, however, has sustained an embarrassing injury which requires medical attention, so an uneasy truce is called while this is sorted out.  We switch back and forth from that point between Dean's humiliating surgery and the Monarch's birthday showdown with Brock Samson.  While not the most eventful episode, it's one of the most enjoyably silly ones that gives all of my favorites some time to shine.  I always liked the episodes with the main characters hanging out and dealing with personal issues better than the crazier, more conceptual episodes full of genre parodies.  However...

"Escape to the House of Mummies Part II" - There's something to be said for the ambitious conceptual episodes, especially when they're as well done as this.  We start in the middle of a wild time-traveling adventure, where Team Venture is stuck in a pyramid full of booby traps.  Doc manages to escape and goes to find help, but gets sidetracked by a bet with Dr. Orpheus.  We get to spend some time following Orpheus on a trip to a hell dimension to confer with his master (via poor Triana's closet), while Doc reminisces and does bad science with Pete and Billy.  Occasionally we also cut back to Brock and the boys, whose adventure just keeps getting weirder and wilder, culminating in a priceless "Star Wars" reference.

"Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?" - And then there was the time that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln recruited Hank and Dean to help him foil a "Manchurian Candidate" style assassination attempt on the president.  This one has my vote for the funniest episode - it has the best one-liners, bad puns galore, and the uncomfortable innuendoes are off the charts.  Brock trying to fend off Mrs. Manstrong's advances is one of my favorite bits in the whole show.  I love how all the authority figures are just terrible, and even Honest Abe is kind of a jerk. The second season was definitely my favorite, where the show's sensibilities fully gelled and the creators got much more comfortable lobbing absurdities at us.  Speaking of which...

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills" - How did they ever came up with a character as dementedly wonderful as Dr. Henry Killinger with his Magic Murder Bag?  I love the slow reveal here, where it turns out that the sinister newcomer who finagles his way into the Monarch's confidence really is there to help him, despite the reasonable suspicions of his henchmen and Dr. Girlfriend.  The Ventures tangling with loony Myra Brandish is fun, and Orpheus visiting his master is always a treat, but really I love this episode for the domestic drama at the Cocoon base.  Slowly but surely, the Monarch gang was revealed to be a family unit as well as an archvillain outfit - and likely a much more functional family unit than the Ventures.

"Showdown at Cremation Creek" - I love a good wedding, especially when there are supervillains, an extended "Never-Ending Story" parody, and David Bowie in the mix.  This two-part finale to the second season was the ultimate expression of the show's love of comic-book carnage and '70s-'80s popular music as the Monarch and Dr. Fiancee take an eventful plunge into matrimony together at last.  The epic battle between the Guild of Calamitous Intent and the Monarch "murderflies" is one for the ages, especially with Brock in command.  And once I figured out who Klaus Nomi was, it made perfect sense that he and Iggy Pop have superpowers in this universe.  And the cliffhanger ending, which I'm not sure was actually ever fully resolved, was perfect.

"The Buddy System" - Another fairly low-key outing, where Dr. Venture decides to run a day camp out of the Venture compound, recruiting several of his friends to help.  The Monarch sends in the Moppets to infiltrate, and there's an irritating, mouthy kid named Dermott who riles up Brock.  This episode is best enjoyed by established fans who get to see old favorites like the Ghost Captain and Action Johnny again, and puzzle over a new mystery.  "The Venture Bros." is at its best when it juxtaposes the fantastic with the utterly mundane, and you don't get much more mundane than a safety demonstration, no matter how much the Order of the Triad tries to jazz it up.  Of course, this was also the debut of Dr. Mrs. The Monarch's new costume.  Nothing mundane there.

"Return to Malice" - Henchman 21 becoming a fearsome badass in the wake of Henchman 24's death is one of my favorite developments in the "Venture" series.  Here, he gets to work through a lot of baggage while kidnapping Hank and Dean, and we get to the crux of his obsession.  Meanwhile, this is also a great episode for Sergeant Hatred, who initially wasn't one of my favorite characters, but who I warmed up to quickly.  There's so much wrong with the guy, but he's still terribly sympathetic.  He tries so hard to live up to his new good guy status and his job as bodyguard, but like everyone else on the show, his failures haunt him mercilessly.  Doc and the Monarch's Mrs. also get a rare private moment together, which was sort of oddly sweet.

"Any Which Way But Zeus" - The gladiatorial battles between so many of our favorite sidekick characters is a lot of fun, but this episode is here because it lets Hank confront his father about some long-simmering issues, and reveals that Doc actually does care about both of the boys, even if he expresses it in some pretty unhealthy, twisted ways.  This is one of those conversations that wouldn't have happened in so many other shows, but here it lets Hank put a lot of fears to rest and move on.  And as a result, the show gets to move on too.  This was roughly the point where I realized that "Venture Bros." was never going back to the old formula again, but that was a good thing.  The characters were changing, becoming more nuanced and interesting.

"Operation P.R.O.M." -  The fourth season was when the Venture boys started to grow up and rebel in various ways.  Hank got a great arc culminating in "Everybody Comes to Hank's," but Dean's maturation didn't really kick off until the finale, where Doc attempts to throw the boys their own prom.  With Hank and Dermott's help, Dean finally summons up the nerve to try and win back Triana - and turns into a complete jerk in the process.  There's a lot going on here, with the Monarchs, Molotov, and SPHINX lurking around, Doc hiring prostitutes to be the boys' dates, and everyone trying to figure out what kind of sexual act a "Rusty Venture" is slang for.  Inevitably, everything ends in crushed hopes and giant mutant bugs, which is exactly as it should be.
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