Saturday, January 16, 2016

Oscars So White

I don't want to write this post, but I feel that I have an obligation to offer my perspective, as someone who has been an avid award show watcher for over two decades, and has been keeping an eye on diversity issues in Hollywood for nearly as long.  You may have heard about the brewing controversy over this year's Academy Award nominations.  For the second year in a row, all twenty of the acting nominations went to white actors.

Yes, this is a problem.  I'm going to tell you why.

Let's get a few things out of the way first, though.  Yes, there are plenty of non-white nominees in the other categories.  However, we're focusing on the acting nominations because those are the most visible, high profile races, and the ones that most viewers actually care about.  With all due respect to Alejandro G. Iñárritu and El Chivo, nobody pays much attention to Directing or Cinematography outside of the filmmaking community, because your average moviegoer has no idea who is standing behind the camera 99% of the time.  But Leonardo DiCaprio possibly getting an Oscar this year?  Suddenly, a lot of people care.

Second, it should be stressed that the beef isn't with the individual actors themselves, but what they represent.  We can argue all day about whether Bryan Cranston deserves to be up there on the Best Actor nomination list over Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan, but what's important is that Cranston was picked by an overwhelmingly older, white, insular Academy membership.  Also, the financiers and filmmakers involved with "Trumbo" decided to make a biopic about him where the only minority actor plays Trumbo's hostile prison bunkmate, and the distributors decided to push it as an awards contender.  This is absolutely a systemic problem, not the fault of any one person or studio.

Still, the lack of non-white contenders can be traced directly to a lack of support for films featuring non-white talent.  We had some potential contenders this year, including "Sicario," "Creed," "Beasts of No Nation," "Concussion," "Tangerine," and "Straight Out of Compton."  However, campaigning for awards takes a lot of effort and politicking, and none of these movies managed to gather the right combination of critical, popular, and industry support necessary to get ahead in the Oscar race.  There are plenty of theories as to why this happened - I know a lot of people cared and a lot of people tried - but what's undeniable are the results.  No black, Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Native American, or otherwise non-white actor is in contention this year.  

This galls so much because we know the Academy can do better.  It's not like we haven't been through this whole controversy before.  The most diverse set of acting nominations I've ever seen were back in 2007, when the nods went to twelve white, five black, two Hispanic, and one Asian actor.  That was the year of "Babel," Dreamgirls," "The Pursuit of Happyness," and "The Last King of Scotland."  Notable contenders that year also included "Pan's Labyrinth," "Letters From Iwo Jima," and "Apocalypto."  Now how did we go from that to two Oscars in a row of all-white acting nominees?   You have to go back to 1997 to find the most recent all-white acting nominations before 2014.  For two in a row?  You have to go back to 1979 and 1980.

To the Academy's credit, they are trying.  They know that this is a problem.  Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the organization's first African-American leader elected in 2013, has expressed her disappointment with yesterday's results.  This year Chris Rock is hosting the ceremony and Spike Lee was honored at the Governors Awards a few months ago.  However, there's only so much that the Academy can do when non-white contenders are either not getting the support they need for nominations, or simply aren't there at all.

I've noticed that we're missing films that feature non-white actors in smaller roles, which is where their nominations in the past usually came from. Instead, "The Big Short" essentially wrote out the major female and minority characters that featured in their original source material.  "Spotlight," "Brooklyn," and "Bridge of Spies" have these big ensembles with no minority actors in sight.  In the Best Picture nominees where they do appear, like "The Martian," "Room," "The Revenant," and "Mad Max: Fury Road," the parts are tiny, perfunctory.

I have my own theories about why we're seeing such a sudden shift.  Most Oscar films are midrange, midsize films, and they're disappearing as the business changes.  Executives are worried about marketability, especially overseas, and their first instinct is to hide the black guy on the poster.  But whatever the reason, please let's recognize that this is a problem.  That's the only way we can even start to try and fix it.


Friday, January 15, 2016

My Favorite Peter Greenaway Film

"A Zed & Two Noughts," or "ZOO," is one of Peter Greenaway's earliest films, and the one to really cement his particular style.  Each shot is elaborately composed, always static or nearly so, always brimming over with meaningful symbols and references to Greenaway's favorite artists.  "Zed" includes a character named Venus De Milo (Frances Barber), and recreations of Vermeer paintings.  Most importantly, this is the first time that Greenaway would collaborate with cinematographer Sacha Vierny.  The film also features my favorite compositions by Greenaway's longtime composer Michael Nyman.

"Zed" is a study of obsession, conforming to a very severe, formal set of self-imposed rules.  The story concerns a pair of twin zoologists, Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian Deacon and Eric Deacon), who lose their wives in the film's opening moments to a car accident.  The driver, Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), survives but loses a leg.  Oswald and Oliver become obsessed with death and decay, creating time-lapse films of various animals decomposing, starting small and then working their way up the food chain.  They become romantically involved with Alba, one after the other.  They also fixate on snails, on black and white animals, on symmetry, on fine art, and on each other.  The decomposition films come at regular intervals, accompanied by frenzied violin music.

Peter Greenaway's films always require some degree of decoding, but they all share similar elements.  The stories always involve an obsession or unchecked passion that runs amok and leads to destruction.  The visuals are always far more important to the storytelling than the dialogue.  His mise-en-scene is all based on beautifully lit tableaux, the shots are long, and the characters larger than life.  Greenway is absolutely maniacal when it comes to the fine details.  Notice the female lead's name, Alba, is almost a palindrome, except that it has that pesky "l," comparable to the lone leg that prevents Alba herself from being perfectly symmetrical like her doting lovers.  Everything in a Greenaway film reflects the central themes, in this case symmetry, order, death, and decomposition.

It's those decomposition films that stayed with me the most, the way that they suggested that death are not static and quiet, but rather a tumultuous, violent process as the bodies are broken down and disintegrated.  Sped up by the camera, they are positively lively as the rot and bacteria do their work.  None of the characters here are particularly memorable by themselves - the twins are barely distinguishable and blandly handsome - but the way in which they are placed in each scene, and the way each of them gradually comes to fulfill their function within the elaborate system constructed within the film's universe, is fascinating.  Watching the three leads all whirl deeper and deeper into madness, losing themselves in their shared vision of being one, perfect, symmetrical, decaying, organism, preserved on film as the final artistic and scientific culmination of their grand design, is as lovely as it is insane.

The roots of Peter Greenaway's films are the old masters of traditional painting, illustration, sculpture, and architecture, making him a fairly unique figure in the cinema.  His films are ambitiously conceived, play entirely by their own rules, and are utterly fearless in execution. Greenaway has no use for the usual conventions of commercial filmmaking, and happily includes as much nudity and vulgarity as he believes is appropriate to get his vision across - all presented with such a painterly eye, you'd never think for a moment that it was meant to be titillating.  Shocking and provocative, yes, but not titillating.  His films are Art with a capital A, without apology, and there aren't many directors that can say that anymore.

At the same time, his work is still consistently entertaining.  I love that he references obscure artists constantly, tackles all kinds of extreme content like cannibalism and rape, and makes it all look so gorgeous.  I love his sense of humor too, as sick as it is. The final sequence of "Zed," where the twins collaborate on their final film to the tune of "Teddy Bear's Picnic," had me grinning at the macabre whimsy.  Greenaway's films have gotten less audience-friendly over the years, and more obscure, but I'm happy every time I've heard he's made a new one.

And that Michael Nyman score really is to die for.

What I've Seen - Peter Greenaway

The Falls (1980)
The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)
A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
The Belly of an Architect (1987)
Drowning by Numbers (1988)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Prospero's Books (1991)
The Baby of Mâcon (1993)
The Pillow Book (1996)
The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2005)
Nightwatching (2007)
Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2008)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)


Thursday, January 14, 2016

The 2016 Oscar Nominations

They're here!  They're finally here!  Movie nerds and awards prognosticators get to see if their predictions/worst fears were correct, and the Oscar race can kick into full gear.  Today brought some good surprises and some glaring omissions.  Ready to dive in?

Let's look at the Best Picture nominations first.  Eight spots made room for "Bridge of Spies" and "Brooklyn," but left out "Carol," and "Inside Out."  Longer shots "Steve Jobs," "The Hateful 8," and "Sicario" also didn't make the cut.  There's a lot of giddiness from the fanboys over the fact that "Mad Max: Fury Road" made it in, and George Miller got a Best Director nod to boot.  Remember to thank the critics, kids, who gave the campaign so much momentum by heaping it with major critics' awards earlier in the season.  I'm also happy to see "Brooklyn," which along with "Room" represent the smaller, less flashy titles from unfamiliar names.  More on all the Best Picture nominees later in the season, after I've caught up on the last few I haven't seen.

In the acting categories, Best Actor and Best Actress came out about exactly as expected.  I thought Tom Hanks might be in over Matt Damon or Bryan Cranston, but not this year, apparently.  Will Smith and Johnny Depp will also have to sit this round out.  Leonardo DiCaprio will probably win Best Actor, and I'll be rooting for Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan for Best Actress.  Best Supporting Actress also shook out the way I expected it to.  Rooney Mara really should be a co-lead with Cate Blanchett for "Carol," but the Supporting race isn't going to be easy for her with Winslet and Vikander in the mix.

Best Supporting Actor, however is an absolute disaster - this category seems to get worse every year.  I can understand Stallone for "Creed" and Mark Ruffalo for "Spotlight."  Mark Rylance has been the one major lock since the beginning.  But what on earth is Christian Bale doing there for "The Big Short"?  The standout performance from that movie was Steve Carrell, who I wouldn't even consider to be in contention.  And fine, Tom Hardy was pretty good in "The Revenant," but not as good as Benicio Del Toro in "Sicario," Paul Dano, in "Love & Mercy," Jacob Tremblay in "Room," and Michael Shannon in "99 Homes."  Maybe he's better than Idris Elba in "Beasts of No Nation."  Maybe.

On to the major Best Picture predictor categories.  I'm honestly surprised to see Adam McKay up for Best Director for "The Big Short," since some of his choices were so bizarre.  He edged out both Ridley Scott for "The Martian" and Steven Spielberg for "Bridge of Spies," diminishing those films' chances.  It looks like it's going to come down to a fight between "The Revenant" and "Spotlight."  The Best Editing nods are the same, notably missing "Room," which went to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" instead.  Best Cinematography, however, only has two nominees in common with the Best Picture nominees. Roger Deakins is up for "Sicario," his fourth nomination in a row, and it's likely that he'll lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for the third time in a row.

The Best Screenplay categories always offer an interesting look at potential alternates in the Best Picture category. "Carol" and "Inside Out" fill in some of the extra spots there as expected, but we also have "Straight Out of Compton," with its only nomination, and "Ex Machina," which also got one for Visual Effects.  "The Revenant" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" cleaned up in the technical award nominations, giving them the highest nomination totals with twelve and ten respectively.  Among the non-Best Picture nominees, "Carol" had the highest total with six, right ahead of "Star Wars," which racked up five nominees, mostly in the technical categories that you'd expect.

Now a nice surprise is the Best Animated Feature Film race.  I was expecting the nominees to follow the Annie Awards, since they share similar voting groups.  However, instead of "The Good Dinosaur" and "The Peanuts Movie," we have international titles "Boy and the World" and "When Marnie Was There."  The former comes from Brazil's Alê Abreu, and the latter is from Studio Ghibli.  Those two are traditionally animated, and "Anomalisa" and "Shaun the Sheep" are stop motion, leaving "Inside Out" the only CGI feature.

Over in the Documentary category, both of the controversial titles, Michael Moore's "Where to Invade Next" and the Church of Scientology expose "Going Clear" failed to make the cut.  Best Foreign Language Film is full of unfamiliar titles - there was some grumbling earlier in the season that "The Assassin" and other favorites were left off the short list - but that's par for the course.  To be blunt, it hasn't been a good year for foreign films, and there were only a few that anybody was gunning for to begin with.

It's interesting to look at the films that initially seemed to have great prospects, but people cooled on.  "Steve Jobs" only ended up with two acting nominations.  No Screenplay nod for Aaron Sorkin.  Ditto "The Hateful 8."  Nobody seems to be in the mood for Tarantino's antics this year.  "The Danish Girl" did slightly better, but is almost totally out of contention in all its categories.  I'm very surprised that "Inside Out" didn't make the Best Picture list.   Also, I would have pegged "The Martian" as our frontrunner a few weeks ago, but the momentum seems to be shifting to "The Revenant."

Personally I'm disappointed to see the shut outs of "Love & Mercy" - not even a Best Song nod, in what remains the Oscars' consistently worst category -  along with "Beasts of No Nation" and "99 Homes."  "Crimson Peak" should have gotten a nod for Art Direction at the very least.  And every single acting nominee is white.  Chris Rock is hosting, and he's going to notice.  You know he will.

Still, this isn't a bad year as far as these things go.  "Ex Machina" came away with two nominations.  "Sicario" landed three.  And they didn't forget Don Hertzfeld's "The World of Tomorrow" or Richard Williams' "Prologue."  I can't look at that Animated Feature category and not grin.  The Oscars will air on February 28th.  Let's go watch some movies.


Monday, January 11, 2016

"Fargo," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

Let's get the usual questions out of the way first.  Yes, the second season of "Fargo" was very good.  However, I didn't find it as strong or as satisfying a watch as the first season.  I liked the period setting, pretty much the entire cast of characters, and the greater emphasis on dark humor.  However, I found the references to the Coen brothers films, most prominently "No Country for Old Men" and "Miller's Crossing," much messier and less effective than the ones used in the first season.  And while I appreciate the attempts to incorporate more ambitious themes, and challenging conceits, I found the execution pretty bumpy.

But when the show was great, it was great.  Based on a brief anecdote from one of the characters in the first season, this year we go back to Fargo in 1979, where the Gerhardt crime family, led by matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) and her sons Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and Bear (Angus Sampson), anticipate a coming clash with the the agents of the encroaching Kansas City syndicate, specifically the ambitious Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine).  State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) become involved when investigating a shooting that appears to be connected.  Also key to the story are a hairdresser, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemmons), a butcher, who blunder unwittingly into the volatile situation and get in way over their heads.

I love the whole cast.  The season is stuffed full of such strong, memorable performances, including smaller turns from Brad Garrett, Kieran Culkin, Nick Offerman, Adam Arkin, and Bruce Campbell, who pops in briefly to play Ronald Reagan.  However, I want to point out some MVPs: Rachel Keller as self-destructive Simone Gerhardt, whose teenage rebellion has terrible consequences, Cristin Milioti as Lou's cancer-afflicted, but endlessly brave wife Betsy, Zahn McClarnon as the Gerhardt's deeply damaged Native American enforcer Hanzee, Bokeem Woodbine as loquacious, conniving gangster Mike Milligan, and last but certainly not least, Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, who turns an accident into a snowballing maelstrom of violence and horror in her bid to escape a boring life.

For the majority of this season of "Fargo," I was enthralled, willing to let the little flaws and weaker scenes go as the momentum kept building and building toward what I expected to be a terrific climax.  The little character portraits were solid, and quickly moving events forced the large cast into some great combinations.  The references to Albert Camus, Ronald Reagan, and UFOs added some fun thematic touches.  And it was impossible to predict what was going to happen next, with so many moving parts and so many different agendas at play.  Aside from the Solverson family, it was hard to know who to root for, as alliances and loyalties could change in the blink of an eye.  There were some tremendous episodes in the middle of the season, culminating in "Loplop," where the Blumquists end up in the middle of an absurd and hysterical hostage situation.

Once again the production values are very high, full of great little period details and bleakly gorgeous cinematography.  A recurring motif is the use of split-screens, putting as many as four different storylines in front of us at the same time to help give a sense of where everyone is in relation to each other, or splitting off Ed and Peggy into their own boxes despite them being literally right next to each other, to show that their viewpoints being divergent.   I found the writing had its ups and downs, but I really admire Noah Hawley's ability to mine moments of greatness from smaller, intimate scenes that look so inconsequential at first glance.  It really gives the quieter characters like Betsy and Hank their time to shine.

However, I found the last two episodes disappointing.  I'm still trying to work out why, since they delivered on pretty much all of what the preceding ones promised.  We had the big showdown and all the major characters met their appropriate fates.  But is all seemed to go by so quickly, with so little time to react to big events.  I was left wondering what happened to some of the minor characters, and whether maybe Hawley had decided to leave later events for a follow-up season.  So much feels unresolved, uneasy, and anti-climactic, with a few odd bits of look-at-the-bigger-picture exposition tacked on at the end, to explain away dangling plot threads and to justify the looming portents of the approaching Reagan era.

Maybe that was the point, following along in the same vein as that famously sudden and unconventional ending from "No Country for Old Men," that refused to give the audience the closure it wanted.  However, even if this is the case, the execution of the final episodes of "Fargo" still felt off.  And I can't help thinking of all the other little scenes that didn't quite work, strewn throughout the season.  I got a lot of enjoyment out of this year of "Fargo," and it certainly stands on its own separately from the first season, but this one had some substantial flaws that should be taken into account.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Man, I Dig "The Martian"

We've been getting one or two big movies about space travel yearly, like "Gravity" and "Interstellar," which have been nice to see, but the recent ones haven't really been to my tastes.  Sure, they have big ideas and big budget spectacle, but they've also been such grim, unhappy affairs.  Go into space and you risk a wide array of immediate, physical dangers, but also more existential threats, like everyone you knew on Earth being dead when you get back, because space travel takes such a long time.  Why would anyone want to go explore the vast reaches of the galaxy with that in mind?

That's why I'm so, so grateful for "The Martian," which puts the humanity back into the space race.  We begin a few decades into the future, where a small group of astronauts have come to Mars on a planned, routine mission.  A bad storm forces them to evacuate, leaving behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is believed to be dead.  However, Watney survives and has to figure out how to live for more than a year on Mars with dwindling supplies, how to contact NASA, and how to mobilize himself to reach important resources.  Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) face their own challenges trying to mount a rescue once they realize Watney is still alive.  And how much do they tell Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the crew from the Mars mission, who are on their way back to Earth?

All the bad things that you would expect to happen in this kind space survival movie are addressed in one form or another.  You definitely see the influence of "Gravity" and all the other space disaster films that have come before.  This time, however, the attitude is completely different.  Watney approaches each problem like a challenge to be solved, rarely expressing any anger or angst over his situation.  He talks through each new puzzle in his video logs, often cracking jokes and commenting on the absurdity of what he's doing.  Sure, he experiences setbacks and low points where things look especially bleak, but Watney keeps going without much fuss.  Everybody in the movie does.  And it's so refreshing that the story stays firmly focused on the science and on the problem-solving ingenuity of the characters, avoiding all the usual manufactured personal drama designed to make our heroes feel more human, but often does the exact opposite.

"The Martian" recently ended up in the "Best Comedy or Musical" category at the Golden Globes, which is ridiculous, but I can see how the argument was made.  There are segments here that are genuinely funny and irreverent, including a delightful meeting with an astrodynamicist played by Donald Glover that starts off with a nerdy "Lord of the Rings" discussion.  Damon's performance is also a wonderful source of physical pratfalls and agreeable everyman kvetching.  I'd definitely categorize "The Martian" as a science-fiction adventure film, but it's been so long that we've seen a really optimistic, non-apocalyptic entry into the genre, I suppose it's understandable why some people have gotten confused.  This is the kind of feel good, go team, everybody pulling together for the big win crowd pleaser I didn't know a space movie could be anymore.

This is also a big departure for Ridley Scott, whose recent track record hasn't been great.  Scott deftly handles all the difficult technical business required in an effects-heavy space film, but lets Drew Goddard's lighthearted script and a soundtrack heavy on disco standards do their thing.  There's no sign of his usual broody intensity and only a small bit of  atmospheric gloom.  Also, kudos for keeping a film with so many different characters slinging so much exposition at each other, so coherent and dynamic.  I am definitely looking forward to the next "Prometheus" sequel after this.

I've seen a few complaints that "The Martian" is too lightweight, that there's never any real question about the outcome of the story, which undercuts the tension and thrills.  And if you go into the movie thinking that you're getting another "Castaway" or another "Gravity," I can see where a viewer might be disappointed.  However, I was just pleasantly surprised through and through.  I love this movie.  I love the fact that it takes place in a future not too far off that I couldn't imagine all of it really happening.  I love that it's so positive about science and engineering and potatoes.

More movies like this, Hollywood.  More movies like this!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Wobbly "Walk"

Robert Zemeckis took a long break from live-action filmmaking when he made a trio of motion-capture animation films, including "Polar Express," but seemed to be making some good headway on getting back into the game with 2012's "Flight."  That's why his latest film, "The Walk," is so frustrating to watch.  It's an ambitious film, recreating the daring 1974 tightrope performance of Philippe Petit at the World Trade Center towers to wonderful effect.  Unfortunately, everything else in the film is so ill-conceived, it's almost embarrassing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, the fabulous French funambulist who takes us from the streets of Paris to the towering heights of the Manhattan skyline.  Petit is originally a street performer, who learns the art of walking a tightrope from circus veteran Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and wins the affections of a fellow performer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon).  After learning about the Twin Towers from a magazine article, Petit becomes obsessed with staging a tightrope walk across the tops of the two buildings, hundreds of feet in the air.  Such a performance, would be illegal and highly dangerous, so Petit gathers accomplices to help him pull off the artistic coup of the century.

Now, on paper "The Wire" looks like a winner.  You have a spectacular recreation of Petit's famous walk filmed for IMAX screens for maximum immersiveness, and couch it in a feel-good story of artistic daring and nostalgia for the Twin Towers.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an appealing rising star, and was personally trained by the real Philippe Petit to play the starring role.  And the project seems like a perfect fit for director Robert Zemeckis, who has close ties to the effects house ImageMovers. The film cost a relatively cheap $35 million to make, but it looks like the filmmakers spared no expense.  The tightrope performance in particular is a remarkable achievement, creating one of the most thrilling cinematic sequences in any film this year  Reportedly, some moviegoers experienced vertigo during screenings.  Unfortunately, the walk is only about seventeen minutes out of an interminable two hour movie.

Where do I start?  As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and admire everything he went through to prepare for the part, his performance as Philippe Petit borders on cartoonish.  The Parisian accent desperately needs to be toned down a few degrees.  The real Petit is very theatrical and exuberant, but Gordon-Levitt overdoes it.  His passion for his art seems genuine enough, but it's hard to keep a straight face when he's forced to expound on it endlessly in several monologues and constant narration.  There is actually a framing device with Gordon-Levitt as Petit standing on top of the Statue of Liberty, providing introductions, exposition, and commentary.  At times I felt like I was watching a travelogue film, or one of those educational programs for young children with a smiley host on hand to help with difficult words.

Really, the biggest trouble is that Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne fail to get us invested in Philippe Petit's journey.  The meet-cute and subsequent romance with Annie are depressingly banal.  Dependable Ben Kingsley is barely onscreen long enough to register as the most interesting character in the movie.  The planning and preparation for the coup creates some excitement, but it's difficult to care much about secondary characters who have barely been developed beyond their accents and professions.  Petit's constant exhortations to speak in English are a particularly grating and transparent ploy to play to the intended target audience - Americans who love cinema spectacle.

If you have any interest at all in "The Walk," I highly suggest watching "Man on Wire," the Oscar winning 2008 documentary that covered the same events.  It's about thirty minutes shorter than "The Walk," much better paced, and considerably more entertaining.  The real Philippe Petit is quite a character.  And clearly, the only reason why "The Walk" exists at all is because "Man on Wire" was so well-received.  Now, the one thing that "Man on Wire" doesn't have is any footage of the actual walk, because none exists of the event.  If you could somehow edit together the recreation from "The Walk" into "Man on Wire," that would be something worth seeing.


Friday, January 8, 2016

My Top Ten Mythbusters Myths

It's the end of the line for the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters," which will end its run after fourteen seasons and nearly 250 episodes this year.  The final set of episodes will begin running this month.  This is a pretty haphazard Top Ten list because I stopped watching "Mythbusters" regularly around 2010, but that still covers an awful lot of ground.  Also, I've decided to pick favorite myths and groups of myths instead of favorite episodes (with one exception) since there was often a big discrepancy between the individual myths featured in each installment of the show.  As always, the picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"Stinky Car" - The myth that got me completely hooked on "Mythbusters" was one of their earliest, where in order to test what a deteriorating corpse does to a car, Adam and Jamie sealed up two dead pig carcasses in a Corvette for two months and let nature take its course.  The extreme conditions that resulted, and the cleanup efforts required, were mesmerizing in their repulsiveness.  I loved how far the guys were willing to go in the name of science.

"Alcatraz Escape" - Adam and Jamie recreated the famous escape from Alcatraz, including a daring night trip across the San Francisco Bay in a very haphazard raft.  This myth really appealed to my inner history buff and conspiracy enthusiast, as the Mythbusters went through all the various factors that would have impeded the prisoners' escape, and all the theories about how they could have pulled it off.  This has my vote for the show's most exciting myth.

"Does a Duck's Quack Echo?" - This was a smaller, much simpler myth that aired with the Alcatraz escape, but I loved it just for the silliness of Adam and Jamie working out how to actually test the myth - how do you get a duck to quack? - and discovering a few surprises along the way.  I love how the myth initially sounded ridiculous, but it turned out there really was an interesting phenomena to be tested, and we got to see some good science (and cute duckies) in action.

"Cement Mix-Up" - There have been bigger and louder, but this myth still has my favorite of the show's explosions.  "Mythbusters" developed a reputation for gratuitously blowing things up over the years, but this one didn't seem quite so gratuitous since the myth was about cleaning dried cement from a cement mixer with the use of dynamite.  Okay, so the myth didn't say anything about 380 kg of dynamite, but what's the fun of being a Mythbuster if you can't improvise a little?

"Pirate Special" - I'm making an exception to the "no episodes" rule I made above, so I can include the entirety of the double-length pirate episode that tested a bunch of different swashbuckling myths.  Half the fun of the special was watching the cast dress up in pirate gear and indulge in goofy pirate antics.  The actual myths that were tested during the episode weren't nearly as fun as the pirate obstacle course that the Build Team put Jamie and Adam through at the end.

"Underwater Car" - How do you get out of a sinking car?  The Mythbusters actually put Adam in a car in a swimming pool, and let it submerge with him inside (with emergency O2 on standby), in order to test the various methods of escape.  This is one of the few Mythbusters episodes that deals in practical, useful information the whole way through, and provides a good lesson in emergency preparedness.  I think it's especially gripping because it's something that could plausibly happen to anybody.

"Lead Balloon" - This is one of those premises for a myth that sounds silly at first - seeing if you could actually build a working lead balloon - but the payoff is spectacular.  I debated putting the similar Hindenburg myth on the list, but I went with the lead balloon because there was so much more involved with getting this one to work, and it really put he crew's skills and ingenuity to the test.  When the delicate lead foil cube takes flight, it's one of the best moments in Mythbusters history.

"Don't Drive Angry" - I grew to enjoy the Build Team as much as I enjoy Adam and Jamie.  This is one of my favorite myths featuring them, because it gets a lot of mileage out of their various little personality quirks.  While testing whether driving angry affects gas mileage, Tory and Grant are first given relaxation treatments before being sent through a test course.  Then, they're tortured with various unpleasant  stimuli - including making Grant's feet touch fish - before the next round.  It's hysterical.

"Phone Book Friction" - I love the way that this one escalates. It turns out that simply interleaving the pages of two 800 page phone books creates a bond between them so strong, it doesn't seem like anything can get them apart.  The Mythbusters prove that there is a limit, but they have to go to some considerable extremes to do it.  They bring out the big tanks for this myth, literally.  

"You Can't Polish Poop" - And finally, there's the poop-polishing myth, which I love because it's so delightfully absurd and Adam and Jamie get so into it.  This one, is short, sweet, and produces some very shiny poop.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rank' Em: The Ghibli Films Part II

Continuing from yesterday's post, we're ranking all the Studio Ghibli films from weakest to strongest.  The second half of the list is below.

11. Only Yesterday (1991) - Taeko is an unusual Ghibli heroine, as she's a full-grown 27-year-old woman, in an unusual Ghibli movie, a light drama that was written specifically to appeal to adults.  Most of the film involves Taeko looking back on her on her experiences as a precocious 11-year-old, and re-evaluating her life.  It's one of those stories that doesn't seem like it gains anything from being an animated film at first glance, but of course, once you've seen "Only Yesterday," it becomes hard to imagine how it could have been told any other way.

10. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) - The one non-Ghibli film that I bent the rules for, because Studio Ghibli was founded almost as a direct result of Miyazaki's success with "Nausicaa."  It has the prototypical Miyazaki heroine, the strong ecological themes, the fantastic creatures, and so many of the other hallmarks of Miyzaki's best films.  The manga is unquestionably the stronger work, having a much more fully developed story and characters, but that doesn't change the anime's quality or impact.  If you're a Ghibli fan, "Nausicaa" is absolutely required viewing.

9. Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - The disparate parts are better than the whole, especially if you're familiar with Diana Wynne Jones's source novel.  There are an awful lot of little loose ends and logic gaps because so much of the story was condensed into something much simpler.  However, it's hard to resist the heroine cursed with premature old age, the anthropomorphic fireball, the eccentric playboy wizard, and the loveable shambles of the film's title residence.  The plotting is a jumble of anti-war allegory and unusual love story, but the important stuff comes across. 

8. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) - A little inaccessible for non-Japanese, because it assumes the viewer is at least a little familiar with the beloved folk tale of the bamboo-cutter and the princess.  This retelling, however, is surely one of the loveliest, with an animation style designed to look like classical brush paintings and calligraphy.  I remember this movie being in production for years and years, and all the effort comes across onscreen in the exquisite visuals.  The story has a few inventions in the third act I thought were unnecessary, but the charming heroine won me over.

7. Porco Rosso (1992) - I used to list this as my favorite Miyazaki film, but my feelings for it have dimmed over time.  The tale of the gallant Italian pilot in the early days of aviation, who prefers to be a pig than to be a fascist, had this wonderful air of mystery and unknowable tragedy when I saw it as a child.  As an adult, though, my perspective has changed, and I view it as more of a nostalgic fantasy for a bygone era.  It strikes me as a sillier film too, where the climactic race devolves into a merry street brawl.  However, it's quieter moments and reveries on flight are absolutely breathtaking.

6. Whisper of the Heart (1995) - One film is enough to count Yoshifumi Kondo among Ghibli's great directors.  "Whisper of the Heart" is a simple story about two kids growing up and embracing their creative sides, with a few touches of fantasy.  But oh, what perfect touches they are.  We get to see just enough of the magical world young Shizuka is writing about to spark our own imaginations, and leave us wanting more.  The more mundane, day-to-day, slice-of-life parts of the movie are also a lot of fun, following the kids through their little intrigues and adventures together.   

5. Princess Mononoke (1997) - My first Miyazaki film, a darker fable about encroaching industrialization and the displaced forest gods and spirits who refuse to go quietly.  The character design, animation, and art direction here are some of the most stunning in all of film history.  The sequences with the Great Forest Spirit alone are a perfect example of what animation is capable of that live-action is not.  I found the arc of the plot a little lacking, in spite of a strong cast of characters and some incredible worldbuilding. That's the only reason why "Princess Mononoke" isn't higher on this list. 

4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) - The iconic Totoro are big, round, cuddly forest spirits, who befriend a pair of young sisters, Setsuki and Mei.  The girls have moved into a small house near the woods with their father, while their mother is away recuperating from an illness.  This is one of Ghibli's earliest successes, a beautifully observed children's story stuffed full of little wonders.  Its power is in its simplicity and universality.  The scenes with the umbrellas at the bus stop, the soot sprites, and the windy night flight, need no dialogue or explanation.  They're perfectly coherent and delightful in any language.

3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) - Kiki is one of my favorite Ghibli heroines, because her worries and troubles are fairly ordinary.  Yes, she's a witch who does a few magical things, but more importantly she's a girl who has left home and is trying to make a place for herself in the world.  And so she's plagued by the usual self-doubts, bouts of melancholy, and bad reactions to change that everyone experiences in such circumstances.  And all it's so beautifully handled.  "Kiki" may look light and sweet, but it's a very eventful story, and in its own way, very profound in its worldview.

2. Spirited Away (2001) - Sullen Chihiro isn't looking forward to moving to a new town, but when her parents take a wrong turn into the world of the spirits, and she is left to fend for herself as the newest employee of a bath house for the gods, she has to learn to adapt quickly.  I love everything in this film, top to bottom - the endlessly surprising characters, the stream of spectacular visuals, the multiple mysteries that the story unravels one at a time, and especially Chihiro herself, who is allowed to change and grow into quite an admirable little heroine.  I like this one a little more every time I see it. 

1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) - Because of its subject matter, this "Fireflies" has never escaped obscurity, though it was originally presented as a double-feature with "My Neighbor Totoro."  I think it's not only the best Ghibli movie, but far and away the best animated film ever made.  The prospect of watching a pair of siblings struggle for survival in the aftermath of WWII is hardly appealing to most viewers, but the power of the images and the emotions that they conjure is terribly rare and precious.  If your heart can stand it, all animation lovers should make the time to experience this film.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Rank' Em: The Ghibli Films Part I

This is a special two-parter post running down the entire output of the studio, now that I've finally seen "When Marnie Was There," reportedly their last feature film for the foreseeable future. I'm bending the rules a bit to include a movie that's technically not a Ghibli picture, but it's difficult to discuss the rest of the films without.  Shaking things up a bit, I'll be doing this list in reverse, counting down to the best film on tomorrow's post.

22. Ocean Waves (1993) - A pleasant feature about teenage romance that was conceived of as a cheap, low-budget exercise to feature the talents of the studio's junior staff members.  It remains Ghibli's only television movie, and the only feature to be directed by Tomomi Mochizuki.  I remember it mainly for its gentle humor and slightly older protagonists than the Ghibli norm.  I have few criticisms of the film, and regard it as simply an unexceptional feature, which should indicate my regard for the twenty-one other Ghibli films on this list.

21. The Cat Returns (2002) - A feature starring the cat characters who appeared in "Whisper of the Heart" sounds like a great idea, but the resulting film is not what it could be.  It's a very slight, very silly cartoon romp aimed at young children, and done in a simpler animation style that doesn't even attempt to match the visual splendor of the original fantasy sequences in the prior film.  It's a perfectly good watch on its own terms, and certainly has its memorable moments, but and I can't quite get over the sense of so much wasted potential.

20. Tales From Earthsea (2006) - Goro Miyazaki's first time in the director's chair turned two of Usula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books into a very messy and uneven, but also very lovely fantasy feature.  Clearly far too much pressure was placed on the younger Miyazaki to carry on in his father's footsteps, and the studio's ambitions for the film were far too great.  Goro Miyazaki is clearly talented, though.  The film hits some impressive highs, and I love this version of the mage, Sparrowhawk, even though he's definitely not LeGuin's Sparrowhawk.

19. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011) - I maintain that this is the film that Goro Miyazaki should have directed first, a low-key, nostalgic romance that was scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.  The story is a little too outlandish for my tastes, and its young heroes too generic in construction, but I enjoyed the warm, easygoing look at the main characters' daily lives and the inviting little community that they inhabit.  The only reason it's this far down on the list is because I've seen a good chunk of the film's content  done before, and better, by others.

18. When Marnie Was There (2014) - I have such high hopes for Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the most prominent of the younger directors who have come up through Ghibli, and might possibly succeed Miyazaki and Takahata one day.  However, judging by his work so far, he's fonder of sweet, sentimental melodramas than the more boisterous adventures of his predecessors.  "Marnie" is a beautiful, pastoral fantasy with few thrills, one that strikes me as very old-fashioned and very Japanese.  It certainly has its flaws, but I wish Ghibli made more films like it.  

17. The Wind Rises (2013) - I really wish I liked this better, since it is Hayao Miyazaki's swan song.  However, I found the story of real-life aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi's quest to build a better airplane something of a disappointment.  It's well told and gorgeously illustrated, but I didn't find Jiro to be a compelling character, and the stakes never felt very high.  Then there's the decision not to address the fallout of Jiro's successes, which removes so much of the film's potential impact.  Certain sequences are great, but the film is not.

16. Arrietty (2010) - I've always loved the various adaptations of the "Borrowers" and its imitators.  The concept is so much fun.  This adaptation adds themes of environmental awareness and mortality, focusing on the relationship of our tiny heroine, Arietty, and the ailing boy whose home she inhabits.  It's a beautiful film to look at, full of well-observed details and clever conceits.  And spunky Arietty makes for a perfect Ghibli heroine.  I can't help wishing that there were more to the film, though, which seems to be over before it really gets started.

15. Pom Poko (1994) - Isao Takahata's ecological fable about Japan's tanuki, or raccoon dogs, who unite to battle the human encroachment on their forest.  It's one of Ghibli's funniest movies, full of wacky visual gags and caricatures, though some of the cultural oddities may not translate well for everyone.  Takahata was always the most eclectic Ghibli director, with the longest directing resume.  So it's fitting that "Pom Poko, which resembles nothing else in the studio's library in terms of its visuals, tone, design, or attitude, should come from him.

14. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) - The studio's first entirely digital production was used to help recreate the simple pen-and-ink style of the "Yamadas" comic-strip, which the film is adapted from.  We follow the five members of the Yamada family through the little adventures and crises of their daily lives, occasionally taking detours through dreams and fantasies too.  Again, it's a Takahata film that doesn't look like anything else that Ghibli has put out, but it's a real charmer.  Though the movie looks small at first, it's heart and soul are anything but.

13. Ponyo (2008) - A cheerfully free-form, silly take on the Little Mermaid story, where a fish girl named Ponyo takes on human form and becomes friends with a human boy named Sosuke.  This one's aimed at grade school kids, with its bright colors, wild character designs, and winning flights of fancy.  I especially love the sequence where Ponyo and Sosuke explore their flooded town in a tiny boat, spotting sea creatures in the waters below them.  I've found that some adults can't handle the abstract weirdness of some of the content, but kids tend to like it just fine.

12. Castle in the Sky (1986) - A rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story full of pirates and robots and all kinds of excitement.  This tends to be a big favorite among boys with like action movies and tales of derring do.  I always liked the quieter moments, with the kids exploring different corners of this universe or meeting new friends.  However, I've got to admit that the finale with its massive-scale destruction, is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in an animated film.  Fans should also check out Miyazaki's old "Future Boy Conan" series, which almost plays like a test run for this movie.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Mea Culpa Media

In the Twitter age, filmmakers can be much more candid about their experiences, which can occasionally lead to PR trouble.  However, lately some prominent filmmakers have been downright harsh when evaluating their work.  Peter Jackson recently admitted in behind-the-scenes videos that he was rushed into the pre-production of the "Hobbit" films and "I didn't know what the hell I was doing" during shooting.  J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, have both acknowledged problems with the last "Star Trek" movie, especially involving the villain Khan.  And then there's the jawdropping admission from director Alex Proyas and studio Lionsgate that the upcoming "Gods of Egypt" has whitewashed casting that is insensitive and problematic.

Now, the cynical part of me wonders if this is all part of the marketing campaigns for the media in question.  Lionsgate's apology could be seen as very canny, getting ahead of the criticism that was inevitable going to surround "Gods of Egypt."  We've got a new "Star Trek" movie on the way soon that could benefit by distancing itself from the previous installment.  The "Hobbit" franchise is over for now, but Warner Bros. has been on the lookout for new franchises for a while, and Middle Earth could still yield a lot more material.  And there are the reputations of the filmmakers in question to consider too.  These directors and writers being able to admit their mistakes make them look better, and make them seem more relatable and appealing.  Filmmakers who can't admit their mistakes, like George Lucas, tend to be viewed with some disdain these days.

Then again, "Gods of Egypt" aside, none of these filmmakers really need the good PR.  Lindelof's comments were made in a Variety interview about his highly acclaimed HBO series, "The Leftovers."  J.J. Abrams was talking shop with Stephen Colbert at a film festival fundraiser, and is still in the midst of his "Star Wars" victory lap.  And, okay, some of the shine has worn off of Peter Jackson, but he was still able to cause quite a stir a few weeks ago when he announced that he'd be directing an episode of "Doctor Who" next season.  His comments were from a featurette included with the last "Hobbit" film's DVD release.  All three of these mea culpas appear to be from creators who are blowing off steam over big projects that are far enough in the past, that they don't have to worry about hurting the bottom line anymore.

This certainly isn't unheard of, but in the past filmmakers would wait a much longer time before addressing these subjects, and of course we didn't have the immediacy of the internet, which took all of these admissions completely out of context and blew them up into clickbaity headlines.  I doubt I would have known about any of them if it weren't for the increasingly rabid entertainment media - at least, not so quickly.  Directors and writers generally want to avoid their disagreements with studios being made public, as it can affect their working relationships - and clearly the studios' demands had a big impact on the "Hobbit" movies and "Star Trek: Into Darkness."  I expect we'll be hearing more of these minor self-flagellations in the future.  And hopefully at some point they'll stop being newsworthy.
So the "Gods of Egypt" apology stands out as a very unusual case.  Yes, it's part of the marketing, but it also rings true as a piece of genuine remorse that's being fully backed by the studio.  As the whitewashing issue has come up over and over these past few years, this definitely signifies that Hollywood recognizes that the practice is no longer acceptable.  I doubt that this means the end of insensitive casting, but at least it shows the studios care enough to do this kind of damage control.  It could be the beginning of the end, then, especially as television casting has seen dramatic improvements in diversity over the past few years.  Maybe it's not too much to hope that the movies will follow suit.

I can't help hoping that we'll see mea culpas from other filmmakers for recent bombs - Josh Trank's going to need to mend some fences after "Fantastic Four," and after Cameron Crowe's "Aloha," he's in serious need of some self-reflection at the very least.  But that's the irony, isn't it?  The filmmakers who need to apologize the most are the ones whose reputations may be the most in jeopardy if they actually do.


Monday, January 4, 2016

"Phoenix" Soars

As we get further and further away in time from the Holocaust, there are more films about it than ever.  However, in recent years we've been mostly seeing films that deal with the lingering aftereffects over many years, like "Sarah's Key," "Ida," and "Woman in Gold."  However, the German film "Phoenix" is one of the few I've found that takes place in the immediate aftermath, following the story of a survivor who tries to come home and rebuild her life and relationships.

Concentration camp survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery which alters her appearance.  She recuperates under the care of her cousin Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who tries to dissuade her from going to search for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may have given Nelly up to the Nazis.  Nelly sneaks out anyway, and does find Johnny, who is working in a nightclub. He fails to recognize her, but noting that she has a strong resemblance to his wife, proposes that she stand in for her in a scheme to access Nelly's sizable inheritance.  Nelly, using the name Esther, allows Johnny to coach and make her over into the image of her former self, while hiding her true identity from him.

I watched most of "Phoenix" in a state of incredulity.  How long was Nelly going to keep up the ruse?  Couldn't she see that Johnny didn't have her best interests at heart, no matter whether he knew that she was his wife or not?  Why would she continue to subject herself to this?  initially the details of the plot were something out of a lurid melodrama, bordering on the unbelievable.  However, Nina Hoss's performance and the careful handling of the material won me over.  Nelly is a woman who has suffered from a terrible trauma, who has lost her identity and is desperate to regain some semblance of her happy past self.  Hoss is excellent at getting across exactly what she gets from her reconnection to Johnny, even if it is under false pretenses.  Her face lights up in his presence, and she seems to regain a little more life and energy with every encounter.

The no-frills style of the filmmaking makes "Phoenix" feel like a much older film than it is, taking its visual cues from films of the 1940s, but its plotting and themes from psychodramas of the 1960s and 1970s.  The scope of the story is kept small and intimate, mostly concerned with conversations between Nelly and Johnny, and Nelly and Lene.  The source material was a 1961 detective novel, "Return from Ashes," which was apparently a more conventional genre thriller.  Only the barest essentials of the story were retained, focusing on Nelly's recovery.  Director Christian Petzold keeps the mood delicate and the visuals sparse, but also bold when necessary.  There's a wonderfully cold desolation to the Berlin we glimpse during Nelly's nocturnal meetings, contrasting with the photographs from happier times.  Environments seem to mirror Nelly's own psyche, as she grapples with guilt, loss, and deep feelings for her husband that cannot be easily discarded.

A few years ago Petzold made the excellent drama "Barbara," about an East German doctor trapped in a difficult situation, with Hoss and Zehrfeld playing the leads.  That film's visuals were more grounded in reality, the characters more down-to-earth and true to life.  Comparing "Barbara" and "Phoenix," the degree of stylization becomes more apparent in the latter film.  From what I can tell, "Phoenix" is the first film where Petzold has departed from realism in such a fashion, and it's wonderful seeing him explore new filmmaking territory this way.  

I'm not fond of Holocaust films, as even the most well-intentioned and well-executed of them tend to fixate on the depths of the Nazi depravity and the old wounds that have never fully healed.  "Phoenix," at least has a new take on the topic, examining the mindset of a woman who has to acknowledge that she'll never be able to go back to the way things were before she can begin to rebuild.  And the film has one the most absolutely perfect endings that I've seen all year - implausible, yes, but well earned.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Trailers! Trailers! The 2016 Anticipation Edition

It's been way too long since I've done one of these posts.  To tell you the truth, I've been largely avoiding trailers this season, because I don't want to spoil some of this winter's awards contenders for myself.  I've actually been pretty successful at avoiding any previews for films like "Brooklyn," "Spotlight," and even "The Martian."  However, the trailers for this year's bigger would-be blockbusters have been coming out fast and furious, and I haven't been able to resist taking a peek.  Here's a quick rundown of some of the highlights.

Warcraft - I'm not sure what I was expecting from a Warcraft movie, but it wasn't this.  I'm not too familiar with the fantasy game franchise this is based on, but the first trailer makes it look awfully B-movie, more "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" than "Lord of the Rings."  The orc characters in particular look like they belong in an animated film because of the designs.  I don't know that I'm going to be able to take the story as seriously as I think I'm intended to.  I've liked director Duncan Jones' previous work, so I'll definitely give this a chance, but my expectations aren't very high right now.   Release date's not until June, however, so there's plenty of time left to polish those visuals.

Alice Through the Looking Glass - James Bobin of the recent Muppet films is taking over from Tim Burton, with most of the cast intact - I was actually a little relived to see Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, and to hear Alan Rickman's voice over.  The only other major addition will be Sacha Baron Cohen as Time.  It looks like the sequel will be doubling down on the ornate art direction, which was the best part of "Alice in Wonderland," and on the prominent involvement of Johnny Depp, which I'm less thrilled about.  Again, no big expectations here, but I do think this universe has some potential for better things, and I can't help hoping for some improvements on the last installment.  

Hail, Caesar! - The Coen brothers are sitting out  the Oscar race this year, with their latest comedy premiering in February.  I choose to believe that this is purely due to Universal's lack of guts after a rough fall season rather than any weakness of the picture itself.  I've always preferred the Coens' comedies to their dramas, and this one looks like a blast.  A Golden Age Hollywood spoof with George Clooney playing another glorious idiot, and Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and plenty of other familiar faces along for the ride?  Count me in!  After a string of glummer movies from Coens like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "True Grit," I'm ready for some silliness again.

The Huntsman: Winter's War - This is the most confounding thing I've seen in a while.  It's a "Snow White and the Huntsman" prequel/sequel starring Chris Hemsworth's character, desperately trying to finagle its story around the events of the previous film.  I'm both aghast and kind of impressed at how much they're trying to capitalize off of the success of "Frozen."  Clearly the biggest draw is the three excellent actresses who have somehow agreed to be in the cast, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, and Jessica Chastain.  It's probably too early to say much, but every instinct I have is telling me this one is a stinker.  The effects work looks gorgeous, though, so I'll probably end up giving it a watch at some point.

Captain America: Civil War - Captain America fighting Iron Man should be a lot of fun, but the trailer seems to indicate that the showdown isn't going to be all that serious, unlike the Batman v. Superman match happening a few weeks prior.  The ideological split from the comics storyline has been replaced largely by Cap's efforts to keep Bucky away from the authorities who want to jail him for his crimes, so you can tell nobody's heart is really in the fight.  I never found the Bucky character appealing at all, so I'm hardly feeling invested in the outcome either.  At least with the Russo brothers directing again, we'll get some good action scenes.

The BFG - Exactly what a teaser should be, from the brevity to the brief glimpses of the title character to the decision not to explain what the BFG is just yet.  I have to say it's a little strange seeing Steven Spielberg's name up there with Disney, but if that's what it takes these days to get a Roald Dahl book adapted to screen with any kind of faithfulness, I'll take it.  I'm so relieved to find that Sophie hasn't been aged up, the score is old school, and the mood and tone are just right.  This is currently my most anticipated summer film for 2016.

X-Men: Apocalypse - This is the last "X-men" film with the "First Class" crew, right?  It's good to see some new faces like Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee, but once again I'm happiest at the return of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence.  The new movies are still mining their prequel status for marketing material, but otherwise seemed to have settled into their own groove, thankfully.  This time out, lots of gloomy end times imagery promises a big team-up battle.  I wish we could see more of Oscar Isaac, who seems totally lost under all the purple Apocalypse make-up, but it's early yet.

Independence Day: Resurgence - Kudos to whoever cut this trailer, because it's easily the most effective of all the ones on this list.  It did something that none of the other managed - it got me to reverse my position on a film I'd already written off, in this case an "Independence Day" sequel without Will Smith.  Now I'm actually looking forward to it.  This still looks very stupid, in the usual Roland Emmerich fashion, but it looks like a different brand of stupid than what we saw the first time around.  New weapons!  New characters! Bigger scale conflict!  Upgraded effects!  And I admit it.  I've missed Jeff Goldblum too.

Batman v. Superman - I'll say it again.  I do not trust Zack Snyder not to screw this up.  However, he does a great job with trailers and the Comic-Con preview released over the summer remains a very impressive piece of work.  I like that the wide-scale destruction of "Man of Steel" that so many critics called out has become a major plot point in the follow-up.  I like that the uncertainty of public opinion feels so true to life, and that there's a real sense of animosity between our brawlers.  I like Jesse Eisenberg.  Please note that I am linking to the older teaser and not the new one, because the spoilers are just too much.

Star Trek: Beyond - Oh, good grief.  I like Justin Lin and I'm rooting for him to succeed, but this just looks embarrassing.  Why on earth, after all the complaints from the fanbase about the "Star Trek" movies becoming to blockbustery, would you try to sell the newest movie as "Fast & Furious" in spaaaaaaaace?  This is one of those times where I am hoping that all the big action scenes were shown in the trailer, and the actual movie is going to be much more sedate.  I haven't forgotten about the misleading "Annapolis" trailer, Mr. Lin.

Finding Dory - There's not much to the teaser, but it's enough.  I wasn't too excited about this sequel when it was first announced, but I've come around.  I like the idea of a film built around Dory, who is such a unique character.  Ellen DeGeneres's performance was really the highlight of "Finding Nemo," which is honestly not one of my favorite PIXAR films.  Maybe I'm still feeling the afterglow from "Inside Out," but I really think that "Finding Dory" could be better than its predecessor.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Okay, sure.  I guess I'm up for another eight movies of this.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

"Jessica Jones" Delivers a Punch

The biggest influences on "Jessica Jones" are not from the Marvel universe.  Jessica may have her origins in a Marvel Comics title, but her television show is the offspring of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Veronica Mars," and maybe just a bit of "Orphan Black."  Our heroine is a gifted, resourceful young woman who finds herself up against the forces of darkness, and goes through considerable personal strife in reconciling with her inevitable status as a do-gooder.  However, she has a harder time of it than most.

Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is introduced as a private investigator operating out of Hell's Kitchen, who has super strength and can almost fly.  She's constantly drinking, has a terrible attitude, and hates herself.  Her allies are few, but include an attorney who sends her work, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a junkie next door neighbor, Malcolm (Eka Darville), and her foster sister Trisha (Rachael Taylor), a successful radio talk show host who refuses to give up on Jessica.  There's also her new love interest, a bar owner named Luke Cage (Mike Colter) with unbreakable skin.  Most of Jessica's problems stem from her past encounters with a villain named Kilgrave (David Tennant), who can control minds, and forced Jessica to do terrible things under his influence.  Kilgrave's inevitable return forces Jessica to get her priorities in order, and prepare for battle.

I've complained before about how some of the recent Marvel Universe films aren't as kid-friendly as the earlier ones, despite being aimed at a younger audience.  I'm perfectly fine with Jessica Jones cursing up a storm, multiple sex scenes, and a constant stream of teeth-clenching, gut-churning material involving Kilgrave, because the series emphatically makes clear that it's for adults.  The series format allows for a much more nuanced, carefully considered portrayal of a more complicated set of characters, and their more complicated problems.  Of course, this is still a genre show, so expect the usual outsized melodrama, wild plot twists, and pontifications on the nature of good and evil.  Occasionally it gets a little carried away displaying how dark and twisted it gets to be, but the show is never too gratuitous.  I also found it unusually sensitive in the way that it deals with violence against women, exploring myriad types of abuses through a fantasy lens, without ever feeling exploitative.  Kilgrave is the ultimate nightmare ex-boyfriend/stalker who likes playing mind games and knows too many secrets.

I really like the cast in this.  Krysten Ritter is appropriately sour, but still vulnerable and sympathetic.  She's not easy to root for at first, though, so I'm glad that the series also introduced Mike Colter's excellent Luke Cage here, who will be getting his own Netflix series next.  And then there's David Tennant as Kilgrave, who is by far the most terrifying and effective villain that the Marvel Universe has served up yet.  I was a little worried at first that the marketing was leaning so heavily on Tennant's involvement to sell "Jessica Jones," but rest assured that he doesn't overshadow our heroes.  I also came away from the series impressed with just about every member of the ensemble - Darville, Taylor, Moss, and Wil Traval, who plays a police officer caught up in Kilgrave's schemes.

I'd put the first half of "Jessica Jones" up against anything else in the Marvel Universe, or any television series that premiered this year, even.  However, the second half fell prey to some bad writing and wonky plotting, that seemed to be aimed at stretching out the content to fill thirteen episodes, but just ended up killing a lot of the momentum.  "Jessica Jones" probably would have been better as a ten episode series, or even less than that.  However, I like the way that it builds its characters and their relationships, clueing us in to what happened in the past bit by bit.  I like the way it keeps its connection to the rest of the Marvel Universe to a minimum, and that it took risks that it didn't need to take - the lesbian divorce subplot, for example.

"Jessica Jones" could have been done better, probably, but for fans of comics who want something more adult, that reflect the strides that the medium has made in the past few decades, it's a big step in the right direction.   It's disappointing that the film series is never going to have a place for a hero like Jessica, but it's heartening to find that she fits right with all the other anti-heroes and kickass ladies on television.


Friday, January 1, 2016

My Least Anticipated Films of 2016

Quite a few of the titles from last year's list ended up being delayed to 2016, so I'm going to be skipping a few obvious bombs below because I've already talked about them.  Right now, 2016 looks like something of a hangover from the blockbuster-stuffed 2015.  A lot of the weaker projects were quietly pushed back to less competitive slots, and there are all kinds of odd scheduling choices that seem to indicate the studios are trying to forget some of these movies exist - Tim Burton's next movie is already being written off, for instance.

There is no shortage of movies on the schedule already that I want nothing to do with, but I still feel I should put down a few words before I do my best to ignore them for the rest of the year.  As always, my hope is that I'm wrong in my initial assessments, and that these movies will turn out to be much better than they look.  However, if past years are any indication, it's likely this will be the last time you see discussion of any of these titles on this blog.

Sequels are inevitable whenever there are hits, but I'm still aghast that some of these exist.  Though not technically a sequel, "Fifty Shades of Black" continues Marlon Wayans' string of lazy parody films.  The fact that it's primarily riffing on "Fifty Shades of Grey" just makes it that much more distasteful.   I understand that a lot of people liked "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," but a sequel fourteen years after the first is really pushing it.  "God's Not Dead 2" is set to release on April Fool's Day, and I and fervently hoping that this is actually some kind of elaborate joke. And quickly, there's going to be a second "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a "Purge 3," a "Ouija 2," a fifth "Underworld," and the thirteenth installment of the Amityville series, "Amityville: The Awakening."

Speaking of Bible movies, there are a rash of iffy ones this year with "Christ the Lord" starring Sean Bean, "Miracles from Heaven" with Jennifer Garner, and "Risen" with Joseph Fiennes, all coming in the spring.  Note that "Risen" is also being billed as an unofficial sequel to "The Passion of the Christ."  There are also several military glorification features trying to become the next "American Sniper," like Michael Bay's Benghazi movie, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi." and Mario van Peebles," "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage."  Luc Besson's even getting in on the action with a Navy Seal treasure hunt movie, "The Lake."  At least nobody can claim Hollywood is full of liberals these days with a straight face.

There are more remakes than ever this year.  I'm trying to stay positive about "The Magnificent Seven" and "Pete's Dragon," which both have decent directors attached at least, but Timur Bekmembatov can't possibly be making anything decent out of the new "Ben-Hur," (yet another Bible picture) and are we really redoing "Jumanji" already?  This is one of the most bizarre projects on the schedule, with only a release date and two credited writers.  With no director or stars attached, how is a presumably effects-heavy film like this supposed to be ready for Christmas?  Then again, "Gambit" is technically still slated for October, and that doesn't have a director either.

And now we come to the saddest category, the movies from directors and stars who I've finally written off after too many disappointments.  Alex Proyas of "The Crow" and "Dark City" has been reduced to impending dreck like "Gods of Egypt," which he's already apologized for because of casting snafus.  Sacha Baron Cohen's screen creations seem to steadily be getting worse and worse, so I'll be avoiding "The Brothers Grimsby."  Then there's the Edward Zwick and Zhang Yimou "Great Wall" prestige pic, which looks like another misguided attempt by the Chinese to appeal to Western audiences via picturesque tragedy.

There are a lot of movies I simply don't know what to make of yet, that sound problematic when described, but I could still see being pulled off by talented people in the right circumstances - "Angry Birds," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," "Sausage Party," and even "The Founder," the McDonald's origin story (yes, seriously).  We're just going to have to wait and see.

My most anticipated movie lists  will be coming in a month or two, after the schedule's been filled in a little more, and we have a better picture of what the year's going to look like.  Happy watching.