Friday, March 25, 2016

The "Good Dinosaur" Will Endure

I write this post, not because I particularly liked PIXAR's "The Good Dinosaur,"  but because it deserves much more attention than it's gotten.  Surely, if it had been released in 2014 as originally scheduled, it would have been treated to much more media coverage. Instead, it came out in the middle of the busy 2015 holiday season, and only a few months after the hugely acclaimed "Inside Out," which outshines "Dinosaur" in every way.  And the press, while not unkind to it, has been mostly uninterested.

And yet, in the long run I'm almost certain that "The Good Dinosaur" will be one of the most remembered films of 2015 a few decades from now.  It will be the favorite film of many small children who love dinosaurs, but found the ones in "Jurassic World" a bit much to take.  The story is too simplistic and derivative to appeal to many adults, but it's the right size for children.  And though there are many things about the movie that don't work, it does manage a few really beautiful, powerful moments that hit me as hard as anything in PIXAR's best movies.

It's been no secret that "The Good Dinosaur" had a troubled production, swapping out directors and the bulk of the cast late in the game.  The underlying concept is an odd one, and clearly the filmmakers were having trouble with it from the start.  The idea is that the dinosaurs were not wiped out millions of years ago by an errant meteor, so an alternate timeline has been created where they've developed a rudimentary society similar to the American Old West, and humans are still in their inarticulate caveman phase.  So "The Good Dinosaur" is essentially a Western starring dinosaurs who farm and ranch and speak with a folksy, old-fashioned speech pattern.  It's weird at first, but it mostly works.

An Apatosaurus couple,  Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Ida (Frances McDormand), have three children: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner), and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).  Arlo is the runt, afraid of everything, and always messing up his chores on the family farm.  His father is concerned, and tries to give Arlo an ego-boosting task: to trap and kill a varmint that has been stealing from their corn silo.  This turns out to be Spot (Jack Bright), a rough-and-tumble human kid who Arlo doesn't have the heart to dispatch.  After a series of tumultuous events, Arlo becomes lost in the wilderness, and only has Spot to help him survive and find his way back home.

The one big idea that works is having a "boy and his dog" story where the boy is the dog.  Spot is a great character, a scruffy, lovable little bundle of energy who is incredibly expressive despite not having the ability to speak.  He's the best part of the movie.  Arlo, by comparison, is pretty tedious.  He's a wet blanket, a coward, and forever complaining for the first half of the film.  He gets better once the plot really starts rolling, but Arlo is easily the most trying lead a PIXAR film has ever had.  I'm guessing that he'll play better to children though, who will find him more relatable.  He is awfully cute, though - all the dinosaur characters look fantastic, beautifully stylized and surely destined to become a toy line.

Even if the story is uneven and some of the characters aren't up to snuff, the film is never boring.  The visuals are lovely, especially the renderings of the natural landscape and the variety of different CGI creatures.  The studio fully commits to executing them as well as they could possibly be executed, which is what makes the feature still a cut above the output of PIXAR's competitors.  This may be a lesser PIXAR film, but it contains plenty of examples of why the studio is held in such high esteem.

No, it doesn't hold a candle to "Inside Out," but "The Good Dinosaur" is a noble effort that should be recognized as such.  The amount of care and attention apparent in every frame turned an iffy, oddball idea for a feature into something decently entertaining, heartfelt, and lovely.  And I expect its flaws will only diminish with time.
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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

After Television

I can't actually remember the last time I watched regular primetime television programming live.  I think it may have been a random episode of "Person of Interest" a few years ago.  However, as the time available to me to watch television has shrunk, I pretty much stopped watching live television at all.  If a show isn't immediately available during the short time that I have to watch something, I don't watch it.  That means all online content all the time.  Media junkie that I am, I pick new shows based on buzz, and wait for the older ones to amass more episodes so I can watch them all in one go.  I stopped caring about fall premieres and what was on what channel in what time slot.  I stopped reading the television listings and tracking when my favorite shows were coming back.  I let it all go.

Appointment television has all but disappeared.  The only show I'm still watching on anything like a regular schedule is "The Daily Show," and I usually binge a whole week's worth of episodes at the weekend, skipping over the less interesting interviews.  The last season of "Doctor Who" was marathoned with a friend shortly after the finale.  I spent a good chunk of my Christmas break catching up with random odds and ends: the "Star Wars" episode of "The Big Bang Theory," the "Adventure Time" miniseries about Marceline the Vampire Queen's origins, and the last couple of episodes of "Mr. Robot."  I could have watched the "X-files" revival live, but it was so much easier to just wait until the whole thing was finished after five weeks, and watch them according to my own schedule.  I completely missed the big kerfuffle about the football game coverage that screwed up the premiere.

I still watch plenty of television, but I find myself wary of getting into new serialized shows now, even though I have access to a bunch of popular ones on the major streaming services.  I pick shorter, self-contained, easy to finish series, because I'm wary of the time commitment.  I have a group of shows that I'm set on following long term, but I don't feel like there's room for any more.  Frankly, it was a relief when "Mad Men" ended, and I'll be glad to polish off "Person of Interest" soon.  I still feel guilty that I never finished the first season of "House of Cards," or kept going after the first season of "Orange is the New Black."  If something new does pique my interest, a shorter initial season with only thirteen episodes is a big selling point.  Ten is even better. I feel slightly more at ease trying new animated shows, knowing that they have long production times and new seasons often take ages to come out.  "Rick and Morty" is one of my new favorites.

It doesn't feel like I'm missing anything that's going on in pop culture, contrary to what I expected when I stopped watching so much TV.  I read the trades and a lot of media coverage, so I feel I stay well pretty informed of what's happening on the business side.  I know that the big critical favorites of the moment are "The Leftovers," "Master of None," "The Americans," and "Transparent," even though I'm only watching one of those.  And I know I'd probably like "The Affair" more than "Outlander," and "Galavant" more than "Jane the Virgin."  Also, most of the gossip-generating television moments tend to blow up online anyway.  Facebook and Reddit are constantly pointing me toward the highlights of "Saturday Night Live," the late night shows, and the occasional "Simpsons" couch gag worthy of note.  Election season actually feels kind of fun, because I'm only getting the gaffes and the satire, while skipping the attack ads and the debates.  And I feel absolutely no remorse for not watching the debates live, as I once might have - it's a far better use of my time to simply read the summaries the next day.

My one big exception to not watching live television over the last few years has been the award shows.  The Oscars and the Emmys have never reliably been available online, and they're never as much fun to watch after the fact.  At some point over the past year, however, I stopped caring.  I didn't watch the Emmys or the Golden Globes at all.  I did watch the Oscars.  I still don't think I'd be satisfied only watching clips, but I can feel myself getting to that point.  The shine's worn off, and I don't know what it's going to take to get it back.  Maybe it's gone for good, and maybe that's not a bad thing.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Top Ten Episodes of "Are You Being Served?"

I knew it was probably inevitable, but it doesn't feel right that "Are You Being Served?" is getting a reboot.  The show was my introduction to British comedy, via reruns on PBS that ran when I was a kid, and it remains one of my favorite sitcoms.  I add the caveat here that it has been a very long time since I've watched any of the episodes, and my memory of the details is pretty fuzzy.  However, I certainly haven't forgotten why I love the show, and I am unanimous in that.  Picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate.  

"Camping In" - A transportation strike forces the employees to stay in the store overnight, so everyone ends up bedding down in the sporting department with camping gear.  The show was a favorite of mine for its outlandishness, and this was one of the earliest episodes that really showed how goofy the creators were willing to get.  They got so much mileage out of putting these proper, rigid, self-conscious characters into ludicrous, but often heartwarming situations.

"Diamonds Are a Man's Best Friend" - A valuable diamond has been lost at the store and a reward is offered for whoever finds it and turns it in.  The trouble is, several different employees find a diamond and nobody wants to turn theirs in.  Misunderstandings and miscommunications abound, as greed gets the best of our characters.  Everybody got their own little subplot to play and their own moment to shine, making good use of the entire ensemble.

"German Week" - Probably the show's most fondly remembered episode came in the third season.  Grace Brothers decides to feature German products as a big promotion, and the staff gets into the spirit of things with lederhosen and folk dancing.  And then they all get drunk.  It's some of the most hysterical physical comedy that ever came out of the show, and a good example of the creators' penchant for silly costumes - which also comes into play in the next episode...

"Christmas Crackers" - The first, and best of several "Are You Being Served?" Christmas specials produced over the years.  The holidays bring all sorts of new indignities, including an ugly new display, a skimpy Christmas banquet, and being forced to wear novelty costumes from a local theater company.  Still, there's fun with Christmas crackers, making fun of each other's costumes, and Young Mr. Grace comes in at the end to save the day with champagne.

"50 Years On" - When they discover that Mrs. Slocombe is coming up upon a momentous birthday, the Ladies' and Mens' Wear departments decide to help her celebrate.  Unfortunately, they quickly realize that they don't know anything about her, not even her first name.  It's a great spotlight episode for the show's most iconic character, and she's not even in all that much of it.  I especially enjoy some of Mr. Grainger's most cantankerous jibes at his eternal enemy.

"Oh What a Tangled Web" - Many of the show's famous innuendos went over my head as a kid, but they were hard to ignore in this episode, where Captain Peacock is suspected of having an affair with a co-worker.  In the end, his reputation is upheld, but the gossip is a lot of fun while it lasts.  Captain Peacock always had my sympathies, as the most mature and responsible of a loony lot, and it was nice seeing him get his due and a happy ending too.

"A Change Is as Good as a Rest" - Mistakenly believing that he's about to be replaced, Mr. Grainger quits.  This triggers a series of promotions and organizational shuffling that upends the usual hierarchy of the Mens' Wear department, to amusing effect.  This is also the episode where our characters are sent to run the toy department temporarily.  The scenes with Mrs. Slocombe and the dollies and Mr. Humphries and the Wibbly Wobblies are priceless.

"Goodbye Mr. Grainger" - Mr. Grainger experiences several sudden reversals of fortune that result in the old grump's employment in danger of terminating multiple times for different reasons.  We get him at his best and at his worst, and it's easily the most touching portrayal of the character and his relationships with the other employees. Of course, there's also the added poignancy of this being one of the last times we'd get to see Arthur Brough onscreen.

"It Pays to Advertise" - I don't remember much about the storyline with the mannequins that featured in this episode, but I definitely recall the particulars of the other story about the commercial that Mr. Humpries directs for Grace Brothers, starring his fellow employees, that comes off in a very different way than he intended.  Innuendos upon innuendos pile up in one of the show's funniest finales, and introduced me to several new anatomical terms to go look up.

"The Pop Star" - "Are You Being Served" went through several cast changes and retoolings in its later years, bringing down the quality of the show considerably.  However, I have a soft spot for the very last episode, where the newest employee, Mr. Spooner, lands a big opportunity to pursue a recording career.  His delightfully demented performance of "Chanson D'Amour" with the other employees as backup singers is still a treat to watch.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Missmediajunkie v. Outbrain

Oh, how I hate Outbrain.

I was reading a Variety article, as I do several times during the course of an average day, and noticed at the bottom of the article was a thumbnail picture of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow character from "The Avengers," with her top partially unzipped to reveal clearly Photoshopped cleavage.  What the hell?  What was a sleazy cheesecake shot featuring Disney IP doing on a major entertainment industry trade paper's website?

I scrolled down further, and found the caption beneath the thumbnail picture: "16 Celebrities You Forgot Did Horrible Things."  Well, that may not be the exact title because I scrolled past quickly and then closed the page.  Later on, I couldn't find the same ad again, and I couldn't figure out which of the myriad, similarly titled clickbait articles I had actually seen the link for, and what site it had come from.  You get the idea, though.  The thumbnail and the caption were from a set of eight, each automatically generated by the Outbrain advertising service to push stories about everything from cake recipes to fall fashions from "Around the web" that might appeal to someone who had just finished reading a Variety article.  The advertising module is placed immediately below the article, before the comments section, taking up more space on the page than the Variety article itself.

Now, I've grown somewhat accustomed to those sneaky advertising modules from Google Ads and Amazon following me around online, reminding me that I was recently shopping for socks and foreign language films.  Those tend to stay in the sidebars, out of the way and as unobtrusive as web advertising can be.  However, the "Around the web" ads from Outbrain, Taboola, Zergnet,Yavli, Hexagram, nRelate, and Gravity drive me up the wall.  They're far more obnoxious, garish, and annoying.  Worse, they frequently contain borderline vulgar content that is inappropriate for a workplace or school setting, which is exactly where I have to use computers that do not have Adblock installed, and thus can't block the scripts for the modules.

I'm certainly not the first to have noticed and ranted against these advertising companies.  What galls me is that there is absolutely no editorial eye involved in the deployment of these ads.  The cheesecake shot obviously came from the website that created the "Horrible" article, not Outbrain, who charged them to use their platform to promote the article all over the web.  Outbrain doesn't even try to pretend that the recommended articles have anything to do with the content that they're piggybacking, and hardly even the audience that might be reading.  If you're on the Variety site, you must be interested in celebrities, right?  If you're interested in celebrities, you must respond to sexy pictures of them, right?  Others have chronicled the horror of The Atlantic and Fortune readers being bombarded with "get rich quick" schemes and snake oil.

I doubt that Variety had any say in what kind of ads would be displayed under their articles.  I wonder if the "Horrible" article's website knew Outbrain would be displaying their ad, and that ghastly Photoshopped Black Widow picture, on a site regularly read by Disney executives and their IP lawyers (or at least their assistants).  Then again knowing some of these websites, they probably didn't create the cheesecake shot themselves, but just snagged someone's salacious fanart and slapped it together with some copy that was probably lifted from another site. I found at least a dozen versions of the "Horrible" article on several different sites and blogs, under different titles.  The oldest one, where this all may have originated from, is a profanity-riddled 2009 Cracked article.

I have to stop and remind myself, however, that as frustrating as these kinds of ads are, it's easier than ever to get rid of them.  Adblock can excise the advertising modules completely.  However, for the more ad-tolerant, I've noticed that some of the services, like Taboola, provide user controls that allow you to banish particularly offending ads.  Outbrain doesn't do this unfortunately - clicking on their icon only brought up a breathless little sales blurb trying to sell me on using their service to foist more linkbait upon other Variety readers.

You can shove it, Outbrain.
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Monday, March 14, 2016

Into "The Expanse"

Immediately, SyFy's new series "The Expanse" invites comparisons to "Battlestar Galactica" and "Babylon 5."  It's very ambitious, featuring a big, epic, hard science-fiction story of immense scale and scope.  The network spared no expense, this being one of several projects designed to help it reclaim its place in the genre media landscape. There are some excellent action set pieces, spectacular art direction, and a diverse, interesting cast - Jared Harris, Frances Fisher, and Chad Coleman show up in small but memorable roles.  I wanted to like the show very much, but I have some very strong reservations.

Two hundred years in the future, mankind has colonized Mars and parts of the Asteroid Belt, but tensions are high between the various populations, which have become estranged from each other over the centuries.  The narrative is split into three distinct parts, all related to puzzling out what happened to a missing spaceship called the Scopuli.  A detective, Miller (Thomas Jane), based on Ceres in the Asteroid Belt, is hired to find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), one of the Scopuli's crew.  A freighter, the Canterbury, intercepts a distress call from the Scopuli that takes them far off course.  It's crew includes reluctant leader Jim Holden (Stephen Strait), engineer Naomi (Dominique Shipper), pilot Alex (Cas Anvar), and mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham).   Finally, a politician on Earth, Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), works to avert  a potential war between Earth and Mars using any means necessary.

"The Expanse" is very exposition-heavy and trusts its audience to be able to follow along as it plunges into the complexities of its fascinating universe.  The worldbuilding here is great, painting the "Belters" as an exploited underclass that is overdue for a revolt against the inner planets, and the Earthers and Martians as larger world powers (ha) locked in a Cold War that is about to go hot.  Notably, the series isn't afraid to get very dark and cruel very quickly, detailing all sorts of horrible ways that people can suffer from living in space with inadequate resources.  Quite a bit of the series hinges on the tiny struggles of individuals, against the massive, faceless corporations and governments that control the system.  The individuals die, frequently.

However, I found it very difficult to get invested in the story, which is largely left in the hands of very cliché, typical heroes.  Miller is essentially you standard noir detective archetype, complete with a fedora and a lost cause.  Holden is your average whitebread, bland idealist, and easily the least interesting member of the Canterbury crew.  Thomas Jane and Stephen Strait aren't bad in the roles, but don't bring anything to them either.  Shoreh Aghdashloo, however, is fantastic as the Frank Underwood of the 23rd century, and it's a shame that her storyline suffers from the worst writing.  The political maneuverings are entirely too simplistic, with considerable gaps in the storytelling.  Essentially, when all was said and done, I couldn't find anybody to care about beyond a few minor characters who are gone too soon.

That's always been my problem with "edgy" media that can't wait to show you how grim they can be - they frequently forget to also deliver the human drama required to give their stories the proper stakes that really make an impact.  Sure, "The Expanse" kills off characters at the same rate as "Game of Thrones," but it doesn't have a Tyrion or an Arya to root for, or a Joffrey to rail against.  "Babylon 5" covered some of the same ideas twenty years ago in a far cheesier and low-budget fashion, but the Narn and Centauri war hit so hard because it deeply affected characters I loved.  I think that "The Expanse" has the potential for great human drama, but it has yet to find its heart.  The first season is smart and intriguing and beautifully realized - and terribly, terribly cold.

The good news is that "The Expanse" is getting at least one more season, and a chance to improve.  I hope it spends more time on its characters the next time around.  The creators did a great job of setting up this world, and now they need to populate it more fully. Avasarala's wardrobe looks amazing, but maybe let her get in on the action next time?

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Favorite Luchino Visconti Film

The long career of Luchino Visconti, one of Italy's most successful directors, went through several distinct phases.  I considered writing about his second film, "La Terra Trema," one of the great Italian Neo Realist classics, about a family of fisherman who struggle against systemic exploitation.  I also considered "Death in Venice," his gorgeous English-language adaptation of the tragic German novel, made a quarter century later when his work became more personal.  I compromised and came up in the middle, with "The Leopard," Visconti's historical epic about the twilight of the Sicilian noble class in 1860 on the eve of revolution and a new social order.  Comparisons to "Gone with the Wind" are inevitable and appropriate.

"The Leopard" was a massive production, with the bill footed by Twentieth Century Fox.  The original cut was over three hours, which would be trimmed by twenty minutes for an awkward English language release that unfortunately sank the film's prospects in the U.S.  The studio insisted on a Hollywood leading man, so Burt Lancaster was chosen to play Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina, with rising French stars Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in supporting roles.  Some would argue, however, that the real star of the film is the art direction, which is magnificent.  There have been few epics to match the splendor and the grandeur of "The Leopard," particularly the scenes of warfare in Sicily, and a lengthy ball sequence where the full glory of the nobility is put on display, perhaps for the last time.  Visconti had a penchant for massive scenes of decadence, and the film is practically bursting with spectacle, with color, and with visual detail.  The red of Garibaldi's Red Shirts was never redder, and real descendants of Italian noble families were recruited to fill out the crowds at the ball.

A common criticism of Visconti is that he let his style overwhelm his substance in his later films.  Many preferred his stark, black-and-white Neo Realist films that focused squarely on the struggles of the common man.  However, I find Visconti to be at his most effective when he examines both the high and the low against the backdrop of Italian history.  Like many of Visconti's films, "The Leopard" is about social change as seen through the disruption and decline of a prominent family, the Salinas. This is contrasted with the rise of the opportunistic Calogero family and the new mayor, who is essentially an early Mafioso.  Visconti was himself descended from the ruling class, and had no trouble pointing out the flaws and foibles of both clans, but I appreciate that he treats them both with dignity too.  In other hands, Calogero would have been a comic villain, but his aims are shown to be idealistic, if not pure.  And then there's Don Fabrizio, whose power and influence are vast, but he understands that he cannot win against the changing tides of history.

Lancaster was famously cast without Visconti's knowledge, but proved to be excellent in the role of Don Fabrizio, and would later claim that it was his best performance.  Though the scope of "The Leopard" is vast, moving through gleaming period recreations of 19th century Italy, it's really a character piece about Don Fabrizio realizing that his time is quickly passing by.  He is the "leopard" of the title, who cannot change his spots and can only resign himself to his inevitable ousting by the rising middle class and the new generation.  It is in his nature to want the beautiful Angelica, Claudia Cardinale at her most attractive, just as it is in his nature to gracefully step aside in favor his ambitious nephew and all that he represents.  Lancaster's best moments are the silent ones, particularly as he makes his way through the ball, feeling his age and mortality.  Through his eyes, the festivities are melancholy and poignant, signaling the end of his era.

There are few directors who could mount a melodrama in such memorable terms, who could combine insightful social commentary with lavish spectacle.  Visconti was one of the fathers of Italian Neo Realism, but also produced some of the greatest cinema portraits of the European aristocracy. His lengthy resume bridges Italy's past and it's future, linking film and theater, literature, and opera.  And "The Leopard" remains the embodiment of his very best work.

What I've Seen - Luchino Visconti

La Terra Trema (1948)
Senso (1954)
White Nights (1957)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
The Leopard (1963)
The Damned (1969)
Death in Venice (1971)
Ludwig (1972)

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Night of "Sicario"

I wonder about Denis Villeneuve's sense of humor, because after seeing four of his films, I'm starting to think he must never be happy.  He seems to seek out the bleakest, darkest, most soul-crushing material, and then proceeds to present it in the harshest, bitterest light possible.  Case in point: "Sicario," which looks at several fictional operations carried out by the CIA against the encroachment of the increasingly violent, ruthless Mexican cartels.  Our heroine is FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), who has the thankless job of being the naïve idealist whose worldview and values are mercilessly torn down and challenged at every turn by everyone else around her.  A few jokes are cracked, very black and very sick, and nobody is expected to laugh.

After distinguishing herself in a drug raid gone very wrong, Mercer is recruited by two CIA officers, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), to go across the border to Juarez and extradite the cartel hitmen responsible for a series of grisly killings in Arizona.  Mercer is unnerved by the pair's mercenary tactics and underhanded dealing.  She and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are also constantly kept in the dark about what's going on, because what Graver and Gillick are doing is often illegal.  On the other hand, the cartel's influence is everywhere, and corruption is endemic on both sides of the border.  Trying to play by the rules looks more and more foolhardy as the bodies continue to pile up around them.

"Sicario" is not an easy watch.  There's plenty of imagery that is straight out of extreme genre films like "Cheap Thrills" or "You're Next."  Here, however, it's all played straight with a grim seriousness, and absolutely not meant to be enjoyed for its depravity.  I greatly respect Denis Villeneuvefor that, even as "Sicario" made me feel more and more uncomfortable as the film went on.  In one of the earliest scenes, plastic-wrapped corpses are discovered in the walls of a seemingly normal suburban house, nothing particularly gruesome, but disturbing in their anonymity and their high number.  We glimpse them in several scenes, slightly out of focus in the background, or just on the edge of the frame.  Their presence is impossible to ignore, even when we no longer within our view.

There are many elements of "Sicario" that are weak, notably the script.  The characters are thinly drawn, and the writing is especially ungenerous to Mercer and the members of the cartel.  The big ideas are underlined constantly, and I couldn't help rolling my eyes at some of the on-the-nose dialogue.  However, the movie works extraordinarily well as a thriller, with Villeneuve building up some heady tension in beautifully executed set piece after set piece.  Roger Deakins is back to deliver more stark, disquieting imagery, including a segment that makes excellent use of night vision and infrared technology.  It's instrumental in creating the film's nightmare world where massive systemic failures have lead to a complete loss of security for everyone.

Then there's Benicio Del Toro, who gets a juicy part in Alejandro Gillick, revealing himself as the real star of the picture late in the game.  Gillick sneaks up on you, initially operating on one specific level, letting you get comfortable with him in a certain context, before revealing himself to be something else entirely.  Del Toro not only plays this to a tee, but enlivens the whole film while he's at it.  There has been some chatter about a "Sicario" sequel built around Gillick, and I'd be happy to see it.  He's really the only one in "Sicario" who turns out to be a human being in the end, albeit an extraordinarily damaged one.

I'd suggest watching "Sicario" in conjunction with "Cartel Land," an equally disturbing documentary about recent Mexican and American efforts to combat the cartels.  It should provide some important context, and help to drive home that Villeneuve doesn't exaggerate how dire the situation at the border is nearly as much as we might think.  I expect that we're going to be seeing more films about this over the next few years, because the subject matter is so compelling.  However, I'm betting that not many will have the guts to take the same approach as Denis Villeneuve, who refuses to pretend that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
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Thursday, March 10, 2016

"99 Homes" and the Housing Crisis

Ramin Bahrani is known for his films about the impoverished and marginalized, including a food cart worker in "Man Push Cart," street kids in "Chop Shop," and a taxi driver in "Goodbye Solo."  In "99 Homes," the main characters are Caucasian and working class, played by familiar actors and actresses.  However, in the depths of the financial crisis, the characters have been pushed to the brink, and face losing everything.  In short, they're in familiar territory for a Bahrani film.

There hasn't been much media directly looking at the effects of Great Recession on the American psyche, probably because the fallout is still ongoing.  I think that's why "99 Homes" strikes such a nerve, because it reflects an economic reality that too many have been downplaying or outright ignoring.  We don't ask what happens after people lose their homes to foreclosure because it's too terrible to think about.  We don't consider the impact on neighborhoods and communities, on families and children.  Ramin Bahrani, however, is very good at asking these kinds of questions, and making movies that get viewers to care about the answers.

"99 Homes" follows the plight of the Nash family, young father Dennis (Andrew Garfield), his son Connor (Noah Lomax), and Dennis's widowed mother Lynn (Laura Dern), as they lose the battle to save their home from foreclosure.  The Nashes are evicted, in a tense, emotional scene by a local realtor, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), and the police.  Carver has made a business of handling foreclosures and evictions, and when Dennis goes to confront him over some stolen tools, he offers the young man a badly needed job working on other foreclosed properties.  This leads to Dennis contemplating a career in handling foreclosures himself.

I think that some filmmakers could use the reminder that great human drama doesn't require a massive budget, an epic story, or larger-than-life characters in fancy locales.  The most tense and dramatic scenes in "99 Homes" happen in ordinary suburban homes, on front lawns, on sidewalks, and the connecting streets.  However, the stakes are very high for construction worker Dennis Nash - his family home, his family's future and livelihood, and his own pride.  It's what drives him to strike his Faustian bargain with the Great Recession-era version of the Devil, Rick Carver.  And what a Devil.  Callous, amoral, infinitely greedy, and willing to swindle anyone, there's no doubt that Rick Carver is meant to stand in for all the agents of financial impropriety that created the 2008 housing crisis and left people like Dennis Nash in the lurch.

Michael Shannon has had a good run of solid character roles in the past few years, and I expect that Rick Carver is going to be one of the performances that we remember him for.  There's no doubt that Carver is a terrible person, and yet he's got such a silver tongue, always ready to make a better offer or give valuable advice.  It's fascinating to watch him work, and fun to spend time with him.  He's got a great monologue where he explains, plainly, how he came to be the shark that he is, and makes a strong case for his own villainy.  Poor Dennis hardly stands a chance.

And I have to say that I'm so relieved to se Andrew Garfield still turning in work this strong after his misadventures in superherodom.  His desperation is so palpable in every frame, in every verbal exchange.  The battle for his soul follows the usual arc, but it's easy to become invested because it's easy to care about Dennis.  And thank goodness that Bahrani didn't take the easy way out - the film wouldn't be nearly so effective if there weren't a real cost to Dennis's bad choices, and doing the right thing wasn't so hard.

I worry about the future of Ramin Bahrani films, about how they'll be conceived,executed, distributed,  bought and sold in the years to come.  "99 Homes" was made for a scant $8 million and lost money - barely anyone saw it, and unless it gets into the awards conversation, it'll probably end up falling through the cracks the way so many of his characters do.  That seems oddly fitting, but at the same time, not good if we want to see more of this director's films.  And I do want to see more, and other films like them.

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

"The Leftovers," Year One

There are two important things to keep in mind about "The Leftovers." First, despite sharing creator Damon Lindelof, this isn't "Lost."  Second, despite a premise that is very similar, this isn't "Left Behind."  In fact, I think a lot of genre fans and the usual crowd that enjoys Christian-themed media are really going to hate "The Leftovers."  I, on the other hand, think it's one of the most brilliant shows of the last few years.

On October 14, 2011, 2% of the people on Earth disappear, seemingly at random.  The event is called the "Sudden Departure," and there is no explanation for it.  Three years later, in Mapleton, New York, we are introduced to several characters who are still grappling with the loss.  This includes Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), local reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), and unlucky Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who lost her whole family.  The town is also home to a group of the Guilty Remnant, a cult that embraces a nihilistic view of the Sudden Departure, and seeks to perpetually remind the community of its grief.  They're lead by Patti (Ann Durst) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman), and they're recruiting.  Finally, there's also the tale of Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a mysterious faith healer, and his young followers Tommy (Chris Zylka) and Christine (Annie Q).

Though "The Leftovers" has been characterized as a mystery show, because of the Sudden Departure, the series has shown absolutely no interest in coming up with an explanation for any of its supernatural occurences.  And though there are several episodes that deal with spirituality and the parallels with the Rapture are obvious, I wouldn't be too quick to call this a Christian show either.  Religion, like science, has failed to provide any answers in this universe.  Rather, "The Leftovers" is about exploring the ways that people have reacted to a sudden, unexplainable trauma.  Joining the Guilty Remnant, with its chain-smoking, silent, emotionally numb bystanders clad all in white, is one particularly dramatic way of coping, but there are plenty of others.  We watch Sheriff Garvey struggle to parent Jill, who engages in self-destructive behavior to deal with the loss of her mother.  A man named Dean (Michael Gaston) goes around shooting stray dogs, who he decides have turned on humanity.  The reverend looks to God, but is faith is constantly tested.  Tommy believes in Holy Wayne, but keeps him at arm's length and can't explain why.  Most of the central characters are struggling with some form of grief, depression, or crisis of faith.

I find myself hesitant to recommend the show to other people because of how relentlessly bleak and heavy it is.  Unlike other series that are concerned with getting you to think or laugh or be impressed with its aesthetics, "The Leftovers" is chiefly concerned with getting you to feel, and to feel deeply.  It keeps pushing and pushing, letting the little psychic shocks and hurts compound over multiple episodes.  To some, the process is slow and boring, and to others, infuriating in its lack of answers.  I, however, enjoyed how the series constantly kept me off guard and feeling vaguely disturbed.  The emotional damage wrought on the characters is as terrible as any physical wound, and once you start caring about these people, it's devastating to watch them suffer.  Or in the case of the Guilty Remnant, to transform their suffering into blankness through extreme alienation and self-abnegation.

Parts of the series work better than others.  The Garveys aren't nearly as interesting as Nora, Matt, and Patti.  Carrie Coon in particular delivers the show's best performance, and the spotlight episode devoted to Nora is the show's strongest hour by far.  Tommy and Holy Wayne never felt fully developed, a curious side-story that never made a very good case for itself.  However, I found everything involving the Guilty Remnant fascinating, especially as the most significant members are all older women, and many of the scenes are silent, which surely posed some significant challenges to the production.  The worldbuilding is very strong, and often the little details of news reports and pop culture offer good insights.  At the same time it maintains this air of unknowable forces at work that I found tremendously appealing.

The show is occasionally manipulative - the score lays it on awfully thick - and prone to pushing buttons in ways that are downright uncomfortable.  However, it continually impressed me with how far it was willing to go into some pretty hairy territory.  I've never seen any other media tackle themes of depression and loss like this, that is absolutely fearless about confronting the viewer with the characters' hopelessness and helplessness.  It is a very difficult watch at times, but also absolutely riveting.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

Confessions of a Colorist

This is my adult coloring book post.  I debated whether it was media-related enough to include on this blog, but since I've been coloring in conjunction with watching a lot of movies and television lately, I figure a one-off is okay.

This past December, my mother in law encouraged me to add more items to my Amazon wishlist, which various family members use as a buying guide.  Too short, she said.  Not thinking too hard about it, I added socks and soaps and the new Stephen King short story collection.  On a whim, I also added two of Johanna Basford's adult coloring books, which I'd briefly paged through at a Michaels craft store.  At Christmas I wound up receiving three adult coloring books - one of the Basfords, the "Game of Thrones" coloring book, and one of the "Color Me..." series, plus a new set of markers.  I don't think it really dawned on me until that moment what I'd gotten myself into.

Two months later, I've become completely caught up in the adult coloring craze.  I've been spending at least an hour every night curled up with one of the coloring books, a box of colored pencils, and an episode of something playing on my laptop.  I confess that I've been putting off watching several movies with subtitles because they'll require me to spend more time looking at the screen and less being able to focus on my coloring.  I've come to the conclusion that I'm not particularly good at coloring, but that's not the point of the activity.  I'm having a great time reconnecting to my creative side and letting my overactive, overcritical mind loose on something fun.

Now, when the trend first popped up around a year ago, and we started getting articles and think pieces about the implications of coloring suddenly becoming popular among grown-ups, I didn't pay much attention.  Now, looking back over the arguments about whether this signaled that adults were becoming infantilized, if there's anything actually creative about coloring, or whether coloring actually has any therapeutic benefits, it all seems so silly.  Of course it's creative, its therapeutic value depends on the person, and there's nothing infantile about it.  I say this from the perspective of someone who colored with pencils from childhood until well into her twenties.  Nobody ever objected - probably because I also drew and inked the line art first. 

Coloring is it's own separate process from drawing, with its own techniques and challenges.  It's generally more tedious, but certainly offers its own opportunities for creativity, and can be significantly rewarding.  Detractors claim that simply coloring in somebody else's drawing isn't really creating art, which is a crock.  When you color, you're responsible for the hues, lights, shadows, textures, and patterns.  You're not creating the whole piece, but you are a collaborator, and an important one.  That's why some find coloring to be a mindless activity, and some can get completely worked up and stressed out over it.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  I get frustrated when the pictures I color are boring, or I don't like the template artist's choices, or I make mistakes and the end product looks terrible.  But when things go right, there's a certain easy pleasure to the whole process.   

I stopped drawing in my late twenties when I got too busy, and didn't particularly feel an inclination for it anymore.  I always loved making art as a hobby, but found it a little depressing at times because I was never as good as I wanted to be at it, and never in a position to spend the necessary time and effort to get better at it.  I have some perfectionist tendencies, which don't help.  With the coloring books, however, the pressure's mostly off.  I still look at some of the nicer drawings and wonder if I'm going to ruin them if I try to add anything.  And then, I tell myself that it's just for fun and practice.  These aren't pictures I'd ever want to put on my wall.  The books are cheap (and plentiful) enough that I can always go out and buy another one if I want to try again. 

On that note, I admit I have been obsessing over these books lately.  Whenever I have a spare moment at work, I find myself on Amazon, looking through their previews, trying to gauge which book I'd like to try next.  My experiences with adult coloring so far have revealed that I'm very picky about templates.  Those "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" themed books look pretty on the outside, but the actual coloring pages are not my thing at all.  I've even made two trips to my local Barnes & Noble during lunch hours just to browse their selection. 

One thing's for certain.  My Amazon wish list is going to have a lot fewer sock and soap suggestions next year.
 
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Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Creed" Faces Its Challenges

Passing the torch is a tricky business in film franchises.  We've seen lots of attempts over the past few years as big movies have turned into big series of movies with higher and higher numbers of sequels.  Some of these transitions have been successful and some less so, including "Star Wars" and "Terminator" this past year alone.  "Creed" is the best possible version of this kind of story that I think I've ever seen, and I'm glad that it's brought some new vitality to a franchise that's often been forgotten or underestimated in the superhero age: the "Rocky" movies.

Keep in mind that in spite of all the history it builds on, "Creed" does not require that the audience be familiar with "Rocky" or its numerous sequels.  It contains plenty of material that will appeal to a "Rocky" fan, but the story doesn't rely on nostalgia or the goodwill of its audience the way that the latest "Star Wars" often does.  "Creed" is absolutely its own movie, with a hero who faces different challenges than his predecessors.  It's not just a good "Rocky" movie, but a good movie period, and on a level that we haven't seen since the very first installment in 1976.  The bulk of the credit should go to Ryan Coogler, who directed and co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington.  And then there's the cast, lead by Michael B. Jordan as the new kid with a lot to prove, and Sylvester Stallone giving his best performance in years.

Jordan plays Donnie Johnson, who was born Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of former boxing heavyweight champ Apollo Creed.  Rescued from the system and raised to adulthood by Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Donnie's long been dissuaded from following in Apollo's footsteps, but he's drawn toward the ring anyway.  Finding the boxing scene in Los Angeles too familiar with his family, he goes to Philadelphia, hoping to train with Apollo's old friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). However, Rocky left the ring behind long ago and isn't keen on returning.  Donnie works on getting him to reconsider, determined to escape from his father's shadow.  He also finds a love connection with his new neighbor, a local singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson).

"Creed" does an exceptionally good job of balancing all the expectations that have been thrust upon it.  Yes, it's definitely part of the "Rocky" franchise and mines the archives for good material, but it also distances itself from the previous films in the right ways.  There are training montages and exciting fight sequences, but they aren't recreations of the iconic moments from "Rocky."  The famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art do make an appearance, but Michael B. Jordan doesn't bound up them to the strains of the "Gonna Fly Now."  Instead, Ryan Coogler gives Donnie his own moments, tailored to his character, including a dynamite boxing match sequence done entirely in a single shot.  We spend a good amount of time with Rocky, who gets his own, heartbreaking new battles to fight, but this is Adonis Creed's movie, and Coogler never forgets that.

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a boxing movie so much, and this is absolutely an old-fashioned boxing movie.  Donnie is a great underdog figure, determined to make his own name for himself, and eager to shed his status as a newcomer and a child of privilege.  Michael B. Jordan has the physicality, the attitude, and the heart to really sell the boxing.  You can see him constantly in conflict, even when he's not throwing punches.  Out of the ring he's even better.  The romantic subplot with an excellent Tessa Thompson isn't quite up there with Rocky and Adrian, but it's got all the depth and the heft it should.  Jordan is especially well paired with Sylvester Stallone, and the two of them share some really touching scenes together that I wasn't expecting.  You can see that Stallone really relishes the opportunity to tackle a real dramatic role.

Best of all, I love that "Creed" stays so grounded in the real world.  It's a love letter to Philadelphia in a lot of ways, always including bits of street culture and roaming through its less picturesque neighborhoods.  Coogler and Jordan last teamed up for "Fruitvale Station," and took a similar approach with Oakland.  It's another example of how "Creed" figured out how to go back to "Rocky's" roots in spirit, to wonderful effect.  I've seen so many other reboots and retreads that simply can't figure out how to recapture appeal of their original material the way that "Creed" does.  And Coogler makes it look so easy.

I'm not saying I want to see "Creed" II-IV, but I think Donnie needs a rematch with some Russians, don't you?
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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Beware of "Crimson Peak"

Over and over again I've heard the complaint: the ghosts in "Crimson Peak" aren't scary.  This doesn't surprise me, as the ghosts in Guillermo Del Toro movies aren't usually scary.  Del Toro often uses them to warn the heroes of impending horror, to act as reminders of past depravities.  It's the living human beings who are the really terrifying ones.

And so it is with "Crimson Peak," the gloriously over-the-top Gothic romance that is Del Toro's latest, and perhaps most gorgeous creation.  Set in the late 1800s, the heroine is a young American writer, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who is romanced by a mysterious baronet and inventor, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), despite the misgivings of Edith's father (Jim Beaver) and family friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).  Sir Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) share a sinister relationship with a lot of secrets, and act as caretakers of the massive, dilapidated Allerdale Hall.  Edith's arrival to Allerdale sets off a chain of events that threatens to doom them all. 

The opulent, sinking ruins of Allerdale Hall are the source of some of the best visuals that Guillermo Del Toro has ever produced.  Like last summer's "Mad Max," a good chunk of the storytelling comes from the characters exploring and interacting with their environments, which is why it's a shame that it takes so long for Edith to get to Allerdale.  The first part of the film in America focuses on Sir Thomas's efforts to woo her, similar to the way Hitchcock's "Rebecca" was structured with a tense courtship drama up front, leading into the more famous scenes of suspense and terror at Manderley.  It doesn't work nearly so well for "Crimson Peak," because the pacing isn't as tight, and the characters are flatter, less engaging.  Fortunately the actors are strong enough to fill in some of the blanks, particularly Jessica Chastain sinking her teeth into some juicy villainy.

The gloves come off when we do get to Allerdale, sitting on top of a mining operation that seeps blood-red clay into the foundations, the walls, and the very air.  Parts of the roof are missing, so the snow falls unhindered into the cavernous foyer, and even into the subterranean pits below.  Wasikowska, clad in a series of ever more resplendent, diaphanous costumes, makes her way through its dim, endless corridors with growing urgency.  You get the sense that if she tarries too long, the house will simply swallow her whole.  No subtlety here, no restraint, and, no apologies.  Guillermo Del Toro happily sacrifices the niceties of the mystery plotting for more atmosphere, more madness, more passion.   

At times "Crimson Peak" skirts the campy and ridiculous, especially as the reveals pile monstrosity upon monstrosity at the film's climax.  And yet, this feels like the Del Toro film closest to his brutal Spanish language masterpieces, "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth," in ages.  Amidst the most ludicrous developments (and they do get ludicrous), he keeps turning up these beautiful, striking images: a ghost in the snow trailing streams of smoky ectoplasm, a killer's private collection of gruesome personal trophies, and Jessica Chastain with her mask off at last, beautifully disheveled and out for blood.  There is so much dread and death in this film, presented so exquisitely.

I love "Crimson Peak" in spite of its many flaws.  I love that it's unabashedly romantic, gratuitously melodramatic, and that at the end we get a great catfight between the two female leads that has them trailing blood and venom all over the frame.  I am a sucker for lavish art direction, for period pieces, and for genre fiction in any combination.  I won't make the argument that this is a great film, but this is the work of a great director in full command of his considerable powers, making something that he clearly loves making.  And Guillermo Del Toro films come rarely enough these days that it's something worth savoring.

I fully expect that some will hate this film for not matching its scare-promising marketing campaign, and some may be confused by its old fashioned intentions.  I, however, have always enjoyed Gothic horror and found Del Toro's contribution to the genre sorely overdue.  He should be making more films like this.
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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rough Return of "The X-Files"

I was as excited for the new "X-files" miniseries as anyone else, as a long time fan of the show.  Surely after all this time, the creators would have some new stories for this universe and these characters worth telling, right?  I forgot, as so many fans did, that "The X-files" ran about two seasons too many, and by the end was a pretty awful mess.  Sadly, creator Chris Carter picked right up where he left off.

The six-episode revival tried to be the original show in miniature.  It brought back the convoluted conspiracy myth arc in two episodes that bookended the other four, which were stand alone, monster-of-the-week stories.  The stand alone episodes were a mixed bag, but we had one really strong one, "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster," written by Darin Morgan.  Two others, by "X-files" vets James Wong and Glen Morgan were also decent.  However, all the other episodes were written by Chris Carter and they were awful.  I mean, absolutely, irredeemably awful.  I seriously wondered for a few days if the original series had been worse than I'd remembered - but no, even at the bitter end it was never this bad.

And that's galling, because there's clearly a lot of potential left in the series.  David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson had no trouble at all taking up the roles of Agents Mulder and Scully again.  They work in the internet age as well as they ever did.  However, they're not able to escape the years and years of narrative baggage and bad creative decisions that ultimately sunk the original series.  Carter's episodes spend a lot of time harping on the fact that Mulder and Scully had a son they had to give up, but almost none on the impact of their brief romantic relationship.  We finally get to see the doomsday scenario hinted at in so many previous episodes fully play out, but in a very sloppy, slapdash manner.  There were always logic leaps and bad science propelling many of the old stories, but here they're endemic.

It felt like Carter just crammed in all the ideas he had left for "The X-files" into the two bookend episodes, treating them like his long promised third theatrical feature.  The trouble was that he didn't have the budget to fully realize the major developments, and far, far too little time to tell the story he wanted to.  Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose came onboard as a pair of younger agents in the fifth episode, and they sorely needed more than one episode of introduction before being flung into the chaos of the finale.  Alien DNA and plague storylines that would have been revealed incrementally over the course of a season or two in the past, are piled on so hard and fast that they come across as ridiculous.

Now, "The X-files" was always ridiculous, but its supernatural elements were always couched in mystery and suspense elements, so the stories had a certain amount of gravity.  The show was fairly groundbreaking in the '90s for using a toned-down palette and a more realistic, down-to-earth style.  I still got a sense of that grounding in some of the stand-alone episodes, but for Carter's stuff, it all went out the window.  I felt like I was watching a slick, dumbed down reboot of the franchise at times, where everything had to be explained in the simplest terms possible, and all the mystery and sense of the unknown were gone.  The final half of the last hour was pure B-movie silliness.

It worries me that the series did so well for FOX, because that means they'll surely want more.  Frankly, I think "The X-files" has run its course and shouldn't have been brought back in the first place, at least not in this fashion.  Maybe a proper reboot with Amell and Ambrose would have been better.  Maybe a real tenth season or a longer miniseries would have solved some of the big problems.  It's had to call these six episodes disappointing because half of them were genuinely entertaining, and brought back good memories.  I loved that they used the original titles.  But frankly, I just want "The X-files" to go away for awhile, and to point to this whole debacle as a cautionary tale for nostalgic fans.

I await the return of "Twin Peaks" with increased concern.
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