Friday, April 22, 2016

My Favorite Ernst Lubitsch Film

"Garbo Laughs!" the poster declares.  The legendary actress had never made a full-fledged comedy before 1939's "Ninotchka," but she was in good hands with director Ernst Lubitsch.  Musicals and comedies were his specialty, and in the Hollywood golden age, he was one of the most well regarded studio directors, famous for the "Lubitsch touch."  It referred to instances of delightful sophistication, charm and wit in his pictures that were hard to quantify, but unmistakable when you saw them.  He got away with implying all sorts of illicit behavior, because it was implied in such elegant terms.  "Ninotchka" was a little atypical for Lubitsch, having a good amount of pointedly political commentary aimed at Stalin and the U.S.S.R.  Lubitch's romantic comedies up to that point were usually only concerned with lighthearted battles between the sexes, and set in timeless, imaginary European countries like Marshovia and Sylvania.

"Ninotchka," however, still doesn't quite take place in the real world.  Most of the story is set in Paris, and the Paris of Ernst Lubitsch films is always a paradise of love and pleasure that even the most unromantic soul would find hard to resist.  Three Bolshevik gentlemen, Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart), and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach) arrive one day to conduct some business for the Soviets. However, they quickly become corrupted by the lifestyle of the West and defect, with encouragement by the charming playboy Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas).  The Soviets send in the strict, humorless Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to retrieve the trio and see their mission through.  However, Count Leon falls for her and is determined to thaw Comrade Ninotchka's chilly exterior and win her over.  He takes her out on the town, intent on showing her how life should really be lived.  Ninotchka, however, has other ideas.

I was tempted to write about "Ninotchka" for Billy Wilder's Great Directors entry, but though his fingerprints are all over this, Wilder was only one of four credited screenwriters working alongside heavy hitters like Charles Brackett and Melchior Lengyel. Besides, once you get past the Communists, this is a Lubtisch comedy through and through.  All the familiar pieces are here - the lovable, roguish leading man, the stubborn, elegant leading lady who needs to be won over, and the storybook settings of sparkling Paris and a hysterically dour, miserable Russia.  Intrigues, innuendoes, and ironies abound.  There may have never been better dialogue written for a film, which takes many jabs at the Communists, but also remembers to take time to take a few jabs at the capitalists too.  Lubitsch keeps the proceedings from ever getting too cynical though, pairing the dialogue with playful visuals and some priceless sight gags - Count Leon falling over in his chair, the ridiculous hat that Ninotchka considers a symbol of Western decadence, and the final gag with Kopalsky and the protest sign.

Ninotchka is one of Greta Garbo's best remembered roles, and it was perfect for her.  Capitalizing on her reputation for playing very serious, melancholy parts, Ninotchka is initially the epitome of the stern, stone-faced Soviet.  Watching her slowly give in to romance and fun is an absolute delight.  The scene where she finally laughs is well worth the wait, but my favorite part of her performance is her deadpan line delivery as she counters Count Leon's romantic overtures.  "Your general appearance is not distasteful," she tells Count Leon when he flirts with her.  Melvyn Douglas was very good, but he was playing a familiar variation on the Lubitsch leading man, all charm and impudent one-liners.  Garbo's performance, however, was one for the ages.  I wish we could have had more comedies with her, but Garbo's next picture was a notorious bust, and it would be her last.

As for Lubitsch, many of his best films like "The Shop Around the Corner" and "To Be or Not to Be" were still to come.  Success never slowed him down, and he thrived within the studio system to the end of his days.  However, "Ninotchka" was a rare convergence of several great talents who came together perfectly, and created a classic that remains a highlight of all their careers.  I still find it hard to stomach that Lubitsch never collaborated with Wilder again, despite the latter considering Lubitsch his idol, and that Garbo never worked with either of them on anything else, despite her screen presence suiting their styles so well.  It makes "Ninotchka" feel all the more rare and precious - and the embodiment of the best of its era.  
What I've Seen - Ernst Lubitsch

The Doll (1919)
The Oyster Princess (1919)
Love Parade (1929)
One Hour With You (1932)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Design for Living (1933)
The Merry Widow (1934)
Angel (1937)
Ninotchka (1939)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Monday, April 18, 2016

"The Venture Bros." Year Six (or Twelve)

Eight episodes?  After all this time, the sixth season of "The Venture Bros." was only eight episodes?! And yet, I can't be too angry because this latest run was one of my favorites in years.  Rusty and the Monarch clan both got storylines that were hugely entertaining.  Brock is back doing what Brock does best.  The show has never looked or sounded better, and the story really seems to have some momentum behind it.  You can't really be too upset when a show has such a fantastic season and leaves you wanting more.  And resolutions were never exactly the Ventures' strong point.

I think I missed a special or two somewhere, because all the characters were in completely different places from where I last remember them being.  It's not difficult to catch up though.  Doc Venture inherited a major windfall and is now busy running a gigantic tech company into the ground and enjoying oodles of money.  He and the boys have moved to a new headquarters in New York, and thanks to Doc's new status, the Ventures are considered important enough to be assigned Brock as a bodyguard again.  The Monarch, however, has been left functionally unemployed thanks to the loss of his army and cocoon.  Still not allowed to officially arch Dr. Venture, he and Hechman 21 have been overseeing the remodeling of the old Monarch homestead in Newark.  The Missus has been staying busy as a chairwoman for the reorganized Guild of Calamitous Intent, and growing frustrated with both her husband and a new vigilante hero wreaking havoc on the Guild's top villains - the Blue Morpho.  

There are some excellent new characters in the mix this time, including villains Wide Wale (Hal Lubin), his daughter Sirena (Christine Miloti), and Red Death (Clancy Brown).  However, it's the ground covered by old favorites that really kept me invested.  Pretty much everything involving the Monarch, Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and the Blue Morpho was fantastic.  We got some great character stuff for the Monarchs as their personal issues push their marriage toward the rocks.  A big piece of the Monarch's past is revealed, shedding some new light on his legacy and his hangups.  The Missus remains sympathetic as a career woman in crisis, trying to shore up the increasingly dysfunctional Guild, and I'm anticipating some real fireworks when she and the Monarch finally have it out.  Meanwhile, Doc and Brock seem to have regressed back into old roles a big, but the Venture boys are still forging ahead.  Dean's taking college classes and Hank is smitten with a new paramour, and it's frickin' adorable.  I've always rooted for these two, and it's heartening to see how far they've come.

And I wonder if it's because I've been watching for so long, or because the creators' pop culture references have finally converged with my own frame of reference, but the show's humor clicked with me this year in a way that it only occasionally did before now.  I got the Green Hornet/Blue Morpho parallels.  I got the extended Andy Warhol parody, complete with a video threat based on "Empire."  I even recognized every single reference in Billy and Pete's Christopher Lambert geek-out.  Now I want to go back and watch some of the earlier seasons and see what else I missed.  I've always enjoyed the "Venture Bros.," but this is the first time it's felt like I'm totally on the same page with it.  I suspect that the increased serialization of this season and the tighter plotting also helped quite a bit.

I feel obligated to list a few flaws.  Yes, the ending felt like it cut off at a completely arbitrary point - which it was, because the creators have admitted the finale they intended wouldn't fit the constraints of the show, so it's being rejiggered for next season.  Yes, having an increasingly large cast meant that lots of characters like Sgt. Hatred and Henchman 21 barely got any attention.  Heck, Dr. Orpheus and Dermott didn't appear at all.  Yes, the "Saw" and "Taken" references in the last episode were unbearably outdated (though that may have been on purpose).  However, this is the liveliest, most exciting season of "Venture"  I've seen in ages.  It feels like the show is getting back to its roots and primary conflicts.  And as a spoof on costumed heroes and villains, it's ironically more timely than ever.

It pains me that I may have to wait another two years to see how this storyline plays out, but the "Venture Bros." have proven time and time again that new episodes are worth the wait.  Go Team Venture!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"And Then There Were None" Done Right

Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" is one of the few mystery novels that I can still recall almost all the twists and turns of twenty years after I read it.  There's no question why it's considered Christie's masterpiece, a classic of the mystery genre that still thrills to this day.  It's been adapted for the theater and for film and television many times, but rarely with the original, downbeat ending.  Christie herself was responsible for some of the earliest adaptations featuring a lighter, happy resolution.  However, in recent years the darker ending has come back into fashion, and the BBC recently won the rights to adapt several of Christie's works for television.  And so, we have the new "And Then There Were None" miniseries, which is the most faithful adaptation to date.

In the late 1930s, eight strangers are invited to a mansion on an isolated island off the Devon coast.  Some believe they've been hired to fill various positions, and some are there on holiday.  None of them know their hosts, the Owens, who conduct all their business through written instructions.  The guests are attended to by a pair of recently hired servants, Thomas Rogers (Noah Taylor) and his wife Ethel (Anna Maxwell Martins).  All total, there are ten people on the island who are notified by recording that they are all accused of murder, and begin to be killed off, one by one.  The eight guests include car enthusiast Anthony Marston (Douglas Booth), a retired judge, Wargrave (Charles Dance), a police detective, Blore (Burn Gorman), a general, MacArthur (Sam Neill), a mercenary, Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner), a doctor, Armstrong (Toby Stephens), a severe older woman, Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson), and a young woman who thought she was being hired as a secretary, Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody).  Vera is our POV character, whose stay on the island is intercut with flashbacks to her time as a governess and the circumstances of the crime she's accused of committing.

There are a lot of familiar names in that cast, but the performance that really ties it all together is Maeve Dermody's.  This is the first thing I've seen her in, and I spent the first hour of the series wonder how that was possible.  Dermody has the most complicated role to play, juggling Vera's difficult emotional state as old ghosts come back to haunt her and the body count continues to climb.  I found the original ending of "And Then They Were None" pretty farfetched when I read the novel, but in the series, Dermody sells it with everything she's got.  Now, I can't imagine the ending being anything else.  Other standouts in the cast include Burn Gorman, as the miserable detective who eventually reveals his humanity, Aidan Turner, as the only guest who readily admits his guilt, and Charles Dance as the matter-of-fact judge.  However everyone makes an impression, no matter how brief.

The series also distinguishes itself by being much more psychologically introspective than any other version I've seen.  The various crimes that the guests are accused of play a bigger part, helping to flesh out the various characters.  While the primary driver of the story is still the suspense of the murders whimsically following the old "Ten Little Soldiers" nursery rhyme as they dispose of the cast, what's going on in the characters heads is much more interesting.  Some feel no guilt or shame at all, but past wrongdoings clearly eat at others, especially Vera.  The handling of her arc veers close to psychological horror films like "The Orphanage" or "The Others."  Director Craig Viveiros and writer Sarah Phelps deserve a lot of the credit for creating a moody, heady atmosphere that sustains the drama throughout.  And a few modern touches don't detract from the otherwise very faithful adaptation.

 I'm very fond of Rene Clair's 1945 version of "And Then There Were None," the first filmed version.  However, it's so good to see the story the way I remember it, dark and haunting and merciless.  It's a load of fun to watch a passel of great actors execute a memorable whodunit, but I suspect that the 2015 version is going to be best remembered for humanizing several of its players and giving them new dimensions.  I cared about characters I never expected to, that that gave their deaths real impact and tragedy for the first time.  
I'm definitely looking forward to more Agatha Christie adaptations from the BBC, and more are surely on their way.


Friday, April 15, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2008

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from before I began this blog.  The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order.  Enjoy.

Let the Right One In - Stories of vampires went through a notable resurgence with the popularity of "Twilight," but Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" is by far the year's best contribution to the genre.  Here, the monster comes in the shape of a solemn young girl, who befriends the lonely, bullied boy next door.  This lets us witness the cycles of bloody killings and reprisals from a child's point of view.  Set in the oppressive cold of a snowy Swedish winter, the young characters seem especially isolated and vulnerable.  And the violence, when it comes, is brutal, merciless, and cold.

Rachel Getting Married - She may have won the Oscar for Fantine, but this is my favorite Anne Hathaway performance.  Here she plays Kym, a recovering drug addict, who is home for her sister's wedding and having a difficult time holding things together.  At every turn there's another past mistake or another person she's hurt, waiting to remind her of all her shortcomings.  More wedding movies should be like this, as weddings always present the perfect opportunity for a family's worst dysfunctions to come to a head.  And for their best, redeeming qualities to save the day.  

The Wrestler - An intensely affecting portrait of an aging wrestling star, "The Wrestler" provides a winning comeback vehicle for Mickey Rourke.  Darren Aronofsky keeps his usual stylistic flourishes to an absolute minimum, presenting a grounded, sobering look at the hard realities behind the spectacle of professional wrestling.  As Randy the Ram struggles to get by outside of the ring, Rourke embodies all the years of damage and regret in a way no one else could.  This is one of those rare, special cases where it feels like an actor's entire career was in preparation for this one, defining role.

Synecdoche New York -  Charlie Kaufman's directing debut is an endlessly innovative, occasionally infuriating look into the mind of a theater director, Caden Cotard, who is desperately trying to find meaning in his disintegrating life.  "Synecdoche" is absolutely packed with narrative tricks, outlandish concepts, and puzzling symbols.  However, it's how they're used to tell a story about failure and loss and the inherent meaninglessness of most of our lives, that's so emotionally devastating.  I don't know many filmmakers with the guts to make a film like this, and far fewer with the skill to pull it off.  

Beaches of Agnes - The final au revoir from Agnes Varda, beloved icon of French cinema.  This is one of the only examples I've ever found of a true autobiopic, where a filmmaker turns the camera on themselves.  Varda takes the audience back to the Left Bank and the Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, to her marriage to Jacques Demy, and to her friendships with many, many other artists.  Of course she also talks about her films and other artistic endeavors.  Varda's filmmaking remains as playful and inventive as ever, full of little delights, and I wish she wasn't retiring quite so soon.

Wendy and Lucy - This is the best collaboration to date between director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams, illustrating how a minor crisis - a lost dog - can be a life-altering one for someone who simply doesn't have the resources to handle it.  Made on a tiny budget, the film is nonetheless excellent at getting the viewer into the headspace of its frantic heroine as she tries to keep her footing in an ever worsening situation.  I also appreciate the way that the usual tropes of a girl-and-her-dog story are heavily impacted by the harsh realities of life on the bottom of the economic ladder.

4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days - One of the high points of the ongoing Romanian New Wave is a social drama about two women trying to arrange an illegal abortion during the waning days of the Ceaușescu regime.  It's a nerve-wracking, gut-churning film to watch unfold, and completely unpredictable.  Director Christian Mungiu presents each scene in stark, unflinching terms, emphasizing the desperate situation of the characters and the larger social constraints that drive their behavior.  Subtle interactions reveal the nature of relationships, personal beliefs, and the grim effects of repression.

Kung Fu Panda - After a string of mediocre films, this was the picture that proved that DreamWorks Animation was capable of great things.  Full of lovingly rendered Chinese fantasy imagery and kung-fu film homages, the film looks gorgeous.  However, it's the enthusiastic performance by Jack Black and the fimmakers' embrace of absurd humor - Po's father is a duck?! - that give it so much boisterous personality and charm.  You can still see the echoes of "Shrek" here, but the sarcasm is deployed in a more restrained, palatable fashion.  I was completely caught off guard in the best way.  

Iron Man - Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect Tony Stark, and Tony Stark is the superhero for the Internet generation.  An egomaniacal tech genius with an irreverent streak a mile wide, Tony couldn't be bland if he tried.  He's by far the most memorable character of the year, and though "Iron Man" has some rough spots, it's an excellent, subversive take on the superhero origin story that's worth watching for the priceless ending alone.  I'm not such a big fan of all the Marvel madness that followed, but the original "Iron Man" remains a delightful highlight of the entire superhero genre.

Chop Shop - Ramin Bahrani gives us a glimpse of a New York we rarely see in films, a crime-riddled, poverty-stricken corner of Queens where street kids Ale and Izzy struggle to survive.  Made with non-actors in the real neighborhood where the story takes place, "Chop Shop" has a rare immediacy and authenticity.  At first, it's disorienting to see so few of the common hallmarks of a feature set in the United States here - it feels foreign even though it's primarily in English - but the story is easy to get caught up in.  It's a small film, but never a slight one.

Honorable Mentions

The Visitor
Still Walking
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Grand Torino


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My Top Ten Movies of the Year Master Post

I'm in a list-making mood, but I've run dry with my usual subjects.  I'm still several films short of being able to write up my Top Ten list for 2015 - it's not happening before I see "Son of Saul," dammit.  I spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to remember specific episodes of "News Radio" and "That '70s Show" for a TV Top Ten to no avail.  The timing's not right for other recurring features I've done before either.  I strongly considered writing a fake "Great Directors" post for Michael Bay for April Fools, but he doesn't actually fit my criteria for one of those posts, and I decided I really didn't want to spend the time and effort writing nice things about Michael Bay, even for a joke.

So, I've decided to create a new feature.  I've been spending a lot of time watching classic films lately for other "Great Directors" posts, and there's been a nice little lull in the current media schedule.  So I'm going to take the time to start looking backwards.  I started this blog in 2010 and have written Top Ten lists every year, starting with the films of 2009.  So taking a page from Filmspotting and other movie discussion outlets, I'm going to start making lists for the previous years that I never got to talk about, starting with 2008 and moving backwards.  These retro Top Ten posts will follow the same format as the current ones, except with no "plus one" spot.  I expect I may also reduce the number or simply remove the "Honorable Mention" section for certain years.

Now I want to do this right, so I'm imposing some restrictions on myself in the name of quality control.  The first and most important rule will be that I can't write a list for a year where I haven't seen at least fifty films.  That will ensure that the Top Ten will reflect the top 20% of titles I've viewed at a minimum, and that I've seen a decently wide range of movies instead of just the mainstream hits.  I don't expect that this will be an issue until I hit the '80s.  For instance, I couldn't write a list for 1978 right now, because I've only seen about twenty-five 1978 films.  However, if I post these lists every month or two, I should have plenty of time to close the gap.  This will also act as an incentive for me to keep watching older films.

Non-binding rules are that I'll also need to have seen all the Best Picture nominees for that year, and the top five films from that year's box office.  I know that these are not good indicators of quality, but what I'm after is seeing a good representative sample of movies from every year.  I will definitely bend the rules where I feel it is appropriate due to the availability of some titles, and the fact that obvious dreck like "Karate Kid Part II" and "Lethal Weapon 3" made ridiculous amounts of money.  Also, there's the whole "Behind the Green Door" situation I'd rather avoid.

With these limitations in place, I know it will become very difficult to keep this series going after a certain point, especially if I'm committed to writing the lists in order.  The earlier the year, the fewer films I've seen.  However, I'm very curious to see how far back I can go and feasibly write these lists, and what films I'll discover by doing this.  I didn't think that my "Great Directors" posts would be sustainable over the long run either, and now I'm up to nearly fifty entries.  You never know.

I'll be using this post to catalogue all my yearly Top Ten lists, including the ones that I've already written.  My Top Ten of 2008 will be on its way soon.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is January the New March?

I was ecstatic to learn about the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" finally moving forward with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.  After all the ups and downs this project has had over the years, it looks like all the pieces are finally in place.  However, one detail gave me pause: the release date for the movie was January 13, 2017.  Now, this has since been moved back a month, but the date caused a furor in some corners when first announced.  Such a short timeline for the production isn't an immediately a reason to panic, but a January release date has almost always been a bad sign.  January is traditionally the studios' dumping ground, the time when movies with dim prospects are released to simply fulfill contract obligations that they spend time in theaters, before being shuttled off to VOD and home media.  Oscar contenders will get wider releases then, and occasionally someone puts out a horror movie that scares up a few dollars, but the box office is traditionally weak.  The kids are back in school.  Older audiences are recovering from the holidays.  Nobody wants to go to the movies.

Or do they?  This year "Kung Fu Panda 3" had its U.S. wide release at the end of January, to coincide with Chinese New Year, and it's been doing pretty well.  "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" made a good chunk of its money during January, as did "The Revenant."  And then there was last year's "American Sniper," which pulled off an unheard of $89 million opening last year.  Clearly there's some unmet demand there, and the studios are taking notice.  And with so much competition in the fall and spring, and with expectations still so low for January and February receipts, we're starting to see riskier pictures being scheduled earlier and earlier in the year.  January of 2017 also has Doug Liman's crime film "Mena" with Tom Cruise scheduled, along with the "XXX" and "Resident Evil" sequels, and the next M. Night Shyamalan movie.  January of 2018 will bring the highly anticipated "Blade Runner 2" with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.  It's far too early for any of these movies to be getting written off for the usual reasons.

Now, on the one hand this is a good development.  January and February is slowly turning into the best time for risky, weird, off kilter projects that the studios don't know where else to put.  And sometimes they've reaped the rewards when one of those oddballs suddenly connects with audiences in a big way.  Opening more real estate in January may mean that more risky projects get greenlit.  "The Dark Tower," for instance, has been in development hell for decades.  It may stand a better chance opening in January, with limited competition, than in a more crowded weekend later in the year.  Remember, big blockbuster movies used to be limited to summer and the winter holidays, before the crush of too many tentpoles pushed some of the smaller titles to April, and then March.  Now, after "Deadpool," February is looking like a viable choice for potential moneymakers.  Marvel's "Black Panther" is scheduled for February, 2018.  "The Dark Tower" and "Blade Runner" may mean January is now fair game too.

On the other hand, I like having January be a slower month, so I have the time to catch up on the overstuffed award season contenders that inevitably spill over from December.  Every movie reviewer and blogger that I follow were still hashing out their top ten list and reactions to "The Revenant" well into the new year.  I can also see an influx of big blockbusters being terrible for Oscar season.  Frankly, I don't know If the prestige pictures would stand as much of a chance at the box office if they had to contend with the typical tentpole films we see during the rest of the year.  They're not exactly in good shape as it is.  Distributors are already avoiding the summer months, and packing everything remotely adult-oriented into post-Labor Day slots.  If dates gets too competitive in January and February, does this mean that movies like "Hail, Caesar" or "Grand Budapest Hotel" will end up in the crush of October in the future?    

Finally, consider this international wrinkle.  Late January and early February coincides with the Chinese New Year holiday, when China's growing box office is at its busiest.  A big portion of the "Kung Fu Panda 3" international gross came from China.  Stephen Chow's "The Mermaid," which currently holds China's box office crown, opened the day after Chinese New Year.  As China's influence continues to grow, release patterns will adjust to accommodate these audiences.


Friday, April 8, 2016

The Cinematic Bucket List

Having worked my way through so many of the lists of the best films ever made, it occurs to me that though I've seen so many movies, I don't feel that I've ever really gotten the full experience of being a rampant movie nerd.  Oh sure, I've had some fun screening experiences, and made it to Comic-Con once, but there's an awful lot that I feel like I haven't experienced related to movie nerddom.  And it's experiences that I value, more than collecting posters or DVDs or memorabilia.  So I thought I'd make a list - a bucket list, if you will, of all the geeky movie-related things that I'd like to do if I had the time, money, connections, and no responsibilities.

- Watch a movie at a drive in theater
- Watch a movie marathon (at least three films) in a theater
- Watch a movie screened outdoors
- Watch a Rolling Roadshow screening (I almost made it to "The Warriors" at Coney Island in 2006, but got waylaid)
- Watch a movie projected in 70 millimeter (Ideally "Lawrence of Arabia" or "2001: A Space Odyssey" )
- Watch a movie with multiple projection (But do I want to sit through "Napoleon," again?)
- Watch a silent movie with live music
- Watch a movie at a Film-Concert screening
- Watch a movie at a Sing-Along or karaoke screening
- Watch a movie at a D-Box screening
- Watch a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" screening with a live performance group
- Watch a movie at a major film festival (Sundance or Toronto, ideally)
- Watch a movie at a movie premiere (red carpet not necessary)
- Watch a movie as part of a test screening
- Watch a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse
- Watch a movie at the Castro Theater
- Watch a movie at Mann's Chinese Theater
- Watch a movie at the Senator Theatre
- Watch a movie at the New Beverly
- Visit the Ghibli Museum
- Visit Cinecittà
- Visit Studio Baselberg
- Visit Ealing Studios
- Visit Mosfilm
- Visit Toho
- Visit PIXAR
- Visit the Museum of the Moving Image
- Visit La Cinémathèque Française
- Visit the London Film Museum
- Visit the Lumiere Institute
- Visit the Hollywood Museum
- Visit the Walt Disney Family Museum
- Take the Paramount Pictures Studio Tour
- Take the Sony Pictures Studio Tour
- Take the Warner Bros. Studio Tour
- Visit the Devil's Tower ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind")
- Visit the Rocky Steps ("Rocky" series)
- Visit the Stanley Hotel in Colorado ("The Shining")
- Get a MoviePass
- Make a wish on the AURYN in Steven Spielberg's office (Does DreamWorks have a studio tour?)

And a couple of things I can already check off:

- Watch a pre-release screening of a movie
- Watch a movie at a midnight screening
- Watch a Circlevision movie
- Watch a movie with an intermission ("Hamlet" (1996))
- Watch an IMAX movie
- Watch a screening of an unfinished movie ("The Passsenger," (1963))
- Watch a 3D movie
- Take the Universal Studios Tour
- Take the Hollywood Studios/MGM Tour
- Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- Attend Comic-Con


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fantasy Franchise Crossovers

Well, Sony's "Men in Black" and "21 Jump Street" crossover is officially going to happen.  This means it's time to start digging through the back catalogue of older, fading movie series and see what else we can combine to make a new Franken-franchise.  The picks below are mostly implausible, because I'm not paying any attention to which studio owns what property, and a couple of them are jumping genres and target audiences too.  But hey, what would be the fun if we didn't?

"Critters v. Tremors" - Horror long ago embraced the crossover, with the likes of "Freddy v. Jason" and "Alien v. Predator."  And there are a lot of ailing franchises past their prime, including "Halloween," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Amityville Horror," "The Exorcist," "The Omen," and the quickly fading "Paranormal Activity" and "Saw."  "Cabin in the Woods" delivered pretty well on the idea of mixing several of these different monsters together, but the matchup that I always secretly wanted to see was an ultimate creature feature starring the carnivorous Tribbles from "Critters" and the Shai Hulud knockoffs from "Tremors."  Heck, throw in the Gremlins or the Killer Tomatoes too, while you're at it.

"GI Rambo" - Okay, Sylvester Stallone said no to a fifth "Rambo" movie, which means that it's time to consider a reboot.  And since we all loved John Rambo best when he was an over-the-top action figure, what better way than to reintroduce him in a movie literally starring action figures?  Rambo is totally a "G.I. Joe" character, with easily identifiable wardrobe and weapons choices.  Alternatively, since they share similar origin stories, Rambo could join the "A-Team" and become best buds with B.A. Baracus and Howling Mad Murdock.  Maybe John Rambo can finally get some peace of mind hanging around other Vietnam War vets fighting the good fight.  Add a "MacGyver" cameo and we're done.

"Ted and Chucky" - Clearly viewers liked the original "Ted" movie but didn't want to see the main characters doing essentially all the same dudebro schtick in "Ted 2."  So, let's let the living teddy bear jump genres and meet another kids' toy that came to life in the '80s, Chucky from the "Child's Play" movies.  Chucky's franchise got increasingly campy and quippy as time wore on, and I think his brand of humor would mesh well with the Seth McFarlane style.  Stick these two together in a "Ride Along" or "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" type of scenario, and let them go nuts spoofing the horror genre.  Oh, and bonus points for any references to Talky Tina or that freaky clown doll from "Poltergeist."

"Home Alone With Zoolander" - The "Zoolander" brand is in dire straits after the recent "Zoolander No. 2" bombed.  It's time to shake up the formula, and everybody loves a home invasion movie, right?  This time, however, the "Home Alone" formula is also being turned on its head.  Instead of a smart kid outwitting idiot thieves, this time it's the idiot (or idiots if Hansel is coming along) repelling smart thieves, due to a combination of extraordinary luck and some well-deployed catwalking skills.  Maybe they try to rebuild the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, unaware that there's a fortune hidden in the building. Maybe they hire the "Dumb and Dumber" guys as contractors.

"Terminator in the Matrix" - The machines take over the world in both of these franchises, so it's not too farfetched to suggest they might both be a part of the same universe.  And both of these franchises are in pretty bad shape, especially "Terminator," which can't seem to move on from "Terminator 2."  But move on we must.  So let's say that after John Conner and his resistance get put down, the machines build The Matrix a couple hundred years later.  That means if Arnold, or Danaerys Targaryen, or whoever travel in the opposite direction and go into the future this time instead of the past, they'll be able to help out Neo and his crew.  The prospect of a bullet time action sequence featuring Terminators sounds pretty good to me.  

Honorable mentions: "Pirates of the Caribbean Meet Jaws," "Shrek Goes to Madagascar,"  "Lethal Weapons Die Hard," "Austin Powers in Final Destination," "Conan the Barbarian Crocodile Hunter," "The Jackass Transformers," and "Spider-Man has a Hangover"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"Deadpool" Has His Day

The age of the anti-superhero has arrived.  After years and years of missteps and delays, the raunchy, graphically violent, potty-mouthed, superpowered mercenary Deadpool finally has his own movie.  And it couldn't have come at a more perfect time.  We've been inundated with self-important big-budget superhero slugfests for years now, and suddenly here comes the Merc with the Mouth, who kicks ass but refuses to play by the rules.  He not only subverts nearly every superhero convention he can find, but also constantly breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience exactly what's on his tasteless, juvenile, hilarious mind.  Think of the irreverence of "Guardians of the Galaxy" times ten, plus a buffet of gleeful R-rated content to really hammer the point home.

Ryan Reynolds stars as the titular reprobate, who we first meet on a taxi ride to confront the villains.  Immediately, the tone is set. Comedy comes first, in "Deadpool," then action, and then the requisite plot.  So it's only after some laughs with the taxi driver and a showy action sequence, that Deadpool starts telling us about his origins in flashback.  He was originally a gun-for-hire named Wade Wilson, who fell in love with the lovely Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), shortly before learning that he had terminal cancer.  Wade made the mistake of going into a supersoldier program run by Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano), hoping for a cure.  Wade survived their treatment and came out with superpowers, but also too disfigured to go back to Vanessa.  So now he's in a mask and out for revenge.  Deadpool is part of the "X-men" movie universe, so a pair of mutants Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) also get involved to try and recruit him to the side of angels.  Deadpool is not interested.

I knew a little about Deadpool going into the film, recognizing him as the goofy, Bugs Bunny-like assassin who frequently pops up in cosplay photos online, poking fun at the bigger name superheroes.  However, discussion of the film over the long, long years of it's time in development hell emphasized how it had to be R-rated or it would be pointless.  I wasn't sure how this movie was going to work, trying to mesh silly puns and '80s pop culture with brutal violence and a horrific backstory.  I was worried that "Deadpool" was just going to be nonstop snark and meta references for ninety minutes, punctuated by sex and decapitations - a movie that teenage boys would think is totally awesome, but which isn't actually watchable for anyone else.  Fortunately, the movie shows a great deal of restraint.  Wade Wilson's love story and tragic losses are played mostly straight.  No matter how nutty Deadpool acts, Ryan Reynolds gets across how much pain the guy underneath the suit is in.  He's actually a compelling lead, which I wasn't expecting.  The relationship with Vanessa is handled particularly well, which is ironic considering the track record of romances in comic book movies.

I think what also helped is that this is a movie of very small scope, limited to Deadpool and a few second string X-men hunting down the villains to get revenge and save the girl. That's it.  And that's all the budget really allowed for (which the characters point out in the movie).  So there's no excess in the script, no scenes of carnage that go on forever, no complicated Macguffin to find, and no massive world-shaking stakes to any of the fights.  Everything feels down and dirty and personal, which is completely appropriate.  I was also expecting the fourth wall breaking to be much more elaborate than it actually was, but a little goes a long way, and newbie director Tim Miller doesn't really have the chops yet to get so ambitious.  The few times where he does try to throw in more high concept visual gags like cartoon birds circling Vanessa, they come off a little underwhelming.  He gets much more mileage out of Deadpool taking potshots at the X-men franchise, Ryan Reynolds' career choices, and a perfect after credits sequence that parodies "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

To say that this is not a movie for everyone is an understatement, but I found "Deadpool" much more accessible than I was anticipating.  Yeah, the main character is the embodiment of dudebro jackassery, but it's undercut by a tremendous sweetness and silliness (and a surprising progressive streak).  I expect that some might complain that the movie didn't go far enough, that it should have had more cutting commentary and harder edged content, but then it wouldn't have been as much fun.  And if there's anything I know about Deadpool, it's that he should always be this much fun.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Must We Hate Max Landis?

I get the hate.  Really, I do.  Screenwriter Max Landis is on a hot streak in Hollywood, having sold numerous high concept pitches and scripts all over town.  His four films so far include "Chronicle," "American Ultra," "Victor Frankenstein," and his just-released directorial debut "Me Him Her."  He raised eyebrows last summer when "American Ultra" bombed, taking to Twitter to complain that audiences weren't interested in original stories.  He's been called an arrogant whiner and an entitled brat, often not in such polite terms.  And then he had the gall not to like "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and not keep his mouth shut about it.  And "The Revenant."  He has his defenders, but there's a considerable contingent in the film community that openly loathes him - for this work, for this personality, and mostly some combination of the two.

Max Landis is not going away soon, though.  He's got another feature, hitman rom-com "Mr. Right," opening this month, the "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" miniseries at the BBC, writing credits on next year's "Power Rangers" reboot, and Netflix just announced that it's going ahead with the Will Smith fantasy thriller "Bright."  There are at least five other projects in various stages of development at other studios.  It's no secret why.  The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Landis is a spectacular pitch man.  I've heard several of the interviews on the Nerdist podcast and other outlets where he's demonstrated this.  He has the ability to make terrible ideas, like a "Peter Pan" prequel trilogy aimed at grown-ups, sound exciting.  He's very intense, very passionate, very grandiose, and it's easy to get caught up in whatever big idea he has at the moment.  He's also very prolific, having posted this lengthy list of every script he's written to his website last year.  It also helps that his favorite kind of material - action-heavy genre films for young adults - is exactly what Hollywood wants to spend money on these days.  And it's harder to come up with that kind of material than it looks.

The trouble is that most of his films just haven't been very good.  "Chronicle," which made the 2010 Black List, is still the best thing he's ever been involved with.  It's a found footage take on the superhero/supervillain origin story that's fast and dirty and stops exactly where it should.  The production was small enough to take risks and be innovative, with the technical skills of director Josh Trank and his crew making up for any shortfalls in the narrative.   Sadly, the planned sequel was saddled with much bigger expectations, and ultimately fell apart over creative differences.  In the more expensive Landis-scripted films that followed, "American Ultra" and "Victor Frankenstein," it's much easier to see the formulas and the flaws.  Both movies have grand ideas, but play it very safe, and there are big problems in the execution.  They both seem to to have come from the same template too: idealistic, romantic young male lead gets caught up in a familiar genre narrative, his enemies are dispatched by their own hubris, and the hero escapes the fallout and gets the girl in the end.  The familiarity of the formula wouldn't be such a problem if the specifics weren't so bland and half-hearted.

For instance, I enjoyed "American Ultra," but there's no denying how tame and toothless it is for a movie about an affable stoner who finds out that he's actually a secret government killing machine.  Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart are terribly likable as the leads, but the characters they play are short on depth, and quickly become lost in a comic-book premise that seems torn between its requisite action violence and fluffier, sillier romantic aims.  What's worse, it's not nearly as funny as it should be for a having a premise with so much comedic potential.  The performances were strong enough that I came away from the movie more or less entertained, but you can't get away from the sense of wasted potential.  I might be tempted to put the bulk of the blame on director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only prior credit was 2012's party film "Project X," but then Max Landis went on a social media campaign defending "American Ultra" against all critics, making him a lightning rod for all the negative attention.

Then came "Victor Frankenstein," which Landis has described as "very flawed," and insists was mangled in the journey from script to screen.  Sure, I can see where the alterations happened, but that doesn't change the fact that the movie's central conceit was to reinvent "Frankenstein" by shifting focus away from the most important, fascinating relationship in the story - Victor Frankenstein's relationship with his creation - to Frankenstein's relationship with lab assistant Igor.  Watching the pair of them partner up and dive headlong into gruesome scientific experiments, driven by Victor's massive ego and ambition, is occasionally fun.  However, it completely loses all the larger themes and moral questions of Mary Shelley's original, in favor of very shallow, action-adventure movie plotting.  It's way too quick to make room for chase sequences and fights, while things like motivation and stakes feel weirdly tacked on in odd places.  The story is also too lopsided in favor of Igor - now a pensive romantic figure - and doesn't give the title character his due.  "Victor Frankenstein" reminded me of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies more than anything, except not nearly as well realized.

Still, I can't find it in me to dismiss Max Landis as the latest Joe Eszterhas.  I quite enjoy his public persona, who has made Youtube videos explaining his love of wrestling, and will talk to anybody online about anything without fear.  I understand him being so unapologetically geeky about geeky things can be trying, and it's exhausting to listen to him talk at length, but his articulateness and his passion constantly impress me.  I really do think that his writing can improve over time and that this recent string of failures will be good for him.  Landis's biggest flaw seems to be simply that he's young and inexperienced and has gotten way too much attention too fast.  He hasn't been walloped over the head enough times with the ugly realities of commercial filmmaking.  And he still seems to think that he can win internet arguments.

I wish the man luck, and sincerely hope that we see him do better work in the future.  Whatever you want to say about his scripts, they're not nearly as bad as some of the stinkers we've seen in recent years, and there's never been a moment that's felt cynical or phony.  And Landis definitely cares about what he's doing.  I have to respect him for that.


Monday, April 4, 2016

"Joy" and "Concussion"

I know what you're thinking: more Oscar bait.  And yes, these two films were released in late December to position them for consideration for awards season.  But keep in mind that biopics probably wouldn't get made anymore if they couldn't be in contention for the Oscars.  And that's a sad fate for a perfectly good genre of films that continues to consistently yield good things.  "Joy" and "Concussion" are not great biopics, but they are highly watchable, interesting films that both feature excellent central performances.

Up first we have "Joy," the third collaboration between David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence.  And despite its slightness and its messiness, it's an enjoyable one.  Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, a single mother stuck in a dead-end job who has had to put her dreams on hold in order to support her mess of a family.  This includes father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terri (Virginia Madsen), and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), who is living in her basement.  One day Joy has an idea for a self-wringing mop, and decides to become an entrepreneur, manufacturing and selling the mops herself.  However, getting production going, finding willing buyers, and evading all the crooks and swindlers in her path is daunting.  Joy has to fight for everything - and often against everyone.

There are a lot of things that don't work in "Joy."  It's full off oddball characters who don't all fit, and weird, half-baked conceits.  David O. Russell stuffs a scene of soap opera kitsch into the opening, perhaps trying to signal that he's self-aware of how melodramatic the story is, that just comes across as bizarre and out of place.  His talented ensemble is often reduced to a pack of broad caricatures, especially as he loves to have them all shouting at once in intense situations.  And, as many viewers have noted, Jennifer Lawrence is at least a decade too young to be playing Joy Mangano.  However, this doesn't stop her from being excellent in the role.  She and Bradley Cooper, who shows up in the second act as a QVC executive, manage to keep the wobbly movie on track and upright all the way to the feel-good finish. 

I'm afraid the Lawrence and Russell partnership has hit the point of diminishing returns.  Russell has given his leading lady some excellent parts, and Joy Mangano is no exception, but I desperately want both of them to move on to other things.  Russell is trying, but he's made a romantic comedy, a heist film, and now a Horatio Alger Lifetime movie that all essentially feel like the same film, with the same awful loudmouth characters and haphazard scripting.  Lawrence, meanwhile, has been stuck either playing a teenager or a thirty-something for the past several years, and desperately needs some parts that are actually appropriate for her.  I haven't seen her in anything since "Silver Linings Playbook" that's been a good fit.  In "Joy," it feels like they're both treading water.  It's a pleasant, inoffensive diversion, but I know it's well below what either are capable of.

Then we have "Concussion," a far more by-the-numbers piece of work, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist.  If you've heard anything about the film, you likely know that it's about Omalu's discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in professional football players, and his struggle to get the condition recognized and taken seriously in the face of serious opposition by the NFL.  The film is built around Omalu, using his personal life and career struggles as subplots.  Smith delivers a strong performance, one of his best in a while, and I'm a little perturbed that viewers seem to be getting hung up on the Nigerian accent he adopts for the part.  He also has some good support from Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks as other doctors, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his love interest, Prema.

"Concussion" sticks pretty close to the usual man against the system template, playing up Omalu's uncompromising nature and the suffering of the dead players who were found to have CTE.  Unfortunately, though writer/director Peter Landesmann delivers a perfectly watchable film, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as the "Frontline" documentary I saw on the subject a few years ago, or the articles that have chronicled the continuing impact of the discovery on the NFL.  I suspect that the biggest problem is the way the film was structured.  Though we spend some time with the doomed football players, we never get to know them in any particular depth, so the stakes are never established beyond what others tell us are the stakes. 

The film is ultimately not about the disease, but about the doctor who discovered it, and that's a very different story.  It's well told, at least, and I found that the low-key romance between Omalu and Prema, both immigrants from Africa, was an unexpected highlight.  "Concussion" works nicely as a small scale character piece, and I wish that could have been what it wanted to be from the start.  As a social issue film, it's fairly benign and toothless.  There have been rumors of the NFL tampering, but I suspect the more fundamental problems with the script are the more likely culprits.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Confronting "Anomalisa"

I've been putting off writing about "Anomalisa," because I don't want to face the fact that I didn't like it.  Charlie Kaufmann's last film, the magnificent "Synecdoche, New York," was my favorite of the entire first decade of this century.  I was devastated when the "Frank of Francis" project fell apart in 2012, and hopeful enough to contribute a few dollars to the Kickstarter for "Anomalisa."  And after years of waiting, the film finally premiered to rapturous reviews from the critics.  And I didn't like it.

At the outset, the premise certainly seems daring.  "Anomalisa" is a stop-motion animated film aimed at grown-ups, about ordinary, mundane people.  The main character is a man named Michael (David Thewlis) who comes to Cincinnati one rainy, glum night to attend a conference.  He's a customer service guru who ironically hates people, and no wonder, since everyone else in his universe is voiced by Tom Noonan, including Michael's wife and son.  But at the hotel, miraculously, Michael hears a new, unique voice.  This belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman who will be attending the same conference as Michael.  But as he grows closer to Lisa, Michael also starts having delusions that everyone else in the world is becoming the same, sharing the same face as well as the same voice.

The fine animators at Starburns Studios deserve plenty of kudos for their lovely, subtle animation, including an admirably candid sex scene.  Michael and Lisa in particular are amazing to look at, with incredibly expressive features.  Countless hours surely went into making sure that the smallest details of the miniature hotel rooms, seedy shops, and taxi cab interiors looked perfect.  Moreover, the medium fits the story, the tactility of the puppet figures and little imperfections of the old-school stop-motion giving the performances a unique warmth and vulnerability.  So much care and attention was expended on bringing this story to life, it feels positively ungrateful of me to find fault with it.  But here we go.

"Anomalisa" was originally conceived as a short, based off one of Charlie Kaufman's existing plays, and I think it would have worked better as a short.  There's a definite sense of material being stretched out to fill a whole feature, and I found myself frustrated at the limited scale of the project after the boundlessness of "Synecdoche" and "Being John Malkovich," which have some of the same themes in common.  This is definitely Kaufman's work, touching on many of his favorite themes and ideas, but it felt truncated in some spots, and in others it felt like it was stalling for time.  I understand why so much time was spent establishing how banal and awful Michael's everyday encounters with other people were, but at the same time they were endless and grating.  The last act, however, felt rushed, and the resolution was a messy, awkward muddle, with some of the cringiest humor I've seen all year.

I think a lot of my frustrations boil down to the fact that Michael is a terrible person who I never sympathized with.  Now, plenty of Kaufman's male protagonists are terrible people, but their humanity is also very evident in the face of all the existential crises that are inflicted on them.  Michael is interesting, in that he sees and hears the world in a unique way.  David Thewlis imbues him with quiet sadness and desperation, but also an aggressive self-righteousness in his interactions.  Michael's ego would likely have been deftly deflated in a longer Kaufman film, leaving him to reflect on his shortcomings, but there wasn't time for that in "Anomalisa," so we're left with a narrative that often seems to be making excuses for Michael's bad behavior.

His brief time with Lisa, however, is a highlight.  She's a very ordinary woman who, to Michael's eyes and ears, is someone extraordinarily special.  I love how their little romance plays out, and Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is unselfconscious and just a little bit nutty in the right ways.  You know immediately that she and Michael won't be a good match in the long run, making the whole encounter bittersweet.  But it's easy to forget in the moment, when she's singing Cyndi Lauper or fiddling with her hair.  All those little human behaviors that the animators took the time to capture are so well observed and make such a difference.  There aren't many live action romances from 2015 that compare.

I admire "Anomalisa" very much, and I'll surely be watching it again soon.  By any measure, this film is an impressive achievement, and deserves all the praise it's getting.  However, I found it too flawed and too alienating to make the kind of impact on me that Kaufman's best films have - it feels incomplete, like a test run for something bigger.  I'll be waiting impatiently for his next one though, and hoping that it won't take a Kickstarter campaign to get it made.    

Saturday, April 2, 2016

So You Want to Make a "Murderer"

The latest true crime documentary hit, following in the footsteps of "Serial" and "The Jinx," comes from Netflix.  A few months ago, they released the ten part series "Making a Murder," which looks at the purported crimes of Steven Avery from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.  The less you know about him and what happened to him, the better "Making a Murderer" plays, so I strongly advise you to watch the series before reading further. It's hard to talk about what I liked and didn't like about it without getting pretty deep into spoilers.  I absolutely think it's worth the watch, providing a much-needed look at some disturbing law enforcement practices and myriad failures of the American judicial system.

After marathoning through all ten episodes, I think I've spent an equal amount of time online reading up on and discussing the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases.  I'm not the only one who has been affected this way, as it seems like everyone who has seen the series has a new opinion, a new theory, or a new take on the depicted events.  The media attention has been massive, putting many who were involved with the prosecution of Avery and Dassey on the defensive.  Best of all, it's really jump-started some important conversations about all the biases and weaknesses of the American criminal justice system.  In that sense, "Making a Murder" is a major success for its creators.

The series' greatest strength is that way that it systematically documents, step by step, all the different ways that Avery and Dassey were deeply disadvantaged during their legal fight, which was essentially decided before it began.  We follow them through the arrests, the police investigation, the media coverage, the trial, and the appeals process, facing one hurdle after another.  You see the way that their social status, poverty, mental capacity, and prior history in the community are all liabilities.  Even with good lawyers, Avery and Dassey cannot overcome the overwhelming advantage that the investigators and prosecution have in their control of information and the positions of authority they enjoy.

I have plenty of criticisms, however.  I pointed out in my review of "The Jinx" last year that I was highly disturbed by the way that some of the footage was edited to play up the melodrama and create this elaborate "gotcha" moment.  I think "Making a Murderer" is generally less manipulative, though it still has some major biases that I struggled with in many episodes.  The main one is that the filmmakers are staunchly on the side of Avery and Dassey throughout the documentary, while I remain unconvinced that that Avery is innocent.  There was clearly some police and attorney misconduct going on that heavily impacted the cases, but the central question as to whether Avery actually was responsible for the crime was never addressed to my satisfaction.  I didn't want answers, but I expected better presentation of the questions.

From interviews with the documentarians, they believe that they have provided an impartial account of the trial and left the question of Avery and Dassey's guilt ambiguous.  "Murderer," however, is presented in a way that wants us to feel sympathy for the accused at every turn.  We see the story almost entirely from Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey's perspectives, there are multiple interviews with Avery's loved ones at every turn, and interjections from Avery's lawyers and other legal professionals painstakingly explain every dirty trick and manipulative tactic used by the prosecution.  I'm very concerned at some of the reactions I've read from people who are absolutely convinced that Steven Avery is innocent, when the facts present a far more muddled picture to me.  I found Avery's defense pretty far-fetched and expected him to be convicted from the outset, even though I'm not sure if he's guilty.

The case against Brendan Dassey's was far flimsier, and "Making a Murderer" was able to provide a much more comprehensive, convincing argument for his innocence, and tie it in to the misconduct of the police and others involved.  The most outrage-inducing material by far involves the contradictory confessions that police elicited from Dassey, that were backed up by no physical evidence whatsoever.  The documentary is worth watching for Dassey's story alone, which provides a frightening illustration of exactly why confessions can't always be trusted, and how completely innocent people can end up behind bars.  Similar cases have come up before, but this one is especially riveting because of the extent of the investigators' bad actions, and how much of it was caught on tape.

Since the convictions were pronounced eight years ago, I feel that there's enough distance from the depicted events that "Making a Murderer" isn't on quite such shaky moral ground as "The Jinx."  However, I think that its creators could have done more to keep the documentary focused on its criticisms of the legal system rather than Steve Avery's defense.  It's rare to find a series like this that is so exhaustive in its research, so detailed in its account, and so demanding of a response.  In short, it's so good that I'm frustrated about the choices that I feel undercut its credibility.