Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2007

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

There Will be Blood - There are still parts of this film that I find infuriating, though I can't quite wrap my mind around why.  Maybe it's frustration that evil, so perfectly captured by Daniel Day-Lewis's oilman Daniel Plainview, is allowed to run rampant in this world.  Maybe it's discomfort that Paul Thomas Anderson captures the uneasy relationship between American industriousness and corruption with such nihilistic artfulness.  Maybe it's the visceral impact of the apocalyptic imagery and disquieting score.  Maybe it's the ending, which I still don't fully understand, and perhaps never will.

Secret Sunshine - From Lee Chang-dong comes one of the must surprising, thoughtful explorations of grief, faith, and justice I've ever seen.  A bereft woman's search for home and happiness leads her to further tragedy, and finding her way through the emotional fallout means navigating some unexpected, difficult twists and turns.  I've never seen a spiritual journey depicted on film that feels so personal and so honest, probably because our heroine is very imperfect and she wants very specific, perhaps unreasonable things from a belief system.  And best of all, the film never judges her for it.

Once - It's easy to see why a jaded viewer might be wary of "Once."  It's a shoestring indie romance, for one.  It's about down-on-their-luck musicians finding their inspiration together, for another.  But no matter the bundle of clichés that are inherent in the premise, "Once" works wonderfully because of how well the lead actors embody them all.  To get to the heart of it, Glenn Hansard and Markéta Irglová are wonderfully natural together onscreen, build a believable relationship, and their performance of "Falling Slowly" is one of those moments of genuine movie magic that comes along too rarely to be missed.

Zodiac - Quite possibly David Fincher's masterpiece.  All his powers of cinematic paranoia and obsession are on display in this recounting of the search for the Zodiac killer.  It's completely unsatisfying as a crime thriller and procedural, yet impossible to stop watching.  What "Zodiac" really nails is its examination of the three men whose lives are upended by this case, and the maddening compulsion to solve mysteries in general.  Fincher's meticulous attention to detail is vital here, from cataloguing clues and interactions, to watching San Francisco slowly transform over the years in the background.  

Atonement - It must have been daunting to bring such complicated, difficult material to the screen, but director Joe Wright deftly juggles all the myriad components: a segmented narrative where the main character appears at three very different ages, an unusually oblique central romance seen form a child's POV, and of course the depiction's of WWII, including the film's jaw-dropping Dunkirk sequence.  The cast is excellent, particularly Saoirse Ronan and Lynne Redgrave, who are instrumental in getting across the film's central, challenging questions about guilt, personal responsibility, and forgiveness.

Gone Baby Gone - Ben Affleck's directing debut is a self-assured crime drama that initially looks like a standard pot-boiler about a kidnapped child, but ends up in completely different, and far more compelling territory.  The movie made such an impact in part because it seemed to have come out of nowhere, and proved Affleck's talent as a filmmaker. However, he had an excellent cast and crew, particularly Casey Affleck turning in this best lead performance.  The film wasn't very high profile at the time of release, but it's one that has grown in stature over time, and  proven to be very difficult to forget.

Away From Her - A quiet, patient love story about an elderly couple who slowly come apart after the wife is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.  It's strength is in its honesty and its directness, charting the progression of the physical and mental toll of the disease and its affects on the relationship step by inevitable step.  Sarah Polly constructs a tranquil, private little universe that Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent inhabit beautifully.  There are no outsized melodramatics or disingenuous complications to get in the way of the unfolding tragedy of the situation, or the tenderness of the final, lovely, resolution.

No Country for Old Men - The Coen brothers' bleakest, most challenging dramatic film features a controversial ending and their most iconic villain, the stone-faced hitman Anton Chigurh.  It doesn't merely employ violence to tell its story, but is a story about violence in various forms, and attitudes toward violence.  Full of tense sequences, dark humor, open ended philosophical questions, and memorable characters, this is everything I love about the Coens' dramatic work.  And of course it all looks gorgeous too, with bleak, evocative cinematography from Roger Deakins.

Juno - No surprise that this teen pregnancy dramedy made a star of Ellen Page, who plays the titular heroine.  She's irresistibly fun to watch, hiding her vulnerability under snark and sarcasm, while trying to survive the experience of having a baby and giving it up.  "Juno" also gets a lot of support from a supporting cast full of dependable character actors like J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman, and Allison Janney.  I'm tempted to deduct points because the movie shamelessly sidesteps a lot of politics and controversy, but simply humanizing Juno makes a heck of a statement already.

Ratatouille - A typical children's movie premise - a rat wants to become a gourmet chef - has been turned into an exquisite film about artistry, criticism, and family by the artists of PIXAR.  This is the studio working at their absolute creative peak.  Gusteau's busy kitchen is as amazing to behold as any other fantasy world in animated film, and the story gives the viewer some really meaty ideas to chew on.  Perhaps the best surprise is the portrayal of the villainous critic character - who ends up laying out a word perfect defense for the art of criticism along with the film's signature dish.

Honorable Mentions

La Vie en Rose
The Savages
The Secret of the Grain
Hot Fuzz
Into the Wild
The King of Kong
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Charlie Wilson's War

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How to Prejudge a Film

The Angry Video Game Nerd (James Rolfe) over at Cinemassacre recently released a video, passionately explaining his reasoning for not watching or reviewing the new "Ghostbusters" reboot.  On the one hand, this strikes me as pretty foolhardy - what if the movie turns out to be good?  On the other hand, I admire him for recognizing his biases.  We all have them, after all, and they do play a big part in our reactions to any film.  Whether Rolfe's particular biases reflect a troubling element of fan culture or other, more problematic issues, is something I  leave for other commentators to pick apart.  And plenty of them have.  My problem with Rolfe's stance has to do with his role as a critic.

First, let's talk about the act of prejudging films.  Pretty much everyone does this without a thought, and it's expected to some extent.  We don't expect the teenage male audience to flock to rom-coms, and we don't expect the over-60 set to have much interest in superhero flicks.  I happily ignore the vast majority of modern comedies, particularly those starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James.  I also accept the consequences of this: I can't speak to the quality of the films I haven't seen and thus have limited grounds to criticize Sandler's artistic bona fides more broadly.  I can say he makes comedies I don't tend to like, but I can't bash "The Ridiculous Six," because I haven't seen it and know very little about its particulars.  I've essentially excluded myself from any critical conversation related to the film.

And I'm okay with this.  I consider myself a pop culture and media blogger, and a critic to some extent, but not the kind of critic who writes up formal reviews on every new release and has a comprehensive knowledge of every piece of the current film landscape.  I don't have the resources for that, and frankly, it's not my job.   I have a huge amount of respect for the critics who do subject themselves to every single mainstream film, but I've found that I can write my little analysis pieces and totally avoid the conversation about the CGI "Alvin & the Chipmunks" films or the Andrew Garfield "Spider-man" films or any other features that I decide aren't worth my time.  I don't need to have an opinion on them, so my prejudging them doesn't matter one way or another.  I spend one post at the beginning of each year whining about My Least Anticipated Films that I'm never going to see, to get it all out of my system and have a little fun.  However, I also play fair and ignore them for the rest of the year.

The problem with James Rolfe's approach is that he clearly wants to stay part of this particular cultural moment.  Instead of a review of the new movie, he's delivered a "non-review," a position statement accompanied by a slew of speculation about all the ways the film seems to be going wrong.  In other circumstances this wouldn't be a problem, but in this particular case, it reflects really badly on him.  The move looks more attention-seeking than anything else and his "non-review" clearly signals that he has already taken a position on the reboot that I'm not sure he's informed enough to take.  Rolfe is supposed to be a professional critic, even though his usual subject matter is video games.  If he's going to be part of the continuing conversation about the new "Ghostbusters" - and it's already a doozy - we expect him to be informed.  Not watching the movie means that he's obligated to recuse himself from the impending debate and passing judgment on its merits.

I sympathize with Rolfe.  I really do.  I had a very similar reaction when "Avatar" was reaching peak hype levels, and decided that I was tired of all the fuss and was going to put my foot down.  And it wasn't enough that I didn't want to see the movie, but I felt that I needed to take a firm position publicly, and very seriously make my case for not seeing the movie.  Of course, I made this stand on a movie BBS forum that I frequented with other movie nerds, where I was rightly called out for just being dramatic.  And, of course, I did end up seeing "Avatar" shortly afterwards on a date.  And I was glad, because I really enjoyed talking about the film and its impact, even though I thought "Avatar" was pretty meh.

I'm not saying that James Rolfe should see the new "Ghostbusters" movie.  I'm saying that once he made this decision to not see it, he really should have just kept it to himself and stayed out of the fight.  And frankly, that goes for everyone else too.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The May 2016 Follow-Up Post

For the uninitiated, my "follow-up" posts are the semi-regular installments where I write about recent developments related to topics I've blogged about in the past, but which I didn't think needed a whole new write-up to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.  It's been a long while since I've done one of these, so we have some ground to cover.

Oscars So White

The studios are diversifying with a vengeance in reaction to the recent controversy.  I doubt that it's going to last, but we've seen a slew of high profile deals in recent weeks for big projects involving black talent. Ava DuVernay will be directing "A Wrinkle in Time" for Disney.  Idris Elba has the lead role in "The Dark Tower."  Starz' "American Gods" TV series cast Ricky Whittle as the lead.  Note that Elba's character was white, and Whittle's character was racially ambiguous in their original source material.  We've also got some diverse Oscar contenders for next year being lined up - slave revolt epic "Birth of a Nation," which was acquired in a record-breaking deal at Sundance, fictionalized Obama romance "Southside with You," and the mixed race love story "A United Kingdom."   Meanwhile, Joseph Fiennes was cast as Michael Jackson in a British comedy about 9/11, which strikes me as somewhat odd, but a perfectly defensible choice on artistic grounds.  Good luck with the PR for that, though.

The Fall Season With No Cancellations -

Well, the cancellations did come eventually.  Shortly after I posted, ABC cancelled serial killer drama "Wicked City" after only three episodes.  "Blood and Oil," "Minority Report," "Second Chance," "The Player," "Angel From Hell," "You Me and the Apocalypse," and "Truth Be Told" soon followed, though most of them weren't outright cancelled.  Episode orders were cut, or the shows were sent to quietly play out on Fridays, because something still has to air on Fridays.  As the major networks continue to lose viewers, they haven't been so quick to drop the axe on struggling shows.  ABC's "The Muppets" got retooled, and the low-rated CW musical comedy "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" got an additional episode order, and then renewed.  

My 2015 Holiday Wish List -

I'm going to quickly sum up my thoughts on the recent "Sherlock" Christmas special here, because I did see it a few months ago, and it was mentioned at the end of the wish list. I feel no need to write out a full review, because there's not that much to say.  It was an interesting interlude, and a lot of the humor and little details were fun, but the underlying mystery struck me as pretty half-baked, and the attempts to tie the story into the current chronology of "Sherlock" were awfully clumsy.  This was also clearly aimed at existing fans, with an awful lot of callbacks and references.  I enjoyed it overall - especially fat Mycroft - but it's not something that I would recommend or rewatch in a hurry.  And "Sherlock" can take as long as it needs to come back for the fourth series.  The writers clearly need some time to regroup.

Fingers Crossed for Trevor Noah -

Well, I'm still watching "The Daily Show."  I'm not liking it as much as John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight" or the occasional clips I see of Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee, but I'm still watching.  I know the ratings are not in good shape, but Noah is delivering some fairly consistent laughs, about what I'd expect for a someone who has only had this gig for six months.  The fact that we're in one of the wildest, weirdest primary seasons in decades really makes it obvious how outmatched he is by the other "Daily Show" alumni on the air, but Noah is settling well into his role as host.   He's not giving us the same insight and intellectual rigor that Jon Stewart did, but he can occasionally land a punch from an entirely different direction than any of the other commentators.  I know people are tired of being told to give him time, but give him time.  He's doing just fine.

A Director Fit For a Franchise -

Neill Blomkamp's proposed "Alien" project was shelved back in October, while FOX moves ahead with Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant," apparently another prequel that isn't related to "Prometheus" and will feature none of the same characters.  Depending on how "Alien: Covenant" goes, Blomkamp may still have his shot at the franchise, but it's too early to say one way or another.  "Alien: Covenant" won't be in theaters until August, 2017.  In the meantime, Blomkamp has been in talks to write and direct an adaptation of sci-fi novel, "The Gone World."

The Disney Animation Slate -

With the release of "Zootopia," and "Moana" coming up on November, there's not a lot left on Walt Disney Pictures' animation slate.  The "Jack and The Beanstalk" adaptation "Gigantic" is coming in spring of 2018, and we have an "Untitled" film dated for Thanksgiving of 2020.  That one might be the space-themed Dean Wellin film we heard about in 2013.  No new projects have even been hinted at in three years, aside from the very up-in-the-air plans for a "Frozen" sequel.  With Disney also juggling all the upcoming PIXAR films, I'd be a little worried that they're letting one studio dominate,  - well, if "Zootopia" hadn't just made a bundle at the box office.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

My Top Ten SNL Sketches

My relationship with "Saturday Night Live" has been haphazard, to say the least.  I watched regularly during the late Will Ferrell period, which some say was the best cast, but every generation has a best "SNL" cast.  Surely several lists could be made here, of best recurring characters, best guest hosts, best pre-taped moments and digital shorts, best musical moments, and more.  But for now, I'm doing favorite sketches.  As always, entries below are unranked and listed by airdate.

"Word Association" (12/13/1975) - Richard Pryor appeared on "SNL" only once, but that appearance gave the show a boost in legitimacy and signaled that it could tackle thorny subjects like race relations and deliver humor with some real teeth.  Controversies would be a regular occurrence, but "Word Association" still seems to mark the limit of how far the show was willing to push the envelope.  And of course, as we all know from the common refrain, it's all been downhill since then.

"Buckwheat Sings" (3/12/1983) - The first time I saw this, I barely understood who Buckwheat was, having never seen "The Little Rascals."  However, Eddie Murphy's delivery was what sold it.  His blazing charisma was already full blown, and his tenure on "SNL" understandably brief.  However, he was around long enough to produce a slew of classic material, and some say that he saved the show from an early demise.  I appreciated his smarter socially conscious sketches, but Buckwheat always made me laugh hardest.

"Chippendales'a Audition" (10/27/1990) - I think this was the first "SNL" sketch that I recognized as being from "SNL."  I was young enough at the time that I hadn't heard of the Chippendale's dancers, but I got the concept immediately.  Chris Farley's flailing flab in contrast with Patrick Swayze's professional moves were stupendous in their outlandishness.  I actually felt bad for laughing the first time because the Farley character was clearly trying so hard, and I wasn't quite sure that it was really meant to be a joke.

"Coffee Talk With Linda Richman" (2/22/1992) - It's one of my favorite things, to see people really surprised and delighted, and even better when it's a celebrity I like.  This installment of "Coffee Talk," helmed by Mike Myers in his fabulous Linda Richman persona, already had Madonna and Roseanne Barr on the couch as guests.  But then Barbara Streisand drops in unannounced, and the glee and the joy are off the charts.  It may not be particularly funny, but I still love the sketch to bits for delivering so much happiness.

"Down By the River" (5/8/1993) - Created by Bob Odenkirk and embodied by Chris Farley and his best, Matt Foley is one of the most fearless and iconic characters to have ever come out of "SNL."  His physicality, his awkwardness, and his absolute commitment to his spiel are still something to behold.  At the same time he's so silly and ridiculous, is it any wonder that the other actors in the scene struggle to keep it together?  Of all the "SNL" spinoff films, why oh why didn't they ever build one around Matt Foley?

"Behind the Music: Blue Öyster Cult" (April 8, 2000) - The entire episode featuring Christopher Walken was great, but Will Ferrell completely stole the show as the enthusiastic cowbell player in the "Behind the Music" sketch.  He was indisputably "SNL's" headliner after this.  Walken, of course, still walked away with one of the era's most enduring catchphrases: "More cowbell!."  Can anyone still listen to "Don't Fear the Reaper" without imagining Ferrell gyrating in the recording booth?  I know I can't.

"Janet Reno Dance Party" (1/20/2001) - I don't even remember what this sketch was about, but the image of Will Ferrell in drag as Attorney General Janet Reno being confronted by the actual Janet Reno will forever be etched in my mind.  It was the perfect convergence of celebrity guest spot, political humor, and Will Ferrell's most deeply uncomfortable reaction.  Alas, from Reno's attempts to capitalize on the sketch's notoriety in her later political campaigns, it doesn't seem like she got the joke.

"Omeletteville" (October 11, 2003) - Justin Timberlake won over a lot of people thanks to his multiple appearances as host of "SNL."  He's proven to be one of the best, displaying excellent comedic chops as well as musical talent and fancy footwork.  The recurring "Omeletteville" sketches are a chance for Timberlake to really get outrageous, playing a costumed mascot with a big attitude.  My favorite is still the original, where he trash talks Chris Parnell and rocks a giant foam omelet costume.

"A Nonpartisan Message from Governor Sarah Palin & Senator Hillary Clinton" (9/13/2008) - "I Can See Russia From My House!"  Sarah Palin never stood a chance after Tina Fey so deftly skewered her in the "SNL" season premiere.  The show instantly changed the tone of the campaign, and made Fey into one of the show's most valuable, high profile alumni.  Amy Pohler, alas, never got enough credit.  All the attention also gave "SNL" a boost in popularity, and cemented its topical satirical bona fides.

"Close Encounter" (Dec 5, 2015) - I haven't been keeping up with "SNL" in recent years, but I know there's at least one comedic treasure currently in residence: Kate McKinnon.  Watching her systematically destroy everyone else in this recent alien abduction sketch is so much fun.  It's just quotable line after quotable line, all delivered just right for maximum damage.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Mockingjay Part 2" Brings an Uneasy End

I liked the first "Mockingjay" movie more than most, because it was a strong character piece featuring Katniss.  The action finally slowed down enough that we could really spend some time with her, as she grappled with the impact of her actions in the previous films.  The second "Mockingjay" film had to get back to business, however, which meant giving the audience a front seat to the rebellion of the twelve (thirteen?) Districts of Panem against the Capitol and the evil President Snow.  And I suppose it was inevitable that it was going to be a disappointment, considering how much the movie has going against it.  Minor spoilers ahead.

First, there's the source material, which makes some choices that are pretty far out of the normal bounds of a PG-13 blockbuster action film, and surely would have been adjusted if the film weren't trying to keep the rabid "Hunger Games" fanbase happy.  Director Francis Lawrence does a good job with what he's got, but you can tell it was a struggle to translate the iffy particulars of the story to the screen.  Things get very dark and serious, but this is still a genre film, and there's an inherent silliness in some of the usual genre conceits that clashed with everything else that was going on.  I found myself scoffing more than once at highly unlikely developments that happened during the second and third acts.  Really, pretty much everything involving Peeta seemed to require serious suspension of disbelief.  That sabotaged any investment I had in the nice little love triangle with Peeta, Katniss, and Gale.

I think the pacing did the film in more than anything else.  So many scenes could have been cut or truncated, and the big action set pieces got tedious quickly. There were far too many characters who were introduced just to be cannon fodder, and a depressing number of great actors popped in for only about half a scene apiece, one after another as though for final curtain calls.  Did we really need the new Tigris character, who shows up for all for three minutes to facilitate an escape?  It's also painfully apparent that Philip Seymour Hoffman's passing left a hole that couldn't be easily patched.  It's Katniss's character that suffered the worst, though.  Events were designed to unfold so quickly, she wouldn't have time to react to major losses.  This made her seem cold or mercurial at times, in addition to impulsive, reckless, manipulative, and self-serving thanks to the various twists and turns demanded by the plot.  Jennifer Lawrence was excellent in the part, as she consistently has been throughout the series, but I found Katniss very poorly constructed here compared to the other films.

There was plenty that I did like.  The production values are very high.  The supporting cast was excellent across the board.  In addition to the ever dependable Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore, I found I've really grown attached to Jena Malone's damaged Joanna, and Sam Claflin's charismatic Finnick.  And I haven't liked Malone or Claflin in much else.  Though I found the series' brand of dystopian revolution hard to swallow, I admire the guts it took to tackle this kind of material and to stay committed to its brutal vision.  It wasn't that long ago that "Battle Royale" was viewed with raised eyebrows by Americans, and the "Mockingjay" ending will still probably be too bleak for some to take.  While this was my least favorite of the four "Hunger Games" films, I don't think the franchise overstayed its welcome and it delivered exactly what it promised.  Nothing was held back or softened.  "Mockingjay Part 2" could have been a better version of what is was, but the series as a whole still stands as quite an accomplishment.

I'm a little sad to find that as we bid farewell to "The Hunger Games," there are no worthy successors in sight.  All the various "Twilight" wannabes sputtered out, and we've had a pretty embarrassing run of teen-centric dystopian films that failed to distinguish themselves.  The similar "Divergent" series already feels very long in the tooth, though it's only on its third of four films.  It also highlights how there's still a dearth of good media aimed at adolescent girls.  "The Hunger Games" has been far from perfect, but it's still the best franchise of its kind for this audience, and I'm going to miss Katniss and everything she stands for.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Person of Interest" Year Four

I'm very late with this one, since the fifth and final season of "Person of Interest" has already premiered.  I actually dropped the series over a year ago because I simply didn't have the time for it, but then the most recent season popped up on Netflix, and I found myself back in the world of the Machine and its human assets.  I should note that I marathoned the whole season in the space of a week, which is not the best way to watch this series.  Even though it has a lot of ongoing story arcs, it still follows a procedural format for most installments.  Watching multiple episodes in one sitting made "Person of Interest" feel far more repetitive and formulaic in than in previous years.  The show's new status also contributed to that feeling. Spoilers ahead for everything up to the end of the third season.

When we last left our heroes, they were being forced to assume new identities in order to stay out of the reach of the newly ascendant artificial intelligence, Samaritan.  Cut off from all resources and each other, they spent the break laying low.  Harold becomes a professor.  John gets a badge and works narcotics.  The first part of the season sees them slowly rebuilding, working to solve each week's number while juggling their new lives.  Samaritan and its forces continue to grow stronger.  One of their new allies is Martine Rousseau (Cara Buono), a violent enforcer on the same level and Shaw and Root.  There's also a new crime boss operating in Manhattan, Dominic (Winston Duke), who takes over the local villain role previously filled by HR.  There are also encounters with several parties who haven't chosen sides, like gifted teenager Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard), and grifter Harper Rose (Annie Ilonzeh).  John also gets a new love interest, Dr. Iris Campbell (Wrenn Schmidt).

In the early seasons of the show, the complaint was always that the episodes hewed too much to the usual case-of-the-week structure.  Fans were happier as "Person of Interest" became more serialized and more focused on the story of the Machine.  So John becoming a cop feels like a big step backwards, because so much of his attention is taken up with solving cases again this year, and beating back a too-familiar street-level threat.  Dominic and his Brotherhood aren't remotely as interesting as HR or even Season Three's Vigilance.  Harold and Root don't feel a hundred percent, since both have been deprived of their usual dazzling array of technological tools.  And then there's Shaw, who has slowly but surely grown to be one of my favorite players as Sarah Shahi's comedic powers have grown.  Her role this year involves far too many spoilers for comfort, but I'll just say I sorely wanted more of her than we got.

What does work in a big way is Samaritan, who embodies all the scary, menacing things about artificial intelligence and mass surveillance that "Person of Interest" finally stopped skirting around last season.  It's disturbing to see the way that Samaritan so quickly and invisibly affects human affairs, setting up gigantic projects, manipulating events on a whim, and coldly dispatching any witnesses.  It's actually more effective the more visible its actions are, showing the extent of the system's power.  I wasn't impressed with all the material involving Samaritan's minions - Greer has far too little to do - but the new A.I. has proven to be a very effective villain.  I also like the way that the show used a few episodes apiece to highlight recurring characters Elias and Control, showing us a little more about what makes them tick.  And hey, Zoe Morgan is back!

I wish I could have been excited about any developments concerning the regular cast, but there aren't many.  Perhaps signaling that it really is time for the show to go, it should be noted that there were very few episodes that used flashbacks, which were a mainstay of earlier seasons.  John was the only one to really experience any growth, getting a late bottle episode to work out some personal issues, and a low-key romance to complicate his life a bit.  Most of the big mysteries and conflicts involving everyone else have long been wrapped up.  Arguably, the major character to have had the most development this year was the Machine itself, particularly in the already famous "If-Then-Else," which gives us a look at what goes into the Machine's decision making process.

So for a variety of reasons, I didn't enjoy the fourth season of "Person of Interest" as much as the others.  I did enjoy these episodes, but in that way that you enjoy any long running show because you've grown fond of familiar characters and their familiar foibles. Though the quality is still decent, the sense of novelty and daring has worn off, and the seams are showing.  I'm looking forward to the final run of episodes, and hoping for a good end.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Disney Domination

Box office watchers this year can talk about the surprise success of "Deadpool" or the worrying stumbles of "Batman v. Superman," but there's really only one story on everyone's minds: Disney's complete domination of the 2016 box office.  "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," and "Captain America: Civil War" steamrollered over everything in sight, and it looks like "Finding Dory" is on the same trajectory. They've been breaking records left and right, hitting a billion dollars in ticket sales at the domestic box office earlier in the year than any other studio in history.  With potential heavy hitters "Moana," "Doctor Strange," and "Rogue One" still waiting in the wings, it's looking very likely that Disney could have the best box office year on record for any studio ever.

And I am deeply, deeply conflicted as to whether I should be rooting for this to happen or not.  Disney historically hasn't been at the top of the box office for many reasons, the biggest being that they don't release as many movies as the other studios.  In 2015, they released eleven films to Warner Bros.' 26 and Universal's 21.  However, Disney has been devoting more and more of their slate to the massive tentpole event films that can bring in the billion dollar receipts.  They are the biggest and most successful example of the franchise and brand-oriented movie-making strategy that has been so decried by certain film-lovers.  PIXAR, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Disney's own live action and animated productions all fall under the same Buena Vista umbrella.  And all of them have been very successful over the past few years, leading up to this potential perfect storm of 2016 when all these big brands all produce a big hit in the same year.  It's Spielberg's theory of the Hollywood meltdown inverted.

To a certain extent, Disney looks like it has returned to the model of a Golden Age Hollywood film studio, where directors were interchangeable and productions often had on an assembly-line quality. What everyone's worried about is that all the studios will try to mimic Disney's successes by adopting the same strategies, meaning fewer films with bigger budgets and less creative control by the filmmakers.  Lower and mid-budget films are already disappearing at an alarming rate, and there are certain genres that are practically extinct.  At the same time, there's nothing inherently wrong with Disney's approach.  "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," and "Captain America: Civil War" have all been very well received.  Disney's brands are so strong because they're reliable and consistent, and it took years of careful cultivation to get them to this point.  Sure, there's been a "Thor: the Dark World" or a "Cars 2" occasionally, but it's a given that Disney films don't cut corners or scrimp on the spectacle.  When they do have failures, like "John Carter," or "Tomorrowland," it's not for lack of talent or ambition.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the other studios to copy the Disney models haven't been working too well.  Warner Bros. is going to be in serious trouble if "Suicide Squad" and  "Wonder Woman" tank.  Sony has all but given up on "Spider-man."   I keep thinking about "The Huntsman: Winter's War," which came out in April to awful reviews and was largely ignored by audiences.  Many critics pointed out that it seemed to be cobbled out of pieces of "Frozen" and "Brave."  I think that "Winter's War" has more in common with "Maleficent" - strong female leads, a first-time director with a special effects background, and crummy critical notices - except that Disney was targeting their movie at spectacle-loving children and families, and could capitalize on the reputation of their 1959 animated "Sleeping Beauty."  "Winter's War" was aimed at a much older crowd, which was far quicker to notice all the flaws.  And I wonder, why didn't Universal just make a different fairy tale movie with the same talent and budget instead of trying to awkwardly franchise a minor past hit?  The lack of nerve is just astounding.

I'm starting to wonder if Disney is the only studio that's actually capable of setting up cinematic franchises and universes on the level that they have.  While the other studios have plenty of successful properties, none of them seem to have the resources to invest in the same long-term, big picture plans, despite all the ambitious slates we've seen announced by the likes of DreamWorks and Warner Bros.  I've wondered what it would take to stop the Disney juggernaut at this point, and I think it really would have to be multiple bombs in a row, resulting from systemic failures across the board.  They already do absorb some pretty big failures regularly - "The Good Dinosaur" was PIXAR's first outright bomb - but they have so many other projects to steer attention toward.  The "Pirates" franchise was once a huge earner that's on its last legs today, but Disney's moved on to Marvel and "Star Wars" so no one's worried.  

I think I'm fine with Disney being what it is, as long as they keep making good movies, but less so with its competitors churning out so much ill-considered content in an effort to duplicate them.  Universal is rebooting "The Mummy" again as a potential cornerstone for a new shared horror movie universe?  Warners gave "Aquaman" to James Wan?  And how many "Fantastic Beasts" movies do they want to make? It doesn't help that while this has been a great year for Disney, it's been pretty poor for everyone else.  And while I enjoy most of Disney's output, having only Dsiney's output would be another matter entirely.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

The 2016 Summer Movie Wager

I had a lot of fun doing this last year so I'm up for another round.  Following the rules of the Summer Movie Pool, I'm going to predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer.  It's not about which movies are the best or the most deserving, but which ones simply bring in the most cold hard cash.  That means summoning my inner accountant and sidelining my inner fangirl.  Last time I scored a measly 33 points out of a possible 100.  It's not likely I could do worse, but we'll see.  This time I'm going to be more optimistic, and pick more films that I find appealing, instead of my previous game plan of picking several lowest-common-denominator films like "Pixels" and "Ted 2," which both flopped.

Anything being released between May 1st and Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

1. "Captain America: Civil War" - Strong reviews coupled with lots of hype and a good premise pretty much guarantee this a spot at the top of the box office chart.  My only concern is that we're looking at a year that's already stuffed with superhero movies, and "Civil War" is following up the lackluster "Avengers: Age of Ultron."  However, we're also getting the much anticipated crossover with Spider-man and the promise of some actually compelling antagonists - the Avengers themselves.  It might make less money than it would in another year, but it's still going to make an obscene amount of money.

2. "Finding Dory" - The big kids' film of the summer, one that's on firmer ground conceptually than most of the PIXAR sequels and prequels we've seen in the past few years.  Dory is a wonderful character, and her story makes perfect sense to build a movie around.  I wouldn't be surprised if this one actually comes it at number one, because "Finding Nemo" is still the highest grossing PIXAR film domestically, when you adjust for inflation.  And after two PIXAR original films, "Dory" should benefit from the fact that we haven't had a sequel or prequel from PIXAR in a while, making this one feel less egregious.

3. "Independence Day: Resurgence" - I'm going to bet that this will be the "Jurassic World" of 2016.  It's been twenty years since the original, and there's still plenty of geeky affection for it.  Sure, Will Smith isn't coming back, but Will Smith hasn't necessarily been an asset to a film in a while.  The important thing is that we have disaster king Roland Emmerich back in the director's chair, and his films are always about the carnage more than the ensemble anyway.  I especially enjoyed the teaser trailer that came out a few months ago, which signaled that Emmerich may still have a few tricks up his sleeve.

4. "Ghostbusters" - Probably my riskiest pick, but consider that at this point everyone knows this movie is coming and everyone has an opinion about it.  That kind of awareness isn't easy to generate.  Also, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthey have a strong track record, so there's a pretty good chance that the movie will turn out to be a decent watch.  Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what Kate McKinnon is capable of on a big screen with a significant role.  Add in the enduring nostalgia for the franchise, and the guaranteed Bill Murray cameo, and I think that people will turn to see this.

5. "The Angry Birds Movie" - This is my most cynical pick.  Personally, I don't see the appeal of this property at all.  I find the original game pretty dull and the trailer left me cold.  However, reactions seem to be pretty positive across the board, and I can't deny that the fuming fowl and their porcine provokers remain very popular.  "Angry Birds" will also be the only animated film in release for an entire month before "Dory" hits the scene, and the cross-promotional marketing is going to be crazy.  There's no way that small children and their parents are going to be able to avoid this one.  

6.  "X-men: Apocalypse" - The "X-men" franchise has always been a decent performer, but not spectacular.  I expect it'll be in the top ten somewhere, but I'm not sure where.  I think this is the film in the most danger of being affected by superhero fatigue after "Civil War" hits three weeks prior.  However, consider that "Days of Future Past" made the top ten of 2014 and was very well received.  I think that "Apocalypse" will have enough goodwill that it'll perform up to par.  The biggest problem may be scheduling: this is going up against the "Alice" sequel, and may also be dinged by "Civil War."

7. "The BFG" - I love the source material, and really, really want this to do well, but there's a significant danger that "The BFG" is going to be this year's "Tomorrowland."  Steven Spielberg hasn't directed a proper children's fantasy film in ages, and his sensibilities may simply not be a good match anymore for the summer movie crowd.  All the trailers I've seen so far look fantastic, but then again all the marketing for "Tomorrowland" looked fantastic too.  If this one does connect, however, I think it's going to connect pretty significantly for a certain crowd.  On the other hand, it may just be wishful thinking on my part.

8. "Jason Bourne" - I have a hunch that the return of Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon will jump-start this franchise for a late summer sleeper hit.  It helps that unlike last year, there aren't many spy films this season.  It could perform like "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation."  On the other hand, there's only been tepid marketing and many people don't know the film even exists.  And those that do may be confused as to how this relates to the prior films, including the "Bourne Legacy" spinoff with Jeremy Renner.  So, it could also end up performing like "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," though I don't think that's too likely.

9. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" - The 3D fad has come and gone, Johnny Depp's star has lost a lot of shine, and Tim Burton's not coming back to direct.  Frankly, the sequel probably should have been made several years ago to capitalize on the surprise success of the first, and the prospects of "Looking Glass" are significantly worse than they would have been three or four years ago.  Still, keep in mind that the original "Alice" made a billion dollars worldwide, and its intended audience can be surprisingly strong.  This won't match the numbers of the original, but it should still have some steam.

10.  "Suicide Squad" - I think this is going to appeal to the crowd that made the "Deadpool" movie a hit, and the significant "Batman" fanbase that was frustrated with how "Batman v. Superman" played out.  The big risk factors here are, of course, that the movie is opening in August and is aimed at a much older crowd than the usual superhero audience..  What's certain is that this may be Warner Bros' last chance to salvage their DC cinematic universe, so they're going to be very invested in making this a hit.  I think it will be, but like "Batman v. Superman," not nearly as big of a hit as they would like.

Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
Central Intelligence
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The first "Neighbors" did well, and I think the sequel will build on that, but probably not in a huge way.  The Rock had a surprise winner last year with "San Andreas," and is looking to repeat with "Central Intelligence," but the addition of Kevin Hart may actually limit his audience.  "Popstar" looks mighty entertaining to me, but I'm not so confident about its prospects.  So all three of these films get Wild Card status.  Meanwhile, in a weaker year the new "Ice Age" would be in this list somewhere, but the franchise is definitely slowing down, and there's a lot of competition of the kids this time.  I'm rooting for the new "Star Trek" and "Warcraft" because of the talent involved, but I just don't see them having much appeal beyond their existing fan bases.  Finally, I suspect that "The Secret Life of Pets" may turn out to be a good movie, but so far it looks too generic to stand out from the crowd.

Happy watching!


Saturday, May 7, 2016

What's Going on in "The Forbidden Room"?

I've never been sure what to make of Canadian director Guy Maddin, who is obsessed with films from the silent era, and has paid homage to them many times in his surreal, often borderline experimental films.  The last feature I saw of his was 2012's "Keyhole," a black and white fever dream wrought in noir tropes and 1930s imagery.  It was terribly gloomy and not really to my tastes, but I respected it for its considerable craft.  Now, four years later, Maddin is back with "The Forbidden Room," which is something completely different, and bloody amazing.

First, "The Forbidden Room" is designed to resemble lost silent era films, complete with warped, degrading film stock and title cards.  You could easily mistake still frames as having actually come from the 1920s, as Maddin carefully reproduces the old haphazard production values and rudimentary filming techniques with great faithfulness.  The style and sensibility is spot on, from the costuming to the color tinting, even though Maddin breaks several of his own rules by including anachronistic modern references and several scenes with sound - including musical numbers!  But even better, all this is put in the service of telling a series of absolutely crazy, absurd comic stories stuffed into one another like a demented Russian nesting doll of B-movie madness.

Let's start with the crew of a doomed submarine trying to conserve air by eating flapjacks (they have air pockets).  Or how about the lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) trying to save his girlfriend (Clara Furey) from bandits that dress up like wolves?  Or the good doctor (Paul Ahmarani) who has been stolen away from his lover (Caroline Dhavernas) by a gang of women skeletons in the employ of insurance defrauders?  Or the man (Mathieu Almaric) who lives in an elevator, desperately trying to find his wife a birthday gift?  Or the moustache who sets out to comfort the family of his deceased owner?  Or the island natives preparing a sacrifice to an angry volcano?  Guy Maddin fans will be happy to know that the beloved Louis Negrin and Udo Kier play several roles apiece, and keep popping up in different stories.  Kier stars in the film's best sequence, a musical interlude (sung by 80s New Wave group Sparks) that tells the woeful tale of a man obsessed with women's derrieres.  Negrin gets the framing sequence, where he instructs audience members on how to take a bath.

 "The Forbidden Room" is actually an offshoot of Guy Maddin's "Seances" video installation project, which resurrected and reimagined thirty lost or never-made silent films and shorts.  Maddin claims that they mostly only had the titles to work off of, like "The Red Wolves," "The Strength of a Moustache" and "Women Skeletons."  The results are absolutely nuts, but delightfully so.  Maddin and his collaborators construct these stories out of all the goofy, outdated bits of melodrama and horror and comedic farce that audiences a century ago might have been able to take at face value, but are practically nonsense today.  You could compare it to something like Tarantino and Rodriguez's "Grindhouse" exploitation homages, except "The Forbidden Room" is so much better conceived and executed.  I love how cheerfully anarchic and weird the stories are, frequently referencing sexual and psychological obsessions of the day.  I love the humorous use of the title cards (SQUID THEFT!) and ancient special effects.  The film runs 130 minutes, but it seems to go by in no time at all.

Of course, I must caution that this is not an experience for everyone, or really most moviegoers.  I imagine the average cinefile who isn't familiar with silent films or Guy Maddin wandering into "The Forbidden Room" unawares and becoming confused, then enraged.  The screening at Sundance last year had walkouts.  But if you're in on the joke and any kind of fan of older films, "The Forbidden Room" is something that you may appreciate.  I knew what I was getting into, fortunately, and found it easy to enjoy watching the absurdities heap upon absurdities.  I think I've finally gotten on the same wavelength as Guy Maddin, and understand his sense of humor.  I think it may be time to go back and rewatch some of his older films with the tongue-in-cheek homages of "The Forbidden Room" in mind.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Mustang" and "Gett"

Recent foreign films have been a severely mixed bag, and I've had a lot of disappointments this season.  However, there are two I want to highlight that explore the same issue from different angles: women in traditional societies trying to break free from the constraints of outdated expectations.  In "Mustang," five young sisters are deemed too wild and headstrong for their conservative Turkish grandmother and uncle, so they're kept under lock and key until they can be married off, one by one.  In "Gett," which is Hebrew for "divorce," a woman named Viviane Amsalem goes to the rabbinical courts to fight for a divorce from her estranged husband Elisha, which becomes an extraordinarily long and protracted battle because Elisha will not give the required consent.

I was initially wary of watching both films, worried that they'd be very dark and depressing.  This wasn't the case for "Mustang" at all, which pulses with the pent-up energy and frustrations of its protagonists.  The story is told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy) the most rebellious and outspoken.  The girl's parents are long dead and they are being raised by a loving grandmother (Nihal Koldaş).  But when gossip starts to spread about the girls, the grandmother and Uncler Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) clamp down on their freedoms, eventually pulling them all from school, imprisoning them in the house, and training them to become wives.  The older sisters, Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), react to these events in various ways, some accepting and some not.  However, Lale views the marriages as the systematic destruction of her family, and plots a daring escape.

"Mustang" is the feature film debut of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a French director of Turkish descent.  In her hands, the world of the five sisters is full of light and color and motion.  The emotional highs are especially high, as the girls sneak out with their friends, circumvent rules, and find little ways to rebel at home.  The young actresses are very natural, full of energy and spirit.  Güneş Şensoy gives the key performance as Lale, who is too young to understand social and cultural expectations, only that her world has gotten smaller and smaller as freedoms are removed, and then that her sisters are being taken away from her as they get married. The narrative mirrors this, primarily concerned with Lale's emotional life as her relationships and family change.  Little domestic incidents have massive repercussions, and every change in routine is worrying.  The house itself is practically a character, initially full of activity and happiness, but soon cold and bleak as it empties out.  In a suspenseful later sequence, it becomes a prison that must be thwarted.

It's the simplicity of "Mustang" that gives it so much unexpected power.  The girls could be from any strict, traditional family - and I should note that the film occasionally resembles Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," which was about five Catholic sisters in suburban America.  The story is told in terms that are so familiar and universal, it's easy to identify with not only the girls, but those who try to control them.  The older relatives are well-meaning and have what they believe to be the girls' best interests at heart, steering them toward their idea of happiness.  I appreciated that at least one of the sisters fully embraces the path laid out for her, and her marriage is something to be truly celebrated.  However, film's finale makes clear in no uncertain terms that this is also a form of oppression, and Lale's impulse for rebellion and self-determination is important to recognize and respect.  It's a lovely film with a message I hope gets across loud and clear to those who need to hear it.

"Gett" is also about an escape from marriage, but a union that has grown unhappy over two decades.  Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) has been living apart from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) for years.  Their children are grown and Viviane remains faithful and dutiful, but she no longer wishes to be married, so she goes to court to get a divorce.  However, Jewish law requires that the husband give permission in order for the wife to divorce, and the rabbinical courts only find it fit to intervene in extreme cases.  Viviane simply having become incompatible with Elisha is difficult for them to parse.  And despite the best efforts of the Vivane and her lawyer Carmel Ben-Tovim (Menashe Noy), Elisha and his brother Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai) are allowed to stall and block the process for years, while the court continually pushes for reconciliation.  We get to watch the whole, infuriating process from Viviane's first appearance in court to the final one, where a resolution is finally reached.

This is one of the best courtroom dramas in years, not only because of the fascinating dynamics of the Amsalem marriage, but because the court itself is essentially put on trial.  We watch the empaneled trio of rabbis struggle with each new development, clearly reluctant to use what power they have to compel Elisha to act.  Ultimately, the ability to issue the gett really doesn't belong to them, and the antics in the courtroom only have as much weight as the feuding couple give them.  The film is full of dryly funny moments and intense, uncomfortable ones, as each new hearing reveals a little more about the Amsalems and their relationship.  Witnesses are brought in, and intimate details of everyone's private lives are dissected in the courtroom.  Most media condenses trials for dramatic effect, but "Gett" gets a lot of mileage out of doing the opposite, ticking off the time that has passed between each hearing as Vivane's frustration grows.    

It's the performances that are the main event in "Gett," and they're all excellent here.  Of the quartet of main actors, Ronit Elkabetz runs the show as Viviane, who fights every step of the way to have her complaints heard and be viewed on equal terms as her husband.  When forced to say silent in court, her face still says volumes.  And when she finally does seize the opportunity to have her say, it's magnificent.  Simon Abkarian is also very strong as Elisha, quieter and more enigmatic.  It's a mystery as to what his motivations for denying the divorce are - does he still have feelings for his wife, or is he being obstructionist out of spite? Menashe Noy and Sasson Gabai as their respective advocates do most of the talking, and get plenty of good moments themselves.  


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I Didn't Hate "The Hateful Eight"

I gave up on "The Hateful Eight" at the utterance of the word "dingus."  Up until that point I was hopeful that Quentin Tarantino was building up to something interesting, that his finale would make use of  all the solid technical and character work he'd put on display so far.  Sure, I anticipated the usual guts and gore and excess, but if Tarantino was paying homage to his favorite Westerns - he got Ennio Morricone to write the score for chrissake - I figured I'd at least be getting a narrative that resembled Sergio Leone more than grindhouse exploitation.  But no, not a chance.  No matter how stately the super-widescreen cinematography, no matter how restrained the early scenes, and no matter how sterling the cast, when it comes down it, "The Hateful Eight" is just another round of Tarantino's favorite, garish, blood-spattered indulgences.  

Initially, I had high hopes for the film.  Eight horrible characters, including a pair of bounty hunters, Mark Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell), lawman Sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) and Ruth's prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), find themselves obliged to wait out a terrible snowstorm together in a one-room trading post called Minnie's Haberdashery.   Domergue is slated to hang for her crimes, but a rescue attempt is expected, so the audience is invited to puzzle out which of the characters in the haberdashery isn't who they say they are before the bullets start flying.  Additional suspects include a Mexican named Bob (Demian Birchir), British hangman Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and an elderly Confederate General, Smithers (Bruce Dern).  Also caught up in the mess is John Ruth's non-hateful stagecoach driver O.B. (James Parks).  

There have been plenty of good genre films, and Quentin Tarantino has made several of them.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Bride and Django carry out their revenge against nasty wrongdoers in "Kill Bill" and "Django Unchained."  However, if a filmmaker crosses certain lines, gets too bloodthirsty, or loses sight of their primary aims, they're in danger of losing the audience.  As I mentioned earlier, Tarantino lost me at the word "dingus."  This wasn't because of the dialogue, but the accompanying visuals that removed all ambiguity from the scene that the character who uttered it was lying.  Suddenly we were being beaten over the head with the fact that one of the most interesting characters in the film was an irredeemably deplorable human being.  And that's when the premise just collapsed for me, as I had no stake in the story anymore.  Watching a gang of terrible people take each other apart can be a lot of fun, but when you have no sympathy for any of the participants, the entertainment value drops considerably.

I certainly enjoyed the first part of the movie.  I love that Tarantino is so confident at this point, he'll have lengthy scenes of people having rambling conversations or just pull the camera back to enjoy the landscape.  His dialogue is always a lot of fun, and here he gets a lot of mileage out of Old West pastiche with a healthy dose of black humor.  This may be Tarantino's funniest film to date, featuring lots of physical humor, running gags, and pointed satire.  And he takes his time, slowly setting up his playing pieces and ratcheting up the tension. There are little character beats and a musical interlude that are among my favorite Tarantino moments.  The performances are great across the board, especially Jennifer Jason Leigh making a comeback as the casually offensive Daisy, and Samuel L. Jackson having a ball as a badass bounty hunter.

That's why I was so disappointed when the whole works came crashing down.  It wasn't just the "dingus," mind you.  Tarantino trotted out his achronological story structure again, and spent a large chunk of the film showing how he set up a big twist that really should have just been explained with a few lines of dialogue.  So much time was spent talking up the various characters' theories of justice and civilization, and suggesting that several of them embody parts of the American experience, but Tarantino doesn't bother to follow through.  Sure, "Django" and "Inglorious Basterds" were inelegant in their revisionist revenge fantasies, but they were satisfying on a narrative level, delivering final blows to the Third Reich and the Confederate South.  I have no idea what I was supposed to take from the ending of "The Hateful Eight" beyond the triumph of anarchy.

Everyone was awful, so the whole country can go to hell, perhaps?  Oh well.  At least the cinematography was pretty.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Trailers! Trailers! May 2016 Edition

I'm catching up on major trailers that have premiered in the last few months, including some of the major fall and holiday releases.  There are fewer titles here than usual, but boy is there a lot to say about them.  Al links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Rogue One - Not much to see yet, aside from an introduction to our main character, Jyn Erso, and glimpses of the rest of the film's impressive cast - Donnie Yen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forrest Whitaker, and Diego Luna.  No sign of Mads Mikkelson yet.  I'm not sold on Jyn, and I'm not a fan of Felicity Jones, but I'm receptive to what Gareth Edwards and crew are trying to do here.  The old school "Star Wars" imagery looks gorgeous, and it's so good to see Mon Mothma again.  I fully expect that this will turn out to be a better film than "The Force Awakens," though it won't be remotely as successful.

Doctor Strange - Benedict Cumberbatch tries on a new accent while Scott Derrickson does his best Christopher Nolan impression with the snazzy visuals.  It all looks mighty impressive, though I have one quibble with the casting of Tilda Swinton as the character of the Ancient One, who has usually been portrayed as an old Asian man.  However, "Iron Man 3" found a way around the Orientalist minefield that was the Mandarin, so I'm going to wait and see.  There are still a lot of ways that this movie could go wrong, but it looks like it's going to be a lot of fun in any case.  This remains my most anticipated superhero film of 2016.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children - I was caught off guard by the amount of CGI being used here, and how cartoonish some of the characters are.  This feels like a live-action adaptation of something that was previously animated, and not in the way that I usually associate with Tim Burton.  I'm not sure what to think of this yet, which is probably a good thing, but my expectations aren't very high after the superficially similar "Dark Shadows" tanked. However, I am glad to see that "Miss Peregrine" has been moved off the Christmas release date and into September, where it should have a little more breathing room.  

A Monster Calls - I've liked everything I've seen so far from Juan Antonio Bayona, and the trailer for "A Monster Calls" definitely has me excited.  Here, he's reteaming with much of the creative talent behind "The Impossible" for a fantasy-horror film.  The fairy-tale monster, the building undercurrent of dread, and the unusually colorful visuals suggest that this may be Bayona's "Pan's Labyrinth."  So much wonderful atmosphere comes across through Liam Neeson's narration alone. I understand the source material was aimed at a younger crowd, though, so it's not clear yet what audience the film is gunning for.  

Sausage Party - I strongly suggest that there may only be one real joke of any merit in "Sausage Party," and it's right there in the trailer: sentient food carnage.  Frankly, I'm still surprised that this movie was made at all, and I'm dubious about its prospects after the things I've heard about the script and the production.  I'd love to see more R-rated animated films, but this one just rubs me the wrong way.  To be fair, this is true of just about everything that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been involved with, so the movie may actually be on the right track for their particular audience.  

Ghostbusters - I was pretty tickled by the wellspring of ire that this trailer seems to have provoked, because I don't see anything to get worked up about.  Frankly, there is not nearly enough shown for me to be able to tell anything yet, except that Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones will be screaming and yelling and carrying on at some point, and that the CGI ghosts look pretty good.  There is no possible way that this will live up to the original "Ghostbusters," but for what it appears to be aiming for, I think it's shaping up pretty well.  Compared to all the other 2016 reboots and remakes, this is still one of the most promising.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Humans" Year One

Androids are popular again, as technology advancements over the past few years have brought the specter of machine takeover of society back into the popular consciousness.  The new UK Channel 4 series "Humans" is very much a product of the times, touching on fears of human obsolescence, our responsibilities toward AI, and the dark side of consumer culture.  The cast is good, the concepts are solid, and the story is pretty compelling.  However, "Humans" is meant for a broader general audience, and it never gets as dark or as innovative as I was hoping that it would.  I'd put it roughly on par with "Orphan Black," another good genre series that incorporates a lot of science-fiction ideas, but isn't interested in digging too deep.

Set in a time not too far in the future, where android servants called "Synths" are commonplace, the story revolves around several different sets of characters who slowly intersect as time goes on.  First there's the Hawkins family: father Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), mother Laura (Katherine Parkinson), teenage daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless), teenage son Toby (Theo Stevenson), and little Sophie (Pixie Davies), who clash over the arrival of a Synth named Anita (Gemma Chan) into their household.  Then there's Leo (Colin Morgan), who along with several "conscious" Synths is being hunted down by the authorities, led by Professor Hobb (Danny Webb).  D.S. Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell) quickly becomes involved, after one of these Synths, Niska (Emily Berrington), becomes violent toward humans.  Finally there's Dr. Millican (William Hurt), who is trying to save his older model Synth, Odi (WillTudor), from the scrap heap.

It's not a particularly complicated universe that these characters inhabit, but I appreciate that the worldbuilding is done carefully, with a lot of thought.  There are a lot of neat little details and references related to the operations of the Synths that add some texture without calling too much attention to themselves.  Reactions to the Synths are varied, and they complicate human relationships and interactions.  I'm glad that so much of the series revolves around Anita and the Hawkins family, though the material with the kids is a little tedious.  It allows us to see how the Synths affect many different aspects of the characters' lives, and their impact on the wider culture.  The actors who play the Synths who do not have consciousness, especially Gemma Chan and Will Tudor, do a good job of mining the artificiality of the Synths for all it's worth.  The series wouldn't have worked if their performances weren't so convincing.  Emily Berrington is also a standout as the rebellious Niska, the show's most complicated character.  Among the human beings, it's always nice to see William Hurt in anything, and I continue to be impressed by Neil Maskell.

I think eight episodes was just about the right length for the first series, because it tells a complete story, and each of the major characters gets some development - some not as much as others, but at least enough to justify their appearances.  For the first few episodes I was skeptical that the show was going anywhere interesting, but once the momentum picks up, it does all come together nicely.  I expect that "Humans" will appeal most to those who don't watch a lot of science-fiction, though, because it is very light and not very heady at all, especially compared to recent media with similar subject matter like "Ex Machina" and "Black Mirror."  "Humans" is very good for the show it wants to be, but I wish that it had wanted to be something more original and daring.  Much of the crew came to "Humans" from Channel 4's "Utopia," so the production values are very strong - there's just not the same opportunity for them to really do something great.

Ultimately, the story of "Humans" feels awfully safe and familiar for 2015, though there are some strong characters like Niska and Anita who are worth getting to know.  I'm hoping that "Humans" will be able to expand on the strong foundation its created to move on to bigger things in the series to come - another set of episodes is already in the works for 2016, and I can't imagine that we won't be getting more.