Thursday, September 29, 2016

What the "Warcraft"?

I am sorry to report that "Warcraft," directed by Duncan Jones, and based off the series of "Warcraft" games from Blizzard Entertainment, is not the first great video game movie that some have been hoping for. It's not bad, though. It's actually quite watchable in a silly '80s B-movie way, that's going to appeal to some viewers much more than others.

Exactly how much appeal it has is going to depend on how much you buy into the "Warcraft" universe. We start straight off with the orcs, a race of warlike brutes who create a portal from their dying world into a Middle Earth-like fantasy land called Azeroth, with the use of evil green "fel magic." The evil orc warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) leads a small scouting force into Azeroth to pave the way for the rest. Among them is a noble chieftain named Durotan (Toby Kebbell), and his pregnant mate Draka (Ann Galvin). The orcs land in the Stormwind Kingdom, populated by humans. Our primary heroes are King Llane (Dominic Cooper), the brave commander of his forces, Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). Also in the mix are a half-orc, half human slave, Garona (Paula Patton), a powerful wizard, Medivh (Ben Foster), Ruth Negga playing the Queen of Strormwind, and Robert Kazinsky and Clancy Brown as other orcs.

A lot of care and attention was given to the orcs' side of the story, which is much more compelling and easier to follow than anything going on with the human beings. Frankly, anything not involving the orcs tends to come across like an episode of "Xena: Warrior Princess" with a bigger budget. I appreciate that the filmmakers went into this movie with the best of intentions to do the franchise justice. No snark or puns here to ruin the mood. However, when you've got such obvious tropes like the callow young mage, the troubled older wizard, the noble king, and the persecuted half-breed, and the script is trying to set up way too much mythology in a short span of time, it all gets tedious very quickly. It doesn't help that the violence is mostly bloodless, the characters are uniformly flat, and the visuals are, frankly, a little goofy. They've essentially reproduced the aesthetic of all those Dungeons and Dragons style roleplaying games of the '90s and 2000s, which "Warcraft" drew inspiration from. Props for faithfulness, but the clunky armor and color-coded magic energy blasts make the proceedings look terribly juvenile.

The cast has quite a few actors that I like - Ben Foster, Ruth Negga, Paula Patton, Daniel Wu, Dominic Cooper and more. However, they're all stuck playing very dull, one-dimensional characters who have to go through the motions of a very, very generic swords and sorcery plot. This is the kind of thing that can be fine with stronger, more charismatic leads, but there's almost no character development in "Warcraft" aside from a few bits of hurriedly relayed of backstory when the action slows down. While I'm thankful that there was no designated comic relief characters, surely there was room for some humor, or at least some wry quipping? Out of all the leads, I think Paula Patton's Gavrona comes off the best, because at least she has some culture shock to play with. Also, Toby Kebbell turns in another strong motion-capture performance, giving Durotan enough likeability to be sympathetic, despite his fangs and claws.

I left the movie wondering who the best audience for "Warcraft" would be. I count myself as a fantasy fan, but this was too silly for my tastes. Existing fans of the game would certainly enjoy it. Probably younger fantasy fans too - the ones who are looking for more media in the same vein as the "Hobbit" movies, but aren't quite ready for "Game of Thrones." I don't see much that would appeal to older, non-fans though, especially with so much other fantasy-based media to choose from these days. I stress that I don't think that "Warcraft" was a bad movie, and wouldn't even mind sitting through a sequel. However, I question the wisdom of spending so much time, money, and effort on making a film that seems so determined to appeal to such a limited audience.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Paying Attention to OJ Again

So, 2016 is the year that we all somehow collectively decided that it was time to reflect on the O.J. Simpson murder case. Two significant pieces of media helped get the youngsters up to speed and the old folks to relive the events of 1994-1995: ESPN's "O.J.: Made in America" documentary series, and the dramatization in FX's "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story." I watched the former, but not the latter, though the miniseries has gotten good enough notices that I'm curious about it. I appreciate the documentary for filling in a lot of the details, and giving some important context that I'd been missing.

The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the subsequent chase, arrest, and trial of O.J. Simpson happened when I was still in high school. I remember watching the chase, but had no idea why people were so interested because I had no idea who O.J. Simpson was. Nobody in my family followed football, and I hadn't seen any of the "Naked Gun" movies, where he appeared as a detective. More importantly, I didn't understand the celebrity culture, and the historical disadvantages faced by black men in the justice system. I didn't understand why some people so fervently, passionately cared about the outcome of the trial.

However, it was impossible to avoid the media circus around the case. Even though I was hardly paying attention, I quickly learned the names of all the major players involved: Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochrane, Judge Ito, Mark Fuhrman, and Kato Kaelin. It was the major topic of conversation for months, permeating the mainstream culture. Much of the trial was aired live, preempting the usual daytime programming. We got daily updates on what was going on in the courtroom from the nightly news, and the late night comedians were forever coming up with new angles to riff on the case. I remember the Marcia Clark impersonator flanked by a team of Dancing Itos. I remember "Seinfeld" parodying the chase with the Ford bronco. I remember reports of a Kato Kaelin cameo being cut from "Roseanne." O.J. Simpson was inescapable.

However, what was actually going on in the case itself was less clear to me. "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit" was about the extent of my understanding of the defense's case. Also, we were supposed to hate Mark Fuhrman. Somehow, my understanding of the prosecution's case was even worse. My biology teacher was constantly making "OJ did it" jokes in class. Nonetheless, I recall the verdict being reached one day, during the swimming unit of our gym class. We all got out of the pool and crowded around the teacher's radio to cheer at O.J. Simpson's acquittal. Personally, I was just glad that the trial was over and they'd stop screwing with the schedule of my after-school cartoons.

So clearly, I missed the O.J. Simpson trial the first time around. I wasn't really there for it the way most viewers were, and honestly I'm glad. Being able to look back on the events twenty years later, without all the distraction of the media and the fuss, is an unexpectedly positive thing, I've found. The seven plus hour "Made in America" documentary is excellent, largely because it spends so much of its running time laying that foundation of all the cultural and historical forces in play before delving into the events of 1994 and 1995. I have little more that's useful to say about the documentary except that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it is absolutely worth sitting through the whole thing.

I suspect there are a lot of people like me, who didn't get the whole picture. Even those who had a strong interest in the O.J. Simpson trial and followed it closely in the 90s probably didn't understand everything that had lead up to the trial, or the impact that it had. Looking back now, there was television news coverage before O.J. and after O.J. Really, there was the American culture before O.J. and after O.J. And it's only now, twenty years later, that I can truly appreciate how terribly sad and unfortunate the whole mess was. And it's worth looking back and thinking about how and why it all happened.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Merciless "Krisha"

The holidays are a special kind of hell for many of us, an uncomfortable confluence of too many people, unfamiliar settings, forced jollity, and our own personal baggage. For Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a woman in her '60s attending Thanksgiving festivities at her sister's house, we can also add the pain of a long estrangement from her family, and many old wounds being reopened. She is intent on showing everyone that she's changed for the better and she's ready to reconnect with her loved ones. However, she's clearly not prepared for the event, and the day becomes a nail-biting high wire act as Krisha struggles to keep herself together and curb her worst impulses.

Details about Krisha, her relationships, and her past, come gradually. We first find her arriving late to Thanksgiving, going to the wrong house, in a frazzled state, and cursing under her breath. When she does finally reach her destination, her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild) and most of the gaggle of twenty-something guests greet her warmly. But then Robyn leaves to fetch their wheelchair-bound mother Gigi (Billie Fairchild), who lives hours away. To pass the time, Krisha chats with Robyn's husband, Doyle (Bill Wise), who clearly dislikes her. She tries to reconcile with her college-age son Trey (Trey Edward Shults), but it becomes clear that he wants nothing to do with her. She goes to the bathroom to take her medications and tend to a half-healed wound. And then, inevitably, Krisha starts to slip.

"Krisha" is the debut feature of Trey Edward Shults, who shot the whole film at his mother's house in Austin, Texas. The budget was tiny, and most of the principle actors are his relatives. Krisha Fairchild is Shults' aunt, and Robyn and Billie Fairchild are his mother and grandmother. Yet the filmmaking is remarkably self-assured, and beautifully executed. The intensity and verisimilitude of the psychodrama recall John Cassavetes, with Krisha Fairchild evoking more than a few memories of Gena Rowlands in her later films. However, the cinematography is more stylized, the images more deliberately composed and emotionally charged. We don't just witness Krisha's disintegration, but are invited to experience it with her intimately.

Brian McOmber crated the soundtrack, one of the crucial components that gives "Krisha" so much impact. He finds just the right combination of discordant music and heightened everyday sounds - the football game, the blender, the barking dogs - to really put us on edge. It's similar to Peter Strickland's recent work on "Berberian Sound Studio" and "The Duke of Burgundy." We can feel Krisha's gnawing anxiety and discomfort, in the middle of what would look like a fairly relaxed environment to an outsider. I've never seen anyone capture this so well on film, especially the way that fairly inoffensive noises can compound on top of each other, eventually drowning out everything else. The soundtrack does a great job of keeping tensions high, often to the point where it feels like we're watching a horror film. We know that Krisha is coming unglued long before it's apparent to anyone else.

And then there's Krisha Fairchild's tremendous performance, which is at the center of this whole feast. It's a positively heartbreaking portrait of an afflicted woman who is trying to make up for past mistakes with the best of intentions, but still maintains terrible, destructive habits. We never learn the details of what happened in her past to cause her estrangement, but scene after scene point to the likely culprits. As Thanksgiving day progresses, she reveals moments of terseness, instability, recklessness, and finally an ugly, destructive rage. Fairchild is wonderful throughout, able to channel so many shifting moods that can turn in an instant. And even when her behavior is at its most terrible, she's deeply sympathetic, because we know she's trying so hard.

Though Fairchild has a decent list of screen credits, she's never had a part as significant as this, and I'm so glad that she's had her breakout at last, even if it comes so late in life. I found "Krisha" tremendously affecting, and I'm eager to see what she will do next. As for Trey Edward Shults, I have no doubt that he's going to have a long and interesting career ahead of him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Penny Dreadful," Year One

The horror literature of the Victorian era has spawned iconic characters like Victor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dorian Gray. We've seen them grouped together in a shared universe many times in the past, most notably in the Universal Monsters film franchise and Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." The Showtime and Sky TV series "Penny Dreadful," however, distinguishes itself from the others by fully embracing its Victorian roots. Created by John Logan, with its first two episodes directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, this is a series that is happy to take time unfurling its mysteries, less of a thriller and more of a moody, atmospheric meditation on the nature of monsters.

Our central characters are a gentleman adventurer, Sir. Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a young woman with mysterious connections to the spirit world. They are trying to rescue Sir Malcolm's daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) from the supernatural creatures that have abducted her. Murray and Ives recruit a gifted surgeon, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and an American sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to help them. Also in the mix are a hedonistic young gentleman, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a prostitute suffering from consumption, Brona Croft (Billie Piper), and a malformed Creature (Rory Kinnear), who works behind the scenes of the Grand Guignol theater.

The first season of "Penny Dreadful" is only eight episodes, and elects to spend its time loosely retelling parts of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein," while quietly laying the groundwork for at least a half dozen other familiar tales. What keeps all the old material invigorated is that the central characters are new, and they're fantastic. Eva Green is absolutely phenomenal as the long-suffering and deeply guilt-ridden Vanessa, and Green can sell a demonic possession like no one else. Timothy Dalton is also a commanding presence as Sir Malcolm, though he doesn't get as much screen time as some of the others. I like Harry Treadaway's version of Frankenstein, who is more sympathetic than the ones I've seen recently, but the jury's still out on Hartnett and Carney, who have had less interesting things to do - but are being set up for much more.

It doesn't surprise me that "Penny Dreadful" didn't catch on with a larger audience, because its approach is so unusual. It's a Gothic horror serial that actually stays true to its genre, so it's all about the gloom and the murk and the angst of impending death, instead of the thrills and the gore. We spend the bulk of the running time getting to know the cast of characters and untangling their mysteries, only checking in with the larger ongoing plot when its' absolutely necessary. From a writing standpoint, the series is cluttered, meandering, frequently lays on too much exposition, and drags its heels. It only occasionally bothers to be scary or sensual. Two episodes are almost completely composed of flashbacks, and stop the series dead in its tracks. However, it excels at its character studies and manages to pull off some very effective twists on the old stories. I was so gratified to find a piece of media that actually finds a new, fascinating angle on the "Dracula" story, and I'm interested to see what the creators have in store for some of the others.

For those who enjoy some eye candy, "Penny Dreadful" is a wonderful thing to look at, with high production values, a keen attention to historical details (though it mucks around with them for its own ends), and a wonderful sense of tragedy. Though it isn't always successful, the focus on the psychological and emotional lives of these characters makes their gloomy world so much more inviting. Maybe I've been watching too many of their slick action move reboots lately, but it's nice to see Frankenstein and the Wolf Man actually living out their haunted, miserable lives between the inevitable bouts of carnage. The restraint is so refreshing. It was a few episodes and a few sex scenes before a remembered that I was watching a Showtime show, which is notorious for shoehorning erotica into places where it doesn't really fit. "Penny Dreadful" doesn't have that problem.

The biggest problem it does have is one that I already know will carry through to the end of the show's short run. It's has a lot of ideas and not enough time to fully explore all of them. After the first season ended, I was surprised at how little narrative ground the series had actually covered, especially with the Frankenstein segments. With only nineteen episodes to go, I'm not expecting a very satisfying finale. However, I like these characters and their universe so much, I'm willing to see it out with them.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Emmys 2016

Well, I watched this year's ceremony late, but I did watch them. Jimmy Kimmel delivered a thoroughly watchable, intermittently entertaining Emmy telecast, helped out so much by the fact that the awards themselves were actually exciting. While a lot of the expected contenders like "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story," "Veep," and "Game of Thrones" cleaned up, there were also some genuine surprises.

First, we should talk about the boring bits about voting. Last year was the first time that all eligible voters were allowed to vote for winners, instead of the decision being in the hands of smaller "blue ribbon" voting panels. Also, all the voting is now done electronically, and watching the tapes for nominees is more or less based on the honor system. The preferential/ranked voting system has also been tossed, so nominees can win without getting anything close to the majority of the votes. That's had the effect of making the races a bit more of a popularity contest, and considerably friendlier toward genre programming, which has traditionally had a tougher time getting awards recognition.

And so, after four years of everyone gushing over Tatiana Maslany playing innumerable clone characters on "Orphan Black," she got the statuette for Lead Actress in a Drama Series. And Rami Malek got the Lead Actor Emmy for the pilot episode of "Mr. Robot." This trend did not extend to the supporting categories , however, with Ben Mendelsohn and Maggie Smith scoring wins over several "Game of Thrones" actors, for "Bloodline" and "Downton Abbey" respectively. This is the end of the line for Maggie Smith, however, as "Downton Abbey" ended this year, so Lena Headey and the rest will get a few more chances to win. What's really exciting about these races, however, is the possibility that it'll get more viewers to take a look at "Orphan Black," "Bloodline," and "Mr. Robot."

The Limited Series categories have made a remarkable turnaround over the past few years. I haven't seen "The People v. O. J. Simpson," being a little burned out on O.J. media, so I can't say anything about its quality. Still, I was disappointed that it shut out "Fargo" and "The Night Manager" from nearly every category. After seven nominations, they're going to have to give an Emmy to Hugh Laurie for something eventually. Still, I can't say I'm too disappointed to see longtime character actors Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson getting some recognition for playing Christopher Darden and Marcia Clake - and how great was it that Paulson brought Clarke to the ceremony? Also, "The Night Manager" did manage to win one major award, Susanne Bier's statuette for Outstanding Direction of a Limited Series. I'd say she's now one step closer to that James Bond movie gig.

Speaking of female directors, Jill Soloway's win for "Transparent" means that Outstanding Direction for a Comedy has been won by a woman for four years in a row. The winners in the comedy categories seem more entrenched at the moment. Julia Louis Dreyfuss won again for "Veep," and Jeffrey Tamboy won again for "Transparent." However, the supporting categories were a nice surprise, with Louis Anderson winning for "Baskets" and Kate McKinnon winning for "SNL." And I should point out that McKinnon's award was one of only four statuettes that went to the major networks this year. The others were Regina King's Supporting Actress award for Limited Series, plus "Grease Live!" and "The Voice" in the Variety Special and Reality Show. HBO, Netflix, and FX were the big winners. New media is here to stay.

In the end, lots of people I liked won this year. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for "Master of None" and Patton Oswalt won Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. John Oliver won for "Last Week Tonight," Key and Peele won for their show's final season, and "Sherlock" won, though as a Television Movie instead of a Limited Series. There was only one win that really made me seethe, but I'll keep it to myself. The Emmy ceremony went swimmingly, with the kids from "Stranger Things" handing out sandwiches, the requisite Matt Damon feud callback, and a perfectly delightful Jeb Bush cameo.

All in all, it was a very good year, and I hope we get more like it.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Whit Stillman Does Jane Austen

I think this is the funniest adaptation of Jane Austen's work I've ever seen. Based on one of her more obscure short novels,"Love and Friendship" follows a brief period in the life of a scandalous woman. This is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), whose fortunes are at their lowest. She's penniless, reduced to living off the generosity of friends and relations, and has been forced to relocate to the household of her sister-in--law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). She quickly wins over the affections of Catherine's brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), an eligible bachelor, despite maintaining a secret relationship with her married lover, Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin). Then there's Susan's timid daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who Susan is keen on marrying to the rich, but blockheaded Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).

The most important relationship in the film, however, is the close friendship between Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American who has married the older, disagreeable Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). It's only in Alicia's company that Susan speaks anything resembling the truth, confiding her secret plans and her contemptuous feelings for everyone else around her. It's clear that where Susan's position may appear precarious and unstable to outsiders, she sees it as a valuable opportunity to improve her fortunes. She knows the rules and restrictions of her society very well, and has no problem whatsoever with manipulating everyone in reach to get what she wants, including her own daughter. And she's so utterly unapologetic about it, and delightfully bitchy, that you can't help but root for her to succeed.

Whit Stillman's American comedies of manners have always been impressive, but not really to my taste, probably because his dialogue is so self-consciously stylized, and many of the elements feel oddly anachronistic - even when they're meant to be period films. "Love and Friendship," however, is the exact opposite, a very modern take on the social foibles of a bygone era. Lady Susan and Alicia are perfect Regency era mean girls, dropping elegant barbs and backhanded compliments with every step. The dialogue comes in torrents, especially from Lady Susan, who is able to talk circles around every challenger. It's only bad luck that lands her in the predicaments that she finds herself in throughout the film. And as it becomes more apparent how little control a woman of Lady Susan's circumstances would normally have in these situations, the more admirable her outrageous behavior becomes by comparison.

Before this, I'd never seen Kate Beckinsale in a proper leading role that didn't involve CGI-enhanced vampires, which is a shame. She's wonderful here as Lady Susan, charismatic, poised, infuriating, and above all funny. She heads an impressive cast, who all have a ball milking their lines for all they're worth. I especially enjoyed Tom Bennett as the genial, idiotic Sir James, mucking up his Bible verses and basic introductions. Jenn Murray has a brief, but searing appearance as Manwaring's wronged wife. Morfydd Clark manages to nearly weaponize Frederica's meekness. Sevigny and Fry are dependably spry. And then there's Xavier Samuel as the idealistic Reginald, who is clearly the most principled of the lot, not that it serves as any protection against Susan's schemes.

And, of course, there's Whit Stillman, whose voice is readily apparent in the elaborate dialogue, and gets in his little visual gags via intertitles and captions. His best notion is the use of character introduction screens from the silent film era, complete with full names and descriptions. It's just exaggerated enough to be fun, but not so much that it breaks the illusion of being a period piece or losing any charm. I'm not familiar with the original Austen novel, but Stillman's adaptation has clearly added more cynicism and sharpened the humor to the point where "Love and Friendship" feels more like something from Oscar Wilde. This would make a pretty good companion piece to "The Importance of Being Earnest."

I admit I expected very little from this film, not having had the best luck with Stillman's work in the past, but this was a treat. It's easily my favorite of his films, and I hope he sticks around in the UK to make a few more.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Orphan Black," Year Four

Full spoilers for the series up to this point, minimal ones for the season.

One thing that I've come to admire about the creators of "Orphan Black" is how they're perfectly willing to cut characters and abandon storylines that are no longer working for them. So there's no sign of Mark and Gracie this year. Or Shay. Or Cal. Angie Deangelis remains MIA. Instead, we get a couple of new villains this year in the form of new Neolutionist leader Evie Cho (Jessalyn Wanlim) and the shady Detective Duko (Gord Rand), who may have been involved in Beth's demise. One new Leda clone and one new Castor clone are introduced, and Susan Duncan (Rosemary Dunmore) plays a much bigger role.

The year starts out with Beth, who the show has finally decided to spend some time with, clearing up all the lingering mysteries around her final days while setting up a new storyline in the present. The remaining Neolutionists behind Dyad are now backing a rival project, led by Evie Cho and her company, Brightborn Industries. It's not clear what Evie's plans are, but they involve some scary new implantable tech and extreme hostility toward all things clone related. Sarah is obliged once again to get involved, coming back to Toronto with Kira and Mrs. S. She and Art look into the case Beth was working on before she died, and its ties to Neolution. Meanwhile, Cosima steps up her search for a cure, Rachel continues her recovery, and Felix has someone new in his life.

Though it's all gotten very familiar, "Orphan Black" is in fine form this year. Everyone has something to do, and those who don't only make brief appearances. The creators finally learned that less Helena makes for a far more effective Helena when she does appear. It all feels like one show this time out, instead of three or four separate ones that have been mashed up together. But that said, the plot is constantly hurtling through different storylines, characters, locations, and ideas. It requires much more effort to keep up with what's going on. I've learned to live with the multiple loose ends and weird digressions that the show employs so often, but it was gratifying to see more callbacks to odds and ends I'd thought were left by the wayside. The Hendrixs' criminal career, for instance, finally catches up with them in a couple of different ways.

It was also clearly a tough season for Tatiana Maslany, who is juggling more characters than ever. However, she's still so good at giving every single one of them a full, interesting performance. I barely even notice when she's playing against herself in the same scene anymore. And when one of the major clone characters got sidelined for a few episodes, my first reaction as to wonder whether the actress was unavailable. Maslany is especially good as Cosima and Rachel this year, who had both previously been a little two-dimensional. Among the supporting cast, lots of characters only dropped by for part of the season, so it would be spoilers to say too much. However, this was a good year for Art, Donnie, and Felix among the regulars. Evie and Duko were supremely hateable, and Ari Millen fares much better when he's only playing one clone at a time, in this case a newcomer named Ira in Rachel's storyline.

We've only got one season of "Orphan Black" left, according to recent news. Though I'm sure that the creators could go on for quite a lot longer based on what they've done so far, and I really enjoy this group of characters, the announcement is a relief. One of the only parts of this season I found lacking was the character of Sarah, who is starting to become very repetitive. She took a backseat to other clones for much of the season, and there aren't many places her character can go without making some drastic changes. Kira and Mrs. S had the least to do this year, mostly just hanging around the safehouse and giving other characters someone to play off of. If Sarah has to remain at the center of "Orphan Black," then I think it's about time that they wrapped things up.

Besides, I can't wait to see what Tatiana Maslany does next.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The "Labyrinth" Post

Once upon a time, in 1994, I watched a "Great Performances" documentary called "The World of Jim Henson" on PBS. And I immediately fell madly in love with several pieces of media that it featured. I had never been a big Muppet fan before, but "Sesame Street" and the "Muppet" movies had been a part of my childhood. The segments about them were fun and nostalgic. However, I wasn't familiar with the later work of Jim Henson in films and television. The documentary's clips of "The Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," and the "Storyteller" television series were what really caught my attention. I had to see them. I just had to.

So began a years-long quest to track down the various pieces of Henson-related media. "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth" were available on home video, so I was able to find them fairly quickly. "The Storyteller" and "The Jim Henson Hour" were not, and required more work to obtain. I still have my VHS recording of the "World of Jim Henson" documentary, which I taped from a PBS broadcast from 1996, after more than a year of scouring the pre-Internet TV listings every single week to catch it in reruns. I ended up buying "The Storyteller" both on VHS and DVD as the different versions were released in the late '90s and early 2000s. Most of my "Dark Crystal" media, including a theatrical poster and the comic book, came from friends. It was "Labyrinth," however, that really had an affect on me. That was the one piece of media that I think was the most responsible for turning me into an early Internet-age fangirl.

I can trace so much of my early teenage fandom experiences back to "Labyrinth." It was the first fandom I joined a mailing list for, wrote fanfiction for, and even drew some awful fanart for. In the days before Google and, I navigated the online fansites and archives via ancient webrings and online directories. There were tons of sites, many of them named after different song lyrics from "As the World Falls Down." I learned to digitize CDs with my copy of the "Labyrinth" soundtrack. I developed a habit of paging through old movie guides and fan magazines from the '80s looking for mentions of "Labyrinth." I tracked down books by Brian Froud, the primary concept artist for "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth." When it went back in print, I eventually bought a copy of Froud's "The Goblins of Labyrinth," containing key pieces of concept artwork.

While I had the usual teenage crush on the Goblin King, I had absolutely no idea who David Bowie was until much, much later. And it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that after Bowie's passing earlier this year, his work in "Labyrinth" turned out to be the major point of reference for Millennials when discussing him. Though the film was a financial bust in 1986, it has quietly become a classic over the years with a huge cult following. It's certainly juvenile, occasionally wildly outdated, and I can offer up no defense for the "Chilly Down" or "Dance Magic Dance" segments. However, I've long maintained that there's a dearth of good media aimed at teenage girls, and "Labyrinth" is brimming over with fantastic, romantic, and surreal elements that make it absolutely irresistible to certain young women with overactive imaginations.

All these years later, I can't quite say what it was that drew me to "Labyrinth," personally. The brief clips in "The World of Jim Henson" documentary were definitely the origin of it, and I found myself watching them more than I watched the actual full-length movie. That's not to say that I don't still enjoy the movie - it's definitely still one of my nostalgic favorites along with "Return to Oz," "The Princess Bride" and "Edward Scissorhands." However, Bowie's performance never quite lived up to those quick, initial glimpses of the Goblin King. And while I'm very fond of the film's low tech puppet characters, it's the optical effects and the art direction that still leave me breathless. The finale in the M.C. Escher set is so wildly ambitious, the kind of thing that nobody does anymore, even though CGI would make it so much easier to achieve today.

And I find I do hold it a little closer to my heart as I've grown older and more cynical about Hollywood. There's been talk of rebooting or making some kind of sequel or prequel to "Labyrinth" for ages, but it wouldn't be the same. So many of the key creative talents responsible for the film are gone, along with the creative culture that supported them. Could anyone get away with making something so genially weird and unabashedly fantastic today?


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Unusual Return of "Samurai Jack"

Revivals of past hits have been all the rage on television lately, with "The X-files," "Twin Peaks," and "Full House" all coming back in various forms. One project that's escaped my attention until now, however, is the return of "Samurai Jack." The Cartoon Network series, that aired 52 episodes from 2001 to 2004, is a favorite among Millennials. It follows the adventures of the title character, voiced by Phil LaMarr, as he hops around through space and time intent on defeating the evil demon Aku, voiced by the late, great Mako.

Cartoon Network is no strange to rebooting series. Just in the past few years, "The Powerpuff Girls" was rebooted, and "Teen Titans" came back in a sillier incarnation aimed at younger kids. Apparently "Ben 10," is getting yet another series in the future, on top of the three it's already had. However, "Samurai Jack" is very much a revival instead of a reboot. The new episodes will maintain continuity with the old ones, and the same core creative team is expected to return. And on top of that, "Samurai Jack" is going to air on "Adult Swim," the home of Cartoon Network's adult-oriented programming, as part of their recently rebranded Toonami action block. This means that we can expect more mature content in the new episodes. More importantly, this means that the revival is going to be aimed at the original "Samurai Jack" audience, now grown up after fifteen years. As far as I'm aware, that's completely unprecedented for any kids' show.

I have only limited firsthand knowledge of "Samurai Jack," but I did watch a good chunk of the original episodes when they first aired (The one with X9 and Lulu is my favorite). I don't count myself a fan of the show, having watched it too sporadically to form much of an attachment, but there was a lot that I liked about it. Genndy Tartakovsky's characters are compelling, and the visual storytelling and art direction are fantastic throughout. Though highly stylized, the imagery is bold and ambitious. Several of the episodes have dialogue-free sequences, notably its intense fight scenes, which would occasionally border on the experimental. "Samurai Jack" is easily one of the best things that the Cartoon Network has ever produced, and because the central story was left unfinished, the existing fanbase has long been after a continuation in some form. There was talk of a movie version of a few years ago, but it never happened.

The level of violence in the old episodes pushed the network's standards regularly, so I can definitely see how a move to Adult Swim could be beneficial, especially if the creators intend to pursue darker storylines. There's always the danger that viewers might come across it unexpectedly, think the content is kid-friendly, and someone will watch something that they're not ready for. However, it's been so long since the original run that I don't think it's too likely. Besides, Tartakovsky and the Cartoon Network brass have stressed to the press that the new season won't be that much of a departure from the original. Most of the shows on the current Adult Swim action block aren't even all that violent. At most, I expect that Jack will now be allowed to cut down live combatants instead of robots, and he'll grapple with personal doubts in more grown-up terms.

I'm looking forward to the new episodes, because it looks like the Cartoon Network is really committed to the revival. From the clips and artwork released so far, it doesn't look like any corners were cut with the animation, unlike Warners' questionable "Killing Joke" direct-to-video Batman feature that recently had so many fans in an uproar. Animation for adults still retains a considerable stigma, but Adult Swim has been quietly chipping away at this for the past fifteen years. If there's anywhere than an adult-oriented "Samurai Jack" is going to get a fair shake, it's there.

My hope is that the fifth season of "Samurai Jack" is the ending that the fans have been hoping for, and that it does well enough to make more revivals like it a possibility. Animated shows can weather long hiatuses like this relatively unscathed, and I know there are a few other series that I'd love to see brought back in a similar fashion. At this point I should mention the other Adult Swim revival that was recently announced is a continuation of the year 2000 anime classic "FLCL," which will be getting twelve new episodes in 2017. That will triple the number of existing episodes.

And that's completely crazy, but for Adult Swim, it feels so, so right.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Okay With Being "Single"

Romantic comedies tend to be dismissed without a thought these days, and that's a shame, because there are some perfectly decent ones still being made. Take "How to Be Single," an energetic, breezy bit of feminine feel-good fluff which is chiefly concerned with the experience of being a single, eligible woman in New York City. A familiar premise, yes, but not yet totally played out. The talent is very strong, the writing is a little sharper than most recent rom-coms, and it's much more self-aware. I also really appreciated that though romance is a chief concern throughout, the majority of the main characters get their happy endings without ending up in romantic relationships.

Our central character is Alice (Dakota Johnson), who is a newly graduated newcomer to New York, and has only had one, serious, long-term relationship. She's quickly befriended by Robin (Rebel Wilson), who goes out every night, loves one-night stands, and is eager to help Alice with her love life. Then there's Lucy (Alison Brie), who is perhaps a little too desperate to find the right guy, and has just moved into an apartment over the bar run by Tom (Anders Holm), who prefers casual sex with no strings attached. Finally there's OB/GYN Meg (Leslie Mann), who resists, but ultimately gives in to her biological clock, and decides to have a baby via in vitro fertilization. Unfortunately, she meets the genial Ken (Jake Lacy) right after getting pregnant. Damon Wayans, Nicholaus Braun, Jason Mantzoukas, and Colin Jost are also part of the ensemble as assorted love interests and potential partners.

There is absolutely nothing original about any of "How to Be Single." You can see the empowerment and self-love and sisterhood themes from a mile off, and it's only subversive in the gentlest, most palatable ways. However, it's also refreshingly non-judgmental about the characters' lifestyles and choices. Robin is at least as self-destructive as Amy Schumer's character in last year's "Trainwreck," but is not obliged for a moment to mend her ways or feel any shame about it. Meg's transition from childfree to mommy-to-be is her own choice rather than a societal expectation. Alice and Lucy make the same beginner's mistakes that everyone does, but the films lets them happen naturally, largely without manufactured dramatics. There are all the usual unrealistic romantic tropes in abundance, but there's also a nice level-headedness to the stories. X gets together with Y, but it doesn't work out. A dashes B's hopes, but isn't punished for choosing C. And when B and X have an unplanned one-night stand, that's all it is. Everyone moves on and mostly acts like a mature adult.

And I can't stress enough how good it is to see four genuinely funny leading ladies given ample opportunity to be funny. This is not particularly good or interesting material, but it's enough. Rebel Wilson gets to rock her slapstick. Leslie Mann plays middle-aged sad sack like no one else. Alison Brie's type A control freak is remarkably endearing. And then there's Dakota Johnson, who I haven't seen in anything else, and found to be a very sweet and lively presence here. I really hope she survives the "Fifty Shades" franchise and goes on to better things. The supporting cast is also a lot of fun, particularly Jake Lacy and Anders Holm, who bring some welcome silliness to familiar male types. I could have used some more development for some of the other guys, though, who we barely get to know.

I admit that I haven't been watching mainstream romantic comedies much lately, so I don't know how much the status quo has been shifting. However, it seems like the romance is reflecting reality more. There's clearly influence starting to filter in from television and independent features, which have been handling these topics better. The chats about sex and relationships are franker and more realistic. The characters have a wider variety of choices that reflect different values. "How to Be Single" feels like a movie made for Millennials in 2016, even though it hangs on to some of the same old idealistic rhetoric that was stale when "Sex and the City" did it. Really, that closing monologue could have been delivered by Sarah Jessica Parker in her sleep.

So, the studios haven't quite caught up to "Girls," but that's not a bad thing. The best thing I can say about the movie is that it's genuinely entertaining, and not in a guilty pleasure way. I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, and that hasn't been true of any studio rom-com for me in a long time. There's a lot of room for improvement, but it feels like this is a movie that just might be steering its battered genre back in the right direction. Here's hoping that it's not just a fluke.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Summer Post-Mortem 2016

Good grief, what a summer. A lot of us had been predicting a serious slump at the box office this season after the record breaking 2015 numbers, but the flops and disappointments have just kept coming, one after another. The box office has been fairly healthy, all things considered, but there has been a lot of grumbling from the studios and the theater owners.

Nearly every sequel underperformed, including "Independence Day: Resurgence," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows." The latest installments of once dependable series like "Ice Age," "X-men," "Jason Bourne," and "Star Trek" will be profitable, but feel like they're on their last legs. The reviews have ranged from middling to awful, with a few exceptions noted below. All the non-sequel films I'd been rooting for like "The BFG," "The Nice Guys," "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping," and "Pete's Dragon" bombed, though they were better received critically. Riskier big films like the "Ghostbusters" reboot and "Warcraft" weren't outright failures, but they're likely to ultimately lose money and won't be the franchise starters that their studios had hoped for.

The hugely hyped titles ended up on the top of the pile, as expected. Disney's "Finding Dory" and "Captain America: Civil War" finished at numbers one and two respectively, both comfortably over $400 million in domestic gross alone, and very well reveiwed. "The Secret Life of Pets" is hanging out in third, cementing Illumination Studios' reputation as a major contender, Minions or no Minions. Then there's "Suicide Squad," which gave the struggling DC universe a much needed win, though not as much as of a win as they would have liked. With a few exceptions, most of the hits didn't really feel like hits considering the amount of money spent, and the predictions that analysts were making based on much more profitable previous performers. "Angry Birds," for instance, was supposed to be the next "LEGO Movie," but it made only a modest $107 million domestic, and talk of a sequel has been fairly muted.

There were a few bright spots among the smaller titles: romantic drama "Me Before You," ensemble comedy "Bad Moms," and raunchy adult cartoon "Sausage Party" bucked the trends. Horror movies were very successful, including "The Shallows," "Lights Out," "The Conjuring 2," and "Purge: Election Year" - and all but the last got pretty good reviews too. "Swiss Army Man," "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," "The Lobster," and "Love and Friendship" made waves at the arthouses. "Central Intelligence" didn't make quite as much as previous Kevin Hart movie "Ride Along," but in a summer like this, $125 million was good enough to crack the top ten. Heck, the similarly performing "The Legend of Tarzan" feels like a win for not bombing nearly as badly as people had been predicting.

There's been plenty of speculation about what has caused the downturn, and the general consensus is that there was simply little interest in most of the movies that came out. It's not just the sequels and remakes, but original films too, no matter how good they are. "Sequels nobody asked for" point to a fundamental disconnect between the studios and the audience on just about every level, and traditional marketing tactics aren't as effective as they once were. There was more competition from other films, summer television, the Olympics, and Pokémon Go. The few big films like "Finding Dory" and "Suicide Squad" that have actually managed to achieve the status of being cultural events continue to break records. Everything else has only gotten an indifferent reception. There's a growing sense of what the studios are afraid of most - boredom.

A major story this year continues to be the growing power of China. They're the reason that "Warcraft" and "Now You See Me 2" weren't the disasters that they could have been, and probably played a significant part in sinking "Ghostbusters" by denying it an official release. However, it's also become clear that China alone can't make or break a franchise. "Now You See Me" will be getting another sequel based on the strength of the performance of the sequel in China, but a Chinese language one without most of the American cast. If "Warcraft" gets a sequel, it may not get a US release either.

Finally, please find below the results of my Summer Movie Wager predictions. I did almost exactly the same as last year.

Actual Domestic Box-Office Rankings:

1. "Finding Dory"
2. "Captain America: Civil War"
3. "The Secret Life of Pets"
4. "Suicide Squad"
5. "Jason Bourne"
6. "X-Men: Apocalypse"
7. "Star Trek Beyond"
8. "Central Intelligence"
9. "Ghostbusters"
10. "The Legend of Tarzan"
My Predictions

1. "Captain America: Civil War" - 7 points
2. "Finding Dory" - 7 points
3. "Independence Day: Resurgence"
4. "Ghostbusters" - 3 points
5. "The Angry Birds Movie"
6. "X-men: Apocalypse" - 10 points
7. "The BFG"
8. "Jason Bourne" - 3 points
9. "Alice Through the Looking Glass"
10. "Suicide Squad" - 3 points

Wild Cards

Central Intelligence - 1 point
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Final score: 34 points out of a possible 100

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2004

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.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - The best Michel Gondry film to date, and one of the highlights of Charlie Kaufman's screenwriting career. They take us on a journey into a man's mind and the heart of a broken relationship that is both grand scale and warmly intimate at the same time. It's also endlessly inventive, always coming up with some kind of interesting visual to represent different parts of the hero's psyche. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey's performances, however, are vital in giving the film its emotional heft.

The Incredibles - We've been so inundated by self-aware superhero media that it's easy to forget how sharp "The Incredibles" is as a commentary on the genre, while pushing the limits of what a PIXAR movie could be. In the midst of all the fun there are some sobering moments of reality, that give it some unmistakable edge. And while it got some flak for conforming to old stereotypes, the dynamics of the Parr family felt remarkably true to life. I cared about them in a way I've never cared about any other PIXAR heroes.

Shaun of the Dead - Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost mashed a rom-com together with a zombie movie, creating the rom-zom-com. It's the best of both worlds, allowing our loser hero, Shaun, to undergo some serious soul-searching while he and his friends flee and fend off the shambling undead. And like the best zombie movies, it also takes every opportunity to satirize the state of the modern man. The supporting cast is key to this one, with a lot of great character actors gamely becoming zombie fodder.

Collateral - Michael Mann's love affair with the nocturnal Los Angeles cityscape and gun-toting psychopaths continues. He's got some great performances to work with here too - Tom Cruise in a rare villainous role, Jamie Foxx as our reluctant everyman, and Mark Ruffalo struggling to catch up to the plot. However, as with most Mann films, it's all about the style and the atmosphere and what he can get a camera to do. I don't think it's the best of his films, but it's the last one to date that I can recommend unreservedly.

Kung Fu Hustle - This was my introduction to Stephen Chow, Hong Kong martial arts star and funnyman, who has made a career out of outrageous slapstick comedies. It's a loving tribute to cinema of every stripe, including older martial arts film, Golden Age Hollywood, and even Looney Tunes cartoons. And it's absolutely hysterical, joyous fun from start to finish. I especially enjoyed seeing so many combatants who looked like the older members of my extended family, settling old grudges with over-the-top brawling.

Super Size Me - Many of the claims of this documentary have since been challenged and criticized, but the onscreen depiction of Morgan Spurlock's horribly damaging McDonalds diet speaks for itself. And in the process, he manages to start a conversation about the state of American nutrition, food marketing, and the whole fast food industry in a remarkably accessible and entertaining way. Of all the films of 2004, I suspect that this is the one that had the greatest real-world impact, changing menus across the world forever.

Mysterious Skin - An achingly sad, unsettling film about two boys who were victims of a terrible trauma, and then grew up, but never really recovered from it. Director Gregg Araki approaches a delicate topic from a stranger, more personal angle than most media on the subject. Disturbing as some of the themes are, the storytelling is sensitive, the images are mesmerizing, and the characters are impossible to forget. Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominates much of the film, in what may be his best screen performance.

Nobody Knows - Director Hirokazu Koreeda gives us a window into a special, private world created by four young siblings who have been abandoned in a Tokyo apartment. At times unbearably tense, funny, uplifting, and tragic, the film wisely focuses on the kids' resilience even as it acknowledges the unfolding tragedy. Much of its effectiveness comes from how well Koreeda is able to capture the relationships and the behavior of the children. The young actors, especially Yuya Yagira as the oldest boy, are excellent.

Millions - A very weird, but very charming children's film about family, money, crime, and religion. Danny Boyle never lets the story's dream sequences and fantasy elements get in the way of the gentle comedy and the frank discussion of real moral and social issues. It's also a nice snapshot of the time it was made, portraying the concerns of a working class British family. And while the kids are great, my favorite performance comes from James Nesbitt, as a father who slowly comes to learn exactly who his children are.

Primer - Made for next to nothing, this is one of the most impressive takes on time travel ever filmed. The timeline may be impossibly convoluted, but the narrative is perfectly clear. The visuals are sparse and utilitarian, but they convey terrific tension and dread. And it's hard to believe that Shane Carruth and David Sullivan had never acted in anything before this, considering where the story takes their characters. Grounded, intelligent science fiction films like this come along far too rarely.

Honorable Mentions

Napoleon Dynamite
The Sea Inside
I ♥ Huckabees
Hotel Rwanda
Million Dollar Baby
Mind Game
Kill Bill Vol 2


Thursday, September 1, 2016

My Top Ten Episodes of "Person of Interest"

It never quite hits you until the final episode is over, how long certain shows have been on the air. "Person of Interest" only had five seasons, which is nothing next to "Big Bang Theory," but it's very rare for any kind of cyberpunk science-fiction show to last so long. It was also extraordinary for how it changed over the years. In 2011, when it began, it maintained a certain ambivalence about the surveillance state. Then came Edward Snowden's disclosures in 2013, and the world changed. By 2016, "Person of Interest" became a cautionary tale about privacy and security. Going back through the earlier episodes felt positively nostalgic.

Episodes are listed below unranked and ordered by airdate. Moderate spoilers ahead.

"Witness" - The first season of "Person of Interest" was also its most formulaic. It strictly followed the standard case-of-the-week format, with only the occasional smattering of back story to help flesh out the main characters. However, "Witness" introduced a recurring villain, Elias, who would prove so charismatic that he outlasted nearly everyone else on the show. The episode itself has some great action sequences, a fun twist, and the ongoing conversations between Reese and Elias are very enjoyable.

"Relevance" - Another introduction episode, this time for Agent Shaw, who is working one of the Machine's relevant numbers on behalf of the government. We see everything from her POV, including the efforts of Reese, Finch, Carter, Fusco, and Root. The departure from formula allows us a glimpse into a different part of the Machine's operations, and the shady way that the information is being used by the Pentagon. I wasn't a fan of Shaw yet at this point, but she definitely made a strong first impression.

"Zero Day" - By the end of the second season, the history of Finch and the Machine had almost been fully laid out through flashbacks. However, they saved the juiciest events for the final two episodes. These are coupled with a struggle over control of the Machine in the present day, which culminates in a flashy showdown in the New York Public Library where Root gets to show off her guntoting skills. It's a whole lot of satisfying payoff that neatly sets up the events of the next episode. Speaking of which...

"God Mode" - Harold Finch has always been my favorite character because he's such a powerful and tragic figure. This is the episode that fully spells out the origins of his crusade to save "irrelevant" lives. We also get to see the full power of The Machine as "god mode" is activated, allowing Reese and his allies full access to its resources as the enemy close in on the physical location of the Machine. With the amount of closure offered, the series could have ended here and I would have been completely satisfied.

"The Devil's Share" - It starts with a knockout opening sequence that pairs scenes of the characters grieving with the Johnny Cash cover of "Hurt." And it closes with one of my favorite scenes of the entire series - Carl Elias paying tribute to a fallen friend before exacting a very cold revenge. He's the answer to the question of who among our heroes should dirty their hands to bring down a monster after the unthinkable happens. Reese and Shaw come out with their souls intact, but of course Elias's soul was lost long ago.

"Lethe" - A quieter character-building episode for Finch, but an important one. We learn about his father, his early experiments with computers, and his initial jaunts into troublemaking. I wish we'd seen more of the younger Finch, but this lone appearance just makes the episode all the more special. Saul Rubinek also guest stars as the ailing father of the Samaritan A.I., the latest number. And then, because the show is running headlong into its next arc, we're introduced to Camryn Manheim as the show's newest villain.

"Aletheia" - Notice that this is the third of three episodes that aired successively from the third season on the list. These transitional episodes were "Person of Interest" at its best, as it said goodbye to HR and dove headlong into government and corporate conspiracies. There's some really nail-biting sequences here, specifically Control's torture of Root and what happens to poor Arthur. Team Machine loses, and loses badly this week. And two episodes after losing a major cast member, it really felt like anyone could go next.

"Deus Ex Machina" - The final episode of the third season caps off an excellent year and welcomes the show's biggest villain, Samaritan. After weeks of trying to prevent the Machine's rival from coming online, and putting everyone through the wringer, we still end up with at worst case scenario. This is a major turning point for the series, and the whole format of the show is forever changed, in a good way. We end with the best "Person of Interest" cliff hanger, as every single good guy is left in limbo - including the Machine.

"If-Then-Else" - Probably the most famous episode of the series, as it tells its story from the Machine's point of view, and offers some new insight on how the A.I. thinks. With its assets stuck in the middle of a bad situation that is about to turn violent, the Machine needs to decide the best way to direct them to safety. It does this by running simulations of as many possible future scenarios as it can - but it can't foresee everything. And for such an emotionally fraught episode, it has what has to be the funniest gag too.

"The Day the World Went Away" - Not quite the finale, which I wasn't completely happy with, but this is the end of the line for two major characters and sets everyone up for the quickly coming end. The final season suffered a bit from a lower budget and fewer episodes, but they mustered up enough resources to make this one something special. Finch's number is up, and the stakes are very high. So we get a big car chase scene, a chilling monologue, Root with big guns - in short, all of my favorite things.