Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Penny Dreadful," Year Three

Some moderate, non-detailed spoilers ahead.

It was worth watching the final season of "Penny Dreadful," though it clearly had its problems. I knew about the downbeat ending long in advance, but I thought that the biggest issues were that John Logan added so many new pieces and tried to cover so much ground. Inevitably, there were too many characters who didn't get their due, too many plots that were rushed through, and some very poor storytelling choices.

Things started out well. After the events of last season, Vanessa has been left alone in London to stew in her misery. With a help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), she returns to society and becomes enamored with a zoologist, Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo). Unfortunately, she's also being spied on by Seward's secretary Renfield (Samuel Barnett), recently recruited by Dracula. Meanwhile in America, Ethan is being extradited and a reunion with his hated father, Jared Talbot (Brian Cox), appears inevitable. Sir Malcolm and an Apache warrior Kaetenay (Wes Studi) race to help him. Victor Frankenstein partners with an old friend, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), seeking to find a way to return Lily to his side. She's still with Dorian, plotting a proto-radical feminist uprising, and recruiting London's prostitutes to her cause. Finally, John Clare tracks down the family (Casper Allpress and Pandora Colin) that he left behind when he died.

Some of these stories play out perfectly well. I have no complaints about John Clare, Lily Frankenstein, or Dorian Gray - Gray actually has his best arc, gradually becoming disillusioned with Lily. However, the rest of the show was rife with truncated or just plain badly conceived ideas. Emblematic of this is Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), a jarringly modern scholar of death rituals, who appears in the second half of the season as a new ally for Vanessa. She frequently acts like she's in an action film, with her quips and her fearless fighting prowess, and with next to no development at all, she ends up playing a major part in the finale. Catriona would be a Mary Sue if she had more screen time. Or there's Dr. Jekyll, who in an interesting twist is a half-Indian chemist with massive daddy issues. This season sets up the famous Jekyll and Hyde story, but of course will never pursue it fully. Ethan's history with the Apache desperately needed more time, and I'm disappointed that he didn't get a flashback episode. And what about John Clare's death?

And we have to talk about Vanessa Ives. Eva Green and Rory Kinnear did a magnificent job with their bottle episode, "A Blade of Grass," which felt like it was setting up much bigger things that the series ultimately skipped. I don't object to the ending of "Penny Dreadful" and Vanessa's story, but how the series chose to get there was endlessly frustrating. The all-important seduction of Vanessa felt far too fast, and then the final two episodes only featured her for a single scene with barely any emotional context. It would have taken more than an episode or two of extra material to fix this, and I'm really torn about whether John Logan should have attempted this finale at all. There are so many loose ends hanging around the edges of the series, any sense of closure is minimal.

The production of "Penny Dreadful" remains excellent. I loved the views of the New Mexico territory, Dr. Sweet's museum, and the visions of an apocalyptic London. It was a nice change of pace to see America in this era, and there were some fun variations on the show's predominantly British horror tropes. I'm glad I stuck with the series long enough to see the chapel showdown, Billie Piper calling for revolution on Dorian Gray's dinner table, and that gorgeous final scene with Ethan and Vanessa surrounded by flickering candles.

Even if it means no more Eva Green, I'd love for "Penny Dreadful" to continue. There's clearly so much more that the series could explore, and the series might be able to fix some of these issues retroactively. As it stands now, the show is still by far the best horror television series that I've ever seen, and it won't be matched easily in the future.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2002

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.

Dirty Pretty Things - This was the first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in, playing an illegal African immigrant who works in a London hotel. He and the rest of the ensemble are phenomenal, humanizing the plight of the desperate souls who comprise an invisible underclass of legal and illegal immigrants from all over the globe. Director Stephen Frears, whose intense human dramas and thrillers I prefer over his comedies, is at his best here. His careful treatment of the difficult material gives it some real emotional power.

Punch Drunk Love - An Adam Sandler movie conceived and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is a lovely, precious thing. The emotions are heightened, the violence stings, and the colorful romance is as strange as it is affecting. Sandler proves that he's not only capable of being a good comedic and dramatic actor, but a devastating one in the right hands. As for Anderson, "Punch Drunk Love" has some of his most stunning images and memorable characters. And this is without a doubt the funniest film that he's ever made.

Oasis - This is the film that cemented Lee Chang-dong as my favorite Korean director. Somehow it manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of stories about the disabled, being neither too maudlin nor too exploitative - though the disabilities in question are certainly mined for drama. Instead, it finds ways to us to help the audience to connect to the characters who the rest of the world has largely written off. There's a daring to the portrayal of the couple, particularly the female lead stricken with cerebral palsy, that is riveting.

Bloody Sunday - You can trace the popularity of the quasi-documentary shakeycam style back to this film, where Paul Greengrass uses it to capture the horrors of Northern Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre up close and personal. The intensity and the realism of the recreations are tremendous, and just enough context is provided to drive home the depth of the tragedy. Greengrass would go on to make other films in the same vein with the same style, but he only rarely achieved the same degree of verisimilitude.

25th Hour - Spike Lee captures the aftermath of 9/11 in New York in this thoughtful, uncompromising human drama about a young man's last day freedom before a long prison sentence. Edward Norton leads a strong cast, and delivers the film's signature monologue with so much dynamic, uncoiling emotion, it's impossible to forget it. And Lee's dreamlike shots of New York and its imperfect citizens build to one of the most beautiful endings in film, bar none. Lee maybe inconsistent, but when he lands a hit, there's no one better.

City of God - A look at the nightmare world of Brazil's favelas, where crime is often committed by the very young, and it's nearly impossible to escape the cycles of violence and poverty. The film is bursting with energy and constantly in motion. It's easy to relate to the young protagonists as we follow them from childhood to adulthood while Brazil changes around them. Nearly all the characters were played by non-actors, mostly kids from the real favelas. This lends a striking degree of authenticity and poignancy to "City of God."

Frida - The life of the celebrated Frida Kahlo is vividly brought to the screen by director Julie Taymor. Her mixed media approach never felt more appropriate, and Salma Hayek tackles the title role with everything she's got. I adore the portrayal of Kahlo and Diego Rivera's tumultuous relationship, which forms the backbone of the film, and all the different ways that Taymor finds to incorporate the art and iconography of Kahlo into the visuals. I especially love that the Brothers Quay contributed a brief snippet of animated body horror.

The Pianist - Roman Polanski's most personal film is a Holocaust memoir of a Polish-Jewish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. There's little sentiment or emphasis on larger messages here, just a quetly matter-of fact chronicle of Szpilman's struggle to survive in wartime Warsaw. From the ghettoes, to the concentration camps, to life in hiding, the effect of Polanski's own experiences is clear. Since "The Pianist," Adrien Brody never had another part so perfect for his talents, and Polanski's career has been in a notable decline ever since.

Chicago - The best time you could have had at the movies in 2002 was watching Rob Marshall's bold, brassy film adaptation of the stage musical "Chicago." Everyone is cast right, everyone knocks their solo out of the park, and we get some great cinematic versions of iconic numbers like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Mister Cellophane." The use of the fantasy cutaways for the musical sequences is especially effective, letting supporting actors like John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah enjoy their much deserved moments to shine.

Infernal Affairs - Long before it was remade by Martin Scorsese as "The Departed," "Infernal Affairs" was memorable for being the film where popular Chinese actors Tony Leung and Andy Lau went head to head, as competing moles for the police and the mob, respectively. The script was smart, the direction was slick, and the performances were excellent. It remains among the best of the Hong Kong crime thrillers, full of inventive twists and turns. Pay special attention to the early use and depiction of nailbiting cell phone conversations.

Honorable Mentions

Far From Heaven
Road to Perdition
Russian Ark
Better Luck Tomorrow
About Schmidt
Talk to Her
One Hour Photo
Catch Me If You Can

Monday, November 21, 2016

The First Five of "The Americans"

In the age of television anti-heroes, what better subject for a cable drama than one of the American media's favorite go-to bad guys, Communist spies? "The Americans" imagines a version of the 1980s where there really were deep cover Soviets living in the U.S. under assumed identities, fighting the Cold War on enemy turf. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) look like an average American married couple, with two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, they're actually KGB agents, carrying out dangerous missions on behalf of Soviet intelligence. The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA official.

The early episodes get the ball rolling on several ongoing storylines. Elizabeth and Philip have never been romantically involved despite having children together, but that starts to change after a particularly dramatic mission together. They begin to open up to each other about their previously closed-off personal lives and histories. Then there's Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counterintelligence, who moves into the Jennings' neighborhood with his family. Stan and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) are frequently working against the efforts of the Jennings, though they don't know it. Stan also becomes involved with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a secretary at the Soviet embassy who he coerces into becoming an informer.

Watching the Jennings carry out espionage missions and keep up false identities is certainly fun to watch, but what I've really been enjoying about "The Americans" is the way it recontextualizes history from the Soviet point of view. Elizabeth and Philip are portrayed quite sympathetically, and the fervent anti-communism of the Americans can be unsettling. The show's episode on the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is a highlight, with the CIA paranoid about the possibility of a Soviet connection, while the Soviets are paranoid that the CIA will try to pin the blame on them. I like that the show doesn't seem to lean one way or another on the politics at this point, though we all know who is going to win in the end.

Now, the Soviets never really used deep cover operatives like this, and frankly the lives that Philip and Elizabeth are a little ridiculous in construction. However, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are very good at selling their complicated, tumultuous, and often contradictory relationship. Elizabeth is the true believer, the one who is more emotionally invested in their work for the KGB. Keri Russell is fantastic at showing how she thinks and operates, and she's been the standout of the cast so far. Philip's loyalties are less certain, but when push comes to shove, he's equally willing to do horrible things. Matthew Rhys hasn't quite won me over to the same extent as Russell yet, but he's getting there. I also really appreciate how complex Stan Beeman is, full of doubts and flaws. Noah Emmerich is showing the potential to be great.

My issues with the show mostly have to do with the writing. "The Americans" is fond of action and violence to the extent that you could mistake its more bombastic sequences for something out of "Alias." The consequences, however, are usually much more dire for anyone caught in the crossfire. The Jennings may be fun to root for, but the game they're playing is a brutal one, and being absolutely heartless monsters is often a part of their job description. So far this has been great for individual episodes, but the show hasn't really addressed their moral slipperyness on a character level yet, and that hasn't been sitting well with me. I realize that we're still in the early going here, but this is a big piece of the picture that is going to need to be addressed.

Frankly, I prefer the slower, calmer moments where "The Americans" occasionally achieves a tone closer to "Mad Men." There's a very clear sense of history happening, and larger forces affecting the characters, which helps to set the show apart from similar spy-themed media. "The Americans" works fine as a standard action thriller, but I hope that it does become more thoughtful over time, and lets its characters engage with thornier issues at it approaches the conclusion of the Cold War. Maybe I'm asking the show to be something it isn't, but the possibilities intrigue me. So, my position on the show is undecided for now, but I do want to watch more.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Back to the '80s With "Stranger Things"

The new Netflix series "Stranger Things," created by the Duffer Brothers, was purposefully made to evoke the media of the 1980s, and the internet has been quick to point out the loads of references to Steven Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter, and even John Hughes movies. However, the reason why the eight-episode first season has gotten such a warm reception is because it's one of the most thoroughly, consistently entertaining pieces of television to have popped up in the media landscape in some time. And it definitely gets bonus points for being something very different - not original - but different.

It starts with a group of four 12-year-old boys in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons in 1983. They include nerdy leader Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), chunky goofball Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), charismatic Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp), who disappears on his way home from the game. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) leads the search, but Will's high-strung mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) thinks something more sinister is going on, after some spooky occurrences at her house. She and her older son, teenage Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), start their own separate investigations. A few days later, Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), dating a bad boy named Steve (Joe Keery), crosses paths with the same phenomena that seems to be connected to Will's disappearance. And then there's Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a nearly silent girl with a shaved head, who wanders into town wearing only a hospital gown. She appears to be on the run from agents of the government, led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

This can be broken down into essentially three different, intersecting narratives - one with the adults, one with the teenagers, and one with the kids. The one with the kids is the most fun, as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin puzzle over what to do with Eleven when she comes into their lives, and how to help Will. The boys act exactly like the kids you remember from "Goonies," "Stand By Me," and "E.T.," all bluster and overexcitement and deeply felt emotions. Gaten Matarazzo is frequently a scene stealer, and a solid character actor in the making. Millie Bobby Brown is also very good as Eleven, doing a lot with very little dialogue. With the teenagers, I initially wasn't sold on the romance-centric character dynamics, but eventually the performances won me over. Natalia Dyer keeps Nancy engaging, even when she's being an idiot. Finally, David Harbour is my pick for MVP, providing a solid, steady presence throughout as the town's police chief. Winona Ryder is the show's biggest headliner, but I found her only so-so. She's very one-note, which sometimes works, and often doesn't.

The weaker performances are easy to ignore, however, because the writing is unusually strong. It doesn't just recycle the old tropes from the '80s, like kids fighting supernatural monsters, and a young girl with strange powers, but puts them together in very compelling ways. Also, the storytelling is so nicely restrained, never giving all the answers and occasionally throwing in a few curveballs to subvert some of the old clichés. The show is very good at maintaining momentum through the whole eight episodes, with very few slow spots. What really impressed me were the little behavioral nuances the writers caught - Nancy being chided for language by her mother, the boys biking all around town without any paranoid parent hovering over them, and the science teacher being consulted at a critical moment because the internet didn't exist yet. There are some missteps, like Mike and Nancy's parents being just a little too oblivious, and it gets a little too pleased with its own cleverness here and there, but these flaws are fairly minor.

"Stranger Things" is helped immensely by the show's production, which recreates the feel of the '80s down to the Trapper Keepers and the Tupperware. The soundtrack is a nicely atmospheric, synth-heavy jaunt into nostalgia, with Toto and Elegia making appearances. However, it's the original images that the series comes up with that really stick - Joyce trying to communicate with Will through Christmas lights, Jonathan's photographs of a pool party, and every variation on Eleven's appearance. The only things I thought were a little off were that the special effects were too good, and there wasn't nearly enough neon lighting for 1983.

I should reiterate that "Stranger Things" is a monster movie throwback at heart, and won't be for everyone, especially if they weren't around for the '80s. Despite all the praise, nobody should go into this actually expecting something at the same level as the old Spielberg flicks. John Carpenter and Steven King, maybe. It's a weird, wonderful corner of the media landscape that the Duffer brothers have managed to resurrect. I've very curious to see if they'll be able to sustain this in the inevitable sequel.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Trailers! Trailers! Holiday 2016 Edition

Been a while since we've done one of these, but with all the new holiday movies out, and slew of interesting trailers having recently been released, I think it's high time for a new installment. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - I love that they gave Drax so much of the spotlight in this teaser. Really, a couple of fun character moments was all that was necessary here, and it's exactly what we got. Apparently Yondu and Nebula will be joining the Guardians for this adventure, along with some new faces. Not too much to see here yet, but at this stage that's fine. I'm also glad that "Hooked on a Feeling" has made another appearance, evoking the original trailer for the first movie. It's nice to know that at least one of the Marvel movies has memotable music, even if it's borrowed.

Logan - The final "Wolverine" film has had a fantastic marketing rollout so far, and I've gone from total ambivalence to pretty high anticipation. It's one thing to have Hugh Jackman's final outing as Wolverine be in a post-apocalyptic future, but quite another to have this film be such a gritty, rugged-looking departure from all the other "X-men" films. With director James Mangold promising the third act won't fall victim to excessive CGI, and Jackman and Patrick Stewart both looking great as damaged older versions of their characters, "Logan" could be a great repudiation of the overly glossy "X-men: Apocalypse." Best of all, it promises to be a smaller, simpler story, that will really get to the heart of its characters, and give the actors the sendoff they deserve.

A Cure for Wellness - Gore Verbinski's taking the plunge back into horror, and bringing some absolutely stunning visuals with him. The trailer's glimpses of a remote health spa that looks an awful lot like a mental hospital or mad scientist's laboratory the further in you go, are gripping. I'd been hearing good things about this project for a while, but this absolutely knocked my socks off. I look forward to some epic creepiness and mind-twisting fun when we finally get to see this in February. Also, I should note that it's going to be a big year for Dane DeHaan, who will be headlining at least three films next year.

Life - The JFK narration gives this a sheen of respectability, but "Life" is clearly a space disaster movie of the most prurient kind, which is why it's being released in May instead of October. It is nice to see the advances in effects we saw in "Gravity" and "Interstellar" being used in more mainstream blockbuster fodder. However, I don't have much anticipation for this one, even with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gylenhaal headlining. None of the primary creative staff have particularly impressive resumes, and the film was delayed from March to avoid comeptition from "Power Rangers" and the Guy Ritchie "King Arthur" movie.

Wonder Woman - The newest trailer gives us more glimpses of Diana in action, including a scene on Themiscyra. I like Gal Gadot in the role the more I see her, accent and all. There's also a lot of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, which some have complained about, but I don't see the problem. He sets up Diana's quest to aid in WWI, and gives us a good POV character for her to interact with. We also finally see a little humor in the closing moments with Lucy Davis, just enough to confirm that the film will have a lighter tone than the recent Zack Snyder DC films. I won't be watching any further previews, because I'm already sold.

T2: Trainspotting - The first "Trainspotting" was so long ago, it didn't register that some of my favorite UK actresses, Kelly MacDonald and Shirley Henderson, were part of the cast. But here they are, along with Ewan MacGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, and all the rest. A new version of the "choose life" monologue announces their reunion here, which I'm not quite sure of the shape of yet. Without any context, this looks a bit like a midlife crisis movie. Surely the drugs and the self-destruction of the original are still in the mix? The trailer is entirely too happy looking for the kind of film that I'm hoping to see. Danny Boyle, don't let me down.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - Luc Besson is doing another space opera, this one based on a French comic from the '60s. Full of alien creatures and scenic sci-fi starscapes, it's going to be the most expensive French film ever made, and I'm hoping that this turns out to be closer to "The Fifth Element" than "Jupiter Ascending." So far the visuals look great, but I'm worried about the relatively green cast here, which includes Cara Delavigne and Rihanna playing a shapeshifter. I don't see a grounding human presence like Bruce Willis, who was so vital to "The Fifth Element." It's too early to say much yet, but fingers are crossed.

Ghost in the Shell - The amazing recreations of scenes from the various "Ghost in the Shell" anime will make this a treat for existing fans, but will it connect with general audiences? Will the film still retain some of the franchise's heady existential themes, or have the filmmakers just cherry-picked the best looking visuals for a more typical dumbed-down action film? Scarlett Johanssen looks great, at least, and I'm hoping that her performance will be good enough to temper some of the casting controversy. Also, though I'm not going to link it here, the opening sequence of the film as leaked, and it's pretty spectacular.

Beauty and the Beast - It looks like the strategy here is to include nods to other several versions of "Beauty and the Beast," including Jean Cocteau's, thought the 1991 animated film is clearly the main inspiration. It's going to take a while for me to get used to the CGI versions of the enchanted objects like Cogsworth and Lumiere, who will also have different voices. I'm not quite sold on Emma Watson as Belle, or the look of the Beast, but I'm absolutely willing to give the film a chance.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Favorite Jacques Demy Film

Though best remembered for his musicals and his fairy tale adaptations, it is important to keep in mind that nearly all of Jacques Demy's movies end sadly. Loves are lost, hopes are dashed, and fate is cruel. Even when there are happy endings, there are lingering ambiguities, or we learn later, in a subsequent film, that the happiness was short-lived. And yet, Demy's best films are filled with exuberant color and music and moments of wonder. Emotions are heightened, mirrored by sumptuous art direction and scoring. Demy's films are gorgeous to look at and to listen to, especially his tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals, "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort," or "The Young Girls of Rochefort."

Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac play a pair of twin sisters, Delphine and Solange, who live in the seaside town of Rochefort with their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), and long to get away to Paris. The sisters are at the center of several interconnected stories about various characters in Rochefort. There are the carnies, Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), who have come into town with the traveling carnival. There's Yvonne's ex-fiancé Simon (Michel Piccoli), who has returned to town unknown to her. There's the sailor, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who is searching for his feminine ideal, and surely is meant to be Delphine's true love. And last, but certainly not least, there's Andy (Gene Kelly), an American composer who bumps into and becomes smitten by Solange.

With jazz-infused music and songs by Michel Legrand, the cast decked out in glorious pastel colors, and several large scale choreographed set pieces, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" is an endlessly charming watch. The sisters' introductory number with Deneuve and Dorléac in giant matching hats is a dollop of perfectly executed whimsy. Then they meet up with Charkiris and Dale, and become two pairs of joyous dancers, filling the screen with more motion and energy. And then there's the sight of Gene Kelly, who was over fifty at the time the film was made, dancing through the sunny streets with more vitality than the cast members half his age. The American in Paris had returned, and was in love again.

And yet there are threads of darkness that weave through the whole film - the café patron who turns out to be an axe murderer and Delphine's gun-toting lover being the most obvious. At its core, the story is built on all the characters having these unlucky near-misses, again and again. The ones who are perfect for each other never quite manage to come together the way they should, sometimes for the most trivial reasons. While "Young Girls of Rochefort" is much lighter than Demy's "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," it has moments of the same melancholia, of regret and disappointment. It's more interested in exploring the longing for love, and the memory of love than love itself. Even the ending only hints at a happy conclusion for Maxence and Delphine without actually giving us one.

The production was highly ambitious, and reportedly chaotic. Demy had never orchestrated anything so large scale before, and had to wait years for Gene Kelly to become available. He had to significantly scale down his original plans, changing the location and removing references to his earlier films. Due to lack of time, nearly all the actors had their singing dubbed, even the ones who were perfectly capable of delivering their performances in French. After Gene Kelly declined to handle the choreography, the task fell to the relatively inexperienced Norman Maen, who Demy clashed with. More than one critic has noted that the dancing is the least successful element of the film.

And yet, nothing could stop the joyous, breathless, New Wave joie de vivre of "The Young Girls of Rochefort." There's a sponataeity and a freshness to the film, even after nearly fifty years, that is infectious. The lush visuals still pop, the music still soars, and Demy was at the height of his career and filmmaking prowess. Even if he didn't get the mechanics of the Hollywood musical quite right, he certainly captured the spirit of them. Delphine and Solange would be right at home in any American musical.

However, because they exist in the darker, less forgiving world of a Jacques Demy film, their youthful liveliness also has an unexpected poignancy.

What I've Seen - Jacques Demy

Lola (1960)
Bay of Angels (1963)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Model Shop (1969)
Donkey Skin (1970)
The Pied Piper (1972)
Lady Oscar (1979)
A Room In Town (1982)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Maggie's Plan" is Comfortingly Complicated

It was something of a pleasant shock to find Greta Gerwig playing someone who isn't a walking shambles. Instead, she's playing Maggie, a university program advisor who seems to have her life and priorities all figured out. She wants to be a mother and isn't willing to wait for the right man, so she decides to use the sperm of an old college fling, Guy (Travis Fimmel), to have a baby by herself. Of course, this is undermined by the appearance of John (Ethan Hawke), an academic whose marriage to the brilliant, but overwhelming Columbia professor Georgette (Julianne Moore) is on the rocks. Maggie and John fall in love, but that's just the beginning.

"Maggie's Plan" was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who we haven't seen a new film from in much too long. It is a gentle comedic farce in construction, loosely patterned on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The characters are more down-to earth and relatable than the ones I've been watching in most the most recent batch of neurotic New York indie comedies. Even the flamboyant Georgette, with her thick accent and frazzled delivery, is fairly restrained. Though they all trade barbs, it never feels like the characters are trying to bombard each other with their dialogue, the way they sometimes do in Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman movies. There's a welcome mellowness and maturity to Maggie, it's easy to see why everyone likes her, and is influenced by her, though they're also quick to point out her considerable flaws.

Maggie's life isn't working out the way the way she thinks it should, and keeps trying to correct the situation in ways that she shouldn't. So does Georgette. So does John. Maggie's brooding friend Tony (Bill Hader) may be in love with her, but keeps his feelings to himself and stays out of the drama - until he doesn't. All of these people have children and other responsibilities that require them to be adults, and they are mostly very decent, hardworking, and kind adults at that. When Maggie and Georgette meet, they both have to admit that they like each other. And they're also very self-aware and accepting of their own limitations once these are made clear. I love seeing that in any kind of modern comedy these days. And that's probably why I found "Maggie's Plan" so much easier to connect with on a basic level than any of the similar romantic comedies I've seen in a long time. Nobody in it needs to grow up. Nobody has any outsized, unusual personal issues. They just need to learn to get along, with or without each other.

Performances are good all around. It's a relief to find that Greta Gerwig can still play someone more level-headed after so many broader, Millennial basket-cases. I love that Miller makes time to show Maggie simply being a mother, or having fun on a date. Ethan Hawke easily covers all the bases - charming, engaging, frustrating, alienating and yet always sympathetic to some degree. Julianne Moore's Georgette could have been much sillier in other hands, but she's so likeable here. One of my favorite scenes comes late in the movie, where John and Georgette have a heart-to-heart, and we get a good idea of what made their relationship work for so long before it fell apart. And then there's Bill Hader, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. His role is small, but he really makes it count.

"Maggie's Plan" is so low-key and unassuming, I expect that most people will pass it by. It's a good film, but not an especially good one. However, I can't stop thinking about it. This is the kind of movie I didn't realize that I had wanted to see, didn't realize was missing from my media diet. It was a reminder that there are still movies being made for a thirty-something woman who likes romances that are actually about relationships, and likes comedies where no one has to be the butt of the joke or the bad guy. And yes, having the female perspective is a big part of this. So I really have to do better about keeping my eyes open, and making sure that I don't miss other films like this.


Friday, November 11, 2016

My 2016 Holiday Wishlist

Boy, did last year's requests not go down well. The election coverage was a mess. The "X-files" revival was deplorable. Broadcast television looks like it's in meltdown. I still have no reliable TV podcast to replace Firewall and Iceberg. Oh, and did I refer to "Suicide Squad" as "David Goyer's 'Sinister Six'" last time? Yes. Yes I did. But still, it's time to try again.

Dear Hollywood,

This year for Christmas I want...

For strategic uncrowding of the release schedule. One of the reasons that summer of 2016 saw so many underperformers is that there were too many would-be event films released too closely together. I suspect that we're starting to see bigger hits in August simply because that's when the competition finally eases a bit. 2017 doesn't look any better at the moment, with many, many more sequels that nobody asked for. It's even happening on a smaller scale with specific genres. Notice that January has somehow become a popular month for horror movies, with five horror titles being released in four weeks - which all but guarantees that they're going to cannibalize each other's business.

For the theatergoing to be more affordable. I'm willing to jump through some pretty ridiculous hoops to save a few dollars, but there aren't any discount or second run theaters within driving distance of me, and ticket prices just keep going up. I'm now close to paying $12 for a weekend matinee, which is too much for me to justify for all but the most absolute, must see films. This year, that's been a grand total of two films so far, and I'm finding that simply waiting for that second window is becoming easier and easier. I'm barely even watching trailers and commercials anymore, so dodging the hype hasn't been a problem.

For more sequels to flop in 2017. "Sequels nobody asked for" were blamed in part for the summer slump, and there are several likely contenders for that title coming up next year. I won't name names, but there are certain moribund franchises on their third, fourth, or fifth installment that I'm really doubtful will actually make money. If a bunch of them bomb again, maybe it'll finally start curbing the studios' addiction to high-numbered sequels. Of course, two of next year's most anticipated films are the eighth in their series, so...

For more streamable commentary tracks. I haven't listened to a film commentary track in years, since I stopped watching DVDs, and I miss them. I'm hoping that with the new proliferation of streaming services, and competition increasing, we'll see more of them offered, along with other extras. Netflix added director commentary tracks to some of its "House of Cards" episodes a few years ago, and "Amazon Prime has some for "Transparent," but these are rarities. Podcasts have helped fill some of the gaps, but it's just not the same.

For diversity efforts in Hollywood to continue, no matter the backlash. I know the "Ghostbusters" reboot was a disappointment, but a more diverse media landscape is a better media landscape. I continue to be impressed with the strides being made on television, and look forward to more movies finally reflecting reality a little better too. "The Dark Tower" will be an interesting case next summer. And in a related request -

For Twitter to be more proactive about curbing online harassment. There are other social media platforms that also need a firm kick in the pants, but Twitter has been by far the most high profile service to have facilitated the growth of an online culture of harassment toward certain groups and individuals through their inaction. Trolling behavior has become far too normalized, and there needs to be more pushback before the entire internet ends up looking like 4Chan.

For all the new films and television shows coming out this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve. There's a lot of good stuff coming our way soon, which I'll expand on in other posts.

For Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert to hang in there, in the post-election season.

And for the new "Doctor Who" companion to kick ass. We're rooting for you!

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Obligatory 2016 Election Post

I write this post the morning after Donald Trump has won the election for the U.S. presidency. There's a lot of panic in the air and I have had very little sleep. Still, I feel now is as good a time as any to reflect on this ridiculous election cycle and the role of media.

First, you've got to love the irony that Roger Ailes has been deposed from FOX News just before all his dreams essentially came true. Trump is the ne plus ultra of the FOX News style demagogue, but one so egotistical that even Ailes gave up on coaching him for the debates. With the Republicans controlling every branch of the federal government and most of the states, I have to wonder who their new Big Government scapegoat is going to be. And whether they'll warm up to Putin.

The late night comedians were all behind Hillary, but the Trump win means that they'll have plenty of material for the next four years. I just finished watching the final few minutes of Stephen Colbert's Showtime election special, which has gone viral. It's the best reaction to the election that I've seen so far, stressing that the country has become too divided and we've all got to find some common ground. I haven't had a chance to look at the other shows yet, but I will be, after I've recovered some nerve. I'm especially looking forward to John Oliver after his multiple pieces on Trump.

I actually had a lot of fun watching some of the election-themed media during this season. "The Daily Show" and all its progeny got to be a bit much, especially toward the end as they were directly pitching for Hillary Clinton, but I loved the "SNL" skits with Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon. I loved the Clinton installment of "Between Two Ferns." Heck, it was even nice to see the cast of "Will & Grace" reunite for a skit (and maybe a revival, natch). I did my best to stay out of the way of the ads and the cable news personalities, keeping my television set mostly off. On election night, I put on PBS.

Online, however, was a different story. I've been a Hillary supporter since her first run in 2008, and got caught up in reading election blogs and the cycle of scandals and outrage through digital print media. I fully admit I fell victim to the echo chamber. Most of the polling turned out to be way off, but there were a few outlets that did point to a Trump victory, which I chose to mentally downplay or ignore. I kept my Facebook feed fairly clear of pro-Trump postings, to the extent that I know I didn't appreciate how much of the American populace actually was on his side beyond the alt-right pests.

I mentally treated Trump supporters as one and the same as the kids on 4chan and E-mail spammers, which was a big mistake. Sure, there were Russian bots and troll brigades mucking around, but a lot of the support came from a very real place. It was just hard to see when the most vocal Trump boosters seemed to communicate entirely in Pepe memes and conspiracy theories. Trump's campaign appeared to be a total shambles, and the ever-growing pile of scandals masked the fact that he was connecting to people. A lot of people.

So I go blindisded last night, like so many others. While the television was on, I was getting most of my election updates from various bloggers and tracking sites. The New York Times page with the forecast needle was especially nailbiting to watch, as it swung from a Clinton to a Trump victory fairly early in the evening. I wound up going to bed well before the election was called, already sure how it would turn out. I didn't sleep much. And I got up this morning to several people venting their spleen on my Facebook page about the results.

But this is what America wants, so I'm holding my tongue. Part of me is relieved that the whole election mess is over and we won't have to go through it again for at least another two years - until the midterms roll around. However, another part of me that was really looking forward to not having Donald Trump plastered all over my newsfeeds, is worried that the Donald show is just beginning. And some small part of me feels a little sorry for Donald Trump today, because he clearly has no idea what he's getting himself into.

Until next time. If there is a next time.


Monday, November 7, 2016

"Black Mirror," Series 3

Charlie Brooker's dark science fiction anthology series "Black Mirror" has moved to Netflix, with a greatly expanded scope and budget. Six new episodes premiered in October, almost doubling the show's episode count., and six more will follow in 2017. Time constraints have also been lifted, so episodes can run anywhere from 50-90 minutes. Most of the new installments also star Americans instead of Brits. Any of these factors could have tripped up the show, which is known for its intensely bleak visions of the future and technology. However, I'm happy to report that "Black Mirror" has retained everything that made it a cult favorite. It's stil a mixed bag, though, like it was from the beginning, and the quality of the episodes vary wildly.

Before I start talking about the episodes individually, I want to be clear that I watched them out of the listed order on purpose, avoided all the hype and discussion I could, and didn't marathon them, so I could consider each episode separately. I initially intended to do a ranking list of the six new installments, but I quickly realized that I wanted to talk about some of the episodes far more than others. For me, there is a very clear divide between the three stronger episodes, and the three weaker ones. And I suspect that there is some bias on my part that the ones I liked all star women, all have bigger name actors involved, and all have the more hopeful, ambiguous endings.

First, let's talk about the weaker ones. "Playtest," about a thrill-seeker (Wyatt Russell) testing new gaming technology, and "Shut Up and Dance," about two victims (Alex Lawther, Jerome Flynn) of a blackmail scheme, both come across as unfinished thoughts, similar to the "Waldo Moment" from the second series. There are some interesting ideas, characters, and concepts here, but put in service of very limited stories. Unlike other installments, both don't concern themselves with much worldbuilding, and don't offer much social commentary. Thanks to the series' consistently high production values, they look great, especially the animated graphics in "Playtest." However, all they offer is some basic action and thrills that you might expect to find in any typical genre feature.

A better outing is "Men Against Fire," about a soldier (Malachi Kirby) with some fancy technological enhancements hunting opponents called "roaches." It's a very old premise, something straight out of Golden Age science-fiction, but the execution is very good, so I feel better about recommending it. The episode also has one of the strongest casts, with Michael Kelly, Sarah Snook, and Madeline Brewer in supporting roles. The longest episode of the bunch is "Hated By the Nation," a ninety minute murder mystery starring Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay as a pair of detectives. I think it works about as well "Men Against Fire," but "Hated By the Nation" gets extra points for combining several interesting concepts together, including robot bees and the dangers of online hate mobs.

That leaves the two clear standout episodes, which are as good as anything that "Black Mirror" has ever done: "San Junipero" and "Nosedive." Both offer highly detailed new universes to explore, with lots of subtle effects, and some amazing production design. "Nosedive" is the flashier episode, directed by the biggest name on this year's roster, Joe Wright. It envisions a world that runs by star ratings. Eveyone is ranked, and obsessed with rankings, including our main character Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a social climber who reconnects with a higher ranked childhood friend, Naomi (Alice Eve). "Nosedive" is the funniest "Black Mirror" episode to date, sending its heroine through one calamity after another, and culminating in an absolutely spectacular social media meltdown. No surprise that "Office" vets Mike Schur and Rashida Jones co-wrote it. And this is the best performance I've ever seen Bryce Dallas Howard give.

Howeveer, "San Junipero" tops it. This is the one episode of "Black Mirror" so far that isn't dark or grim or satirical. Instead, it's a perfectly poignant, humane romance about two young women, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who meet at a club one night in the town of San Junipero, in 1987. Of course, all is not as it seems. The period recreations are a lot of fun, especially the fashion choices, but it's the actresses who deserve the bulk of the credit for making the central relationship work so well. Some of the other episodes felt like they were trying too hard to deliver the dark, twisty stories that "Black Mirror" is known for. "San Junipero," by contrast, is wonderfully organic in the way that it explores a new technology through a well-grounded, personal story.

So, in short, "Black Mirror" remains well worth your time. I look forward to more, but I'll be happy dissecting this batch of episodes for a long while.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Beyond" Expectations

I was going to pair this review with "The Legend of Tarzan," but you know what? "Star Trek Beyond" deserves a whole post to itself. To date, it's the best surprise I've had from a film all year. I was completely ready to write off the whole film franchise after "Into Darkness," but "Beyond" totally reversed course. It's everything I wanted in an updated "Star Trek" film, even if there are some significant flaws and weaknesses.

First, Justin Lin of the "Fast and Furious" franchise has taken the director's chair, and Simon Pegg co-wrote the script with Doug Jung. And what they've done is to make a movie that operates like an episode of the original "Star Trek," full of technobabble, cheesy heroics, and ridiculous things happening IN SPAAAACE. And it is so much fun, and makes me really feel good about this iteration of "Star Trek." I still have a few quibbles about Zachary Quinto's Spock and Zoe Saldana's Uhura being paired up, but otherwise the characters are all in fantastic form. And this time out, we actually get to spend significant time watching them be these characters and interact with each other.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are now three years into their exploration mission, and follow a distress call into an uncharted nebula. One action scene leads to another, and the crew wind up stranded on a forest planet under the control of an alien baddie named Krall (Idris Elba). He and his fleet of drone warships threaten not only the nearby Federation base, Yorktown, but the rest of the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew has been split up and is trying to regroup. Kirk is with Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Bones (Karl Urban) is stuck with an injured Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are with the majority of the Enterprise crew imprisoned at Krall's base of operations. Scotty (Simon Pegg), left on his own, meets a marooned alien, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and enlists her help.

If that doesn't sound like much of a story, that's because it's not. The plot only exists as a delivery mechanism for stunts and thrills, really, but it also serves as a way to put the characters into positions where they can do what they do best. The MVP of the movie is Karl Urban, who gets to kvetch and banter with Spock through most of the film, and is absolutely a joy to watch as he does it. This is also the best outing for Chris Pine as Kirk, struggling to stay on top of every new development, flying by the seat of his pants, and being every inch the super-competent Captain Kirk that the first two movies hinted he'd become. Simon Pegg gets some solo time as Scotty, milking the Scottish vernacular for all it's worth. Really, every member of the crew gets their moment to shine, and remind the audience what's so much fun about "Star Trek" in the first place - being in the middle of a big space adventure with a gang of friends who are great at space adventuring.

I complained in the past that the new "Stark Trek" movies weren't cerebral enough, being a fan of "The Next Generation" crew. Well, I was wrong. What was missing from the first two movies was the emphasis on the camaraderie and teamwork of the crew. It's the same problem that many of the "Mission: Impossible" movies had, with Tom Cruise hogging the spotlight all the time. "Trek" works best as an ensemble effort, embodying that utopian vision of future where the best of humanity bands together for the common good. And aliens too, like Jaylah, who doesn't fall victim to any of the pitfalls that an exotic alien female character usually fell victim to in the old "Star Trek" series. Oh, and if you were following the Sulu controversy, the nods to his sexuality are so slight, they could be written out entirely if George Takei wants to press the issue. But in this version of the "Star Trek" universe, it really feels like it doesn't matter.

In addition, this may be the best looking "Star Trek" film ever made. The Yorktown Starbase is a jaw-dropper, and whatever you may want to say about how silly or contrived some of the action scenes are, you can't say that they aren't impeccably executed. Lin keeps the momentum going and pulls off some scenes that I'm certain looked ridiculous on paper. Older fans will also appreciate that there are nods to the existing Trek canon everywhere, from Chris Pine borrowing some of Bill Shatner's mannerisms, to the familiar bits of sound design incorporated from the television shows. Oh, and special kudos to Michael Giacchino, for writing the first hummable score for a major blockbuster that I've heard in ages.

There are a lot of flaws. Idris Elba's Krall continues the unfortunate trend of shallow, uninteresting megalomaniacs threatening the Enterprise. He has an awful lot of scary technology and faceless minions at his disposal, that do improbable things in ways that aren't really explained. Much of the story involves chasing a Macguffin around, and I'm still not sure exactly what it does either. But none of that's really important. What's important is Kirk and Bones drinking scotch, Jaylah's choice in classical music, Spock learning his lesson about the importance of family, and all our absent friends getting the sendoff they deserve.

I know many Trek fans did not like this film, for one reason or another, but "Beyond" got me invested in the franchise again, just in time for its 50th anniversary. I sincerely hope that the creators drum up enough support for another film installment, and along with the upcoming "Star Trek: Discovery," it can continuing boldly going for a long while yet.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

The November 2016 Follow-Up Post

For the uninitiated, my "follow-up" posts are 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.

How's the Television Meltdown Coming?

The networks are continuing their migration of content to online services, but increasingly trying to build up their own individual streaming and VOD platforms at the expense of other options. The biggest recent announcement is that Hulu will be getting rid of their free streaming content. It will still be available, but on the Yahoo View service, with longer delays between when a show airs and when it will be available to view online. This will be Yahoo's second attempt at entering the streaming video market after their Screen service went bust in January. Hulu's pay services will remain, but keep in mind that recent deals mean they're losing CW shows to Netflix and Criterion films to Filmstruck.

Colbert Rising

I've talked before about Trevor Noah's continued growing pains at "The Daily Show," but Stephen Colbert has also had a challenging year in late night. His ratings dipped so precipitously a few months ago, that there were rumors he'd have to swap timeslots with James Corden, and CBS "rebooted" his show with a new producer. Colbert's live coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions gave him a much-needed boost in July, but hisratings have continued to be unspectacular next to Jimmy Fallon's. I'm still rooting for his success, but I'm worried how he's going to fare after the presidential election, especially if Donald Trump exits the spotlight entirely.

Dubious Days for DreamWorks

I hope the recent acquisition of the studio by Comcast eases some of the studio's financial woes moving forward, but their upcoming film slate isn't very inspiring. As predicted, DreamWorks decided to bring back "Shrek" for another sequel in 2019. "BOO: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations" and "Mumbai Musical" have been sent back to development. The "Croods" sequel has also been delayed to January of 2018, which probably means that the Australian-themed "Larrikins" or "How to Train Your Dragon 3" will be bumped back. But in a more promising move, the Edgar Wright movie formerly known as "Me and My Shadow" is back on the schedule after being nearly cancelled in 2013.

What to Do About Wonder Woman?

I never thought that we'd be in this position three years ago. I'm writing up a summary of the year in superhero movies in a separate post, but I wanted to remark on the fact that "Wonder Woman" has now emerged as a major potential lynchpin in the DC film franchise. After the character's introduction was one of the only things that people liked about "Dawn of Justice," and the previews at Comic-Con stirred up some hype, it looks like her solo film next summer has good shot at being a blockbuster. Kudos to Zack Snyder for doing something right. However, it's still going to be an uphill battle for "Wonder Woman," with a release date sandwiched right between heavy hitters "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" and "Spider-man: Homecoming."

A Superhero Turf War

Some spoilers here for the "Avengers" movies. While we're on the subject of superheroes, it looks like Marvel and FOX have sorted out the issue with the two Avengers/X-men crossover characters themselves. The Marvel Quicksilver, who was only referred to as Pietro onscreen, was killed off in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Meanwhile, FOX has avoided using Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in the latest "X-men" movies, and it's not even clear if she exists in their universe (Peter's briefly glimpsed younger sister could easily be Lorna Dane/Polaris). Everyone seems happy with Scarlet Witch being an Avenger and Quicksilver being an ally of the X-men, and that's that.

Here Come the Koreans

Alas, none of the Korean directors really broke through. Kim Jee-Woon's "The Last Stand" with Arnold Schwarzenegger did decently well, but Kim's follow up film is the Korean "Age of Shadows." Park Chan-wook's "Stoker" was very well received by certain critics, but his next film is the Korean "The Handmaiden." However, he is taking another shot at international audiences after that, with the English-language body-swap film, "Second Born." Finally there's Bong Joon-ho, who came the closest to success with "Snowpiercer," and will be making the multi-language adventure movie "Okja" next for Netflix.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rank 'Em: The Modern Bond Movies (1995-2015)

I debated with myself if it was appropriate for me to do a ranking of the Bond films, since I've only seen seventeen out of the twenty-four produced. However, such a list would have to be broken up into multiple entries anyway due to length, and I've seen all eight of the films from the Brosnan and Craig eras. There's also a very clear divide between the classic and modern Bond films with the six-year hiatus in the 1990s, that make this a sensible way to approach the series. Comparing the older and newer films becomes a dicey proposition in a hurry. Also, with the future of the James Bond films in limbo after "Spectre," it's good time to make this list. It doesn't look likely that we're going to be seeing the return of the Daniel Craig Bond soon.

So here we go. The James Bond films of the past two decades are ranked from best to worst below.

1. "Casino Royale" - I don't consider Daniel Craig the best version of James Bond, but his debut in "Casino Royale" has more than its share of franchise bests. Best pre-title sequence. Best ending line. And most importantly, best Bond girl - Eva Green's impeccable Vesper Lynd. Not to mention, this was my introduction to Mads Mikkelson, playing the villain Le Chiffre. The film and its leading man set the tone for the series going forward - no-nonsense, harder-edged, and more brutally violent.

2. "GoldenEye" - The start of the Pierce Brosnan age is still an awful lot of fun. Brosnan fits the suit very well, Judi Dench sets the post-Cold War tone as the new M, and Sean Bean is excellent in the villain role. I like this one especially for the action sequences. The tank sequence in St. Petersburg is my favorite Bond chase of all time. After all the speculation as to whether James Bond could still work in the 1990s, "GoldenEye" proved the franchise was still as resilient and relevant as ever.

3. "Skyfall" - Does so many things right, that it's easy to forgive its faults. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it mixes old with new, rebooting Q and Moneypenny, and taking the wraps off the Aston Martin for one last ride. I adore Javier Bardem's creepy Silva, the spectacular Roger Deakins cinematography, and everything about the opening sequence with the Adele title song. Of course much of the plotting makes very little sense, but since when did that ever slow down Bond?

4. "Tomorrow Never Dies" - I'm putting this outing so high on the list almost solely because of Michelle Yeoh as the Bond girl. She's as competent and enjoyable an action heroine as any who have ever appeared in the series. Jonathan Pryce and Teri Hatcher on villain duty are quite ridiculous, but the action is good, the pacing is brisk, and everyone gets the job done. Still, as more than one reviewer noted, the movie was awfully formulaic and there were some considerable missteps in the execution.

5. "Spectre" - So many good pieces, so half-heartedly assembled. Christoph Waltz's Blofeld is... fine. Lea Seydoux as the Bond girl is... fine. Let's not discuss Monica Bellucci. I suspect that the biggest problem is Daniel Craig, who seems constantly distracted as Bond. It doesn't help that the script awkwardly tries to maintain continuity with the past films, and seems determined to give the series an unnecessary end point. At least the opening sequence is a delightful, self-contained adventure.

6. "Quantum of Solace" - An odd Bond film in that it's explicitly a sequel, and picks up where the last film left off. The worst thing you can say about "Quantum" is that it's unmemorable, but what sinks it for me is that it's so unmemorable across the board. Mathieu Almaric and Gemma Arterton barely make an impression. The action scenes feel more like something from a Bourne film than a Bond film. Between the writers' strike and the hostile director, this may have been doomed from the start.

7. "The World is Not Enough" - The last two Brosnan films were terrible. All you really need to know about "The World is Not Enough" is that Denise Richards somehow plays a nuclear scientist named Christmas Jones. The plot is muddled and brainless, but the film's real crime is being boring. Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle are dull and duller. Even Desmond Llewelyn's goodbye Is meh. The only reason why this isn't dead last on the list is because I like the title song by Garbage.

8. "Die Another Day" - This treads terribly close to "so band it's good territory." I know some Bond fans are fond of Halle Berry's Jinx and isn't the young Rosamund Pike a looker? But good grief, the CGI-aided action is terrible. The villains are terrible. The stupid invisible car is terrible. Think what you will of Madonna, but her contributions to the film are far from the worst bits. It's all too clear why the Bond franchise decided enough was enough, and moved on to the Craig era after this.