Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Star Wars" Shifting Course

It's going to be a while before I get to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," so I thought that I'd catch up a bit on the production drama that's been going on behind the scenes with the various "Star Wars" films.  The big one, of course, is that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ejected from the Han Solo movie a few months ago and replaced by Ron Howard.  Directors are replaced all the time, but this situation was unusual in that a good chunk of the film had already been shot.  Since then, Colin Trevorrow was ousted from "Episode IX" and replaced by J.J. Abrams, and Stephen Daldry is rumored to be in talks to direct an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie.  Daldry, if you're unfamiliar, is a well-seasoned director best known for prestige dramas like "Billy Elliot," "The Reader," and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

Now these developments, coupled with the prior removal of Josh Trank and the rumors about Gareth Edwards being sidelined on "Rogue One," while Tony Gilroy stepped in for reshoots, point to Lucasfilm's early strategy of recruiting younger, less experienced directors to the franchise having mostly fallen apart.  With the exception of Rian Johnson, none of the younger directors have worked out.  This strikes me as odd, because several of the Marvel Universe films have been helmed by similarly inexperienced directors like Scott Derrickson and  Jon Watts, and the results have turned out just fine.  On the other hand, we're only three films into this latest batch of "Star Wars" movies, and expectations haven't been entirely ironed out yet.  Marvel didn't make it's first real risky move until it put Joss Whedon in the director's chair for ""The Avengers," the sixth Marvel film.  And, of course, Marvel has had its own behind-the-scenes drama with directors - see Edgar Wright and "Ant-man."

I think it's also important to keep in mind that with big franchises like this, the directors don't have as much creative control as they would on their own personal projects.  This has been true of "Star Wars" since the very beginning, as it was always George Lucas running the show, and few people remember that Irvin Kershner was the credited director of "The Empire Strikes Back," and Richard Marquand did
"Return of the Jedi."  The creative hierarchy is closer to television, with the "brain trust" writers and producers having a much larger voice, and many crucial elements like release dates and production timelines already predetermined.  Marvel has successfully employed several television vets like Whedon, Alan Taylor, Jon Watts, and the Russo brothers, despite their short lists of feature credits.   

So when everyone brings up "creative differences" and "culture clash" being the big culprits that sent all these "Star Wars" directors on their way, I suspect that the issue was that the directors didn't have the degree of creative freedom that they thought they did.  Now, Trank and Trevorrow's departures don't surprise me so much, because they're Hollywood newcomers who may have had issues adjusting to the environment.  Lord and Miller, however, have successfully launched at least three franchises and got their start in television ages ago.  Exactly how wide was the gulf between their sensibilities and those of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan?  Clearly at this point it's not an issue of the directors being untalented or unable to play ball, but the expectations of the producers not being met.  

But what are those expectations?  That's the big question right now.  With the shift toward more established, but relatively low profile directors, my guess is that the Lucasfilm bigwigs want more conventional, more traditional pictures for now, and are steering clear of anything flashy or daring or new.  And, of course, that's already been evident with the "Star Wars" spinoffs all revolving around known characters or direct links to the original films.  This is a little disappointing for those of us who wanted to see the "Star Wars" be bolder and more adventurous, and to feature more individual directorial voices.  

However, if the franchise continues to do well and the number of "Star Wars" installments increases, I expect that this will change.  Once the novelty of the movies wears off, creativity and innovation will become more important to avoid stagnation.  It may take a little longer, but the new generation of directors will get to make their "Star Wars" films eventually.     


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Great Movie Easter Egg Hunt

When I was watching "Spider-man: Homecoming," I was struck by how many little cameos, in-jokes, references, and homages were packed into the film, from the old 1960s cartoon theme song making an appearance during the opening credits, to former Spider-man candidate Donald Glover in a minor role, to the AI of Peter's Spider-man suit being voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who in real life is married to Paul Bettany, who voices JARVIS, the AI of the Iron Man suit.  

These were just the Easter Eggs that I caught myself.  When I went online after the movie, I found a staggering list of additional ones.  Apparently every thug that Spidey runs into during the film is a version of some future supervillain.  The school principal is a descendant of one of the Howling Commandos from the first "Captain America" film, which you'd only know if you managed to catch a glimpse of a photo in his office.  Even the license plates on some of the cars are issue numbers from the "Spider-man" comic book.  And then there's the incredibly obscure "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" reference.

Now, these Easter Eggs in "Spider-man: Homecoming" were handled well, and weren't distracting.  If you didn't happen to catch them, it didn't have much impact on your enjoyment of the rest of the film.  However, there have been many instances lately of Easter Egg heavy films handling these elements badly.  For instance, I think this is a big reason why the "Ghostbusters" reboot was such a clunker.  It felt like every five minutes, the movie had to stop dead in its tracks to acknowledge another famous face dropping in for a cameo, or to not-so-subtly point out another reference to the original film.  Or then you had the "Beauty and the Beast" remake, which seemed terrified to do anything differently than the animated version.   

I can't really blame the writers though.  Frequently, these Easter Eggs generate some of the most discussion about a film.  Watchers of remakes and reboots often are anticipating homages, and there's been a sort of gamification of the viewing experience, as filmmakers are now actively encouraging audience members to pore over every scene in search of the more obscure ones.  In PIXAR movies, we know to be on the lookout for the Pizza Planet truck, A113, and references to other PIXAR films.  Quentin Tarantino films frequently use the same brands, and many of the characters are distantly related to one another.  Fans have spent untold hours figuring out ways to connect disparate films together into vast cinematic universes, often based on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The internet culture around many big movies and television shows is a big reason for the greater scrutiny of media minutiae.  Fans love trivia and sharing trivia, and for a certain segment of them, the more obscure the better.  I noticed a few years ago that trailers were being taken apart frame by frame practically the minute they were released.  It's common now to find Youtube videos and articles detailing the specifics in exhaustive detail.  Filmmakers are responding in kind with more challenging Easter Eggs because they know that the fans are willing to go that extra mile to find them.  The creators of "Westworld" found out last year that even the tiniest clues, like a slightly different logo in a certain scene, could spill the beans on their big twist weeks in advance.  

Mostly, I don't think there's any harm to the greater proliferation of Easter Eggs when they're done well.  Both the filmmakers and the audience members seem to enjoy them.  The trouble comes when the writers lean too hard on the nostalgia, and get too attached to certain elements, leading to some reboots feeling like going down a checklist of all the good stuff from the original.  The reason the "Spider-man: Homecoming" references worked so well was because most of them were practically invisible.  Even if you didn't know that the two student newscasters were based on journalist characters from the comic book, they still worked fine as comic relief.

Personally, I'm not the kind of fan that goes looking for Easter Eggs, but it is fun to spot them when I do.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy 2" and "Spider-man: Homecoming"

Some quick thoughts on this summer's Marvel features.  Minor spoilers ahead.

I had a mixed reaction to the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," since I viewed it as an excellent children's film that was weirdly inappropriate for children.  I've changed my stance, after watching the sequel.  The "Guardians" movies contain plenty of content that kids would get a kick out of, but they're aimed square at adults, and function best as nostalgic, slightly subversive grown-up fun.  So while the sequel has curbed Star Lord's dirty mouth, there's way too much death and brutality involved here to recommend this to anyone under the age of ten or so.

Family matters are the major concern of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2."  Star Lord (Chris Pratt) reconnects with his long-lost alien father Ego (Kurt Russell), while Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fend off her murderous foster sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is dealing with a severe bout of self-doubt, and winds up unlikely allies with space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to make inappropriate comments and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) remains adorable.  Pretty much everything that people liked about the first film is back for another round - the '70s soundtrack, the dazzling action set-pieces, and the slightly off-color humor.  Some of it matches up to the prior film, and some of it doesn't.  However, the sense of spontaneity and freshness is gone, and none of the characters manage to summon the same amount of charm as they churn through a by-the-numbers plot.
The one big exception, however, is Yondu, who emerges as the MVP of the film.  His subplot turns out to be the most successfully executed, and gives "Guardians 2" something that the original didn't: heart.  While the other characters' stories all try to tug at the heartstrings, Yondu's is the only one that really connects.  Most of the other Guardians felt shoved into personal arcs that I just wasn't interested in seeing play out, and you can tell that the creators had trouble finding things for everyone to do.  Still, the good parts worked well enough for me to think well of the entire film, even if most of it was pretty mediocre.  I like this one marginally more than the original, but it's not one I'm likely to revisit soon.   

"Spider-man: Homecoming," on the other hand, is my favorite Marvel movie since "The Avengers," and my favorite "Spider-man" movie period.  I wasn't expecting this at all, with the character having gone through so much onscreen and offscreen mishandling over the past few years, and director Jon Watts being a relative newcomer.  Yet somehow, the integration of Spider-man into the Marvel universe has gone seamlessly, and he's been properly set up for future movies that I'm actually looking forward to.   

I think the key decision the creators made was to really scale back Spider-man's super-heroics and go back to basics.  This is the Marvel movie to take the kids to, because it offers something that none of the prior Marvel movies do: a hero who is a kid.  Played by a squeaky, ebullient Tom Holland, this version of Peter Parker is a fifteen year-old high school sophomore who is only just barely starting out on his career as a web-slinger (though Uncle Ben is thankfully never mentioned) and eager to join the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who gave Peter a high-tech Spidey suit in "Captain America: Civil War," functions as an often absent mentor, who bails him out of trouble, delivers lectures about risky behavior, and is frequently annoyed by his teenage antics.  

I like that "Homecoming" jettisons so much of what we've come to expect from a cinematic Spider-man movie.  He stays in Brooklyn instead of swinging around Manhattan.  J. Jonah Jameson and the Osbournes are nowhere in sight, but Peter's best friend Ned (Joseph Batalon) is a great new addition.  Love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) is entirely original, but there are plenty of references to other Spider-man universe characters, including reworked versions of bully Flash (Tony Revolori) and gal-pal Michelle (Zendaya).  "Homecoming" also boasts one of the best Marvel villains in the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a small scale, blue-collar weapons dealer who is just the right amount of threat for this film's greenhorn Spidey.

Best of all, the movie is fun.  It's got such a great energy and lightheartedness to it, and I love that Peter Parker really gets to enjoy being Spider-man in a way that his predecessors didn't.  With smaller stakes and plenty of gags and humor, "Spider-man: Homecoming" is a fantastic romp.  And it's exactly what the franchise needed to get back in its feet.    


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Life" and "Alien: Covenant" With Spoilers

I wasn't going to write up anything on "Life," which I found a decent, if by-the-numbers space thriller, but then I saw "Alien: Covenant."  The two movies have so much in common, I had to talk about them together.  So, here we are.  Spoilers for both movies ahead.

I liked "Life" more than I was expecting to.  It is absolutely patterned off of "Alien" and other thrillers set in space, but with surprisingly high production values, a strong cast, and some bloody good kills.  I couldn't tell you the names of Jake Gyllenhaal's and Rebecca Ferguson's lead characters, but at least they were compelling enough to keep my attention in the moment.  The monster, a quickly evolving alien organism dubbed Calvin, was plenty memorable too.  Even the predictable twist ending was pretty effectively executed.  Sure, it had the reckless scientists and other plot holes that everyone complains about, but I thought the movie worked pretty well as a slick genre picture.  

What I didn't expect was for "Life" to do "Alien" better than this year's actual "Alien" movie,"Alien: Covenant."  Now, "Covenant" had higher ambitions and some different elements in the mix to complicate things, but the basic formula was the same, and many of the finer details too.  The cast is picked off one by one by an alien menace.  A headliner was the first to be killed off.  The ending appears to nihilistically spell the doom of every remaining good guy and a significant chunk of humankind.  The complications boil down to "Covenant" being a direct sequel to "Prometheus," and therefore another prequel to the original "Alien" that further charts the evolution of the famous Xenomorphs.  

And I have to wonder, what was Ridley Scott's thinking here?  He's clearly more interested in delving into the franchise mythology than making another variant on the haunted house plot that all the "Alien" films inevitably seem to end up being.  "Covenant" fares no better than "Prometheus" at delivering thrills, not even having a standout suspense sequence like the nightmarish medical pod C-section.  All the human characters are uniformly bland, despite being played by a bevy of dependable actors including Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny Huston.  It all feels like an excuse to bring back the android character David, played by Michael Fassbender, and to pair him up with another android, Walter (also Michael Fassbender), for some darkly philosophical musings on humanity and playing God.

And to its credit, all of that material with the androids works fine.  Fassbender is excellent in both roles, and David continues to be the most fascinating aspect of these later "Alien" films.  The trouble is that he makes a pretty poor villain for the half-hearted creature feature that's happening around him, and the demands of that creature feature end up undercutting much of David's story.  "Prometheus," which I was moderately positive on, raised all these interesting questions about the origins of humanity and the alien race of "Engineers."  "Covenant" provides some answers, but they're very disappointing, compromised ones.  I'd have been much more receptive to a "Prometheus 2" that delved into events that "Alien: Covenant" is in too much of a hurry to gloss over.  

I think "Covenant" is worth a watch for those "Alien" franchise fans who are more interested in the mythology aspects, and maybe Fassbender fans.  The film is well made, and Ridley Scott hasn't lost a step where the actual filmmaking is concerned.  However, those who enjoyed the earlier "Alien" movies for being satisfying genre films may find themselves better served by the simplicity of the chills and thrills in "Life."  "Covenant" is too concerned with advancing  its serialized elements to be much fun on a visceral level.  

What really interests me, however, is the fate of the "Alien franchise" going forward.  "Covenant" leaves the door open for more of the prequel storyline in the future, but recycling the same formula again seems untenable.  Are we finally going to see a larger scale xenomorph invasion or attack in the next installment?  Is a next installment even a possibility after the disappointing performance of "Covenant."  I'd be more forgiving of "Covenant" if it was setting up something larger - but I have no guarantees of any payoff.    


Monday, December 4, 2017

"The Americans," Year Five

Spoilers ahead for the season.

This is the penultimate season of "The Americans," and it's definitely a slow burner. Some in the media have been wringing their hands that they show is treading water, that it's lost a step because so much time is devoted to set-up for the impending finale. Nothing particularly big or exciting happens this year, but there's still plenty of good character work, and a couple of major problems have been addressed. I expect that bingeing the season once it was over was the right way to watch this, since it was easier to appreciate the cumulative effect of the slower storylines.

I suspect a lot of the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that there are so many anticlimactic storylines and dead ends this year. Paige and Matthew's relationship falls apart quickly. Philip's son Mischa (Alex Ozerov) makes several appearances trying to find his father, only to be intercepted and sent home. He's been nicely established as a sympathetic character, but did we need to spend so much time with him? Or what about Oleg Burov, who takes on a new role investigating food suppliers for the KGB? His family dynamics are fascinating, but giving him such a big part of the season felt way too indulgent. Stan and Aderholt's attempts to recruit a new source, Sofia (Darya Ekamasova), could have used more attention.

However, it was nice to get updates on Martha, Kimmy, and Pastor Tim, while Paige and Henry's storylines are definitely progressing. Henry had his best season yet, and it was clever that the show worked the writers' tendency to overlook Henry into the actual plot. Keidrich Sellati actually had a fair amount to do this year, and it all played fine. Uncoupling him from Stan Beeman, however, removed a sorely needed source of tension for the Jennings. Whether new girlfriend Renee (Laurie Holden) is really a spy just isn't as worrisome as Stan becoming Henry's father figure. Paige finally getting to put the Pastor Tim problem to rest was very satisfying arc, though, and I love that she's become the show's biggest ticking time bomb.

As for Philip and Elizabeth, I thought that their season arcs were pretty strong, aside from the plan to return to Russia with the kids in the last two episodes. Frankly, I never bought that it was a real possibility and the show didn't sell it well. More interesting were the two major operations going on this year, the agricultural research assignment that shows the Jennings growing tired of trying to maintain more fake relationships, and their steady disillusionment with manipulating the lives of the Morozova family, where they go undercover as the parents of a teen operative from another agency. Tuan (Ivan Mok) is one of the show's most fascinating characters to date, and he was a big reason why I thought the Morozova plot was the most successful one this year.

Others have pointed out that the larger problem with this year was that the various plotlines didn't intersect much the way that they did in the past. At this point there's almost no feeling of danger that the Beemans will stumble on the activities of the Jennings, even after Henry visits Stan's office. Oleg's work with the Russian food chain ties to the agricultural mission slightly, but the connections are tenuous, and both stories are largely dropped in the second half of the season. Gabriel is the only character who provides any kind of linkage, and he's retired from all the exciting stuff.

This run of episodes does a fantastic job of table-setting, though, wrapping up loose ends and maneuvering everyone into the right state of existential funk where season six can set off some real fireworks. The Cold War's not quite done yet, but all the characters know they're on the losing side. And I do want to see how this all ends. I have every expectation that season six will be worth getting through season five for. I just find it a shame that the "Americans" creators couldn't find more ways to add more excitement this year. I mean, deeply introspective adult dramas are all well and good, but "The Americans" has never quite been that kind of show.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Digging Into "Dirk Gently"

I know I read "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" after finishing off Douglas Adams'
Hitchhiker" series, but I don't remember much about it. The book originated from unused story concepts that Adams prepared for "Doctor Who," so it seems fitting that a new version should be coming along now, as "Doctor Who" is enjoying its revival. However, very little of the new television series adaptation, produced by Netflix and the BBC, pinged as familiar, and the bulk of the characters appear to be original. So I'm pretty comfortable saying that the bulk of the credit for this version should go to the show's creator, Max Landis.

If you're familiar with Landis's work, many of his usual hallmarks are here: seemingly ordinary young man caught up in a big genre adventure, lots of flashy, chaotic violence, way too much exposition, and a few noticeably weak female characters. The plot revolves around Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a self-proclaimed holistic detective, who doesn't look for clues but instead focuses on the interconnectedness of events, and allows the universe to essentially point him in the right direction. So, to solve the murder of an industrialist, Dirk first recruits Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) as a reluctant assistant. Todd is an unemployed bellboy whose life is suddenly beset by an onslaught of calamities. Because Dirk knows there is no such thing as a coincidence, this means Todd is important. Eventually Todd's sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), the industrialist's bodyguard Farah (Jade Eshete), a holistic assassin (Fiona Dourif) and her hostage (Mpho Koaho), two police detectives, several government agents, a gang of anarchists, a dog, a kitten, and a shark all become involved, and these are just the good guys.

There's a slightly worrying sense of chaos to the first episode, where the show just keeps throwing outrageous events and ideas at wide-eyed Todd and the audience willy-nilly, with very little pause to let anything sink in. Dirk initially comes off as a manic weirdo, as though he's trying too hard to evoke the David Tennant version of the Doctor. Fortunately there were seven other episodes to flesh out the characters, sort out all the wackiness, and ensure that everything does make sense in the end. Too many of those characters tend to speak in overly verbose and rambly dialogue, and there are a few points where the good guys just decide out of the blue to be mad at each other or to do something very stupid. But on the whole, it's all very entertaining.

The cast is excellent, helping to ground the frequently ridiculous events in some kind of emotional reality. Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett are both likeable and charismatic, and play well together. My favorite characters, though, are Bart the assassin and Ken, her poor hostage. Fiona Dourif and Mpho Koaho manage to build up a sweet, if wildly improbable, relationship between the two of them. I had some trouble with more minor characters, though. Farah is one of those problematic heroines who is repeatedly told that she's a badass far more often than she's actually allowed to demonstrate that she's a badass, and prone to losing IQ points whenever the plot needs her to. Hannah Marks is great as Amanda, but the character is also constantly hampered by a convenient chronic ailment.

However, the mystery elements of this mystery show are handled very well, and I'm always a sucker for good whodunits. The explanations are imparted to the audience in neat little chunks, slowly ramping up the absurdity until the final reveals involving fantasy elements paranoid conspiracies make perfect sense. Dirk's not the only part of "Dirk Gently" that reminded me of the modern "Doctor Who." Both deal in high-concept, high energy genre hijinks, but "Dirk Gently" takes advantage of having so much more time to tell this one particular story, to do a lot of good worldbuilding and mythology spinning. Too many other shows never manage to get that right. And the result is a very fulfilling jaunt into a weird, but ultimately comprehensible universe, that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Definitely room for improvement here, but "Dirk Gently" was a lot of fun, and I look forward to the next season.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

My Favorite Roberto Rossellini Film

Roberto Rossellini was one of the key figures of the Italian Neorealist movement, and the films he made during the '40s in the aftermath of WWII are nothing short of revolutionary. Massively influential for his documentary-style filmmaking and philosophy, Rossellini remains one of the most important figures in Italian cinema. However, his personal life frequently overshadowed his work in subsequent years, particularly his scandalous extramarital relationship with Ingrid Bergman. At the height of both their careers, they became romantically involved and made several films together, starting with 1950's psychological drama "Stromboli."

Based on a real life encounter that Rossellini had in post-war Italy, Bergman plays a Lithuanian refugee named Karin, who is trapped in an Italian internment camp, but finds a way out by marrying an Italian soldier, Antonio (Mario Vitale). He takes her home to the island of Stromboli, which is dominated by an active volcano. Karin experiences great difficulty adjusting to life on the island, which is harsh and barren, and where the insular community of fishermen is suspicious of a foreign newcomer who speaks little Italian. Like Rossellini's other films of the time, nearly all the cast members are non-actors, mostly real natives of Stromboli. The film also features documentary-like segments highlighting various aspects of life on the island.

The film also has strong religious and psychological themes, largely focused on Karin's internal struggle with her isolation and alienation. This is the part of the film that resonated the most strongly with me, the way that the oppressive landscape becomes a character in the film, the environment seemingly insurmountable. The final scenes of Bergman on the volcano, where she finally has an emotional breakdown, are wonderfully affecting. Rossellini's ability to capture the stark nature of the island and its equally stark inhabitants is vital here, but it's Ingrid Bergman's unrelenting performance that makes the movie what it is. There's such a primal, emotional openness to her work here, which helps to make Karin one of my favorite Bergman characters. I honestly can't imagine the film with Anna Magnani, who Rossellini originally had in mind for the role.

"Stromboli" is often considered as the first film in a trilogy, all directed by Rossellini and starring Bergman. Along with "Europa '51" and "Voyage to Italy," they examine the dissatisfaction of independent, strong-minded female characters, who are in unhappy marriages and find themselves outsiders in Italy. In "Stromboli" these themes are the most pronounced, and Karin takes the most drastic actions to confront them. She actively rebels against the social order, eventually attempting a physical escape from her woes at the film's climax. Her screen presence comes off as almost shockingly modern, her character acknowledging complicated desires that threaten the established moral order of the day. The film's resolution is memorably ambiguous, and it's difficult to say where Karin is mentally as she descends from the volcano's crater toward an unknown fate.

It's easy to find parallels between the film and what was going on behind the scenes, where Bergman had to adjust to working with a tiny crew in rugged shooting conditions. Much of the script was improvised, and the non-actors were frequently too intimidated to do much acting and had to be dubbed. Critics of the time were notoriously unreceptive to the film, and "Stromboli" was both a critical and commercial flop despite the raging controversy around the production. However, that didn't stop Bergman and Rossellini from going on to make four more films together, marrying, and having three children. Later film enthusiasts would of course rediscover and rehabilitate the reputations of "Stromboli" and the other films.

Today, "Stromboli" comes across as an unusually experimental, psychologically complex narrative from Rossellini, almost like a precursor to films like Antonioni's "Red Desert" and Teshigahara's "Woman in the Dunes." It displays all the hallmarks of the Neorealist movement and a strong emphasis on some of Rossellini's favorite subjects - spirituality and Italian culture. However, it is also very much an Ingrid Bergman film, and somehow her star power and foreignness didn't overwhelm or take away from the harsh nature of Rossellini's cinema. Instead, the juxtaposition helps to create something unique to their collaborations, which is still immensely powerful all these decades later.

What I've Seen - Roberto Rossellini

Rome, Open City (1945)
Paisa (1946)
Germany, Year Zero (1948)
Stromboli (1950)
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Europa '51 (1952)
Journey to Italy (1954)
General Della Rovere (1959)
India: Matri Bhumi (1959)
The Rise of Louis XIV (1966)


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Fargo," Year Three

Overall, I enjoyed the third season of "Fargo" a bit more than the second, but I'm in agreement with the critics that the show's starting to run short of material and the seams are showing. While the story is derivative of the Coen brothers' canon by design, it's also starting to repeat elements of the previous seasons. Yet again, we have a hapless businessman in over his head, an amoral criminal who speaks with a peculiar patter, a heroic female cop, oddly paired henchmen, and an assortment of colorful midwestern side characters playing out another series of tense interactions that lead to a whole lot of people getting killed.

Fortunately, the ensemble this year is one of the show's best. Ewan McGregor plays feuding brothers Emmit and Raymond Stussy, a successful businessman and a down-on-his-luck parole officer respectively. Raymond is dating one of his parolees, Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and together they hatch a plan to steal a rare stamp from Emmit, but an Ennis Stussy (Scott Hylands) in the wrong town ends up murdered instead. Ennis is the stepfather of Glora Burgle (Carrie Coon), chief of police of the tiny town of Eden Valley, which is being absorbed by the county. She spends her last few days as chief piecing together the details of the crime. Meanwhile, Emmit and his business partner Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), find their business being taken over by the sinister V.M. Varga (David Thewlis), and his violent associates.

David Thewlis's V.M. Varga and Carrie Coon's Gloria Burgle are the standouts this year, playing roles very similar to the one played by Billy Bob Thornton and Alison Tolman from the first season of "Fargo." However, they're deployed very differently, and are treated in very different ways by the universe. Their clashes are more indirect, and the final battle comes down more squarely on their philosophical views of how the world works. I also greatly enjoyed Mary Elizabeth Winstead's soft-hearted con, and Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a variation on his character from "A Serious Man." Oddly, it's the Stussy brothers who are the weakest piece of this year's puzzle, neither proving particularly sympathetic or compelling, though Ewan McGregor turns in perfectly fine performances for both.

There's something more lackadaisical about the way this season is constructed, how it takes a good five or six episodes for the action to really get going, and how the best episode winds up being a "Barton Fink" riff involving Gloria traveling to Los Angeles to chase a dead end with almost no bearing on the plot. Everything does come together very nicely, and the ending is a pretty daring surprise, but there's also a messiness and a laziness to some of the writing this year that makes parts of the season feel like it's spinning its wheels. Some of the minor characters come off just a little too caricatured, and some of the twists come off as a little too perfunctory. There were plenty of moments that I liked - keep an eye out for Ray Wise's appearances - and there are some especially good characters, but the year as a whole was mighty inconsistent.

Even when "Fargo" is having a slightly off year, though, it's still as well made and entertaining as anything else on television. While part of me is disappointed that the season has so much promise that is never fulfilled, the larger part of me is satisfied with everything it did right. So many little details were perfect, like the hideous state of V.M. Varga's teeth, the spot-on casting of everyone from Frances Fisher to Hamish Linklater, and the reoccurrence of a particular musical cue signalling the welcome return of a particular minor character from the past. The cinematography is still gorgeous, and I love that a good chunk of the story was set during Christmastime and had a lot of fun with the seasonal visuals.

I'm absolutely in favor of a fourth season, though I think the series may want to quit Minnesota for a bit. Maybe it's time for Noah Hawley and company to make their way to Los Angeles to play with the elements of "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski" a little more. Or maybe another period piece, this time in the New York of "Miller's Crossing" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." There are a lot of places "Fargo" could go, and maybe it's time for a change of scenery.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"The Expanse," Year Two

I had a mixed response to the first season of "The Expanse," but found the worldbuilding strong enough that I decided to give it another season, and I'm glad that I did.  The major characters are fleshed out more, and there are some great new additions to the cast.  The production values remain high, with some of the best sci-fi visuals in any show currently airing.  Best of all, the story progresses at a good clip, making this one of the more satisfying serials I've seen this year.  Minor spoilers ahead

The second season continues to follow the Rocinante crew and Undersecretary Avrasarala in separate storylines as they deal with the discovery of the alien "protomolecule" that has been loosed on Eros and threatens other parts of the system.  Detective Miller joins the Rocinante crew, merging their plots, and opening up some narrative space for a new one: the adventures of Martian marine Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and her squad.  Later on in the season we're also introduced to Praxidike Meng (Terry Chen), a botanist who is searching for his missing daughter and crosses paths with the Rocinante.  

Aside from "Game of Thrones," I can't think of another series out there right now with such a grand sense of scope.  "The Expanse" continues to have its maneuver its characters so that they're always in the thick of the action, but clearly larger events are happening around them that are being driven by outside forces.  To help show different sides of the story, there are frequently little digressions with minor characters, some of whom become recurring, some of whom are simply one-offs.  The first season also did this, but in the second season there's much more to keep track of - characters, locations, concepts, and organizations.  It also requires considerable patience to wait for some things to pay off.  Bobbie Draper, for instance, is introduced in the series opener but we don't have any sense of why she's important until halfway through the season.  

On the other hand, there's a much better sense of direction and cohesion this year, now that the "protomolecule" has been revealed to most of the characters and we can see how some of the big pieces fit together.  I especially enjoyed the way that the little maneuverings between Earth and Mars were pushed more to the forefront this year.  Avrasarala remains my favorite character, and I still don't think that she gets enough to do, but giving her some better baddies to bounce off of and some bigger crises to manage really helped.  I'm also much more invested in the Rocinante crew, now that we've had the time to get to know the individual members of the crew a little better, and Meng has joined up - he's easily the most sympathetic of the bunch right now.  

A few years ago I complained that American television was suffering a dearth of spaceship series, and that's largely still the case.  However, "The Expanse" makes for a notable exception, which really helps it to stand out from the crowd.  It's a little old fashioned in the way some of the stories play out - Miller notably follows a particular set of romantic old genre tropes all the way to the bitter end - but its commitment to hard science and epic storytelling remain very refreshing.  I continue to appreciate the way it pushes boundaries, especially related to casting choices, and how it doesn't bother with much hand-holding.  While not especially prone to technobabble, the exposition is dense enough that it's good to have some nerdy leanings to really enjoy the show.  

I'm looking forward to subsequent seasons, especially now that the series seems to have found its groove and feels more sure-footed.  Several bad habits have been curbed, and the writers seem to trust that their characters can carry more of the weight, which is going to be vital in the long run.  There are still a few shoes in the air that really need to be dropped sooner rather than later - we sorely need to get Amos's backstory squared away - but I'm satisfied that the show's creators seem to have a good handle on where the show is going.  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

On Memory

I've kept track of every movie I've watched since 2004 on an Excel spreadsheet, and have regularly backed up my records in Icheckedmovies. This has helped me out in a pinch more than once, as I've come to discover that I simply don't have very good recall of individual titles past a certain point in time. Or below a certain threshold of memorability. One of the little issues with being a movie junkie who watches hundreds of films yearly, is that some of those films inevitably fall through the cracks.

For example, I was reading an article a few weeks ago that brought up "Fair Game," the Valerie Plame movie starring Naomi Watts that came out in 2010. I didn't recognize the title and figured it was one that I'd missed. However, according to my records I had seen it in 2011. And after probing a little deeper, I did remember the film. It was a dull little piece of Oscar bait that hadn't grabbed much attention at the time it was released, and even less subsequently. I watch a lot of films like that, looking for undervalued or misunderstood titles to champion. 90% of the time, of course, they're disappointments.

I've been increasingly relying on Icheckedmovies when writing my Great Directors posts these days, because I'm often writing entries for directors like Sidney Lumet or Francis Ford Coppola, where I've seen lots of their work, but not always at the point in time where I knew it was their work. For instance, I completely forgot that Lumet directed "The Verdict" with Paul Newman, which I watched for a class ages ago. Or that I'd seen a film of his called "Family Business," with Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman. When I was just eyeballing Lumet's list of credits to see if I'd watched enough of his films for a post, I completely skipped "Family Business." I remembered the film, but not the title. Since then, I've always double checked against my records.

The one place I've been running into some trouble is with my Top Ten lists for older years, especially as I've been working my way back into the '80s. Anything I watched before 2004, I have to rely on the Icheckedmovies records, and I've noticed in several cases that certain movie entries aren't tagged or searchable by release dates, or there are double entries thanks to multiple versions. That means I've had trouble getting an accurate count on certain years where I haven't met my fifty film threshold for writing a list. I've resorted to using Wikipedia's movie lists to cross reference against my records, often counting title by title. To date, I'm still not sure exactly how many of the "Pink Panther" movies I've seen. At least four.

I've been thinking about this more since I accidentally lost a chunk of my Excel records recently, and had to spend a few days recreating them. The single document has nearly four thousand entries now, and I desperately need to revise it. I've now backed up extra copies, and started mulling over whether I should start looking for a backup for Icheckmovies. The site isn't nearly as popular as some of the other movie-oriented data wrangling sites, and I'm a little paranoid that one day it's just going to disappear. Then again, I still have the massive, elaborate lists of all the anime I was obsessively watching pre-2004 sitting on my hard drive. If I ever want to pick up "One Piece" again, I'll know right where I left off.

I've written before about my worries about movies I've forgotten, but at least I'm ensuring that I'll be able to check and make sure I don't forget what I've forgotten. That's one of the reasons that I've kept this blog too, to leave another record of what I was watching and enjoying at particular points in time, and what I thought of what was going on in the industry. I already enjoy going back and reading my older entries, refreshing my memory of the early part of this decade. The older I get, the faster it feels like time passes.

But there are still so many good movies left to see. I feel like I've barely gotten started.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"The Crown," Year One

Billed as the most expensive series to date from Netflix, and created by Peter Morgan, "The Crown" is a prestige project of considerable ambition.  Its first ten episodes chronicle the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), from the transition of power from her father, King George VI (Jared Harris), up through the events of 1955.  Impeccably written and cast, with very high end production values, this may be the best historical drama series I've seen to date.

Initially it's a little strange to see the familiar British royals playing out historical events like episodes of "The West Wing," since many of these people are still alive and well.  However, the events of the series take place over sixty years in the past at the time of writing, predating the "Mad Men" era.  They are absolutely fair game for dramatization.  Also Peter Morgan, responsible for "The Queen" and other, more recent looks at British history, is clearly very comfortable with the material.  He doesn't hesitate to dig into the personal lives of the royal family, members of the government, and those in their orbits.  Much of the series is concerned with figures like Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) struggling to reconcile their personal needs with the demands of life as a royal in the public eye.  

The two main figures that "The Crown" is concerned with, however, are Queen Elizabeth II and her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).  Both performances are fantastic, and the series sees them weather one challenge after another.  Elizabeth is newly ascendant, learning the limits of her role as queen and how to wield the power of her new station.  Even the smallest deviations from expectation can be a political minefield, and she has several difficult personal relationships to manage.  Churchill is inevitably facing the end of a long and storied career, but isn't finished yet.  Both are constantly battling for the respect of others, and their scenes together are often a highlight.  They come across as such appealing, interesting people, and their dilemmas are so absorbing, I frequently had to resist turning to Wikipedia to read up on what really happened during the period, and spoiling future episodes.   

I really appreciate the complexity and the nuance of the show's writing, which presents each new historical incident with considerable detail and thoughtfulness.  Smaller stories, like Queen Elizabeth choosing a new secretary and Churchill being obliged to sit for a portrait, turn out to be very revealing and insightful.  There are various dramatic inventions, of course, but most of these serve to provide context to how larger events are playing out, or to explore different aspects of the characters.  Hanging over much of the series, for instance, is the abdication of Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), which continues to make waves during Elizabeth's reign.  He has a fantastic scene during the coronation episode where he provides color commentary to a roomful of guests as they watch the televised proceedings.

From what I'd heard about "The Crown," I'd thought that it would take place much earlier, likely during WWII before Elizabeth became queen.  However, the series is exciting enough that I didn't miss the warfare one bit.  The series is not going to be of much interest to those viewers who aren't receptive to a good political drama, but I found that Morgan and his crew found plenty of ways to make the era and all these historical figures really come alive and engage the audience.  The production really spared no expense, full of eye-catching historical recreations and gorgeous costuming.  Claire Foy seems to be wearing another stunning outfit in every scene.  Stephen Daldry directed the first two episodes, and they're the best thing he's done in years.           

I'm looking forward to future seasons of "The Crown," though I suspect that there's little chance that they'll live up to the first one.  Lithgow's Churchill will almost certainly have a diminished role, and I expect we'll see even less of Harris and some of the other high-profile actors.  Still, Peter Morgan has proven he's able to mine plenty of excellent drama from any stretch of history, and if Queen Elizabeth II has anything, it's plenty of history.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Random Youtube-ery, Fifth Verse

There's a bit of a theme to my Youtube playlist this year, which is honoring some of the talent that has passed since the last one.  While revisiting some of the media that various departed filmmakers were involved with, I spent a lot of time tracking clips down on Youtube.  And I thought it would be nice to share a few of them with you.  As always, these playlists are mostly made up of media ephemera that's difficult to categorize, and the only thing they really have in common is utilizing a strong musical element.  This batch includes more tie-in music videos, award show numbers, and oddball musical numbers you probably forgot about.  Enjoy.

Psycho Killer - Jonathan Demme's beloved 1984 Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense" opens with this number, introducing David Byrne, feet first.  I always loved the song, and adore the simplicity of this staging, that was nonetheless effortlessly theatrical.  And I'm very sorry I only watched "Stop Making Sense" after Mr. Demme was gone.     

Dumb Ways to Die - I was flabbergasted to learn that this morbid little animated short is actually part of a 2012 Australian public service announcement campaign created by the Melbourne commuter rail network.  Apparently it was a very successful one too, reducing certain categories of safety accidents significantly.  The song was written by John Mescall with music by Ollie McGill.  Visuals and animation were by Pat Baron and Julian Frost.  And every single one of the little cartoon characters that is so horribly killed in the video has a name - including Clod, Doomed, Numskull and Putz.

The Best Things in Life are Free - Before "Mad Men" recedes too far into the past, let's revisit that lovely little moment where Don hallucinates elderly firm partner Bert Cooper performing a goodbye musical number at the end of the seventh season (or mid-season) finale.  It's a terribly fitting way for him to go out, especially as Cooper's actor, Robert Morse, is a Broadway alum, best known for "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

A Comedian at the Oscars - Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly perform at the 2007 Oscars.  The song is by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Judd Apatow and Adam McKay.  According to Apatow, it took them two hours to write this fantastic lament about how the Oscars ignore comedic actors.  Personally, my favorite bit is Jack Black trying to pick a fight with the acting nominees and hitting on Helen Mirren.  He really needs to host the awards one of these days.

Measuring, Measuring - A very obscure "Sesame Street" segment that I was obsessed with finding for a while because I wasn't really sure that it existed.  However, I did remember the song.  The music is by Mark Styles, with lyrics by Maxine Fisher.  The animation is by Michael Sporn.

Fish Heads - The beloved novelty song by Barnes & Barnes (two fictional brothers played by Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer) resulted in an equally weird novelty music video, which starred and was directed by Bill Paxton.  He worked on several shorts around this time, and managed to get the music video shown on Saturday Night Live in 1980.  It went over so well, the next week they played it again.  The video has been a cult favorite ever since.  

7 O'clock News - This is the opening sequence for "Kodomo no Omocha," ("Child's Toy,") usually shortened to "Kodocha," one of my favorite obscure '90s anime.  It follows the wacky adventures of a hyperactive child actress named Sana, who juggles school, family, and a career.  The opening does a great job of getting across her energy level and the show's lightning-fast humor, particularly the theme song by the band Tokio.  I still find it amazing how much they managed to squeeze into a scant 90 seconds of screen time.  

A Whale of a Tale - Back in the '50s, when musicals were still a theatrical mainstay, it wasn't a surprise that any major movie star you could name could carry a tune.  Still, it's delightful surprise to find Kirk Douglas crooning a sea shanty at the start of Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," one "A Whale of a Tale" written by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel.

Anthropology Rap - The "Spanish 101" rap from "Community" is more famous, but I love the follow-up for "Anthropology 101" in the second season premiere.  Not only does it feature Betty White as the anthropology professor, but also stealthily leads into Toto's "Africa."  Chris McKenna wrote the lyrics.  

Tit Willow - And finally, here are Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle performing "Tit Willow," from Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado," in the first season of "The Muppet Show."  Sam's scary frowning expression actually scared me as a child, but when I grew up, I learned to appreciate what a giant dork he really was.  His delivery here, of literally two words, is absolutely priceless.  This segment was also one of the show's "UK Spots," used to fill in extra time on the longer British broadcasts of the show.  So most Americans never saw it during the original run.  


Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Handmaid's Tale," Year One

I never read Margaret Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale."  It was one of those books that simply fell through the cracks, one I knew was a classic and would probably appeal to me, but I just never got around to.  When the new Hulu adaptation was announced, I debated whether I should finally read it to be on the same page as everyone else, but ran out of time.  So I'm embracing the ability to go into the series totally blind with no preconceptions.

"Handmaid" presents a grim dystopia where the United States has become a radical Christian country called Gilead.  Women have been reduced to second class citizens, whose rights are severely restricted.  Fertility declines have spurred the enslavement of the few fertile women left, who are forced to be breeding stock, or "handmaids," to the ruling elite.  Our protagonist is Offred (Elizabeth Moss), the newly assigned handmaid to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).  As Offred navigates her tightly restricted life, we learn about her past and family, how Gilead was created, and the stories of some of her fellow handmaids.

From Offred's POV we learn about her world, the camera often keeping her face in close-up, even as she's rendered all but invisible from everyone around her by the wings of a starched white bonnet.  So much of the storytelling comes down to Elizabeth Moss, her carefully guarded reactions to the horrors she witnesses, and the roiling fury of her inner monologues, often provided in sarcastic voice-over.  She carries the entire series effortlessly, and I think the series is worth a watch for her alone.  It's largely thanks to her performance that some of the show's weaker writing and pacing issues aren't as glaring as they could be.  While this is clearly a prestige project for Hulu, and they put an impressive amount of resources into it, there are some fundamental weaknesses to the first season.   

The biggest issue is that the ideological construction of this world is fairly flimsy, and it was never explained to my satisfaction how the U.S. went from relatively sane to a color-coded Puritanical nightmare so quickly.  However, the dystopia itself certainly feels genuine on a personal level, where every social interaction is governed by dehumanizing rules and rituals, with plenty of real world parallels.  Beautifully shot, with striking costuming to delineate the hierarchy of every character in every scene, "The Handmaid's Tale" looks absolutely fantastic.  The look of the handmaids in particular are instantly iconic.  The cast also boasts a bumper crop of excellent performances, that go a long way toward selling the paranoid oppressiveness and misery of Gilead's society.  Moss and Strahovski are the MVPs, but well-drawn secondary characters played by Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, and Madeline Brewer also help make the world feel more plausible and immersive.

So it's easier to forgive the occasional creative missteps, like centering two episodes on male characters in a way that makes those installments feel like filler.  Or the ironic use of pop songs to underscore some of the big emotional moments.  The show's creators get the important things right, like the infuriating little hypocrisies of the Waterfords, Offred's complicated relationships with the other handmaids, and the small but meaningful acts of resistance.  For those who might be wary of "Handmaid" because of the subject matter, the series is far from all doom and gloom.  There are plenty of intense emotional moments, and some jarring violence, but also welcome instances of humor and triumph.  Ultimately, I found the show very uplifting.
Also, though I understand that the first seasons covers the entirety of the source novel, "The Handmaid's Tale" feels like it could easily spawn several more seasons.  In fact, I'd have been very disappointed if the show ended after only one year, because I feel like it could significantly improve in the future.  I would love to see a spotlight episode for Ann Dowd's character, for example, and the worldbuilding gaps could be easily patched.  As alien and frightening as the world of Gilead is, the show got me to care about the characters enough that I want to follow their stories for a while.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Oddity of "Okja"

"Okja" is the latest from South Korea's Bong Joon-ho, more notorious for being one of Netflix's experiments in film disruptive models of film distribution than the actual content of the movie.  Bong has always been hit-or-miss for me, and I'm sad to say that this is one of the misses.  He has a fun idea here with some potential, following the adventures of a genetically engineered super-pig and his human best friend.  However, the end result is such a weird mishmash of tones and clashing cultures, I got very little enjoyment out of it.  

I think a big part of the problem is Okja himself, a lumbering CGI critter who is beloved by his caretaker Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and is targeted by the evil Mirando Corporation, who technically own him and want to turn him into a mascot for their new line of super-meats.  There's nothing particularly interesting about Okja, aside from him being the size of an elephant and resembling a hippo more than a pig.  Mija isn't much better, a brave little moppet who goes out into the great big world to rescue her friend, but frequently seems like she's just going through the motions of a typical action adventure film.

I wonder if Okja and Mija would have worked better in a different kind of project, a more stylized, more humorous, more obviously allegorical fable aimed at younger audiences.  Instead, we have a lot of familiar western actors playing villains and side characters who come off as desperately wacky instead of the larger-than-life caricatures they were probably meant to be.  For instance, there's Tilda Swinton as Mirando CEO Lucy Mirando, who has built up this big facade as a loveable corporate leader, trying to cover up her nefarious plans and massive insecurity.  Or there's Jake Gyllenhaal's celebrity zoologist Johnny Wilcox, a smarmy TV personality who has sold out to Mirando.  Paul Dano, Steve Yeun, and Lily Collins show up as vigilante animal rights activists, while Shirley Henderson and Giancarlo Esposito play terribly underutilized Mirando underlings.    

So clearly, there's no shortage of talent here.  The trouble is that none of the characters are very well developed, and the story doesn't have much going on thematically.  We're supposed to be sickened by the abuses of Okja by Mirando and the food processing system, but there's almost no emotional weight to anything that goes on because we don't really care about Okja.  Mirando tries to turn Mija into a prop for their meat-shilling event, while the animal activists want her help to expose their wrongdoing, but the stakes aren't particularly well established.  It's fun to watch Mija get into the middle of these big chase sequences, but she's such a single-minded little trooper, she never seems swayed by the arguments of either side, and there's no suspense about her ever getting hurt or being tempted away from helping Okja.  And when the big adventure ends, it doesn't feel particularly satisfying.    

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it certainly looks nice.  The character animation of Okja is great.  The art design is a lot of fun at times, and the production values are very strong.  I got a few amusing moments out of Tilda Swinton's performance because I find it difficult to dislike Tilda Swinton in anything.  However, nothing else about "Okja" worked for me.  It didn't come off as fun or whimsical, the humor completely fell flat, and it certainly didn't work as a satire or serious critical piece.  The worldbuilding, which was the saving grace of "Snowpiercer," feels incomplete.  At most, "Okja" is a bit of action-adventure fluff with some tacked-on anti-corporate messages that are unbearably stale.      

This is the film that comes the closest to Bong's "The Host," which was his breakout creature feature, but it strikes me as one of his weakest.  "Okja" likely  would have been better if it had been done smaller scale, took more time for the ideas to percolate, and didn't have so many expectations heaped on it.  Many of the little extras that the Netflix money allowed for just felt distracting - and I hope that Netflix keeps that in mind for their future projects.  As for Bong Joon-ho,  I think it may be time to take a break from fantasy and get back in touch with his darker side.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Doctor Who," Year Ten (or Thirty-Six)

Minor spoilers ahead.

This is my favorite season of "Doctor Who" in a while, a nicely self-contained season with a strong story arc, good characters, and heap of good payoff to several ongoing story threads.  However, it also cemented how repetitive the series has become, with many elements that feel recycled from previous years.  It's natural that the tenth series since the show's revival should be having issues like this, and at least it does the formula very well, but I can feel my patience with the show wearing thin.  It also doesn't help that we're looking at another major format change just as the series felt like it was on steady ground for the first time in a while.

But let's talk about what works first.  Peter Capaldi continues to do great work as the Doctor, striking a good balance between otherworldly and lovable.  He wears his heart on his sleeve a bit more here, less arrogant and more vulnerable.  It helps that he's put squarely in a father-figure role to the newest companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who is black, a lesbian, a little funny-looking, and completely lovable.  A secondary ally is Nardole (Matt Lucas), an alien who serves as a majordomo figure for the Doctor, and as frequent comic relief.  Early episodes find the Doctor and Nardole guarding a mysterious vault at the university where the Doctor has taken on a job as a lecturer.  Bill is a member of the canteen staff, who the Doctor can't resist taking under his wing and showing the universe to.

Bill is everything that Jenna Coleman's too-perfect Clara wasn't - awkward, gangly, very relatable, and definitely still sorting out her own life.  She actually reminds me the most of Rose, who was another fresh-faced youngster occasionally a few steps behind the Doctor, but who could never be accused of being slow or uninteresting.  The student/teacher dynamic with the Doctor works wonderfully, especially the way Bill questions bits of the series lore as they're introduced to her.  This run of episodes really does make for an excellent introduction to "Doctor Who" for newcomers.  And I don't think it's revealing too much to say that Michelle Gomez's Missy plays an important role this year.  Her interactions with the Doctor are some of my favorite things that they've ever done with the character.  

The majority of the episodes in this series are nicely serialized, including a run of four episodes in the middle, from "Oxygen" to "The Lie of the Land" that make up a very strong alien invasion epic.  The stand-alones are pretty standard, though the dystopian "Smile," featuring robots that communicate through emojis, is a standout.  The final two-parter, however, felt very rushed, especially for the amount of story crammed into it.  Maybe I was just unhappy to see this series end, and a set of characters I'd really become invested in so quickly dispatched to their ultimate fates.  On the other hand, it fit the pattern of a final confrontation with old enemies a little too well, and there were an awful lot of parallels to the final stand of Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor a few series ago.      

It was the little moments that I ended up appreciating the most, the bits of meta and banter, like the debate over the Doctor's real name, Nardole's relationship troubles, and the little glimpses we get into Bill's life.   Steven Moffat thankfully left his most problematic characters behind, including River and Clara, and turned in some of the better stories of his tenure as a result.  I really wish Bill and Nardole had more time to develop and grow as characters, because they're some of the better companions from the entire revival.  However, maybe that would have been tempting fate.  After all, River only turned into a problem after Moffat kept bringing her back.

And while there are significant chunks of these latest series that I haven't liked, I wouldn't have minded Moffat sticking around for another year or two if he could still write series like this one.  And I'm really going to miss the current cast.  However, that's not to be, so here's hoping that the next reboot and Mr. Chibnall find their feet quickly.    


Thursday, November 9, 2017

My Top Ten films of 1992

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.

Bad Lieutenant - Harvey Keitel delivers one of the greatest screen performances of the 1990s as the title character, a New York cop with every imaginable vice. It's a soul shaking cri de couer that has him literally howling at the heavens at one point, railing against God. The prolific, provocative director Abel Ferrara built a starkly memorable film around the performance, portraying the degradation and the corruption of his characters in some pretty ugly terms. However, it's the moments of religious and spiritual transcendence that make this one so memorable.

Glengarry Glen Ross - It still feels more like a stage play than it should, but it's hard to complain with material this strong and an ensemble full of so many greats. Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino all turn in work that can be counted as career highs, and David Mamet's dialogue was never better served. And it's worth reiterating that Mamet wrote the dynamite Alec Baldwin "brass balls" scene specifically for him. "Glengarry" deserves its reputation for being one of the great ensemble films, and for being a rare adaptation that leaves the stage version in the dust.

Lorenzo's Oil - I've seen so many of these "search for a cure" films that descend into feel-good treacle that it's astonishing to discover one as utterly harrowing and painful to experience as "Lorenzo's Oil." Director George Miller never lets up on the emotional devastation of the situation, and Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon wonderfully embody a desperate couple trying to endure under unimaginable stress and trauma. The film's biggest flaw, of course, is that its hopeful ending simply isn't true, but that doesn't take away from how effective and moving a piece of cinema this is.

My Cousin Vinny - Legal comedies are rare birds these days, probably because "My Cousin Vinny" raised the bar so high for the genre. Joe Pesci nails the nicest role he ever got, Fred Gwynne gets a lovely career capper as the exasperated judge, and Marisa Tomei genially steals every one of her scenes. Humor is deftly mined from clashing cultures, accents, worldviews, and even from the legal system itself. And to top it all off, all the legal procedure cited in the film is correct, making this one of the few courtroom movies that actually reflects how a real courtroom functions.

Orlando - Tilda Swinton's mysterious, intriguing title character is the centerpiece of Sally Potter's curious film about gender, identity, and the fickle tides of fate. Integrating visuals and poetry from many different eras, the film serves as an engaging tour of British history as it follows the strange life and career of Orlando through the ages. As the story functions by its own peculiar logic, so does the filmmaking, which finds ways to reference and incorporate artistic inspirations from a wide variety of sources. It's still a film that defies easy description or categorization.

Howard's End - One of the best Merchant Ivory films, those immaculately made British dramas that feature so much great talent both behind and in front of the camera. "Howard's End" delicately adapts the E.M. Forster novel with great fidelity and care. Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter are the main event here, as a pair of sisters who find themselves caught up in escalating social dilemmas involving class and privilege. It also has some of the loveliest images ever found in British cinema, particularly the bluebell sequence toward the end of the film.

Reservoir Dogs - Heralded the arrival of Quentin Tarantino to the cinema landscape. Though much imitated, the combination of visceral violence, casual dialogue, and an uncanny sense of style was something that couldn't be easily duplicated. There's no question that Tarantino borrowed elements from several other movies to make "Reservoir Dogs," but the execution is entirely original. The blackest black humor, the moments of unexpected whimsy, the irony-laced soundtrack, and casting exactly the right actors for each role were what made the film what it is.

The Story of Qiu Ju - Though better known for their heartrending melodramas and tragedies, Zhang Yimou and his greatest leading lady, Gong Li, also made this terribly pleasant, and almost sweet comedic feature. Poking very gentle fun and China's court system and endless bureaucracy, we watch the travails of a pregnant peasant woman seeking justice. Shot on location and set in the present day, with few professional actors, "Qiu Ju" captures the little idiosyncrasies and rhythms of modern Chinese life in these remote places better than anything else from that era.

Unforgiven - Clint Eastwood's most indisputable masterpiece has been called a subversion of the western genre and the western hero, particularly Eastwood's own role as the Man With No Name. Over the years I've come to appreciate its more darkly funny moments over the cold violence and brutality of the more famous shootout and confrontation sequences. And while Eastwood certainly does some of his best work here, as William Muny, it's Gene Hackman who frequently dominates the screen. Love or hate westerns, "Unforgiven" feels like the final word on the subject.

Lessons of Darkness - Werner Herzog's documentary on the aftermath of the first Gulf War is shot like a travelogue of hell. The burning oilfields become an alien landscape, which Herzog's narration marvels over for their disturbing beauty and terrifying inhumanity. I love all the little ways that Herzog finds to comment on the war without ever directly saying anything about the war, from the wryly humorous chapter titles to the musings on madness. The film is completely apolitical, but takes an unmistakably strong stance nonetheless.

Honorable Mentions

The Crying Game
Last of the Mohicans
A League of Their Own
The Long Day Closes
The Player
Malcolm X
White Men Can't Jump
Porco Rosso
Strictly Ballroom

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Leftovers"

There are only twenty-eight episodes of "The Leftovers," but this has been one of the best series of its era and it definitely deserves its own Top Ten list. As always, episodes are unranked, but listed below by airdate. Moderate spoilers below.

"Pilot" - I have a special fondness for certain introductory episodes, and this one does a fantastic job of immersing the viewer in the gloomy world post-Sudden Departure. We learn about the Garveys, the Guilty Remnant, and the ins and outs of Mapleton. What really sold it for me though, was the moment Kevin is in the pool, and that Max Richter theme hits its crescendo for the first time. That's when it really hit me that the show was committed to being an emotional wrecking ball.

"Two Boats and a Helicopter" - Matt Jamison is one of my favorite "Leftovers" characters, and it's fascinating to watch him grapple with his faith throughout the series. He, like his sister Nora, appears as a minor character in earlier episodes, but this spotlight episode reveals him to be a Job-like figure who can't seem to get out of his own way as the misfortunes pile up around him. Christopher Eccleston's performance is fantastic, and I especially love when Matt loses his temper.

"Guest" - A strong contender for my favorite episode of the series is all about the sad, lonely life of Nora Durst, who lost her whole family and has chosen a career path that forces her to reckon with it every day. Carrie Coon demonstrates why she's one of the show's MVPs here, but I also love the episode for the fascinating worldbuilding that the series does. The convention shows more ways that people in this universe are dealing with the Sudden Departure, or often failing to deal with it.

"The Garveys at Their Best" - Until this episode, we didn't have a good picture of what the Garveys were like as a whole family unit before the Sudden Departure. It sheds some light on why the split happened, particularly in the case of Laurie, who I found to be a difficult character through much of the first two seasons. Narratively, it also functions as a nice calm before the inevitable storm of the finale. Wisely, the flashback device was only used this one time, unlike in Lindelof's previous show.

"Axis Mundi" - The second season premiere was particularly daring for its incorporation of a lengthy theme-setting opening sequence in the distant past with a silent native woman. However, it's the rest of the episode that really got me invested, which takes us to the very special town of Jarden, Texas, where the picture perfect Murphy family isn't nearly as perfect as it appears. None of the show's regulars plays much of a part in the hour, but it's a compelling watch nonetheless.

"No Room at the Inn" - A sequel of sorts to the previous Matt Jamison spotlight episode sees Matt struggling to find his place in the spiritually chaotic community in and around Jarden. More misfortune befalls him, but this time Matt takes a different approach to a bad situation, and ends up somewhere quite different spiritually. The ending is the first time I've seen him truly happy and at peace with himself up to this point, and it's one of my favorite moments in the show.

"International Assassin" - I'm not as enamored of Kevin Garvey's trippy journey into the unknown as some of the show's other fans, but this is an excellent episode. We not only get some very strong material for Justin Theroux, but Ann Dowd's Patti Levin gets her last punches in too. The hour is by turns humorous and intensely emotional, mirroring the show's shift from unrelenting bleakness toward a more even-handed existentialism with room for moments of bizarre hilarity.

"Don't Be Ridiculous" - The show's "Perfect Strangers" running joke turns into a full-fledged subplot, with a fantastic appearance by Mark Linn-Baker to boot. This is really a Nora episode, on another business trip that reveals her failure at coping with lingering issues, and also filling in some of the story gaps from the break between the second and third seasons. I really wish we had more Erica this season, but I'll take her trampolining to Wu-Tang with Nora as a season highlight.

"Certified" - A Laurie episode, and one that I found unexpectedly moving. Everyone around Laurie is in crisis and she does her best to help, but nobody seems to notice that she's struggling with her own personal demons. The final scenes where she finds closure with Kevin and seems to come to a decision about her life, are touching and suspenseful. This was an episode that I didn't realize I needed to see until it was over. Oh, and the ending absolutely wasn't a fake-out or a cheat.

"The Book of Nora" - One of the most satisfying endings to any show that I've seen in years, one that seems to break its own rules, but with enough ambiguity that it still follows the theme song's advice to "Let the mystery be." I was never really invested in the Kevin and Nora relationship, believing them too fundamentally screwed up from the outset for the relationship to last long. However, this episode sold it to me in the end, and I'm glad it did.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Disney's 2019

In 2016, Disney dominated the box office by grossing over $7 billion in one year, largely thanks to a string of hits including "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," "Finding Dory," "Captain America: Civil War" and "Rogue: One."  They had three films earn more than a billion each.  

Now, after the recent announcements at D23 and elsewhere, we're looking another potentially massive year for the Mouse House coming in 2019.  The schedule currently looks like this:

“Captain Marvel” (3D) — Mar. 8, 2019
“Dumbo” (3D) — Mar. 29, 2019
Untitled Disneytoon Studios — April 12, 2019
Untitled “Avengers” (3D) — May 3, 2019
“Aladdin” (3D) — May 24, 2019
“Toy Story 4” — June 21, 2019
“The Lion King” (3D) — July 19, 2019
“Artermis Fowl” (3D) — Aug. 9, 2019
“Nicole” — Nov. 8, 2019
“Frozen 2” — Nov. 27, 2019
Star Wars: Episode IX” (3D) — Dec. 20, 2019

As always, the usual caveats apply.  I fully expect that either the "Aladdin" or "Avengers" films will be moved back to avoid cannibalizing each other, and we could see the newly announced "Artemis Fowl" or "Nicole" delayed to 2020.  However, we're looking at a year where there are four very good candidates for billion dollar grossers.  Even if several of the smaller titles bomb, and remember that several did in 2016, Disney's 2019 box office is likely to be another record breaker.

First off, you have two climactic endings to long-running action series.  "Star Wars: Episode IX" will finish off the new trilogy of "Star Wars" films, while the fourth "Avengers" film has recently been described as the end of the 22-film series that started with "Iron Man" in 2008.  The description is a little vague, but it does point to something climactic in the works.  Notably, at the time of writing Disney hasn't announced much in the works for these two franchises beyond 2019.  Whether it's more sequels or possible reboots, I definitely expect the momentum to start slowing down for both the MCU and "Star Wars" after that point, so Disney is going to be playing up both of these quasi-finales as much as they can.

However, potentially overshadowing both is the prospect of "Frozen 2."  The original "Frozen" was a global phenomenon, the highest grossing animated Disney film of the modern era.  "Toy Story 3" isn't that far behind it, currently the reigning box office champ for PIXAR.  I have my doubts about there being much demand for a "Toy Story 4," especially with a nine year gap since the previous installment, but I think the next sequel is bound to do plenty of business even if it doesn't break a billion.  "Frozen 2" has a much better chance, especially if the sequel improves on the original.  Personally, I don't think that will be difficult since "Frozen" always struck me as an oddly slapdash Disney film with a lot of little flaws that could have been fixed with more time and care.

There are three different "live action" adaptations of Disney classics on the 2019 slate right now.  Of those. "The Lion King" will almost certainly do the best, and has a decent shot of breaking a billion based on the popularity of the 1994 animated film.  I don't think that the prospects of "Dumbo" and "Aladdin" are very good, however.  Tim Burton is essentially constructing an original story with a lot of new human characters around the basics of the 1941 cartoon, and he hasn't had the greatest track record lately.  Meanwhile, "Aladdin" is currently in a pretty odd place on the schedule.  If any of these are going to be moved, I expect it to be "Aladdin."

Then we have "Captain Marvel," which is notable for being the next female-led superhero film after "Wonder Woman" and the MCU's first.  The character is fairly obscure, but like Black Panther the character is going to be introduced in an earlier MCU film, which should give it a boost.  This is currently a big question mark for Disney, but it doesn't have much competition and should be a decent performer.  Finally, there's the "Untitled Disneytoon Film," which is an space-themed spinoff from the "Cars" universe, in the same vein as "Planes."  It'll probably be the lowest grosser on the roster.   

I'm looking forward to some of these movies, particularly "Episode IX," but I'm worried that Disney may be pushing too hard.  I can easily see some of these franchises running out of steam, especially if they do try to put all three live-action Disney adaptations out in the same year, or keep pushing the MCU like this.  Keep in mind that there's competition coming too, in the form of more "Fast and Furious," "Transformers," Dreamworks, and DCU movies.  It feels a little like Disney is pressing their luck.