Saturday, October 21, 2017

Life Without Reruns

Cutting the cord has had an unexpected side effect that I wasn't expecting.  I've almost completely stopped rewatching media.  And this is a big shift for me, because I remember watching so many television shows and movies multiple times, simply because they were on when I was channel surfing.  A huge chunk of my viewing time went to syndicated series, the ones that played in the early evenings before dinner when I was a kid.  That's the way I first started watching "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and so many other shows I couldn't watch in prime time because my parents were watching something else.  I watched most movies on weekend broadcasts, edited for television.  They were always at least four or five years old.  Newer media was rarely accessible until my teenage years, when we had more than one television in the house, and the ability to go to the movie theater unsupervised.

And I think back to all those episodes of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" that my generation practically had memorized because we all watched them over and over in the 7PM rerun hour before the network programming started.  Would I still be so fond of the "Miss Chanandler Bong" line if I hadn't heard it multiple times when I was younger?  I certainly wouldn't be able to repeat dialogue off the top of my head or recall tiny details from those episodes.  I suspect that's why I've got so much nostalgic attachment to shows from that period of my life, while the more recent ones don't stick in my consciousness nearly so well.  I loved "Breaking Bad" and "Community," but I've only seen the majority of the episodes once.  The only media I rewatch regularly these days are the kids' movies my younger relatives like.  It's very nostalgic, hearing songs from Disney musicals so many times that I've unconsciously memorized them, but it's not a common occurrence anymore.

As a result I find that I'm less connected to the popular culture in some ways.  It used to be impossible to avoid familiarity with certain movie stars like Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis, and everyone had seen at least one episode of a popular sitcom like "Home Improvement."  Now, I've successfully avoided watching any Adam Sandler movies for a decade, and haven't seen a single episode of the ubiquitous "Modern Family."  I don't have anything against "Modern Family," but if I were still channel surfing like I was in high school, I'm certain I would have stumbled across an episode or two by now.  Instead, if I have a half hour to kill, I'm more likely to be catching up on the late night comedy monologues or listening to a podcast from one of the movie reviewers I follow.  There's always more content waiting for our attention these days, and I never have to simply settle for the least objectionable option.        

Then again, I've noticed  that I've started keeping a running list of movies that I want to revisit sometime when I have the chance, because it never feels like I have the free time for it anymore.  The vast majority of the time I prefer watching something new, but once in awhile I'm struck by the urge to rewatch a particular bit of media, to re-experience a certain moment or to refresh my own memory.  I often resort to Youtube clips to help patch the gaps.  The ending of "Cinema Paradiso" is one I tend to revisit a lot.  The accessibility of so much media through the internet has mostly assuaged any fears that if I don't watch something at a particular time, it's going to disappear into the ether forever.   

As with most changes in my media consumption, I don't know if this is a net good or bad outcome. It may just be a sign of the times.  I have to work a little harder to check my blind spots and make sure I'm not dismissing media that doesn't immediately conform to my tastes, but on the other hand I feel like I'm wasting so much less time now.  Watching media feels less like vegging now, and I don't miss that feeling at all.          

Thursday, October 19, 2017

My Top Ten films of 1993

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.

Schindler's List - Steven Spielberg began his career as a wunderkind, but no one could deny he was one of the filmmaking greats after "Schindler's List." Filmed almost totally in black and white, over three hours long, and packed with human suffering in every frame, it's a difficult watch but an endlessly rewarding one. You could see Spielberg evolving here as a filmmaker, leaving behind old stylistic conceits, and digging into deeply personal themes. More than a few sequences still strike me as nearly unwatchable - in the best way possible.

The Piano - Holly Hunter delivers her best performance in this haunting romance, set in 19th century New Zealand - and she never utters a word. As with all of Jane Campion's films, the natural world plays a major role in setting the tone and mood, with a considerable assist here from Michael Nyman's stirring, haunting piano score. But as alien as the New Zealand frontier is, Hunter's curious Ada may be even moreso, a woman very much in the process of discovering herself as she confronts the possibility of choosing a different way through life.

The Remains of the Day - My favorite of the Merchant/Ivory costume dramas, largely because of the fantastic work of Anthony Hopkins. A beautiful study of the strictly regimented, tightly controlled world of an English country estate, mirrored by the ever-dutiful housekeeper, Mr. Stevens, who cannot bring himself to show any emotion, even in the face of personal tragedy and heartbreak. Subtle, intimate, and deeply moving, it's very much a film of small moments. However, those small moments have proven to be timeless ones, and impossible to forget.

Groundhog's Day - As the reputation of this unassuming Bill Murray comedy has grown over the years, it's revealed a rare universality in its themes and its humor. As Phil the weatherman is slowly redeemed by love and a newfound kinship with mankind, so too is the film revealed to be a humanist fairy tale in the same vein as Preston Sturges' and Frank Capra's classics. This was a key role for Murray, one that helped him transition from smart-aleck to more mature roles. However, that gloriously morbid suicide sequence still makes me guffaw like nothing else.

Short Cuts - Robert Altman puts together one of his best ensembles to examine the lives of Los Angelenos in crisis. Based on the writings of Raymond Carver, the stories are full of odd coincidences, strange connections, and reprehensible behavior. I especially appreciated the little moments of biting humor as Altman contrasts the often beastly behavior of his players with the sunny suburbia of Southern California. Of the immensely talented cast, the performance that really stuck with me, amusingly, was Lyle Lovett's appearance as a vengeful baker.

The Nightmare Before Christmas - Though stop-motion animation has seen a revival in recent years, there's nothing that looks quite like Tim Burton and Henry Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," or has nailed the same combination of delightful whimsy and nasty-fun horror. I think it's because "Nightmare" follows and benefits from the template of animated Christmas specials of the past, even as it's slyly satirizing them. It's also a legitimately engaging musical, with some of composer Danny Elfman's most memorable, hummable work.

Food - A collection of three shorts from the great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, all revolving around eating. Each course provides a metaphor for human behavior and social structures through the act of consumption - the rich eat the poor, the gluttonous devour themselves, and everyone has terrible table manners. Svankmajer uses a combination of live actors with stop-motion animation and prosthetics to create some fiendishly clever and grotesque images. All together, "Food" runs barely more than fifteen minutes, but it offers a full meal for cinephiles.

Three Colors: Blue - Krzysztof Kieślowski's "Three Colors" trilogy is regarded his masterpiece, but the only installment that really resonated with me was the first one, "Blue." This is the film I think of when I hear the term "tone poem," because it depends on immersing the viewer in the world of Juliette Binoche's Julie, including her delicate emotional state after a grievous loss. Not just the set design, but the music and the cinematography mirror her state of mind. The color blue dominates, but in a way that is far more than a gimmick.

Blue - This is likely the most esoteric piece of film that's ever going to be discussed on this blog. I'm generally not a big fan of pure art or experimental films, but the starkly simple premise and emotional intensity of Derek Jarman's final piece of cinema is a singular and affecting experience. The solid blue screen and Jarman's narration together are perfectly mesmerizing. It can be debated how cinematic "Blue" really is, but there's no denying that it's a piece of art that truly captures the final vision of the artist who created it.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? - A family of oddballs is treated with the utmost dignity and compassion in Lasse Hallstrom's best coming-of-age tale. Plenty of praise has been heaped on Leonardo DiCaprio for playing mentally-challenged Arnie, but it's Darlene Cates as the Grape family matriarch who is the heart of the film, and Johnny Depp is excellent as the most down-to-earth character he's ever played. Quirky family comedies are definitely not in short supply these days, but ones as warm and humane as "Gilbert Grape" are rare.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Finishing The '70s

So, I watched 162 films from the 1970s in roughly a year, including a mad binge of Sam Peckinpah films at the end. I didn't end up finding the "Minamata" documentary or a lot of the more obscure foreign films I wanted to see. I did find Jan Troell's "The New Land," however. As promised, I want to spend this post talking about some of the differences I've noted in these older films compared to modern ones, as well as the overall experience of watching films from my parents' generation.

Firstly, there was a lot of culture clash to overcome, mostly with the foreign films. If I'd had trouble navigating the political and historical references in modern foreign films, it was even more difficult in these older ones. I could admire the cinematography of Wojech Has's "The Hourglass Sanitarium" or the performances of Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other So Much," but the nuances of their social commentary were mostly lost on me. Many French comedies also continue to elude me, like Truffaut's "Love on the Run" and "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000," but I keep trying.

And the American films? It's breathtaking how different our image of America and the American public was forty years ago. The landscape in '70s films always looks so much more vast and empty, with bigger skies and dustier vistas. The filmmaking was slower, more pastoral and less bombastic. Most of the ordinary heroes were small town and middle American folks, often veterans. Cities were the setting for crime pictures mostly. The action movies of the day almost always involved car chases, so they needed plenty of open road and scenic vistas to navigate. Road movies and chase movies were everywhere, often headlined by Burt Reynolds. There were still a few Westerns too, becoming darker and more morally complicated with each passing year. Sci-fi and fantasy were usually more grounded, simpler stuff.

Social issues were very present, though handled differently. As I noted before, the Vietnam War wasn't really addressed in films before 1978 with "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Instead, most of the war films of the era were still playing out WWII, with big spectaculars like "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Midway." In Europe, Holocaust dramas like "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Mr. Klein," and "The Night Porter" were common. However, there were a lot of films about the generational divide, about race and class and those darn hippies. I loved digging into not just the blaxploitation films, but other films about the African-American experience like "Sounder," "Cooley High" and "Blue Collar." I didn't spend as much time with woman-centric films as I probably should have, but it was nice to get glimpses of the female experience of the decade in films like "Girlfriends," "Smile," and "An Unmarried Woman."

I think I benefitted most from watching the comedies and dramedies of the era. The gentler, more situational humor is much more in line with my tastes than what we see in more aggressive modern comedies. Take "Real Life," Albert Brooks' satire about a man essentially trying to run a reality show before the concept of reality shows existed. The buildup is much slower and there's much more time taken to make sure the audience gets to know the characters first. Even zany stuff like "Silver Streak" and the Mel Brooks movies gave their jokes more time to breathe. Occasionally the slower pacing and more incidental narrative structures were an issue, but not often.

And it was a curious moment when I realized, about halfway through "Catch-22," that I was watching a movie with a cast that included Angelina Jolie's father and Charlie Sheen's father, and I'd just finished "Kelly's Heroes," which had Kiefer Sutherland's father, and "An Unmarried Woman" with Jill Clayburgh, who is Lily Rabe's mother. I'd gotten so immersed in watching these films, it slipped my mind exactly how far in the past they were. A few big stars like Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are still around, still active, but many of the others are already gone. Carrie Fisher's screen debut was in 1975's "Shampoo." Bill Paxton's was in "Crazy Mama" the same year.

I'm going to be taking a considerable break before I start in on the 1960s, in part because I've worked up quite a list of '80s and '90s films I want to take a look at first, and I've definitely been neglecting more recent films and television. I went a little overboard, as I often do, which is why this latest update came so much quicker after the previous one. However, I definitely feel informed enough to make those '70s top ten lists when their turn comes around. And I'll talk about these films some more then.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Leftovers," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for the whole series.

I'll remind you that I greatly preferred the cathartic misery of the first season of "The Leftovers" to the more experimental, existential second season that most viewers prefer. The emotional core of the series and its characters were always what drew me to the show, and I felt that this had become a little compromised by the wilder ambitions of the later episodes. So while the third season isn't very different from the second in tone or scope, I was very happy to find that the emotional throughlines were more at the forefront, simpler and clearer to follow despite an abundance of off-the-wall elements included in the plotting.

And where do we start with the plotting? Australia? The lion sex cult? The nukes? The "Perfect Strangers" running gag that turns into a full subplot? The Wu-Tang Clan? No, let's start with the Garveys, Jamisons, and Murphys, who are still in Jarden, Texas after a three-year time jump, with some notable absences in the premiere episode. It initially looks like everyone has reached a new normal, but this is soon revealed to be not the case at all, especially for Kevin and Nora. I found the way that the show dispatched with some of the more problematic storylines and characters from previous seasons very satisfying - Lily, Jill, Mary, and the Guilty Remnant are all shuffled off with very little fuss.

This leaves more time to focus on the show's best characters, and every second counts when there are only eight episodes in the final season and so much ground to cover. There are loose ends left everywhere, but I found that "The Leftovers" provided satisfying conclusions to the journeys of Kevin, Nora, Matt, and Laurie. And for those searching for answers about the Sudden Departure, one was provided, but left tantalizingly unconfirmed. All the main actors did excellent work, and were well served by scripts that were frequently bizarre and off-the-wall, but never lost sight of their storytelling or the importance of the primary relationships. There was a lot less clutter to distract from the big stuff, more answers provided more quickly.

With that in mind, I really enjoyed the unpredictability of these final episodes, where not only the landscape but the tone could change dramatically from moment to moment. This was the first time that the show's humor really worked for me, especially Nora bouncing on a trampoline with Erica in the middle of one of her most painful business trips. And then there's Kevin's big sequel to "International Assassin," where he plays twin brothers and spars with Patty one last time. And yet, the deadly serious moments still pack a real punch, from Laurie's contemplations of suicide, to Matt's talk with God, to Nora and Kevin's breakup and reconciliation.

The worldbuilding continues to be one of the show's greatest pleasures. I found the adventures of Kevin Sr. in Australia to be a little underwhelming, but the location offers so much in terms of new visuals and a new culture to explore. Even now, the series keeps finding new ways that people in the "Leftovers" world are dealing with the Sudden Departure, new stories and theories coming out of the mystery. Also, a big piece of the show's success this year is the music, which includes a slew of interesting song choices alongside the familiar Max Richter themes. The second episode's replacement theme song is one of the most sublime in-jokes I've seen on any show.

I think "The Leftovers" could have gone another season or two going in this new direction - we were sorely missing a wrap-up episode for the Murphys - but at the same time the creators stuck the ending so well that I'm glad that they stopped where they did. The show couldn't have sustained this level of daring experimentation for much longer, not without pushing the characters in directions I'm not sure I wanted to see them go. It was amazing to watch the series transform over the seasons, into something very special, very different, and very worthwhile.

Expect a Top Ten episodes list in a month or two, after I've had a chance to let the finale marinate in my head for a while.


Friday, October 13, 2017

A Beast of a "Beauty"

It's a surreal experience watching Disney's live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast." Of all their recent adaptations, it's the one that sticks closest to its animated source material by far, practically recreating it beat for beat. With an additional half hour of running time, the story is expanded a little, letting the romance breathe and giving more time to some minor characters, but otherwise don't expect any major deviations. And while Jon Favreau brought back two of the songs from the 1967 "Jungle Book" in his adaptation last year, the new "Beauty and the Beast" sees it fit to include every single number on the soundtrack, including the "Belle" reprise and "The Mob Song."

I expect that newcomers who haven't seen the 1991 "Beauty and the Beast" probably had a much better time with this new film than anyone familiar with the cartoon. Because the two versions are so similar, it's impossible to stop drawing comparisons between the them, and I'm sure that was intentional. Nostalgia was clearly a huge factor in the film being made in the first place. To Disney's credit, they did find a perfectly lovely, engaging Belle in Emma Watson (though her vocal performance is obviously heavily autotuned), and a total scene-stealer of a Gaston in Luke Evans. Everything else, however, became a game of seeing how director Bill Condon and his crew would tackle one familiar character, or scene, or song number after another. And in many cases, I'm sorry to say that the results are pretty lackluster.

The 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" suffers the same problem that many of the other Disney live-action adaptations do, which is that they are frequently overwhelmed by their production design and special effects. Everything looks terribly expensive, but the CGI animation simply cannot match the charm and expressiveness of the traditional 2D animation, especially where it comes to characters like the enchanted household objects and the all-important Beast. Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), and all the rest are back, with a showy, star-studded cast of familiar names to provide voices. But as hard as the animators try, the more photorealistic designs required to mesh with a live-action environment end up undercutting the performances. This is the most obvious in the new "Be Our Guest" number, a glittery but empty affair.

The Beast has his good moments, thankfully, with the help of Dan Stevens' performance. He can't match the physical presence and affecting pathos of the animated version, and has none of the leonine humor of Jean Marais, but this Beast is more articulate and more intelligent than his predecessors, and shows more signs of hidden depths. He also benefits from a longer second act where the Beast and Belle's romance is allowed to develop more gradually. One of the better additions here is that the Beast is given his own song number - though oddly it is not the popular "If I Can't Love Her" from the "Beauty and the Beast" stage musical. The handful of new songs are all originals, written by Alan Menken, and strong enough that none of them feel like obvious padding.

It's not enough, unfortunately, to make the 2017 "Beauty and the Beast" really feel like its own separate production apart from the other versions. The few changes to the plotting are promising, but too slight and underdeveloped to really add anything substantial to the story. The only performance I found memorable was Luke Evans.' In the end, it was only the odd line here, or a new gag there, or an unexpected cameo that managed to grab my attention every now and again. For most of the running time, the movie just felt like an awfully expensive facelift of the best of the Disney Renaissance cartoons. And that doesn't bode well for the many, many other adaptations that are currently in the Disney pipeline.

It can all be summed up by the lovely ballroom scene, where Emma Thompson did her best to deliver a new take on the film's title song. However, it only made me wish that I were listening to Angela Lansbury singing and watching the animated film. And any film that makes you wish that you were watching a different film has pretty well failed to do what it set out to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Favorite Brian De Palma Film

It's October, which means it's appropriate to write about a horror movie. And there's also no better time for me to stop putting off writing about Brian DePalma, who I've frankly had some trouble with as I've worked through his films. Though his early slashers and thrillers are a lot of fun, there's a campy gratuitousness to them that I always find a little off-putting. And the constant Alfred Hitchcock homages, while impressive, also frequently left me wondering if he was more of a pastiche artist than a true great in his own right. However, De Palma has made some undeniable masterpieces, including "Blow Out," probably his best film, and my favorite, his adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie." And it's worth pointing out that it was the very first cinematic Stephen King adaptation.

One of the big reasons that I'm so fond of "Carrie" is because of Sissy Spacek in the title role. She perfectly captures the misery of adolescence, and the despair of being trapped at the bottom of the social order. As Stephen King observed, "High school is hell," and there was never a more perfect victim for mean girls and bad parenting than awkward, soft-spoken Carrie White. I rooted for Carrie, and I'd still have enjoyed the film even if it were simply about her struggles with her school and relationships, and weren't a genre picture at all. Many of my favorite scenes involve her slowly blooming romance with William Katt's Tommy, culminating in the fantastic rotating prom dance sequence that De Palma accomplished by sticking his actors on a spinning platform and his camera on a dolly.

De Palma's penchant for showy visuals are all over the picture, from the languid, slow-motion opening scenes of the girls' showers at the school, to the famous split-screen horror that Carrie unleashes at the prom, to the dream-like finale with Amy Irving that was shot backwards to make it feel more unreal. And yet all the style is somehow never too much, and the film's thrills and chills are as effective as ever. Even the much-copied jump scare ending, which was itself yet an echo of "Deliverance," is still a wonderfully jolting surprise. I think that this is because everything in the film has a consistently heightened, visceral quality to it, allowing even the most outrageous elements to feel perfectly appropriate in context.

Take Piper Laurie's performance, for example. As Carrie's mother, she's so over-the-top and melodramatic that her performance easily could have been come across as camp or satire. Laurie saw the film as a black comedy at first, and viewed her character as "preposterous." In the film, however, Margaret White's operatic, self-loathing meltdowns are absolutely riveting to watch, and just plausible enough in context that we can take them at face value. After all, this is a universe where Carrie's rage manifests in equally intense and unfettered telekinetic destruction. "Carrie" is still one of the few horror pictures that was ever nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including nods for Spacek and Laurie's performances.

Both Carrie and her mother are prime examples of feminine cinematic monsters, which are all too rare even today. Notably, the inciting incidents for Carrie's transformation all tie into her emerging sexuality - her menarche, her prom, and her resistance to her mother's repressive religious indoctrination. Margaret White's fanaticism also ties into her sexuality, namely her attempts to eradicate it, and her guilt for sexual transgressions that Carrie comes to represent in her mind. These themes are more commonplace today, but In the 1970s they would have been very much in line with Brian De Palma's penchant for pushing the boundaries of onscreen sexuality and exploring taboos.

I consider it a stroke of extraordinary good luck that the exact right director made "Carrie," at the exact right point in his career. I suspect that the Brian De Palma of the '80s probably would have pushed the material in pulpier and more exploitative directions. And by the '90s and 2000s, the content would have been a challenge to get through the studio system. All the subsequent "Carrie" spinoffs and remakes have been comparatively toothless, compromised things. They may have upped the violence and the gore, but nobody else nailed that potent mix of body horror, religious hysteria, and the merciless subversion of so many idealized cinematic images of teenage girlhood.

What I've Seen - Brian De Palma

Sisters (1973)
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Obsession (1976)
Carrie (1976)
The Fury (1978)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Blow Out (1981)
Scarface (1983)
Body Double (1984)
The Untouchables (1987)
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Snake Eyes (1998)
Mission to Mars (2000)


Monday, October 9, 2017

"American Gods," Year One

I've read Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," but long ago enough in the past that I don't remember most of the details. I feel this was the best way to go into the new Bryan Fuller and Michael Green adaptation, which expands significantly on the material. The first season of eight episodes only covers roughly a third of the book, covering basic introductions of all the main characters and getting the ball rolling on bigger conflicts to come. For those unfamiliar with "American Gods," however, the show functions like an anthology of different stories about this peculiar universe, and a pretty uneven one, I'm sorry to say. Still, the good parts are good, and there's every indication that the show can improve considerably.

The basic conceit of the "American Gods" universe is that gods exist, and when various groups immigrated to America over time, they brought their gods with them. However, times are tough for the gods who originated in the old world, and many are largely forgotten, eking out a modest existence sustained by the few bits of belief they can still muster. One of these old gods, who introduces himself as Wednesday (Ian McShane), finagles a recently released ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), to accompany him on a cross-country mission to recruit other old gods for a coming war against America's new gods - flashy young upstarts like the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson).

The road trip narrative makes for a very leisurely, incidental show that doesn't really build up much momentum as Wednesday and Shadow have encounters with various gods like Czernobog (Peter Stromare) and Vulcan (Corbin Bersen), and other mythological creatures like the six-foot tall leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and a Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Most episodes include "Coming to America" segments, little vignettes that show how gods like Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) first came to America in the past, or there are interludes showing how the old gods have transformed over the years, and how they interact with mankind in the present day. Other memorable figures include the fertility goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an Egyptian god who goes by Mr. Jacquel (Chris Obi), and Easter (Kristin Chenoweth).

The pacing of the series is all over the place, and more impatient viewers might worry that there are whole episodes devoted to minor characters, and big questions often go unanswered for a very long time, but exposition dumps and rushed encounters are common. While some of the vignettes are excellent, others can drag or seem pointless. It doesn't help that Bryan Fuller is still indulging in some of the bad habits he picked up during "Hannibal," using hyperstylized visuals, discordant music, and superfluous, surreal, dream imagery to excess. There's a flame-eyed bison that is a little too reminiscent of the "Hannibal" stag. It has to be said, however, that this is the series with the best production values I've seen all year. The visual work is fabulous, the casting is almost totally perfect across the board, and the many, many special effects shots are beautifully realized. The show's ambitions are very impressive, especially the way it's committed to showing the audience things that no one else in television is.

Alas, a major weak spot in the cast is our lead, Ricky Whittle, which isn't helped by the fact that he shares so many scenes with Ian McShane, who is charisma personified. Shadow is actually much stronger here than the quiet, anonymous figure he was in the book, but Whittle isn't helping as much as he could. However, as with everything else in this show, I can see him improving considerably over time. Another big change is that Shadow's deceased wife Laura (Emily Browning) is now a major player in her own right, and a considerable chunk of the narrative follows her instead of Shadow. She's a pretty good character, but I worry that the show's creators have Laura shouldering more than she can handle. Having Browning also play a second, minor character, was not a good idea.

By the last episode "American Gods" does coalesce into something mostly cohesive and intriguing, but like last year's "Preacher," it takes an awful lot of patience and faith for the show to get to that point. I think that the good far outweighs the bad, however, and there wasn't a single installment that didn't offer up some surprising delight, from Mad Sweeney's odd partnership with Laura, to Wednesday wooing a Slavic goddess played by Cloris Leachman, to Media manifesting as a vulgar Lucille Ball to Shadow. With a lot of sex scenes, an unconventional format, and so much surreal, high concept fantasy involved, "American Gods" will inevitably be a niche show.

However, it's so often so perfect at what it wants to be, I can also see this easily becoming a cult show too. Pun intended.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Life Cycle of the Director

One of the first things I do after watching a movie is to visit its Wikipedia page. I quickly scan through the pages of prominent cast members I'm unfamiliar with, and the major creative contributors, especially the director. Going through my recent binge of '70s movies this happened a lot, as I was unfamiliar with a lot of names like Don Siegel and John Guillermin. And it meant that I got to look where a lot of once prominent directors ended up ten, twenty, or thirty years after their biggest successes.

Quentin Tarantino has famously declared that great directors are doomed to go into decline after making ten films. This absolutely doesn't hold true for all great directors, but long term consistency seems to be rare. I've run across so many directors who were only successful for a brief period, or only managed to make one or two notable films before disappearing into obscurity. It seems like a very common career trajectory for a Hollywood director is to make a handful of critically acclaimed films at the beginning of their career, and then spend the next decade or three directing disposable middlebrow fare. Look at Lasse Hallstrom and William Friedkin's filmographies. There are very few auteurs who seem to stay auteurs.

At the same time, this means that a lot of the mediocre throwaway films we see every year are made by directors of considerable talent and artistry who simply aren't in a position to be making the kinds of films that they want to make. Or in many cases, the filmmaking culture and support system they had in for earlier hits is no longer in place. Sure, some of the greats self-destructed on their own - see Sam Peckinpah's substance abuse issues - but others saw their fortunes greatly influenced by circumstance. In some cases, I'm convinced that a director's big success came from being at the right place at the right time, and working with the right people, because they never hit the same level of quality in subsequent films. It's made me a lot more skeptical about who should be counted as a great director.

As I've continued writing my "Great Directors" posts, and started running low on the more obvious names, I've started thinking about this more and more. Did Charles Laughton really contribute more to film for making the "Night of the Hunter," his only directing credit, than a dependable career director like Robert Stevenson, who directed the bulk of Disney's live action fantasy films of the 1960s and 1970s, including "Mary Poppins"? Would Jean Vigo still be so highly regarded if he hadn't died so young and made more than just one film and three shorts? What if he'd gone off to Hollywood like Rene Clair or Victor Sjostrom did, and made a string of commercial pictures? And have we forgiven M. Night Shyamalan yet for "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth"?

And I wonder about Patty Jenkins, who waited over ten years between "Monster" and "Wonder Woman" because she simply never found the right project to sign on for, and was daunted by expectations. Like so many others, she directed a few television episodes in the interim and had some notable false starts. What kinds of movies would she have made during that time if everything had gone right for her? And I wonder about David Fincher, who after having several promising projects shut down at HBO, has elected to direct the "World War Z" sequel as his follow-up to "Gone Girl." And I wonder about all those promising newcomers that arrive in Hollywood year after year. So much more determines the course of a director's career these days than their talent.

The age of the auteur is long gone, and sometimes I think that Quentin Tarantino may be one of the last big name directors who actually could get everything they want to make out there on their own terms. For most directors this has never been an option. And honestly, after "The Hateful 8," I don't know how true that is for Tarantino anymore either.

My next "Great Directors" post should be up in a couple of days. It'll be De Palma or Peckinpah. Haven't decided yet.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

There's Nothing Little About "Big Little Lies"

I'm not sure what I was expecting from HBO's "Big Little Lies," a seven-episode murder mystery miniseries written by David E. Kelley, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, and starring some of the best American screen actresses in the business. Maybe something funnier, campier, and more high-voltage, like "Feud." The show's premise certainly suggests this, with a story concerning the secrets, rivalries, and frictions among a group of affluent mothers from the seaside town of Monterey. Instead, we have a more grounded melodrama, though one that's certainly not without some bite.

At the center of the group is Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), a stubborn busybody who befriends single young mother Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has just moved into town. Though seemingly happily married to Ed (Adam Scott), Madeline is resentful of her teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) having become closer to her ex husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his younger, more laid back wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Madeline's best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a stay-at-home mom who has a volatile relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgaard). Madeline, Jane, Bonnie, and Celeste all have youngsters attending the same first grade class together. And on the very first day of school, Jane's son is accused by the daughter of high-powered CEO Renata (Laura Dern), of hurting her. This sets off a series of events that ultimately ends in a murder.

The murder mostly functions as a ploy to set up the show's primary investigative dramatic devices. Police interviews with various gossipy townsfolk serve as a Greek chorus as we watch events unfold in flashback. We're not told who the murder victim is until the end, let alone the suspects, but there are certainly a variety of developing situations that could have lead to the slaying. The show invites viewers to guess which of the storylines is going to explode - the grudge match between Madeline and Renata? Celeste and Perry's marriage? Madeline and Bonnie's rivalry? Or Jane's search for a mystery man? It's fairly soapy stuff, but all the performances are excellent, and David E. Kelley proves as deft a scripter as he ever was. It's not difficult to get caught up in these women's lives, their little obsessions and insecurities, and watch as the layers of their facades get peeled back one by one.

I was expecting the humor to be much blacker, and this is one aspect of the show I found pretty weak. The police interviews establish an atmosphere of pettiness and toxicity in the town, and helps to contrast the public perceptions of the characters with what's actually going on. However, the flippant tone of the interviews often feels too disconnected with what's happening in the series proper. With a few minor exceptions, the characters' lives are handled seriously and played straight, especially as they start to touch on more emotionally fraught topics like rape and domestic abuse. Sure, there are a few catfights and ego trips, especially involving Madeline, but the show is ultimately very sympathetic to every single one of its complex female leads.

I think that's why "Big Little Lies" feels so refreshing. Despite flirting with all the usual negative stereotypes, the show has some remarkably positive portrayals of women and women's relationships with other women. It takes them seriously in a way that not enough shows do, even in the age of Peak TV. In the wrong hands, this could have easily been the kind of salacious domestic drama that would be fodder for a Lifetime movie. Here, however, with all the right people involved and backing from HBO, the series is an immensely satisfying piece of female-centric popular entertainment that will hopefully encourage more content in the same vein.

Finally, as a film nerd, I also want to emphasize that the show is also excellent from a filmmaking standpoint. Jean-Marc Vallée never misses an opportunity to show off the picturesque Monterey seascapes, or the staggeringly beautiful real estate that the characters occupy. Vallée is also an editor, who has a very distinctive style and often edits his own features. Here, he employs a team of at least six to help with the demands of a seven hour miniseries, yet it's still recognizably his work. There's a climactic scene in the finale that is particularly eye-catching, intercutting events from the night of the murder with crashing waves on the beach.

Vallée's next big project will be another HBO miniseries, adapting Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" with Amy Adams. I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"LEGO Batman" and "The Boss Baby"

A couple of quick thoughts on some of the kids' films that came out earlier in the year. It hasn't been a great year for animated content so far, so I wanted to give some credit where credit is due.

"The LEGO Batman Movie" is exactly the superhero film that I didn't know we needed. First, it is unashamedly a children's movie, bringing back the ego-centric, Will Arnett voiced Batman minifigure from "The LEGO Movie" to be at the center of his own LEGO adventure. A kid-friendly LEGO Gotham populated by kid-friendly versions of all the familiar "Batman" villains, sidekicks, and allies has been lovingly created for him too. Yet at the same time, this is a "Batman" movie that spoofs and pokes fun at the franchise in a way that die-hard Batnerds will appreciate, loaded with references, in-jokes, and a little bit of subversion too.

I found it especially impressive the way that "LEGO Batman" boils down the major themes and ongoing conflicts of "Batman" into something that kids can more easily grasp. At his core, Batman is lonely and misses his family, and has compensated by building up this facade of the super awesome lone wolf crimefighter. So his LEGO counterpart needs to learn that it's okay to rely on friends, and to be less infatuated with his own image of coolness. And gradually, he finds his own little foster family, consisting of exasperated father figure Alfred (Liam Neeson), an adorably eager beaver Robin (Michael Cera), and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), aged up and reintroduced as the new Commissioner Gordon, who is smart enough to point out all the ways that Batman isn't really very good at crimefighting.

"LEGO Batman" doesn't quite have the same anarchic glee of the original "LEGO Movie," and definitely not the same level of clever self reflection, worldbuilding, and out-and-out creativity. The fact that LEGO Batman is in fact a LEGO toy and a Master Builder doesn't play nearly as big a role as it could have, and the biggest carryover turned out to be the slightly too rapid-fire humor. Still, for a fan of the many different incarnations of Batman over the years, it was nice to see the Caped Crusader shake off the too-serious trappings of the recent live action Warners films and have some fun for a change. Batman's goofy side has too often been ignored, and it is a joyous thing when done right. If nothing else, "LEGO Batman" definitely got the goofy stuff right.

Now "The Boss Baby" was a film I had some major doubts about. The idea of Alec Baldwin voicing a pint-sized business executive seemed like a pretty one-note gag. I wasn't surprised to learn that the film was based on very short picture book, offering a kids'-eye-view of a household that had seemingly been taken over by a tyrannical new infant sibling. Nevertheless, this was at least a fairly original concept, and there's a long history of baby-centric humor in cartoons that has yielded some good things. And along with "Trolls," Dreamworks has demonstrated that they're willing to push in some more interesting stylistic directions.

I think the best thing about "The Boss Baby" is that it completely commits to telling a story about a relatable kid, in this case seven year-old Tim (Miles Bakshi), instead of an immature adult like the ones at the center of most Dreamworks films. Sure, the title character falls into the latter category, and spouts many a one-liner aimed at adults, but he exists on Tim's turf and ultimately has to learn to play by his rules. Tim is a kid with an overactive imagination, and is forever fantasizing that he's on wild adventures as a jungle explorer or pirate, so it's easier to buy that he's constructed this elaborate fantasy about his new baby brother actually being an agent of the mysterious Baby Corp (where babies *really* come from). And occasionally, through these fantasy constructs, the movie manages to touch on some fairly weighty emotional issues that small children may have about changing family dynamics.

I'd say ninety percent of "The Boss Baby" is pretty mediocre stuff. None of the performances aside from Baldwin's are very memorable, and the plotting gets entirely too wrapped up in silly chases and manufactured drama. The visuals, while pleasantly absurdist, are only rarely eye-catching. However, the film is well-written, frequently very funny, and it gets the emotional stuff right when it counts. I also really appreciate how bizarre it is in a very specific way, with the Boss Baby dreaming of a corner office with a golden potty, and Tim's wizard alarm clock that serves as a barometer of his mood. It's not a great film, or even a very good one, but it's solid entertainment in all the ways that matter.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Day Julia's Name Fell Out of My Head

I was busy writing up my notes for "Money Monster" after a recent viewing, when the name of the female lead, who was once the most famous leading actress on the planet, fell out of my head. All I could think was that her name was Julia. But Julia What? Not Julia Childs. Not Julia Louis Dreyfuss. Not Raoul Julia, What? It was on the tip of my tongue. I could see her face in my mind. Curly red hair. Played a hooker with a heart of gold in her big breakout movie, but eventually became America's everywoman sweetheart. Queen of the romantic comedies. Beautiful smile with a lot of teeth, that the cartoonists often exaggerate to ridiculous proportions. Her kids are named Phinneas and Hazel. Why did I know that? Why couldn't I remember her last name?

I tried putting her in context. "Pretty Woman" starring Julia... "Runaway Bride" starring Julia... Er, "Flatliners" starring Julia...? Or how about George Clooney and Julia...? Richard Gere and Julia... Hugh Grant and Julia... Bruce Willis and Julia...? Was I just imagining that last one? Surely those two had been in something together. I'd seen so many of her movies, but suddenly I couldn't seem to remember many. Let's see... "The Pelican Brief," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Erin Brockovitch," the one with Mel Gibson, the one with Nick Nolte, the one where she played Tinker Bell, "Oceans Eleven" and "Oceans Twelve" - had she done much since "Oceans Twelve"? I vaguely remembered a Gary Marshall movie with crummy reviews coming out earlier in the year. There had also been a similar one she'd appeared in, a year or two before that. Maybe one of the holiday themed ensemble rom-com movies, or was that a different director?

Gerard Depardieu and Julia? No, that was "Green Card," with Andie McDowell. My memory must be failing me. I'm used to forgetting the names of old high school classmates and obscure anime from the '90s, not major movie stars, even if they have fallen off the radar a bit. And I had just watched "Money Monster," where Julia Whatshername turned in a perfectly good supporting performance as the director of a cable news program taken hostage. She and George Clooney are well paired in a middling, but still fun thriller that would have easily made twice its $40 million domestic box office take fifteen years ago. Now, it's counterprogramming aimed at older audiences who aren't interested in superheroes. Thanks to the low budget, it still made money, because Julia's no longer pulling in $20 million per movie. But Julia who? Julia Duffy? Julia Stiles? Julia Petulia Bamboolia Googly-goolia...

I always liked her, though I wouldn't call myself a fan. She was a default, a given quantity, a fallback option, a proven success. If you grew up in the '90s, you watched Julia's movies. You watched her charm the pants off her love interest and the audience and make it look so easy. Movies were never quite the same after her semi-retirement at the end of the decade, after winning her Oscar. I was glad that she won, even though I admit to grumbling online that Ellen Burstyn deserved it more for "Requiem for a Dream." It was hard not to root for Julia. Everyone loved her, and I know that that many still do. I seriously doubt that there are many moviegoers who needed to read more than two lines of this post to figure out exactly which Julia I'm talking about.

You know, the one who starred in "Mary Reilly," and "Stepmom," and "Mona Lisa Smile," and "Buddy" - wait, no. That last one was Renee Russo. I mean, no one else could really compare. After Julia and Meg Ryan were gone, romantic comedies fell off a cliff. Renee Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Heigle had a couple of successes, but they couldn't take her place. Sandra Bullock is probably the closest thing to a reigning rom-com queen we've got at the moment, and she hasn't actually made a rom-com since 2009. I miss Julia. I mean, I know she never actually went anywhere, and she's still been regularly appearing in movies over the past fifteen years. But... I miss Julia Roberts movies.

Roberts. That's it. Julia Roberts. I miss her movies, and I miss the moviemaking age that they existed in.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Podcasts Ahoy! 2017 Edition

I continue to listen to many, many podcasts related to media.  There are lots of recommendations to cover this year, as some familiar old voices are back in the podcasting arena, along with plenty of newbies.  The landscape has been changing quickly, with Kickstarter and Patreon campaigns becoming the norm, and paywalls beginning their inevitable encroachment.  And, alas, too many of these shows are fleeting.  However, I've found that the podcasters never seem to be able to stay away from the microphone too long, and tend to migrate to new berths in the podcasting world eventually.  

Happy listening!   

TV Avalanche - Television critic Alan Sepinwall has returned to podcasting at last, along with his new Uproxx affiliated co-host Brian Grubb.  Since "Firewall and Iceberg" went off the air (internet?), I have sorely missed having a good television-centric podcast in my life.  "TV Avalanche" more or less keeps the same rapid-fire review format as the previous show, but so far there are more laughs and fewer sports metaphors this time around.  The show only started up in January, but it's already found its groove.  

Toon Goons - A trio of twenty-something friends casually review and discuss all things animation related, with heavy emphasis on Cartoon Network shows and anime favorites.  Episodes center around one show or movie, but also make time for news and show recaps.  This is a perfect snapshot of where I was in fandom (and otakudom) in my early twenties, so I find this podcast tremendously nostalgic and fun.  Sadly, after 100 episodes, the show is on semi-hiatus while the hosts are looking to restructure the format.  However, there's lots to explore in their episode archives.

A Storm of Spoilers - This is technically a "Game of Thrones" podcast geared toward book-readers who want a show that caters to their experience of watching the show.  However, with such a long break between seasons, the show has become more of a general  media podcast during their off-season.  And it's become an excellent place to listen to spoilery discussions of many current television shows and movies.  One of the hosts is Joanna Robinson, who appears later on this list, and on so many other podcasts these days that I've lost track.  Co-hosts Dave Gonzales, and Neil Miller are from the Film School Rejects crew.  The show also spun off an "American Gods" recap podcast.      

Medium Jump - If I had a most promising newbie award, it would go to this show, where a trio of movie fans approach their discussions of movies by comparing the finished product to the original source material or earlier scripts.  Depending on the film of the day, the quality of the episodes varies.  The best installments tend to be the ones where they dissect what went wrong with a film, like the infamous "Passengers."  Others are total geek-out love fests, like the one for the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer."  My biggest reservation with the show is that it leans very genre-heavy and is very fanboy-oriented.  

I Was There Too - Interviews actors and crew who were involved with your favorite media in smaller roles.  For instance, a recent episode was all about Dileep Rao, who had bit parts in "Avatar" and "Inception."  Another interviewed one of the cameramen who worked on the infamous "Star Wars Christmas Special."  The quality of the show varies greatly depending on who is being interviewed, but the show is much more accessible than similar retrospective podcasts because it's focused on more well-known media.  Be forewarned, that most of the past episodes are behind a paywall.  

Gen Pop - /Film's Dave Chen and Joanna Robinson tackle whatever is going on in the wider culture in the past week, from movies and films to other podcasts, like "This American Life" spinoff "S-Town."  They invite a guest each week related to whatever topic they're covering, mostly other critics and writers.  I first ran across Chen and Robinson on the /Filmcast, and they also host numerous TV podcasts together, including ones for "Game of Thrones," "Westworld," and "Better Call Saul."  "Gen Pop," alas, only lasted 24 episodes due to funding and other problems, but it's still worth checking out the episodes.

And honorable mentions go to "We Hate Movies" (especially the animation specials), "Decoding Westworld," "Pop Culture Happy Hour," "The Business," and "Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period" (because I really need to watch more Denzel Washington before attempting to talk about this one).


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Smartphone Life

I was kind of hoping that this day would never come. Alas, after the holidays my significant other decided to take advantage of a couple of promotions and we wound up with a new family cel-phone plan. This also included his upgrade to a new model of smart phone, and he generously passed down his older model to me. Yes, I am now in possession of a smartphone, after using the same late '00s feature phone for nearly ten years. It's a little daunting.

My old phone was still perfectly functional, with a camera, internet access, and messaging features. It even had a QWERTY keyboard slider, which I really enjoyed. The battery life was fantastic. Okay, the locking function was pretty lousy, which resulted in racking up charges for data usage because of a few buttons accidentally getting mashed, but that was easily remedied. And then there was the whole issue with text messages showing up days late, if they showed up at all. And the less said about the crummy GPS, the better. I guess my phone did need replacing.

But do I need a smartphone? Do I really want to have an internet browser and all those apps on hand constantly? The last thing I want is to be one of those people constantly staring at my phone while I'm out and about, oblivious to everything going on around me. And after my Candy Crush addiction, I know I'm pretty susceptible to this sort of thing. I'll definitely use Google Maps and some of the messenger features, but I'm very wary of the phone getting me more wrapped up in social media than I already am. Or turning me into an annoying shutterbug with it's much, much easier to use camera.

Then again, it's awfully nice to have a pedometer app. I've wanted a pedometer for a while now, and I don't need a separate device anymore. It's the same with Google Maps, which will let me retire my dangerously out of date GPS system. And I could even use my smartphone as a music player, which means I wouldn't need to carry around my MP3 player anymore, if I didn't want to. Uber sure would be nice to have in case of emergencies. And frankly, as long as I keep the amount of junk on the phone to a minimum, there's not going to be much difference between what I'm doing what I'm doing on that device versus what I'm doing on the iPad or my laptop computer.

I'm a little more worried about the privacy implications of the smartphone, especially since several of the apps requested permission for location tracking straight away. Honestly, though, my old phone also could have been used to track or spy on me just as easily. That one often got dumped in my purse and forgotten about for days at a time, and I'll probably treat the new one the same way. Honestly, I feel a little guitly about having a smartphone simply because I'm not the type that would really make use of one to the extent that other people would. I'm only upgrading to one now because it's convenient.

Then again, I find myself more and more reliant on my significant other having a smartphone when we go out. He's the one who has Google Maps, Yelp, and Pandora handy. He's the one who messages our friends when we're running late or need to check in. He's the one who takes the pictures and searches the train schedules. I'm already getting the benefit of having a smartphone, so shouldn't I start doing some of this myself?

Frankly, there's no reason I shouldn't have a smartphone. I can afford one, though I admit to some sticker shock. I can use one. I'm responsible and paranoid enough to let it not take over my life. I'm already doing nearly everything that I'd do one a smart phone through another device. And they're common enough that I shouldn't feel guilty for having one.

I don't know. I expect my anxiety is an extension of the doubts I still have about the internet, and how much it's a part of my life. But ironically, I expect that 90% of my smartphone use will actually be texting and making phone calls. Trying to use the web browser on the phone makes my head hurt, no matter how big I make the text.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

They're Making a WHAT Movie?! - Superhero Edition

We're pretty far along now in the latest wave of superhero movies and TV shows, and the studios are starting to run out of big name heroes to bring to the big screen.  There are a couple of obscure figures I'm hoping will still manage to land their own movies while the momentum is still going, but most of the latest projects in development right now are focusing on characters with more concrete ties to bigger names we've already seen.  In essence, these are spinoffs of already popular franchises.  But do they have much of a shot at success?  I'm going to look at a couple of these projects below with some very preliminary thoughts.

"New Mutants" - This is the most interesting project I've seen at the moment.  Josh Boone of "The Fault in Our Stars" will be directing an "X-men" spinoff about a group of young mutants in training, including Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Wolfsbane (Maisie Williams).  It's also reportedly a horror movie, and possibly the beginning of a new trilogy.  This looks like a good move by FOX, continuing to diversify their "X-men" universe films by creating a series aimed more squarely at the YA crowd, and tackling a different genre.  My only worry is that there's going to be some cannibalization of the main series of "X-men" films, which already heavily involve training young mutants.  I'll be keep an especially close eye on the next "X-men" film centering around Jean Grey (played by another "Game of Thrones" vet, Sophie Turner).  Both movies are currently due out in 2018.

"Venom" - Meanwhile, over at Sony, they're still trying to find ways to mine the "Spider-man" universe for more material.  While the "Sinister Six" movie looks to be permanently dead, things are rolling along very well for a spinoff starring the alien symbiote Venom, who featured in "Spider-man 3."   Tom Hardy will star and "Zombieland" helmer Ruben Fleischer is directing, aiming for a late 2018 release date.  Somehow, the film will not have any ties to the continuity of any of the Spider-man films, will be more adult-oriented, and is expected to be the start of a new franchise.  Frankly, I never understood the appeal of Venom, only being familiar with his appearances in the cartoon and "Spider-man 3."  Still, he looks like the most likely candidate for a Spidey spinoff as one of the most popular antihero characters in the franchise.  And that brings us to the other Spidey spinoff...

"Silver & Black" - Gina Prince-Bythewood has been announced as the director of a new film starring Spider-man's sometimes ally, sometimes love interest Black Cat, and her gal-pal, the mercenary Silver Sable.  This is the Sony attempt at a female-centric comics property.  It's a novel concept at least.  To my knowledge we haven't had a superheroine buddy movie yet, or even one starring female antiheroes.  The notorious "Catwoman" didn't even manage to get that right.  I'm willing to give this one a chance mostly because of Gina Prince-Bythewood, who I'm glad is finally getting a break.  I know almost nothing about Black Cat and Silver Sable, and I suspect that it may be better if I keep it that way.  However, I remain skeptical about Sony's universe-building plans, and hope this is handled more like a stand-alone project.        

"Nightwing" - Warner Brothers' most recently announced DC spinoff is also very much in the development stage.  Chris McKay, the director of the recent "Lego Batman," is currently attached to a project about Nightwing, the superhero that Dick Grayson eventually becomes after outgrowing his sidekick gig as Robin.  Now, I like the Nightwing character, but pretty much all the buzz I've heard about this assumes that it'll be a semi-sequel to "The Dark Knight Returns," and everyone very badly wants Joseph Gordon-Levitt to come back.  That is far from a given, and McKay hasn't handled any live action films before this.  So, this sounds like a great idea if DC can get all its ducks in a row, but this is DC we're talking about, and their record is spotty at best.      

"Shazam" - And I guess I really should talk a bit about DC's "Shazam" project, currently slated for 2019, which may turn into two movies, "Shazam" and "Black Adam."  Literally the only thing we know is that Dwayne Johnson is involved, playing the villain Black Adam.  The wizard hero is definitely one of DC's second stringers, who skews more kid-oriented because his secret identity is literally a kid.  With no official director, this project is still very much up in the air, and I think it's an even bet as to whether it actually makes it to theaters or not.    


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Surprisingly Watchable Emmys Telecast

I've fallen out of the habit of watching the Emmy Awards live, opting instead to watch the ceremony the following morning, since CBS has made it freely available on their website.  And I was happy to discover that this year had one of the most watchable award ceremonies I've seen in a long time.  This wasn't because everything went perfectly - far from it - but because it managed to have the right blend of entertainment, unpredictability, and momentum.

As an awards enthusiast (ahem), this was an exciting year because so many of the nominees were newcomers and it was difficult to predict the races.  With "Game of Thrones" benched for the season, it left an opportunity for "The Handmaid's Tale," "Stranger Things," and other shows to take their shot at the big categories.  Also, after several years of anemic Miniseries/Limited Series and Made for TV Movies races full of nominees that nobody watched, suddenly all the categories were packed with well-known stars like Nicole Kidman, and many of the programs themselves were popular successes.  The big winner of the Made for TV Movie was the "San Junipero" installment of "Black Mirror," the Netflix anthology series that probably attracted more viewers than Best Comedy winner "Veep."  

Streaming shows had a fantastic year in general.  Yes, Hulu was the big winner, running off with the Best Drama award and several others for "The Handmaid's Tale," but that doesn't negate Netflix's three nominations in the category, which means that over half the nominees were from streaming services this year.  HBO, of course, was still a big player, taking home multiple trophies for "Veep," "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," and the star-studded "Big Little Lies," which tied with "The Handmaid's Tale" in taking home five major awards.  Basic cable and network shows still made a decent showing, but they were clearly outgunned on most fronts.  Donald Glover's two wins for "Atlanta" and Sterling K. Brown's Best Actor victory for "This is Us" were the highlights.

And speaking of Sterling K. Brown, his acceptance speech getting cut off was one of several awkward moments during the telecast that didn't reflect very well on the Emmy show's producers, but did a fantastic job of keeping the whole thing watchable.  If you weren't interested in the Emmy races, Stephen Colbert's hosting turn was lots of fun, and there were some great acceptance speeches this year.  Ann Dowd has surely guaranteed herself years of work after that genuinely lovely reaction.  However, the really entertaining bits were keeping track of all the jabs at Donald Trump, announcer Jermaine Fowler's off-the-wall exclamations, and keeping track of spontaneous running jokes like #dcpublicschools.  Perhaps the most tense moment of the night was when 90-year-old Cisely Tyson had a senior moment onstage, and had to be gently fed her lines by her younger co-presenter.   

I generally enjoy Colbert, and was sure he'd be a great host - go look up his presenter bit with Jon Stewart the year he lost to Barry Manilow.  I was happy to find that he mostly avoided the politics on Emmy night, instead delivering a rousing opening number, chatting with RuPaul dressed like a giant Emmy statuette, commiserating with Jimmy Kimmel over John Oliver's win, and poking fun at himself in a "Westworld" bit.  The other scripted shtick like Sean Spicer's cameo and Rachel Bloom's song-and-dance intro for the Ernst and Young accountants were mercifully brief.  Aside from a more pointed highlighting of diversity issues, this felt like a remarkably unfussy Emmys that was happy to just put talented people onstage and let them give each other awards in a timely fashion.     

As a media nerd, I'd like to point out that I'm very happy to see the Variety Show categories made it into the telecast this year. They often don't.  And that the "In Memoriam" segment was tasteful and unusually gutting, because I forgot about several of the most prominent deaths like Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Thicke, and Roger Moore.  And don't worry about Harry Dean Stanton - he'll be in next year's version, I'm sure.  What will really be interesting is how the Emmy voters will react to "Twin Peaks," which I suspect that Showtime may put into the Limited Series category.

But that's a long ways off.  Until next year, happy watching.       

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Samurai Jack," Year Five

It's been a long time since we've seen "Samurai Jack," or really any Genndy Tartakovsky show.  And the best thing about the "Samurai Jack" revival is realizing that he hasn't lost a step.  The show looks as gorgeous as it always did, and despite airing on Adult Swim, it retains all the goofiness and fun and wild creativity of the original series.  It's just thematically a few shades darker than it used to be, and showing cartoon blood is no longer verboten.  The new season is also highly serialized, with a clear, definite ending.

We find our samurai hero still wandering the world of the future after many years, still trying to find a way back home to the past so he can defeat the evil demon Aku.  He's not in good shape, physically or mentally, having experienced several major setbacks while Aku has only grown stronger.  At the beginning of this new season, he's in the middle of a massive crisis of faith, being haunted by past failures, and contemplating giving up completely.  However, encounters with new enemies and old friends mean that his journey is far from over.

This is easily the best revival of any series that I've seen so far, because though the show acknowledges the passage of time, there's precious little in the production that has changed.  The spectacular stylized visuals are intact.  I've missed those glorious slow pans over the hand-drawn backgrounds.  Phil LaMarr is still voicing Jack, though a beaten-down, more cynical version.  Mako passed some years ago, but Greg Baldwin fills in nicely as the villain Aku.  And beyond that, the show's creators are able to bring back many old favorites, paying homage to the series' most memorable moments while simultaneously bringing it to a close.  Fans of the show should be absolutely delighted to find so many little references and callbacks in these closing chapters.

I was more impressed with the show's new elements, however.  Specifically,  this season introduces a secondary hero figure in Ashi (Tara Strong), one of the seven "Daughters of Aku" who have been trained since birth to hunt down and kill Jack.  Even if you're not a fan of the show or invested in the fate of its main character, Ashi is a lot of fun to follow with her strong character arc and feisty nature.   The earlier installments of the season are very heavy, and can be overwhelmingly doom-and-gloom when it comes to Jack's struggles against despair.  Ashi's story and other little vignettes with various side characters help to balance this out.  The comedy was my least favorite part of the older seasons - I almost quit the premiere episode when the talking dogs showed up - but I really appreciated it here.      

I suspect that some may be disappointed that the new season isn't the dark and gritty adult-oriented version of "Samurai Jack" that some of the marketing suggested it was.  While the carnage of the fight scenes is definitely a few degrees more intense, it's really not all that different from the "Samurai Jack" action of the original series.  I'd hesitate to call the it really appropriate for the original audience of action-loving kids, but anyone over ten  would probably be fine.  The show doesn't make the mistake of leaning on the more adult content simply because it can.  But that said, there are some new dimensions explored by the writers that we haven't seen in the "Samurai Jack" universe before, and the long-awaited final battle with Aku probably won't be what most fans are expecting.  

The final season is a decent watch on its own, but it definitely requires some familiarity with the rest of the series for maximum impact.  I do think the revival was worth it though, especially since Cartoon Network went all in on the project.  "Samurai Jack" has never looked better, and clearly no corners were cut.  Genndy Tartakovsky clearly relished returning to this universe too - he has directing, writing, story, and storyboard credits on all ten episodes.

I sincerely hope that we'll see similar projects like this in the future, though it's hard to think of any Cartoon Network series that has had quite the critical and popular success of "Samurai Jack."  It was a unique series that was very deserving of such a unique, uncompromising finale.    


Friday, September 15, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1994

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.

Crumb - Terry Zwigoff's documentary about the life and work of underground cartoonist R. Crumb.  While the material related to his development as an artist and the progression of his career are fascinating, the really engrossing parts of the film have to do with Crumb's colorful, tragic family.  "Crumb" turns out to be an unusually candid look at all three of the oddball Crumb brothers, and the ways in which they coped (or failed to) with a dysfunctional upbringing and mental illness.  

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - Three Australian drag queens go on a voyage of self discovery in this camp classic.  However, I was gratified to discover that the film has some real heart underneath all the glitz, as our heroes, played by Terence Stamp and then unknowns Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, struggle with self-acceptance, family matters, and other personal issues.  Of course, all the wild costumes and the extravagant ABBA dance numbers didn't hurt anything either.  

Chungking Express - A pair of love stories set in Chunking are presented onscreen as only Wong Kar-Wai ever could.  With its appealing young stars, fanciful imagery, and wonderful energy, the film is a treat for the senses.  It captures all the excitement and the dizzying delight of falling in love, as well as the moody malaise of breakups and departures.  Faye Wong is the ultimate example of the manic pixie dream girl, but she's an appropriate heroine for a movie where every emotion is so heightened and intense.  

Pulp Fiction - And here we have the emergence of the full-fledged Quentin Tarantino showing off many familiar tropes for the very first time: the multiple storylines and asynchronous editing, the references to beloved genre media of ages past, and of course that much-imitated dialogue.  Violent and stylish and completely committed to delivering a good time, "Pulp Fiction" is still a rush.  Resurrecting John Travolta's career and turning Samuel L. Jackson into a badass film icon was just the icing on the cake.    

Clerks - Whatever you may think of Kevin Smith, his first film is still a fascinating snapshot of the dead end youth culture of the '90s, and the DIY indie films of the era.  The low budget visuals are treated as an aesthetic choice, meant to evoke security camera footage.  The performances, while amateurish, are appealing and enjoyable.  And the film's little universe of bored store clerks, drug dealers, and loitering layabouts discussing "Star Wars" is often startlingly true to life.  And still terribly funny too.

Exotica - It takes some time and patience to fully appreciate what Atom Egoyan is doing here, with a film that appears to be an erotic melodrama about a strip club on the surface level, but turns out to be more concerned with the characters' experiences with grief, loss, and solace.  The mood and atmosphere conjured in certain scenes are unlike anything I've ever encountered in any other piece of cinema, and that I've never been able to forget.  It's an exotic film all right, but in all the best ways possible.  

Hoop Dreams - Quite possibly the greatest American documentary ever made, following the lives of young two NBA hopefuls from underprivileged backgrounds as they're considered for college scholarships.  The long running time allows the filmmakers to get very close to its subjects, and consider at the various different issues that they face in detail.  The resulting narrative is so powerful, "Hoop Dreams" has stayed more compelling than any other sports-themed film I'm ever seen.
The Shawshank Redemption - Critically lauded, but a box office underperformer at the time of release.  It's not hard to see why, as "Shawshank" was based on a minor Stephen King short story, with a practically unknown director, and had no major stars.  However, it is such a deftly executed feel-good film, with such a great sense of humanity and purpose, it's difficult to imagine the cinema landscape without it.  It still feels timeless in the best way, and has found well-deserved success at last.  

To Live  -  Still my favorite Zhang Yimou film, and notable for its rare critical stance toward the Cultural Revolution.  However, what I love the film for is its characters, the way it follows one family through decades of tumultuous Chinese history, terrible personal tragedies, and unlikely strokes of luck as the world completely changes around them.  This is my idea of a great epic film, vast in scope and ambition, but always carefully grounded by the little dramas and foibles of its very human characters.      

Forrest Gump - Despite recognizing all the critiques of the film's mixed messages and it's problematic approach to some of the material, I still find that there's so much about "Forrest Gump" that is extraordinary.  Forrest is a cinematic character who is utterly without compare, and the vision of America that he inhabits is a nostalgic, but also troubling place.  A fairy-tale with a dark side, and a cynical satire with a gigantic heart, it doesn't do everything right, but I love that it had the guts to try.   

Honorable mentions:

Leon: the Professional
Three Colors: White
The Last Seduction
Ed Wood
The Lion King
The Crow
Heavenly Creatures
Shallow Grave


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On Being a Terrible Fan

I used to be a media fan, meaning that I spent a good amount of time and attention on engaging with particular pieces of media.  I went through distinct phases of being a Disney fan, a "Star Wars" fan, an "X-files" fan, a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan, and an anime obsessive.  I bought merchandise, read tie-in books, was actively engaged in the online fan communities, and even went to a convention or two.  And it was a lot of fun.

And now, as a thirty-something adult, it's hard to think of any movie or television franchise that I could count myself a fan of in that sense.  Oh sure, I still spend ridiculous amounts of time consuming media, but there are so many shows that I'm trying to keep up with, and so many movies, I don't devote much time to any one of them anymore.  I barely rewatch any media, to the point where I realized recently that I haven't seen a rerun of any show in at least five years (more on that in another post).  I don't bother buying any media, unless it's a gift for someone else.  The only media-themed merchandise I've purchased recently have been Disney toys for various younger relatives.  I had the oddest moment of disconnect when a friend sent me a couple pieces of "Firefly" paraphernalia as a Christmas present.  How long ago was it that I was a "Firefly" fan?    

I've always tangled with this issue to some extent.  When I was younger, I used to call myself "panfannish" because I dabbled in a lot of different fandoms instead of devoting the majority of my time to one particular franchise, the way that a lot of other fans did.  I was also a consummate nerd even among nerds.  As an anime fan, I was rarely into the most popular shows like "Naruto," but older series or the oddball, artsy shows that were aimed at more niche audiences.  And while I did like fanworks, I much preferred discussing and analyzing media.  And that could be difficult, depending on the fandom, when discussions among fans in many communities often got derailed by shipping wars or behind-the-scenes drama.  What I had the least interest in were toys, collectibles, clothing  or really anything announcing to the world at large that I was a fan.  I did try cosplay once - and that was enough to decide it wasn't for me.       

I collected media for a little while, during the DVD era, but found that I rarely went back into my little collection to watch anything after a certain point.  I was too busy taking Criterions home from the library, ten at a time, or trying figure out which streaming service was worth a subscription.  A few months ago, I packed all of the DVDs away to make room for a new scanner, and I don't think that they'll be back out any time soon.  To an outsider observer, there's almost no indication that I'm as well-versed in media as I am.  There are only a few framed movie poster prints on my walls, mostly tucked out of the way.  Among my friends, the close ones know that I'm a nerd, but there are only two or three who I discuss media with actively - the ones who are far bigger fans of various media than I am.  And that's enough for me.    

So I am, by most measures, an absolutely terrible fan.  I don't spend money on my favorite franchises beyond a movie ticket or rental fee.  I don't buy the merchandise, go to the events, or support fanworks.  And lately, I don't watch the specific films and shows I like often enough to really obsess over their fine details.  I only know the quotes and the memes once they become big in the popular culture.  I can still rattle off a bunch of my favorite quotes from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but I couldn't do the same for "Orphan Black" or "Rick and Morty."  It's a little ironic that right around the time we started seeing media fandom become more mainstream is when I started checking out of it.  I think I'll always be a media obsessive, but I don't fit the definition of a media fan.             

Frankly, I don't particularly want to be a fan anymore.  I just want to watch and enjoy the media.