Sunday, January 29, 2017

Remembering the Mooninite Invasion

The end of this month marks the anniversary of a curious event in pop culture, the day a guerilla marketing campaign for a cartoon movie collided with US national security. And depending on how old you were and how savvy you were to internet culture, the event was either an outrage or an overreaction.

So, the sequence of events went more or less like this. On the night of January 29, 2007, two Boston area artists, Peter "Zebbler" Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, placed several magnetic light-up signs featuring the moon-dwelling Mooninite characters from Cartoon Network's late night "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" show around the city. The devices were part of a guerilla marketing campaign meant to promote the upcoming "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters," but there was nothing to indicate that they were advertisements. The next day, the devices caused a bomb scare, prompting the Boston authorities to shut down bridges and tunnels, snarling traffic and raising tensions throughout the city. Cartoon Network's parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, didn't notify the Boston authorities about the signs until the late afternoon.

The authorities, of course, were not amused. Nor were most of the citizens of Boston, stuck in traffic or rattled by the scare. The media referred to the incident as a "bomb hoax" for several days, even though there clearly wasn't any intention to mislead anyone. But how could Cartoon Network and the marketing company be so foolish, putting all these homemade electrical devices around town that incorporated an exposed circuit board, with nothing to identify it as an ad? This was only a little more than five years after the 9/11 attacks, and the country was still in the thick of the Iraq War. The gravity of the situation prompted Turner Broadcasting to accept full responsibility, paying $1 million in "good faith" money to the city of Boston to cover the expenses related to the incident. Cartoon Network's general manager and executive vice president, Jim Samples, resigned.

However, if you were under the age of thirty and internet savvy, the events of January 31, 2007 played out differently. I spent much of the day online, checking in with various message boards and communities connected to Adult Swim, the programming block that aired "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." In 2007 I was still a major anime nerd, and definitely part of the Adult Swim fanbase, even if I didn't watch "Aqua Teen." Frankly, the news coverage struck me and others as bizarre. It didn't take anyone online long to identify the image on the sign as one of the Mooninites giving people the finger. Or to find the photos of other devices around the country that fans had snapped, many of which had been displayed for several weeks. The devices didn't look like bombs. They looked like Lite-Brites. The massive response by the Boston police and Homeland Security was really overdoing things, bordering on silly. It was hard to take the whole thing seriously.

Zebbler Berdovsky and Sean Stevens clearly felt the way we did. The bizarre highlight of that day was watching the pair give a press conference after their arrest, where they insisted on only talking about hairstyles of the '70s. They would apologize fully for their part in the mess later on, but I understand why they treated the whole thing like a joke. From the POV of the young adults who were more familiar with adult cartoons and guerilla marketing campaigns, the situation was more funny than threatening. The police response was ridiculous. And the media insisting it was a hoax, and blurring out the Mooninite's offending finger was even more ridiculous. Immediately, the mockery and the protest began, with fanmade signs and T-shirts and other merchandising circulating in the following days. "Stop letting the terrorists win" was a popular slogan.

Many commentators pointed to a generational divide being responsible for the difference in reactions. I think this is true to some extent, but the Mooninite invasion also highlighted a difference in basic worldviews, between those that were still sensitive to the aftereffects of 9/11 and those who were tiring of it. I also like to think of it as something of a turning point, when we had an opportunity to step back and really look at what the post-9/11 climate of fear and security theater was doing to the country. I'm glad that it prompted a good amount of soul-searching, and lively debates in the press. The Boston authorities, to their credit, viewed the incident as an embarrassing misunderstanding, and Berdovsky and Stevens were only sentenced to community service.

The incident is a lot less funny in retrospect, since Boston really did suffer a major, devastating terrorist attack in 2013. However, the Mooninite invasion was an important sign of the times, highlighting the absurdity of life in the Bush era, the emerging power of internet denizens, and the growing fragmentation of the popular culture. It's funny that despite all the bad press, the scare had no real effect on "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" viewership. The show continued for another seven seasons, and ended in 2015.
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Friday, January 27, 2017

"The Good Place," Year One

Major spoilers ahead. All of them.

It turns out that Hell is a sitcom, or at least a place where manufactured sitcom dilemmas are part of the torture. I really didn't see that ending coming, probably because I'd grown to like Ted Danson's Michael so much, and was convinced of the innate goodness of Chidi and Tahani, despite some pretty big honking flaws. Frankly, there are some elements of the big twist that I'm not really sure pass muster with what we've seen previously - the definition of "torture" seems awfully suspect - but then a lot of that can be handwaved away by pointing out that this was just an early experiment in new techniques, and Michael is new at being in charge. If Eleanor hadn't figured out the truth, I can see how the situation could have gotten a lot worse for our foursome in a hurry.

The show has overall been excellent for its entire, too-brief first season. It's paced just right, doling out new information at reasonable intervals, and not abusing the cliffhanger endings too much. The characters really grew on me as they revealed new bits and pieces of their past lives and personalitites. Janet and Jason falling in love has been especially fun, and the source of some of the best laughs in the last few episodes. Kristen Bell really sells Eleanor's gradual rehabilitation, and I buy her change of heart. I think Tahani and Chidi still need a little work - their supposed love connection was the least convincing of all the possible matches, but the actors have been excellent. William Jackson Harper's reactions are priceless. Even the smaller, one-shot roles are so well conceived, like Maribeth Monroe's nutty Mindy St. Clair, and Adam Scott's awful Trevor. Not to mention, we have characters referred to as Fake Eleanor, Real Eleanor, and Bad Janet. And is anyone ever going to explain Bambadjan?

The worldbuilding has wisely been kept pretty simple so far, but each new concept has been so well executed, and the humor is just the right amount of wry and self-aware. Mindy St. Clair's's digs in the Medium Place, for instance, aren't really "medium," but a grudging compromise between the operators of the "good" and "bad" places that results in the only available movie being "Cannonball Run II." Janet in love is a wonderful mix of cutesyness and alien oddity. Her wedding with Jason remains a big highlight of the season because it's so enthusiastically wrong. We still don't know a lot of the details about how the afterlife works, and there's a good chance that a lot of what we do know is wrong, because of Michael's scheme. Speaking of Michael, even knowing that he's really a baddie, I still like him. Even when he's being malevolent, and a meta showrunner stand-in, he's still adorable!

In a different show the reset ending would have infuriated me, because it suggests we're going to have to replay a lot of previous levels to get back to where we were, but "The Good Place" has been so unpredictable, who knows where the story is going to go? There are so many tantalizing questions that have been set up, and so many things that need to be reevaluated. This is the first show in a while where I'm seriously tempted to go back and watch several of the earlier episodes to see how they play with the new information. And the twist wasn't even that difficult to guess from the beginning - I saw several outlets bring it up as a possibility right after the premiere - but how they pulled it off was fantastic. On the other hand, how is any subsequent season going to live up to it?

I'm really rooting for the show to come back next year, which is far from certain. Ratings have been decent, but maybe not decent enough. And that's a shame, because as good as television is right now, I'd be hard pressed to name another sitcom that's been doing anything close to what "The Good Place" has been doing these past few months. Then again, this run of episodes is so good, having more might spoil it.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"The BFG" and "Finding Dory"

I finally had time to catch up on some of last year's kids' titles. Whatever you want to say about the rest of the summer blockbusters, the major kids' films have maintained a pretty decent level of quality. It's just a shame that this hasn't been reflected by the box office.

So let's start with one of last year's major bombs, "The BFG," based on the children's book by Roald Dahl, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and crewed by all his regular collaborators. Disney handled distribution, a first for a Spielberg film. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that "The BFG" is is without question one of the weirdest, most idiosyncratic pieces of media to have come out of a major studio in some time. I liked it quite a bit, and I'm sure many children will too, but it's no surprise that the film has failed to connect with audiences in a busy summer season.

I know the original Roald Dahl book very well, and Melissa Mathison's scripts sticks very close to it. A little orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is swept away on an adventure with the gentle Big Friendly Giant, or BFG, (Mark Rylance), who lives in the faraway Giant Country and spends much of his time collecting and distributing dreams. Sadly, all the other giants are not friendly. Instead, their brutish, human-eating louts lead by the vile Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement). They bully the BFG and threaten Sophie, until the pair hatch a plan to fight back, with the help of the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton).

I'd been looking forward to seeing Spielberg direct another children's film, but it's almost shocking how much of a throwback "The BFG" is, even with its heavy reliance on CGI effects. The pacing is downright leisurely, letting Sophie explore the BFG's giant home and the land of dreams for at least a full hour before anything resembling a crisis or end goal appears. Their are plenty of chase and action sequences, but the film largely relies on the charm of the interactions between a very large, eccentric giant, who speaks with a half-mangled vocabulary, and a very small girl with reputation for rule-breaking. As such, the film is very incidental, full of dream logic, and unfolds the way that you might expect from a small child relaying the story.

I found the film endlessly charming and inventive. The design and animation of the giants is a wonder, allowing the performances of Mark Rylance and Jermaine Clements to come through while still looking suitably otherworldly. There's a storybook loveliness to the production design, especially Dream Country, where dreams look like the glowing will-o-wisps, and can be bottled like fireflies. At every level, there's so much care and consideration put into every detail. It's one of the more absorbing fantasy films I've seen in a long time, simply because it gives the viewer the time to really take in all the gorgeous visuals.

At the same time, "The BFG" strikes me as being a film that will probably play best with smaller children. The few things that were changed from book to screen involve toning down the much nastier crimes of the bad giants, specifically eatng children. As good a job as Spielberg & Co. did bringing the BFG to life, the story is missing that gruesome edge that Roald Dahl always had, and the film adaptations of his works rarely address. "The BFG" is careful to emphasize wonder and silliness over creepiness and putridity. After the first ten minutes, the film is largely tension-free and will probably be a bore to viewers looking for more excitement.

Now on to "Finding Dory." First off, I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of "Finding Nemo," having enjoyed the animation, but none of the characters struck me as all that compelling or original. The one exception was Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a blue tang fish, whose short term memory loss and positive attitude made her so memorable. Putting Dory at the center of her own movie was a great decision, as well as having most of the story play out in a Marine Life Instittue, which looks an awful lot like the Monetery Bay Aquarium. This time out, Dory is searching for her parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy), who she lost long ago and has only recently remembered.

I appreciate that with their latest round of sequels/prequels, PIXAR has taken pains to tell well-consisdered stories that highlight different characters and life lessons. So while "Monsters University" gave Mike Wazowski the spotlight and taught kids about accepting failure, "Finding Dory" uses Dory and her new friends as a stand-ins for people with disabilities, and shows us how they can triumph in spite of them. There was a bit of this in "Finding Nemo" with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his damaged fin, but Dory faces a much tougher time coping because of her memory problems. From the very first scene, where a teeny young Dory's worried parents coach her on asking for help from strangers, the stakes feel more personal and the situation more poignant.

"Finding Dory" isn't a very subtle movie. Among the new characters are an octopus, Hank (Ed O'Neill), who is missing a leg and doesn't want to be released back into the wild, a nearsighted whale shark, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and a beluga named Bailey (Ty Burrell) with busted echolocation. As you might expect, they all end up working together to help Dory, and there's a lot of emphasis on focusing on what they can do instead of what they can't. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo are also along for the adventure, mostly to help fill time with their own subplot, and to act as Dory's cheerleaders. And it's all entertaining more or less, about as entertaining as the first film, though the writing is a bit sloppier and the situations more ridiculous.

I give the edge to "Finding Dory," though, because this one looks so gorgeous, with its kelp forests and picture perfect aquarium exhibits. There's a much bigger variety of marine life this time around, thanks to the Marine Life Institute, and we get to meet sea lions, otters, loons, and more. The best new character is undoubtedly Hank, the grumpy octopus, who sneaks all over the Institute, and can change color to blend in with his surroundings. He adds a lot of good humor and energy, though he is curiously underdeveloped for a PIXAR character. I wonder if they're saving his backstory for another sequel.

I wouldn't object, considering how well "Finding Dory" came out. Dory remains my favorite character of the series, who has smoothly transitioned from comic relief to plucky heroine. I have never seen a lead character like her in any children's film, someone with a mental disability who is portrayed in such realistic, empathetic terms, without being tagged as "special." And it's PIXAR's willingness to commit wholeheartedly to her story, and push at those boundaries, that keeps them a cut above the rest.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Quick Thoughts on the 2017 Oscar Nominees


At this point in the season, there's still a lot I haven't seen, and a lot of reviews I haven't written. I also haven't been keeping an eye on the race as much as I usually do, which is nice in a way because this morning came as more of a surprise. I'll have more to say about all the nominees in the weeks ahead, but here are a couple of preliminary thoughts.

First, the Academy clearly got the message that we needed some more diversity, because I counted seven minority actors with nominations, and four of the nine Best Picture contenders have predominantly minority casts. "La La Land" dominated, of course, and is probably going to win almost everything on Oscar night, but "Moonlight" came away with eight nominations, and "Lion" got six. I'm also very excited to see "Arrival" doing so well, as the Academy rarely pays so much attention to science-fiction. None of my favorties got left out of the Best Picture race, though I'm surprised to see "Hacksaw Ridge" and "Hidden Figures" up there instead of "Silence" and "Sully," which were both almost totally shut out. I liked them all about the same, but the politicking is always interesting.

The Directors race usually points to who the frontrunners are, and in this case the usual suspects, Damien Chazelle for "La La Land," Barry Jenkis for "Moonlight," and Kenneth Lonergan for "Manchester by the Sea," are joined by Denis Villeneuve for "Arrival" and comeback kid Mel Gibson for "Hacksaw Ridge." That puts "Lion," "Fences," "Hell or High Water," and "Hidden Figures" firmly out of the running, which is also reflected in the number of nominations they got. My guess is that of the nine Best Picture nominees, "Hidden Figures" was the one that just squeaked through. If there had been a tenth nomination, I think the more uplifting "Florence Foster Jenkins" had a better shot than "Jackie." Or maybe Scorsese and Eastwood supporters could have rallied ennough to puch through "Sully" or "Silence."

The acting races are a mix of good and bad, as usual. Both of the actress races are very strong, so much so that I'm not unhappy that Amy Adams missed a slot for "Arrival." Even Meryle Streep, who usually comes off as a legacy pick, truly deserves to be up there this year. I think Joel Edgerton should have replaced Andrew Garfield or Viggo Mortensen in Actor, but it's not a bad race at all. Supporting Actor is interesting, in that the Academy chose to give Michael Shannon a nod over Aaron Johnson, who won the Golden Globe. Neither of them are up for the corresponding SAG Award either, which is usually one of the biggest predictors of these nominations. If I were to predict the winners now, I'd go for Casey Affleck, Isabelle Huppert, Mahershala Ali, and Viola Davis. Maybe Emma Stone instead of Huppert.

Other surprises include a Screenplay nod for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos for his brutal comedy "The Lobster," "The Red Turtle" and "My Life as a Zucchini" beating back a flood of American box office hits in Animated Film, "Kubo and the Two Strings" getting a rare Best Visual Effects nod for an animated feature, and appearances by "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" (Sound Mixing), "Trolls" (Song), "Passengers" (Production Design and Score) and "Suicide Squad" (Makeup and Hairstyling). Not too many major complaints here, but surely they could have found a Best Documentary nominee less mawkish than "Life, Animated"? And Best Foreign Language film is a mess as usual, missing several of the major contenders, including "Elle." And how is the only nomination for "Hail, Caesar!" in Production Design?

I don't think it's going to be a particularly exciting year as far as the races go, but I look forward to a very entertaining telecast. "La La Land" is a bona fide box office hit, which means the award ceremony will attract more viewers and give the showrunners a lot of material to work with. And everybody is going to be waiting to see if Meryl Streep or someone else gets in a few more digs at Donald Trump.

Oh, and better luck next time "Deadpool."

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

"Rogue One" (With Spoilers)

And when I say spoilers, I mean all the spoilers.

"Rogue One" is getting a lot of kudos for being a darker film that wasn't afraid of killing off all the major characters, but what I found really daring was that the filmmakers really committed to making the film a one-shot project. No matter how much money it makes, there will be no sequel, and there are vanishingly small chances of a spinoff. Frankly, as much as I liked the ensemble, the individual characters are too thin to sustain films by themselves. It wasn't until the final act, when the terrific death scenes started piling up, that I realized that I did care about them in the end, just a bit. It was the terrific momentum of the final mission for the Death Star plans that really sustained that ending.

This was the biggest disappointment of the film for me, because I came into "Rogue One" actively wanting to like these new characters, and wanting to get emotionally invested in them. Alas, the writing is simply too haphazard in the first two acts, with plot holes and weird ellipses everywhere. Not all the characters are handled poorly, but everything feels rushed and piecemeal. Forrest Whitaker's Saw Guerrera came off the worst, a rebel from the Rebellion with a murky philosophy, murky loyalties, and is pretty murky in overall construction. The bit with Bodhi and the brain slug seems to have no actual narrative impact, except to make Saw seem dangerous and sinister, until fifteen minutes later, when he isn't. And then he's dead, which actually comes as a relief. Forrest Whitaker was never able to stop being Forrest Whitaker long enough to mesh with the rest of the "Star Wars" universe.

I tried to be more open minded about Jyn Erso. I tried to forget that I'd seen (and been less than impressed by) Felicity Jones in other films. I tried to ignore the many similarities between Jyn and Daisy Ridley's Rey from "The Force Awakens." And while I have no major complaints about her or her narrative arc, Jyn simply strikes me as bland and unconvincing. I didn't buy her change of heart, but went along with it because the film simply refused to slow down long enough to let me think about it very much. It was the same with Diego Luna's Cassian Andor, someone potentially interesting, but who never really got around to fulfilling any of that promise. The rest of the good guys were colorful types, who didn't need to do much heavy lifting, and mostly succeeded at being fun supporting players. To reiterate, I liked them enough to care that they died, but that was about the extent of it. This is perfectly par for the course for most action spectaculars, but I still felt disappointed.

I've been critical of "Force Awakens" for having too many references and bits of fanservice. "Rogue One" is guilty of this too, but it's more forgivable because of the way the story directly connects to the original "Star Wars." I could have done with out the Cantina patrons and the familiar droids, but resurrecting all that great hardware - the ships, the costuming, and even the '70s era operating systems graphics, was a treat. Darth Vader was in the mix just long enough, not too long to overwhelm the proceedings, but long enough to make a big impact when it counted. In some instances, I also liked the return of smaller characters from the original trilogy in larger roles. Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly), for instance, was a familiar face who served the plot in a perfectly agreeable way.

This brings us, unfortunately, to the subject of the CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin. Though the technology has gotten better, the filmmakers are simply too ambitious with it, and CGI Tarkin stands out like a sore thumb in every scene he appears in. The CGI Princess Leia in the closing shot is hardly any better, but she's onscreen for only a few fleeting seconds, and easier to make excuses for. Ditto Red Leader and Gold Leader making their tiny cameos in the final space battle. Tarkin, unfortunately, has about as much screen time and narrative weight as Mon Mothma, and the CGI simply isn't up to snuff. I'm worried that this is going to set a precedence for more deceased actors being similarly revived before the technology is ready.

On purely visceral terms, "Rogue One" delivered all the action blockbuster thrills I ever could have wanted, and the "Star Wars" fangirl in me loved the nostalgia. However, the cynical cinephile part of me is worried about what this could mean for other upcoming "Star Wars" films, and franchise films in general. The films leans so heavily on nostalgia and spectacle, there doesn't seem to be room for much else.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Rogue One" (Without Spoilers)

Let's not kid ourselves here. "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is about as superfluous a film as has ever been made, another prequel meant to capitalize off of the existing "Star Wars" fanbase's nostalgia for the original trilogy. And in this case, with the events of "Rogue One" leading directly into the events of 1977's "A New Hope," the new film has familiar locations, spaceships, and characters around every corner. I doubt there are five minutes that go by without a reference to something else familiar from the "Star Wars" canon. After last year's disappointingly familiar "The Force Awakens," it seemed like folly to expect anything truly original from "Rogue One."

And yet, Gareth Edwards and his crew do manage to make "Rogue One" a different kind of "Star Wars" movie. It's absolutely drenched in fanservice from beginning to end, and doesn't work too well on its own, but it stands out from the prior seven films in the series by being the first that really puts the "War" in "Star Wars." We get to see a much less romanticized view of the Rebellion, where our heroes, like Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), do terrible things in the name of their cause. Following in the tradition of older WWII films, we watch a small, ragtag group of desperate rebels go up against overwhelming odds with very high stakes, and the Empire is absolutely ruthless in this film. This is easily the darkest "Star Wars" film, to the point where I'd caution parents of smaller children to be wary.

The plot revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a small time criminal who is the estranged daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), an Imperial scientist working on the Death Star. When an Imperial pilot, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), defects with a message from Galen, the Rebellion recruits Jyn to help track down her father, which eventually leads to the famous mission to retrieve the plans for the Death Star. She and Cassian are joined by a cynical droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and have run ins with a cyborg freedom fighter, Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whitaker), a blind warrior monk, Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and a heavily armed mercenary, Baze (Jiang Wen). The main antagonist is Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a power-hungry Imperial officer working on the Death Star. None of these characters are very well fleshed out, but the cast is excellent, and the film is designed in such a way that they get plenty of support from slick action spectacle and well-orchestrated melodrama.

The first two thirds of "Rogue One" has some ups and downs, but everything clicks in the final act, which is a massive battle sequence on a a picturesque tropical planet called Scarif. And it's my favorite piece of "Star Wars" action since the original trilogy due to the sheer sense of scale and the excellent execution. Aside from a few instances of dead actors being resurrected with odd CGI doppelgangers, the visuals are great. All the old bits of "Star Wars" art design have been lovingly recreated, and appear suitably grungy and '70s era appropriate. The world feels much more tactile and immediate here than any of the other "Star Wars" films in decades, thanks to a lot of practical effects and on location shooting. The characters are also appealingly ordinary, mostly soldiers and misfits, played by a very diverse cast. The Jedi barely seem to exist in this universe.

Instead, the standouts are K-2SO, who is a constant source of gallows humor, Krennic, who benefits hugely from Ben Mendelsohn at his most craven, and Chirrut, who is exactly as cool as you'd imagine a Donnie Yen character in the "Star Wars" universe would be. The rest are fairly generic, which is a shame, but not too much of a black mark in this kind of film. Ultimately, I have absolutely no complaints about any of the performances, except to note that I suspect there were some rewrites of Saw Guerrera's role, because his part in the story is clearly truncated and doesn't really add up. Also, there was really far too little of Mads Mikkelson, but at least he was better used here than in "Doctor Strange."

It's the "Star Wars" universe that is the biggest winner here, more fleshed out and grounded than it has ever been. It's the Rebellion and the Empire that get the most characterization, oddly enough, through their clashes with each other. We see the lengths that the Empire is willing to go to in order to secure a victory, and the massive sacrifices necessary for the Rebellion to operate. There's a real weight to the stakes this time out, and "Rogue One" is one of the rare prequels that actually does a good job of setting up its predecessor - in this case the original "Star Wars."

There's a lot more I want to talk about, but I'll continue in a spoiler post. The long and the short of it is, "Rogue One" is a typical action blockbuster, but a refreshingly atypical "Star Wars" film, and I really appreciated it for that.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Is Harley Quinn a Problem?

Spoilers for "Suicide Squad" ahead.

I decided not to write a "Suicide Squad" review, because I don't have much to say about it. I was expecting it to be worse than it was, but a couple of good characters and performances kept it watchable, in spite of a rushed production and some horrific editing. However, there is one aspect that I think it's worth going into some depth on, the character of Harley Quinn.

Harley, as played by Margot Robbie, is the undisputed star of the film. She outshines everyone, including Will Smith's Deadshot and Jared Leto's Joker, Harley's boyfriend and "Pudddin." I've waited a long time to see Harley on the big screen, having loved the animated version of her from "Batman: The Animated" series. With her appearance in "Suicide Squad," she's now a hit with the mainstream, and was a popular Halloween costume last year. However, there have been some concerns raised about her portrayal, especially her relationship with the Joker, that have rung alarm bells.

In her original animated incarnation, Harley was a zany henchgirl to the Joker and their relationship wasn't explicitly romantic. It was eventually revealed that she was his former psychiatrist, seduced and twisted by the Joker into being his costumed sidekick and girlfriend. Their relationship was abusive, and the two had some spectacular breakups, but Harley always went back to the Joker eventually. She proved so popular with fans, that she was written into the DC comics continuity, and even had her own series for a few years. In the comics, she was portrayed as more violent, with mental problems of her own. Her costumes were also far more revealing, and recently she was retconned to be bisexual.

The "Suicide Squad" version of Harley tweaks parts of her character and relationship with the Joker in important ways. He's far more physically violent with her, subjecting her to electroshock therapy and a dip in a vat of chemicals in flashbacks. There's also the early scene where he uses her to pick a fight with another baddie played by Common. However, their twisted romance is also portrayed positively, as one of the central emotional lynchpins of the story. Harley and Joker's attempts to reunite are given at least as much weight as the relationship of good guys Rick Flag and June Moon, for instance. And frankly, Harley and Joker's love story isn't supposed to be played so straight.

When Harley was primarily used as comic relief, her simpering after the Joker was usually played for laughs. Joker often treated her as an annoyance, a screw-up, or simply a project that he'd lost interest in. They were bad for each other more often than not, with an incredibly contentious, dysfunctional history. In their more serious outings, Harley's attachment to the Joker was portrayed as tragic, because he didn't really care about her. Any affectionate moments between them were always either funny or ironic because we all knew they were only going to lead to further disaster.

The "Suicide Squad" version, where the Joker really does love Harley in his own, sick, special way, can be seen as romanticizing the abuse. Harley and Joker's triumphant reunion at the end of the film certainly seems to suggest that we're supposed to be happy that they're back together, and Harley's fantasies of domestic bliss seem to be serious. There's a strong argument that Harley being part of such an unhealthy relationship makes her a terrible role model for teenage girls, who she's become popular with. Similar criticisms were leveled at "Twilight" and "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Frankly, as a villain, Harley is already a pretty lousy role model all by herself. She's an anti-hero roughly analogous to Deadpool, who is really screwed up when you look at him up close. And "Suicide Squad" is so incoherent, it's hard to tell what the filmmakers actually intended for Joker and Harley. If you think of Harley as a traditional romantic heroine, than yes, the relationship is an absolute travesty. If you think of her as a comic or subversive figure, however, it gets more complicated. Harley's codependency is part of what makes her a baddie in the first place.

Personally, I enjoyed Harley Quinn in her original incarnation, a bubbly, funny henchgirl with all the best lines, who was at least as violent towards the Joker as he was with her. I thought she was a lot of fun on her own too, being an independent reprobate, or teaming up with gal-pal Poison Ivy. Also, though she's been increasingly sexualized over the years, she's retained her strong personality and remained sympathetic.

I like Margot Robbie's interpretation of her, but she doesn't act like my Harley. She could though, eventually - and that's the part that makes me want to put this analysis on hold until the inevitable "Suicide Squad" sequel. If the honeymoon with Joker is over in the next installment, and the weapons come out, it's definitely something that I want to see.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Watching "1941" in 2017

"1941" was the last major film directed by Steven Spielberg that I hadn't watched. It had been a notorious flop, but I had my secret hopes that it would be a hidden gem. After all, it was made at the height of Spielberg's early career, right between "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 1979. The ridiculously star-studded cast list includes Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Nancy Allen, Treat Williams, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Christopher Lee, and Toshiro Mifune. Roughly thirty minutes of the original cut had been deleted for the initial release, which was later restored for home video releases. This was the version that I sought out.

Set just after the Pearl Harbor attacks, "1941" is billed as a raucous military comedy, about various characters in the Los Angeles area fearful of an attack on the California coastline. Indeed, there is a Japanese submarine, lead by Commander Mitamura (Mifune), headed toward Hollywood. However, the Japanese are a bunch of incompetents, and Mitamura is constantly clashing with a Nazi officer along for the ride, Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (Lee). Meanwhile, the US armed forces are making preparations. Sergeant Tree (Aykroyd) installs an anti-aircraft battery in the backyard of gung-ho Ward Douglas (Beatty), who is disappointed that he's too old fight himself. His daughter Betty (Dianne Kay) is a hostess at the local USO club, and the sweetheart of dishwasher Wally (Bobby Di Cicco), but also the target of loutish soldier "Stretch" Sitarski (Williams).

Other notables include "Wild Bill" Kelso (Belushi), an overzealous ace fighter pilot, Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson), a general's aide who keeps trying to find ways to get reporter Donna Stratton (Wells) airborne, because she gets aroused by planes, Major General Stillwell (Stack), who just wants to watch "Dumbo" in peace, and Claude (Murray Hamilton) and Herbie (Eddie Deezen), a pair of Santa Monica locals watching for enemy planes atop an old Ferris wheel. On the fateful night of December 13th, 1941, a series of comic misunderstandings and wild misadventures spark a panic in Los Angeles, leading to plenty of combat and chaos for the whole cast.

Now Spielberg was warned by no less than John Wayne himself that WWII was an important war, and shouldn't be joked about. I don't think the Duke was entirely right, but WWII shouldn't have been joked about in the way that "1941" joked about it. There's an odd flippancy to the whole film, where none of the exceedingly silly characters seems to be feeling the direct impact of Pearl Harbor having happened less than a week earlier. Spielberg was clearly trying to evoke the zany slapstick of the broader comedies of the '30s and '40s, but there's a more modern, off-color sensibility to the scripting that comes across as tone-deaf, and clashes badly with the film's lighthearted tone.

I suspect that the script was the source of a lot of the trouble, displaying all the worst sensibilities of Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius. "1941" has not aged well, and comes off as more mean spirited than intended. I appreciate that all of the characters are treated as equally ridiculous, no matter what side that they're on, and the Japanese are handled pretty sympathetically. However, the casual racism of so many of the soldiers really grates. Worse are the scenes of Betty practically begging soldiers in the USO Club to be saved from the violent advances of Stretch. Stretch being pursued with equal vigor by the rotund Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) doesn't dispel the nastiness of the assaults.

On a more fundamental level, the film drags terribly through its first hour, not really picking up any momentum until nearly the hour mark, when the big fight at the USO club breaks out. I found it difficult to root for any of the characters, since they're so broadly drawn and few are very likeable. Wally and Birkhead display little heart or charm. Aykroyd's Sergeant Tree seem to be the only true patriot, but his role is explicitly secondary, and he soon becomes a walking pratfall. Actors I adore, like Mifune and Lee, were given little to work with. Too many characters made me cringe - Slim Pickin's red faced rube, Eddie Deezen with his dummy, and the whole doofusy Douglas family. They were played for laughs, but weren't funny. Even the opening gag, nodding to "Jaws," went on for too long and was in poor taste.

What does remain impressive are the huge scale action scenes and the effects work. The planes crashing in downtown Los Angeles, the systematic destruction of the Douglas house, the various shenanigans with the submarine, and the whole final sequence with the Ferris wheel are still fantastically fun to watch, and reminiscent of Spielberg's best work. The model work and the stunts really do still hold up. And it's so much easier to appreciate a finale full of explosions when you know the explosions are real.

Spielberg, to his credit, acknowledges "1941" was a failure, and probably an important one, as it would temper his ego going into the '80s. However, the film features good work from so many familiar names. The John Williams score is excellent. William Fraker's cinematography is a blast. Michael Kahn was the editor. This was the feature film debut of Aykroyd and Mickey Rourke, and also the last credit of effects legend A.D. Flowers.

And thankfully, it was Spielberg's last attempt at a comedic feature.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Top Ten Films of 2001

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.

Amelie - An effervescent love story from Jean-Pierre Jeunet that made Audrey Tatou into an international star. It manages just the right balance of whimsy and nostalgia to conjure endless delight, telling numerous little stories with great humor and inventiveness. Tatou's performance helps to keep all of Jeunet's manic magical-realist visuals from overwhelming the picture. And while "Amelie" is a feel-good movie to top all feel-good movies, it never feels cloying, precious, or undeserving of its lovely moments of joy.

The Devil's Backbone - Guillermo Del Toro's first film set during the Spanish Civil War is about ghosts, both literal and figurative. It's also his bleakest film, giving us a glimpse of a fragile world deeply damaged by war, full of psychic scars from past atrocities that still affect the living. The cast is wonderful, particularly Federico Luppi as an elderly doctor with too much on his conscience. There's a mood of deep, lingering sadness that permeates the film, and while there are a few good scares, it's more likely to break your heart.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch - A transgender singer turns her pain and tragedy into soulful rock 'n' roll. To date, there has been no screen musical more stirring and more boundary-pushing on the topics of gender identity, sexuality, and recovering from trauma. Hedwig is an imperfect avatar for everything she hopes to stand for, but there's such a personal component to her journey, she still comes across as a genuine, relatable soul. And then there's the music, lovingly showcased with mixed-media presentations and lively performances.

Millennium Actress - Satoshi Kon takes a trip into Japan's cinematic past as only he could, with an era-hopping, time-skipping adventure into the life and times of a celebrated actress. It layers animated realities and fantasies on top of each other, often just for fun. The love story at its heart is pedestrian stuff, but the telling of it is pure magic. Madhouse Inc's animation never looked better. And this is exactly the kind of grown-up story of old regrets that could have been made nowhere else - and by no once else - in the medium it was meant for.

Mulholland Dr. - My introduction to David Lynch, and perhaps the purest distillation of his particular brand of filmmaking. By turns surreal, melodramatic, and horrific, "Mulholland Dr." is a journey into the heart of darkness of Hollywood and disillusionment of a would-be starlet. What continues to fascinate me about the film is how potent it still is, how skillfully is can conjure up strong moods and emotions. Whatever your interpretations of its sinister symbols and veiled intentions, it's a film that demands that the viewer engage with its disturbing universe.

The Royal Tenenbaums - This is where Wes Anderson's style really felt like it solidified, particularly with his use of color, absurdist tone, and the comically specific portraits of the characters. However, what was vital was that underneath all the eccentricities and funny outfits, the Tenenbaums were living, breathing, people in desperate need of saving. It's the emotional honesty of the film that resonated with me, moreso than its amusing affectations. Once you realized Royal Tenenbaum's actual intentions, everything else falls into place.

Spirited Away - A little girl journeys into a world of god and spirits, an animated wonderland from the mind and heart of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki. There are precious few cinematic worlds as rich and stunning as the one found here, full of engaging mysteries and magical creatures. Perhaps none, however, are so magical as 10-year-old Chihiro, who is about the best depiction of a child heroine I've ever seen in animation. "Spirited Away" remains the high point of Miyazaki's exceptional career as Japan's premiere film fantasist.

AI Artificial Intelligence - An imperfect, but absorbing collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the departed Stanley Kubrick. It grapples mightily with the ethical and philosophical questions raised by the creation of artificial life, finding few answers. However, it does provide some beautiful glimpses of a future society fundamentally changed by robots, and highlights some troubling implications for the audience to ponder. No matter where you think the story should have ended, it's a daring, challenging film made without compromise.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Massive ambitions were fulfilled by the efforts of Peter Jackson and company in bringing J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth to the silver screen. "Fellowship" remains my favorite of the trilogy for its tremendous worldbuilding and strong cast of characters. There's a sense of complete commitment by everyone involved in the movie, which goes a long way towards the immersiveness and appeal of Jackson's Middle Earth. The effects may look dated today, but I'm still in love with Hobbiton.

Ghost World - All the awkward, uncomfortable parts of teenage girlhood are lovingly embodied by Thora Birch's sarcastic Enid, who goes through extreme growing pains at the end of high school. I can't recall a more biting, infuriating portrait of a teenage girl. For many years I hated Enid for the destruction she wrought, and the conventions she broke, but at the same time I knew exactly what it was to be her. And I still remember every moment of this film so clearly, along with all the confusing emotions that it dredged up from my own past.

Honorable Mentions

Y Tu Mama Tambien
In the Bedroom
Moulin Rouge
The Others
The Score
Shallow Hal
Vanilla Sky
Waking Life
No Man's Land
Monsoon Wedding

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Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top Ten "The Wonder Years" Episodes

This one's for my dad, because "The Wonder Years" is the only English-language show that I remember him enjoying on a regular basis when I was a kid. I'd resisted doing one of these lists for "The Wonder Years" in the past, because I was sure I'd forgotten too much to turn out something coherent, but that turned out not to be the case. Once I started going back through the episode lists, I found myself with an excess of installments that I wanted to write about. Admittedly, my memories of the first few seasons are hazy, so this list is heavily weighed toward later ones.

So here we go. Episodes are unranked and listed below by airdate. Some minor spoilers ahead.

"My Father's Office" - Kevin gets some insight on his father after coming to work with him one day. Jack Arnold is a character I've really come to appreciate over the years, the stern authoritarian father figure who is consistently humanized over the course of the show. He never lost the vague air of paternal menace, but it was comforting to know he was a good guy underneath.

"Coda" - The misery of piano lessons was one of those experiences that no other piece of media ever captured quite as well as this did. The tedium of practice, the brief hopes of excelling, and the performance anxiety were all things I remember acutely. This was one of the first episodes of the show I remember watching, and why I immediately sympathized with Kevin Arnold.

"The Tree House" - Male bonding was a recurring theme in the show, and this episode was all about Jack and Kevin doing their best to ignore that their relationship was changing. I love the way the show avoided directly talking about sex - discussing "the talk" in hushed tones, and the way both of the Arnold men steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the issue of the sexy neighbor,

"Glee Club" - I so clearly remember the miraculous moment when Warren Butcher's perfectly pitched high note inspired the rest of the eighth grade glee club to sing a rousingly decent version of "Stout-hearted Men." It's a sentimental look back at a brief moment of musical glory, that is sadly and hilariously dashed along with the dreams of a too-ambitious student teacher.

"Good-bye" - This was the last of three episodes in the season forming "The Math Arc," with Kevin's math teacher Mr. Collins. And it's the added weight of their clashes in those earlier episodes that gives this one that much more impact. "The Wonder Years" really nails the complicated feelings that can result from a student-teacher relationship, and how much it can mean to have someone on your side.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Madeline World" - The horror of a lost bracelet and the funniest misspelling of "Kevin Arnold" ever sends lovelorn Kevin into a near-meltdown. Kevin's love life and the endless, on again, off again relationship of Kevin and Winnie Cooper were never my favorite parts of the show, but occasionally they could be mined for some great comedy. This was definitely one of those times.

"Little Debbie" - Paul's gawky little sister Debbie has a crush on Kevin, who is roped into escorting her to a cotillion. Now, Kevin could be self-centered and selfish, but he was also capable of hero moments like one at the end of this episode, which is why I kept rooting for the kid. He doesn't just grin and bear it, but is inspired to become his best self when the situation calls for it.

"Day One" - I remember lots of media chatter about how the show was going to handle Kevin growing up and maturing, and it turned out that Kevin in high school isn't all that different from Kevin in junior high. His first day of high school is an all-around disaster, with a lot of new sources of aggravation, but Kevin does scrounge up a small moment of short-lived triumph in the end.

"The Hardware Store" - Kevin's lousy summer job at a local hardware store turns into a gentle commentary on the passage of time and the inevitability of leaving some things behind. Kevin wrestles with how much loyalty and respect he owes to his employer in fairly mature terms, and I especially like Jack's small but important role in the story, putting everything in perspective.

"The Wedding" - I was too young for many of the episodes featuring Jack and Karen's clashes, but I loved the way the show said goodbye to her character. Jack and Norma meeting the hippies is priceless, along with the awkward revelation about Alaska via wedding cake. The previous episode with the proposal, "Stormy Weather," was also a close runner-up for the list.

Honorable Mentions: "Just Between Me and You and Kirk and Paul and Carla and Becky," "Whose Woods Are These?," "Night Out," "Cocoa and Sympathy," "Daddy's Little Girl," "The Ties that Bind," "A Very Cutlip Christmas," "Graduation," "Stormy Weather," "Sex and Economics"
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Saturday, January 7, 2017

"The Americans," Year 3

Spoilers for everything up to the end of this season below.

Well, I'm in for the long haul now. The third season of "The Americans" did a great job of moving all of its storylines forward and getting Philip and Elizabeth more fully entangled in an ever-more complicated web of espionage. So much happened this year that it takes some effort to think back to where we were at the beginning of the season, and start to evaluate what went on. So let's take this storyline by storyline, and character by character.

The biggest development, of course, is that Paige knows a version of the truth about her parents, one that she wasn't ready to hear. Holly Taylor had a big increase in screen time this year, and handled it wonderfully. The last episode in particular, where she fails to connect to Elizabeth despite their shared experience, and then goes to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), was the best shock of "The Americans" to date. I love how her whole arc has been handled. I'd originally pegged Pastor Tim as shady, but it turns out he's a threat for entirely different reasons. I'm really looking forward to watching how this plays out next season.

Meanwhile, it was touching to discover that after multiple tense episodes with Paige's fate driving a wedge between Philip and Elizabeth, the moment she demands answers, they're on the same side completely. Family was the big theme of the year, with Elizabeth's mother and Philip's son adding more to worry over. And with everything going on with Paige, the show is also quietly setting up an arc with Henry and Stan, punctuated by a few pointed shots of the poor kid being ignored yet again. Elizabeth had a few good episodes, though her best material was a bit scattered. Philip, however, had his best year being in the middle of so many good arcs, and Matthew Rhys is now firmly up there with Keri Russell as an MVP of "The Americans."

Martha was the other person who was let in on the big secret this year. She started out as a borderline comic presence, but now it's impossible not to empathize with her tragic situation. The whole investigation at the FBI has been wonderfully intense and revealing, and has added new dimensions to Martha's relationship with Clark/Philip. Philip is becoming more emotionally involved by the episode, and it's fascinating. I don't know how much longer they're going to be able to sustain this storyline, with everything falling apart so fast. Whatever happens, I hope we get more Martha and more of the FBI mail robot. We also need to talk about Kimmy (Julia Garner), the teenager that Philip has to woo in order to access her CIA agent father. I wanted to see more of this storyline, as it sort of peters out at the end. Philip struggling to avoid sleeping with her is dramatic enough, but I really appreciate all the ways that the show manages to thematically connect it to other parts of the show - parenting Paige and staying loyal to Elizabeth.

Keri Russell didn't really get much with the same emotional heft. Elizabeth's training of Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) may yield some more interesting material next year, but so far the whole business with the South Africans has been pretty pedestrian stuff. Ditto the subplot with Lisa (Karen Pittman). Elizabeth did get her good moments in singular scenes that were more difficult to categorize - the terrible death of Betty (Lois Smith), the teeth-pulling scene in the third episode, and her conversations with Gabriel (Frank Langella), the Jennings' newest KGB handler. And Langella is such a great addition to the cast, a gentler, more fatherly personification of the KGB who offers home cooking and news from home. I've warmed to all the KGB regulars finally, including Burov, newly assigned Tatiana (Verna Cherny), and even Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn), who spends most of this season trying to sidestep the evermore dangerous quagmire of Soviet politics.

Over on the FBI side, I'm not too sure of what to make of Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) yet, who has more or less been playing straight man. Richard Thomas has gotten progressively more antagonistic as Agent Gaad. Then there's Stan, who spends the year trying to ground himself after losing Nina and his family, but isn't remotely as compelling. There's a comedic quality to his interactions with the defector Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova), that kept me from buying into his suspicions of her. Frankly, the stakes were never high enough to hold my interest. Even his tete-a-tetes with Burov to help Nina were lukewarm. And why is Susan Misner listed in the credits this year? Sandra barely had anything to do.

Fortunately, Annet Mahendru got much more interesting material with Nina. I'm glad that the show is enforcing consequences on her after last year, but I fully expect Nina to make her way back stateside eventually. This year's material has essentially been filler as a result. Still the execution is decent enough and we're not spending all that much time with her, so nothing feels dragged out.

Whew. Good season. Want more. Will be reporting back sooner rather than later.
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Thursday, January 5, 2017

My Favorite Stanley Donen Film

Before becoming a director, Stanley Donen made his name as an innovative choreographer in the 1940s, responsible for Gene Kelly's "alter ego" dance number with his own reflection in "Cover Girl," and the "Anchors Aweigh" number with an animated Jerry the Mouse. Despite many later successes on his own, Donen's career remains inextricably linked to Kelly's. They co-directed three musicals together, including Donen's best: "Singin' in the Rain."

The lavish MGM musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age were built around their memorable dance numbers, but "Singin' in the Rain" has an equally memorable story. Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a popular silent film star who is partnered with the vain, unpleasant Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). When their studio decides to transition to talkies, Lina's terrible voice threatens to doom their next picture. Don and his best friend Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) decide to turn the film into a musical, and recruit young actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to dub Lina's voice and launch her own career.

When I think of Gene Kelly, I immediately think of him dancing in the iconic "Singin' in the Rain" number, splashing through puddles and spinning around with his umbrella. For me, it's not only representative of the best of the musical genre, but the best of Hollywood filmmaking, period. Donald O'Connor's astonishing feats of athleticism and comedy in "Make 'Em Laugh" are certainly a highlight, but there's such a simplicity and playfulness to "Singin' in the Rain" that is irresistible. He and Donen made it look so easy, which was deceptive, of course. Donen has revealed in interviews that the sequence took weeks to prepare, rehearse, and shoot. Kelly was sick at the time, and performed in the downpour with a 103 degree fever.

"Singin' in the Rain" was one of the many musicals produced at MGM by Arthur Freed, and was a product of the studio system at its height. It was intended to be a jukebox musical of sorts, recycling songs written by Nacio Herb Brown in the 1930s. All but one of the songs had previously appeared in other films, sometimes multiple films. It was a struggle to fit them all into a single story. Donen thrived working within limitations, however, and he and the talented crew persevered. If Stanley Donen contributed anything to the American musical, it was to make the musical numbers extensions of a film's storytelling, rather than the older model of Busby Berkeley style spectacle for the sake of spectacle. And so "Make 'Em Laugh" captured the soul of a clown. And "Singin' in the Rain" captured the elation of a man in love.

Comedy is also a vital component of the film, as "Singin' in the Rain" lightly spoofs the filmmaking industry and the studio system. While the typical romantic farce is expertly deployed, Donen also gets a lot of mileage out of depicting all the behind the scenes chaos of making a movie during the transitional era. The early challenges of recording sound for film are turned into a game of where to hide the microphone. The head of the fictional studio, played by Millard Mitchell, is a loving caricature of Arthur Freed. And then there's Lina Lamont, who is so memorably awful, and so much fun to hate. Debbie Reynolds is perfectly charming as the leading lady, but everyone remembers Jean Hagen as Lina.

The production of "Singin' in the Rain" was reportedly difficult, and there are many stories of clashes and injuries behind the scenes. There's a lot of conflicting information about what went on, and many urban legends have had to be dispelled. We know that Donen and Gene Kelly were still getting along at this point, though Kelly had more of the clout and was getting more of the credit. It was Donen who went on to greater successes after "Singin' in the Rain" though. He directed several other musicals in the '50s, and after the genre fell out of fashion, moved on to comedies and romances. He had his share of flops, but worked steadily through the 1970s.

As for "Singin' in the Rain," it was a decent but unspectacular success upon release, that critical reappraisals and decades of delighted fans have raised to the level of a national treasure. And it deserves it, as one of the most watchable, wonderful musicals ever made.

What I've Seen - Stanley Donen

On the Town (1949)
Royal Wedding (1951)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Funny Face (1957)
The Pajama Game (1957)
Indiscreet (1958)
Charade (1963)
Two for the Road (1967)
Bedazzled (1967)
Staircase (1969)
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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My Most Anticipated Web and Television Programs of 2017

I'm trying something new this year. Though film continues to dominate this blog, a good portion of my media consumption is web and television series. And it seems perfectly appropriate to write up an anticipation list for them, to go along with the ones I'm writing for upcoming movies. And there is a lot to anticipate this year, including new shows, returning shows, revivals, and a handful of big finales. Because the TV calendar works so differently, this list is being posted now, before the midseason starts and some of these entries actually premiere (Nothing on the movie list will show up until March at the earliest).

I wrestled a bit with what format this list should be in, and what should be eligible. I mean, it's a given that I'm looking forward to "Game of Thrones" and "Sherlock" coming back. Everybody is. And shouldn't a list like this focus on new shows? On the other hand, there are several returning series coming back that I am legitimately looking forward to more than anything else, and want to spotlight. So, I'm including a little bit of everything, trying to avoid the obvious entries. Here we go, in no particular order: Ten series I'm looking forward to watching the most in 2017.

"Emerald City" - NBC's high concept fantasy series was supposed to be their "Game of Thrones," until they realized they were not ready to actually go that far. Instead, this darker reimagining of "The Wizard of Oz" has been retooled into something far more network friendly, with a multicultural cast and some lovely visuals. The biggest selling points for me are that Tarsem Singh will be directing all ten episodes of this season, and the story will be drawing on material from the later Oz books that everyone always seems to forget exist.

"The Handmaid's Tale" - It's high time that we had a new version of Margaret Atwood's dystopian classic, and I'll watch pretty much anything with Elizabeth Moss in it. Hulu has been moving more slowly than its competitors at producing original content, but there have been some more high profile projects recently, including "The Handmaid's Tale" and the upcoming science-fiction anthology series "Dimension 404." I'm also looking forward to seeing Moss alongside Nicole Kidman in the second series of "Top of the Lake" this year.

"Twin Peaks" - I wasn't all that fond of the original series, but Showtime's revival is going to be one of the big media events of the year, without a doubt. It's already been a lot of fun to follow the news around the production - David Lynch sparring with Showtime over the budget, that insane cast list, and all the other revivals that have followed after the initial announcement. I wouldn't miss this circus for the world, especially as it's been over a decade now since Lynch directed anything significant. Even if this is terrible, it'll be worth the watch.

"American Gods" - Starz and Bryan Fuller will be adapting Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel about what happens to the gods of other cultures who immigrate to America along with their believers. I'm a fan of the source material, and very curious if this one is going to be around for more than one season, and whether it'll get into the material in "Anansi Boys" and other spinoffs. If nothing else, the teaser footage from last year has revealed the series is going to look great. This is Bryan Fuller's first project since "Hannibal" ended, after all.

"FLCL" - The title of least likely revival of a series ever has to go to "FLCL," which was a six episode direct-to-video anime, produced in the year 2000. It became a cult classic and aired several times on Adult Swim, which is paying for twelve new episodes. Very little has been revealed about what we can expect in the revival, but much of the core talent is returning for the series, including rock band The Pillows. My hope is that if this goes well, Adult Swim might also consider helping to revive some other titles that have languished in obscurity.

"The Defenders" - The only one of Netflix's Marvel shows that I've watched so far is "Jessica Jones," and honestly it's still the only one I'm interested in. That may change with the team-up miniseries "The Defenders," where Jessica will join forces with the leads of "Daredevil," "Luke Cage," "Iron Fist," and the upcoming "The Punisher" for eight episodes. The CW has been doing crossovers like this for a while with their DC shows, but I'm still interested in how "The Defenders" is going to balance all these different characters and interests.

"Fargo," Year 3 - Ewan McGregor will be playing a pair of battling brothers, with Carrie Coon as the female lead, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a major role. How could I not be looking forward to this? I thought the second season of "Fargo" was much messier and less effective than the first, but it was still great television. Noah Hawley has cart blanche to do whatever he wants, as far as I'm concerned. My only hope is that we might get something more outwardly comedic this timeout, to mirror the Coen brothers' own filmography.

"Review," Finale - I'm so glad that Comedy Central is giving "Review" a chance to go out on its own terms, even if it's with an abbreviated third season. This is one of the best television programs of the last decade, and gave Andrew Daly a platform to achieve the kind of comedic greatness that doesn't come along all that often. I expect that poor Forrest MacNeil won't survive the end of the series. However, it's the fate of the evil producer Grant that really intrigues me. I want to have them both back for just a few more episodes.

"Orphan Black," Finale - As much as I enjoy spending time with the Clone Club, it's about time for this show to end. The writers have done a fantastic job keeping the series fresh and the momentum going, but it's clear that they're running out of material. And frankly, Tatiana Maslany is positioned to be an absolute superstar if she wants to be, and I can't wait to see where she'll go next. So, here's hoping for one last great catfight between Sarah and Rachel, for Cosima to find love, and for Alison and Donnie to ride off into the sunset together.

"The Leftovers," Finale - With the show having moved completely beyond its original source material, I have no idea where the third season is going to go. Maybe Australia. However, I know that we won't learn the truth about the Sudden Departure, and we probably shouldn't. Instead, here's to more character drama, more searing psychological thrills, more existential quandaries, and more fantastic performances from the excellent cast. This remains one of the most daring shows that HBO - or anyone else - has ever aired.


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Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Least Anticipated Films of 2017

Bad movies happen with the best of intentions, and we should be wary of judging by appearances. However, after years of experience, it's easy to see some of the dreck coming from a long way off, and it should be called out as such. I sincerely hope that I'm wrong about the following movies in this post, and that they beat the odds and actually turn out to be decent cinema. But if past years are any indication, it's likely this will be the last time you see discussion of any of these titles on this blog.

January has become the new home of iffy horror sequels, and 2017 will start right off with "Amityville: The Awakening" and "Underworld: Blood Wars." We can also look forward to "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter" at the end of the month, which I'm guessing will only be the end of the series before it's inevitably rebooted. Now horror movies have actually been doing quite well as counterprogramming, so I'd assume that if any of these titles actually had some prospects, they'd be scheduled for July and August instead of January. Also of note are Paramount's "Rings," which is the latest sequel to "The Rings" and a "Friday the 13th" reboot. Both have been delayed multiple times, "Friday" four times and "Rings" three times. We can expect "Rings" in February and "Friday" in October, a week before "Insidious 4" and a new "Saw" movie. And there's "Annabelle 2" coming in May. Seriously.

Paramount has also already taken a massive write-down on their live-action/animated hybrid film "Monster Trucks," which has been dumped in January. It looks like it's going to be another rocky year for kids' films with "Smurfs: The Lost Village" and "The Nut Job 2" headed are our way in the spring. I don't know what to make of "the Boss Baby" and the Emoji movie, but first impressions are not good. I am also trying to stay optimistic about "Cars 3." However, if the reviews are as bad as the ones for "Cars 2," this may be the first PIXAR movie that I skip. I also want to make special mention of the curious case of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul," which appears to be in the same continuity of the prior three films, except that the entire cast has been replaced. I understand that it's been five years since the last movie and the kid actors have grown up, but literally the entire cast has been replaced. Are they expecting kid viewers not to notice?

And of course, there's the category of ill-considered franchise sequels. "XXX: Return of Xander Cage" is premiering in January, which can't mean anything good. "Transformers: The Last Knight" will be the fifth in the series, with a sixth and a seventh film already announced. However, this is likely to be our last installment directed by Michael Bay, which means someone else might be able to put together a watchable film for this franchise at some point in the future. I also have serious, serious doubts about "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Alien: Covenant," but realistically I'm probably going to end up watching both of them just because I like so much of the talent involved.

Remakes look to be more popular this year, with all sorts of detritus of the '80s and '90s returning in movie form. I have tried and failed to maintain any sort of positive outlook on "Power Rangers" being rebooted for the big screen or the prospect of Dax Shepherd writing and directing a "CHiPs" movie. The one that I really can't seem to wrap my head around, though, is Mark Wahlberg starring in a reboot of the "Six Million Dollar Man," who thanks to inflation will be the "Six Billion Dollar Man."

Movies that I still hold out some hope for include "Pitch Perfect 3," Luc Besson's "The Lake," Zhang Yimou's "The Great Wall" monster movie, "Fast 8," "Despicable Me 3," the "Jumanji" reboot, and "Justice League." Yes, Zack Snyder has officially run out of chances with me, and as much as I've wanted a "Justice League" movie, I've reached the point where I can't expect anything from it except more of the same disappointing gloom and angst that Snyder has consistently delivered in these DC films.

Well, on to better things. I'll post my lists of my most anticipated movies of 2017 in a few weeks, after Sundance. I'll also be writing up a list of most anticipated series to be posted in a few days.

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