Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My Top Ten Favorite Commercials

Being a cordcutter for some time now, I wouldn't say I miss commercials interrupting my television programming, but I have become nostalgic for some of the ads themselves. And why not? I spent a lot of time with those ads over the years, and many of them were made by talented, creative people. Everyone has those handful of favorite commercials that they actually look forward to seeing. Please note that the ads below have not been included due to quality, but because they managed to stick in my memory and still be associated with positive feelings for years. And if that's not a good measure of effective advertising, I don't know what is.

C&H Sugar (1985) - One of the very earliest ads I can remember was the C&H Sugar ad where a little boy trades a big, shiny marble for a cookie from a bakery. I fixated on those marbles, not having access to any myself at that age, and wondered for years what the bakery did with them all. When I recently stumbled across the ad again, it was exactly like I remembered, right down to the sugary tagline.

Pillsbury Doughboy (1990) - The antics of chubby little Pillsbury mascot Pop 'n' Fresh kept many stop-motion animators employed for years, including Henry Selick, until the inevitable switch over to CGI animation in the 1990s. Frankly, the Doughboy never had quite the same charm after that. My favorite of his spots was one of the last stop-motion ones, where he has a snooze on his recliner, just like my Dad used to.

Cadbury Bunny (1994) - My fondness for this seasonal ad seems to come simply from dependability. They're still running this thing in the late winter and early spring months, like clockwork, decades after it initially premiered. While I initially thought the "try-out" gag was silly, the gently clucking bunny was always a very reassuring presence, and I was happy to see him come back around every year.

"Twins" (early '90s) - I'm not clear on which television station actually originated this, but one of my local syndicated stations regularly aired this sing-along promo for "Twins" and the one for "Born in East LA." in the early '90s. Something about the ridiculous lyrics and the Arnold impersonator hamming it up is just priceless. This is the kind of throwaway ephemera that you've just got to see to appreciate.

Got Milk? Trix (1995) - Everyone remembers the famous Aaron Burr "Got Milk?" ad directed by Michael Bay, but my favorite was always the variation on the familar "Trix" cereal commercial, where the Trix rabbit disguises himself as Harland Williams. Alas, the effectiveness of this ad was undermined somewhat by a Trix campaign a few years earlier where kids voted to let the rabbit have his Trix and eat them onscreen.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1996) - The juxtaposition of the gleeful dad and his scowling offspring always got me. Television tended to be a little overly nice to kids in those days, and seeing this ad being just a little bit mean to them was a lot of fun. Like many of the others on my list, this was also a seasonal ad that cam back every year, with variations. Even Alice Cooper joined in the fun at one point.

St. George (1996) - Not being from the UK, I saw this in a college lecture in the early 2000s. I don't remember what the class was, but I remember the ad and the product it was selling. Because I knew there was a pasty middle-aged British man who was willing to fight me if I didn't like it. Famously, most of the budget for St. George was spent of on the production of the ad, and it only aired on television ten times.

Wes Anderson for American Express (2004) - As a film geek, how could I not love this? Wes Anderson roundly mocks himself and his own filmmaking style, with rapid-fire humor and cameos by famous friends. And the Anderson parodies were suddenly everywhere after this, almost as though the director had given permission to the fans to come play in his own, peculiar universe.

I Love the World (2008) - Sing it with me now. Boom-de-yada, boom de-yada, boom de-yada, boom de-yada...

Jack Box (2013) - I hadn't realized how long the CEO Jack ads had been going, until suddenly the campaign ended in 2015. Jack was voiced by Richard Sittig, his creator, in every appearance since 1994. He provided a more knowing, tongue-in-cheek alternative to the other fast food mascots, which was very appealing. My favorite of his ads was this epic flashback to his hair metal rocker days in the 1980s.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The 2017 Summer Movie Wager

It's that time again! Following the rules of the Summer Movie Pool, I'm going to predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer. It's not about which movies are the best or the most deserving, but which ones simply bring in the most cold hard cash. So while I'd really love for "The Dark Tower," "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," and "Baby Driver" to make oodles of money, realistically that is not going to happen. Still, I am notoriously bad at this, and scored only 34 points out of a possible 100 last year. At least this was better than the 33 points I scored the year before that.

Anything being released between May 1st and Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - I made the mistake of underestimating the first movie, which turned into the biggest hit of the summer. With an August release date, no less. Well, this time Star Lord and the gang get my number one spot. I wasn't the biggest fan of their last outing and I'm hoping to see some improvements, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is more than enough goodwill out there for "Guardians" to repeat their past success.

2. Despicable Me 3 - I keep underestimating Illumination Entertainment, but not this year! "Despicable Me" is the studio's most durable franchise, and the latest installment should be good for one of the top spots. Even the "Minions" spinoff managed over $300 million domestic while barely being a coherent movie. So, I'm fairly confident that it's going to be the big family film of the summer, and I'll probably be begrudgingly dragged along to see it at some point by the ankle-biters.

3. Spider-Man Homecoming - Is this going perform like a Marvel origin movie, a Marvel teamup movie, or like a Sony Spider-Man sequel? Nobody knows for sure, but Spidey is still a headliner, and his appearance in last year's "Civil War" was very well received. So I'm going to place his first outing with the MCU relatively high in the rankings. However, as with the Andrew Garfield movies, I think I'll wait a while and see what the critics say before watching this one myself.

4. Cars 3 - The trailers have promised a darker, more grounded "Cars" movie, which I'm not sure is the best thing for this franchise. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that PIXAR is trying to get ambitious again and trying to tell a different kind of story with these characters than they have before. However, "Cars" really never had much emotional depth, and that was perfectly okay. I'm sure that young fans will turn up just for the PIXAR name, but I don't expect a big crowd-pleaser.

5. Transformers: The Last Knight - Now, I'm sure the "Transformers" series has enough juice left in it to make some impact at the box office, but not as much as it once did. The previous film, "Age of Extinction," managed a third place finish three years ago. The shine, however, is definitely gone. With Michael Bay leaving, and very little buzz going into this, I expect "The Last Knight," to slip a few spots further down. The real question is how "Bumblebee" will do next year.

6. Wonder Woman - This is the only movie I really, really want to do well. There's no doubt that "Wonder Woman" is going to get a storm of attention, but will that translate into a big box office? I expect that this is going to do better than last year's the "Ghostbusters" reboot, but probably not that much better with so much competition in the mix. However, this is also certainly one of the DC franchise's last chances. WB will throw everything they have at this.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - How much are people going to care that Orlando Bloom has come back to the series? Probably not much to stall the series' winding down. Overseas the movie should fare very well, but at home I don't see any stopping "Pirates" continuing to slide in revenues. There's also the worrying precedent set by the "Alice" sequel last year, which was a total bomb. "Pirates," however, should still have enough juice for #7.

8. Baywatch - There's usually one big R-rated comedy somewhere on the list every year. I think there's a pretty good chance that "Baywatch" will fit the bill in 2017. I mean, what better property to convert into a summer movie than the superbly cheesy 90s series that was all about ogling hotties on the beach? This version will star The Rock, who has made several appearances on the charts in the past, and Zac Efron, who is seriously overdue for a bigger slice of movie stardom.

9. Dunkirk - Now here's a real question mark. Christopher Nolan's films are reliable moneymakers, but "Dunkirk" is a war film, and comes across as an Oscar season prestige picture. The older audiences will probably come out for it, but will it be enough to challenge the big tentpole titles higher on this list? My guess is that the "Dunkirk" will perform respectably, but won't be a big blockbuster. And depending on what kind of year it is, that could still mean a spot on the list.

10. The Mummy - I would have been highly doubtful about the chances of the newest Universal monster reboot, but for one thing: Tom Cruise. Somehow Cruise is still a reliable action star after all this time, and I think there's a real possibility that "The Mummy" could turn out to be a decent vehicle for him. The trailer didn't win me over, and I think the whole shared universe plan is still nuts, but there' probably enough love for Cruise to eke out a minor win.

Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

The Emoji Movie
War For the Planet of the Apes
Rough Night

I think "The Emoji Movie" looks pretty desperate, but kids love Emojis, and there's no predicting what unlikely looking premise will actually turn out a decent movie. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this turns out to be a hit. Meanwhile, I love the "Apes" movies, but they've never been very strong performers. The third installment may be able to build on the momentum of the first two and grab a bigger audience though. If this is where the new series is going to end, that would be a great way to go out. Finally, the strong performance of "Bad Moms" last year points to an underserved audience for raunchy female comedies. "Rough Night," which involves Scarlett Johansson and a bachelorette party gone wrong, might surprise. I wish they hadn't changed the title though. "Rock That Body" sounded more fun.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Trailers! Trailers! Spring of 2017 Edition

We're finally getting our first looks at some of the later summer pictures and a couple of the early fall ones too.  There have been some interesting trailers that have popped up in the meantime, so this is as good a time as any to catch up.  I tried to get a better mix of smaller and larger movies this time, I should warn you in advance, dear reader, that I'm unleashing some snark in this installment.

As always, all links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Thor: Ragnarok - And this is why this is my most anticipated superhero movie of the year.  The God of Thunder's previous films have been some of the least interesting of the MCU, but this one looks like so much fun.  The crazy '80s "Flash Gordon" visuals are right.  The humor is right.  The Led Zeppelin is right. And I can't wait for Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett to join in on the silliness.  May this lead to more clout and attention for Taika Waititi, who should come play in the Hollywood sandbox more often.   

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - There's really not much to talk about here, which is exactly as it should be.  The new ships look great, Mark Hamill is suitably weathered, and all our old favorites are back.  It doesn't live up to the "Force Awakens" teaser trailer, but really, could anything?

Deadpool 2 - This doesn't even have a release date yet, and we have no idea who's playing Cable, but we can expect the Merc and his mouth to return to screens sometime next year.  I have to admit that I'm tickled that FOX put this fairly elaborate little short together so early in the marketing process, but they deserve a victory lap for the previous film's success.

Baby Driver - Edgar Wright's latest looks like a ton of fun.  The trailer just oozes style, the cast is great, and Ansel Elgort looks good in the leading man spot.  The comedy too, is firing on all cylinders.  The entire exchange about the Mike Myers masks just had me on the floor.   I'm also glad to see this being pushed up to a June release date for more visibility.  

Coco - I always welcome more original features from PIXAR, but this one hasn't gotten me very excited yet.  Maybe it's the relative aesthetic similarity to "The Book of Life," or the odd thematic similarities to "Ratatouille," with the kid's hero worship.  In any case, there's something about the teaser that feels oddly generic for PIXAR.  I trust the studio enough to see the film regardless, but this teaser probably had the opposite effect that it was intended to.   

Justice League - Well, well, well, Zack Syder.  Here we are, on the verge of a potentially epic disaster in the making.  It's nice to get a better look at Cyborg, Aquaman, the Flash, and some of the more minor characters but there's nothing here that's actually getting me excited for the team-up. Oh, and putting Amy Adams in such a prominent spot just underlines the inevitability of Superman's resurrection.  It really was a mistake to "kill" him off in the first place.   

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  - Martin McDonagh is back!  And his latest tale of violent revenge heads out to the Midwest, where Frances McDormand is taking no prisoners in her war against the local police for failing to catch her daughter's killers.  The copious amount of swearing indicates that McDonagh hasn't mellowed in the least since "Seven Psychopaths."  I'm very curious about how he'll fare with the change in setting and female lead.  

A Ghost Story - I'd only heard a little about the particulars of the plot when all the buzz from Sundance came out, so I wasn't prepared for something so melancholy and existential.  The image of the ghost, which I'd originally found very Charlie Brown, actually grows on you.  I haven't been a fan of David Lowery's work so far, but the trailer definitely makes me want to give him another chance.  So by any measure it's the most effective one on this list.

War for the Planet of the Apes - Woody Harrelson makes a great addition as the new villain, but it's the personal conflicts among the apes that strike me as the most interesting.  I shouldn't still be surprised at how good the effects work on the ape characters is, but I am.  I'm torn between wanting the series to go out with a bang with a final installment, or wanting it to continue on indefinitely.  Because if any franchise has the chops for it, this does.  

Atomic Blonde - After Imperator Furiosa, it's good to see Charlize Theron sticking around in the action genre for a bit.  I'm looking forward to this far more than her appearance in the latest "Fast and Furious" movie.  Okay, the lesbian love interest is a little eye-rolling, but the fact that it's normalized enough for it to be eye-rolling is a good thing, right?

IT - Okay, I think that's enough trailers for today.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How I Lost the Soundtrack

Movie soundtrack were a big part of how I enjoyed films in the past. My mother was a music teacher for decades, and was forever bringing home soundtracks for Disney movies and other kids' media that she could use for her classes. There were a lot of long car trips that involved listening to movie and musical soundtracks on repeat. I didn't have much exposure to popular music, so soundtracks were often what I listened to casually. I got attached to certain ones like "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Velvet Goldmine," and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." I went through a Cirque Du Soleil phase. And when I got to college and discovered the wonderful world of file sharing, I admit I went a little nuts hunting down old favorites and obscurities that I'd never had access to before.

And now, fifteen-odd years later, I am as massive a media fan as I've ever been, but I've almost completely stopped listening to soundtracks. Frankly, there aren't many recent films that are associated with musical themes or numbers that I can actually hum a few bars of. Most of the time I simply don't notice the music, and it's a major exception when I do - "Inside Out," "Far From the Madding Crowd," and "Star Trek Beyond," are some favorites from the last few years. Michael Giacchino has been a standout. However, it didn't really hit me until I was watching a run of older films and found myself really enjoying the music in each of them. All three of the Dracula movies I marathoned and Spielberg's "1941" have fantastic, memorable scores that lingered in my memory for days.

There's been extensive discussion recently about why film scores have lost so much ground, especially with the biggest, most expensive tentpole movies. Tony Zhou recently did an "Every Frame a Painting" video about this, pointing out that there weren't memorable themes associated with any of the Marvel movies. Well, except "Guardians of the Galaxy," which borrowed its soundtrack from the 1970s. He pointed to changes in filmmaking and the use of temp tracks as the biggest culprits, resulting in more generic music. Everything sounds like everything else. Also, the big, bombastic scores of my childhood have simply gone out of fashion. The films that really want to emphasize a musical element, like "Suicide Squad," tend to go the jukebox route, and license previously established hits.

This isn't true of all films, of course. It's been a growing trend to use a film's soundtrack to promote new releases. A few prominent songs and tracks are often offered as free digital downloads. Disney put the "Let it Go" scene from "Frozen" up on Youtube while it was still in theaters, recognizing that the song was becoming a phenomenon. Also, soundtracks have been making a big comeback in another venue: television shows. Thanks in part to bigger budgets and web services like Netflix ditching fixed running times, television themes are back in a big way. The gorgeous "Game of Thrones" title sequence started a trend, and now just about every ambitious series has one, and some memorable music to go with it. Some of my recent favorites include "True Detective," "Halt and Catch Fire," and "Westworld."

And while we're on the subject of television, I should acknowledge that the biggest reason why I fell out of love with soundtracks, has nothing to do with any of the music, and everything to do with my own media consumption habits. When I was younger, I had more time to really listen to music, often the same music over and over again. These days, given the choice, I'd rather be listening to a podcast, and there's very little that I watch or listen to more than once. An exception, or course, is television title sequences, which I don't skip when watching a new episode. So I remember the television themes more often, simply because of repetition. I know I wouldn't have remembered the "Penny Dreadful" or "The Americans" themes if I'd only heard them once.

Still, I haven't been able to get the march from "1941" out of my head for weeks. John Williams always was my favorite, and I miss his big orchestral scores and rousing fanfares. The modern action film may be doing fine without them, but a memorable score is such a good tool for a franchise's arsenal, I don't know why you wouldn't want them. That's the only thing that Iast year's "Batman v. Superman" got right. Whatever you want to say about Wonder Woman, she's already got the best superhero theme out of anyone in the last decade.


Monday, April 17, 2017

State of the Blog, 2017

Hello out there.

Something interesting happened to this blog last October that I've avoided talking about until now. After several years of operating in quiet obscurity, I was separately linked to by both a New York Times article and director Whit Stillman within the same ten days. The Times article was a profile of writer Max Landis, that linked to "Must We Hate Max Landis?" as an example of the online vitriol that Landis had inspired. Stillman linked to my review of his most recent film "Love and Friendship." I only knew about either because I noticed that the traffic to my blog went way up for a few days, and a couple of extra adbots attached themselves to my feed.

And frankly, I didn't know how to react to this. My first thought, upon learning about the Times article, was hoping that Landis's fans didn't come after me. My post wasn't all that critical, and I'm barely active on social media, but I've been watching some awful things unfold online over the past few months over similarly benign media criticism and want no part of it. While I've always enjoyed following the critical conversations that go on around films and television, it comes with some risks. I'm perfectly happy these days being a hobby blogger cheering on one side or another from the sidelines, and having my arguments with other movie nerds on the smaller forums and sites. Being in the spotlight just seems to be asking for trouble.

When I started out in 2010, I had some hopes of following the lead of Mendelson's Memos and eventually parlaying my writing into something more high profile. However, I have a good career in real life that I'm very happy with, and far more personal responsibilities these days. Even if I had the opportunity to pursue a professional writing career, frankly the economics would be prohibitive. Unless you're top tier, writing about media pays next to nothing. You have to juggle multiple assignments and constantly be scrounging for extra funds through other avenues. Practically every podcast I'm listening to these days has Patreon or Kickstarter campaigns, or both. To put it bluntly, I am too old and too set in my ways for that. I simply don't want it enough.

Well, then why am I still posting to a public blog? To tell the truth, there's no need for the blog to be public since I'm mainly writing for myself. However, I've gotten in the habit of it, and I do enjoy Googling myself and seeing where people have linked me for one reason or another, looking at what made an impact and what didn't. Comments are few and far between, but still nice to get. If the blog being public ever does become a problem, however, I'd probably keep writing it privately regardless. I enjoy putting this blog together an awful lot, and it makes for a fun hobby. I have the sneaking suspicion that if I had to write the blog as a real job, I'd lose my enjoyment of it quickly.

So, for the time being I'm just going to keep chugging along as I have been, writing all my reviews three months late and writing my angry old nerd lady rants about whatever is annoying me about Hollywood at the moment. But seriously, uncoupling myself from usual hype cycles has been working out very well for me, and I've never felt better about avoiding popular dreck and staying focused on the media that I really want to talk about. Heck, even the last Oscar cycle was more fun because I wasn't rushing around trying to watch absolutely everything before the ceremony, like I usually do.

Finally, I'll also add a little note to say that this blog will be having another hiatus later this year, probably in the fall. I'll do my best to at least post something every week or so, but the rate of posts is definitely going to be dipping pretty low for a few months. As much as I love blogging, the real world takes precedence, and the name "Missmediajunkie" hasn't been an accurate description of your humble writer for some time now.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

National Tragedies, with Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg

In one of their strangest coincidences of this year, 2016 saw two film dramatizations of recent US national disasters, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, released three months apart. The first was "Deepwater Horizon," about the events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster of 2010. The second was "Patriot's Day," about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. As docu-dramas go, they're pretty decent, though they still run into a lot of the usual problems that these movies always contend with.

The better film, and the film with the better argument for being made in the first place, is "Deepwater Horizon," which does a good job of humanizing the oil rig workers who fought to contain the disaster as it unfolded, and providing some insight into why and how the drilling operations went so awry. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an engineer, and Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee, and Dylan O'Brien play other workers under rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). The main villain is the oil company representative, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who ignores one safety protocol after another. We get a step by step look at how the real life events played out, but aside from an eye-rolling explanation of how oil rigs work from Mike's daughter in the opening few minutes, the film doesn't get into the nitty gritty of technical terms or processes. How the characters react tells us all we need to know.

"Deepwater Horizon" builds up in a nice slow boil, eventually delivering some pretty harrowing action scenes and disaster scenarios. The effects and sound design are excellent, especially when the oil rig goes into full, fiery meltdown. Clearly there were some invented dramatics to play up the heroism of the workers, but nothing too egregious. At the same time, it's careful to acknowledge that there were eleven casualties of the disaster, and unquantifiable amounts of damage done to the Gulf of Mexico. I wish that we'd gotten a little more depth to the characters, who are all fairly flat types. John Malkovitch certainly has the most memorable performance, as he chews the scenery as only he can. Wahlberg and Rodriguez make decent leads, and Kurt Russell is at his most paternally loveable, but nobody has much to do beyond the usual disaster movie schtick.

"Patriot's Day" is a more complicated venture, because there are far more players involved, and events play out over several days. This time Wahlberg plays an invented police sergeant, Tommy Saunders, who somehow manages to be on the scene for nearly every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from the initial attack, to the end of the manhunt for the bombers. This is by far the biggest liberty that Peter Berg takes with the facts. "Patriot's Day" is pretty good about covering multiple POVs and getting us invested in several different stories and characters. John Goodman, JK Simmons, and Kevin Bacon play other law enforcement officials. Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea play a pair of the victims. Jimmy O. Yang ends up carrying a good chunk of the film as the poor guy who got carjacked by the Tsarnaevs when they were trying to make their escape. And we also follow the Tsarnaevs themselves, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, as they carry out the bombing and their subsequent crimes.

The individual sequences are very strong, and it's interesting to see some of the smaller stories, like the interrogation of the elder Tsarnaev's wife, played by Melissa Benoist. However, the film offers little context or new insights on the familiar events, and it's clear that a documentary would have been more effective at accomplishing some of the same things. To the filmmakers' credit, pains were clearly taken to be as sensitive as possible to each and every real life person depicted, and "Patriot's Day" even ends with a lengthy epilogue celebrating Boston and its inhabitants. As these sorts of docudramas go, this is a pretty good one, and Mark Wahlberg gets more to do in his role, but there's still a tangible uneasiness about mining the tragedy for too much entertainment that impacts the whole film. I wonder if I'll still feel this way about it couple years further in the future, when the real life events have receded further into the past.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hang in There, "Steven Universe"

It's been about a year and a half since I last checked in with "Steven Universe." Another fifty-something episodes have come and gone, and we're now somewhere close to the end of Season Four. Because the show's airing patterns have been so erratic, it took me a while to realize that I actually was caught up on all the episodes. There have been several long hiatuses and a lot of the show's momentum seems to have cooled. Some minor spoilers ahead for the first three seasons.

The last time I checked in with Steven and the gang, they were busy convincing Peridot to be a good guy, and Garnet was reassuring her about not rushing into fusions, the act of combining with another Crystal Gem to become a stronger warrior. Well, all this time later, Peridot still hasn't fused with anybody. In fact, since the Cluster was neutralized at the very beginning of the third season, there hasn't been much plot progression going on at all. The series is taking its time easing Peridot and Lapis into the show's regular roster, and introducing a handful of new characters - Blue Diamond, Bismuth, Holly Blue Agate, and a team of Rubies. There's only been one new fusion too, who has barely appeared.

And frankly, after two wonderfully paced seasons full of steadily escalating danger and excitement, it's hard not to get restless. Lots of groundwork is being laid for future big storylines involving the Gem homeworld, and Steven reckoning with his mother's dark side, but the characters haven't had much development. Lapis and Peridot, obviously, have had the most progression as they've gone native. Amethyst had a crisis of confidence, good for a weeklong arc, that resulted in her maturing a bit with Steven's help. Pearl and Greg finally patched things up. Nothing particularly dramatic. Instead, the time has been mainly taken up with digressions like Greg getting a big payday and visits from figures from the past like Bismuth and Cousin Andy.

Meanwhile, the lurking presence of villains Jasper, the Rubies, and the Diamonds is still hanging over everyone's heads, but they don't show any signs of being any immediate danger. The last encounter with Blue and Yellow Diamond was barely a skirmish, really just a quick way of introducing some more characters and aspects of the Gem culture that will be important in the future. We haven't even seen White Diamond yet. I've heard rumors that Jasper is the next in line for a redemption arc, which would be fine, but if they're not going to do it simultaneously with the next impending clash with homeworld, I feel like it's just going to drag things out even more. I mean, look how long it took Lapis to finally call Earth home. At the time of writing, there are only five episodes left this season.

One of the things I initially liked about "Steven Universe" was how quickly it moved compared to the similar "Adventure Time," where the worldbuilding was great, but the continuing storylines went very, very slowly. They just finished up a big event miniseries that resolved a bunch of the hero's ongoing family issues, after eight seasons. While I don't think that "Steven Universe" is going to end up following the same model, and some of these more incidental, laid back episodes have been fun, I am concerned that the lack of more action-oriented plots has caused some of the viewership to drop out. I mean, it's got to have been at least half a season since we last saw the Gems in proper combat together.

"Steven Universe" is the only currently airing cartoon that I'm still keeping up with - not counting "Venture Brothers" and "Rick and Morty" with their multi-year hiatuses. I'm still enjoying it, but not as much as I enjoyed the first two seasons, where we were learning something new and exciting about these characters and their world practically every week. Instead, I'd characterize the show as currently being in a bit of a rut, treading water until they decide to get the next major storyline going. I'm going to stick with it and hope for better things to come, but I will be very upset if the show gets itself cancelled before that can happen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My Favorite Hal Ashby Film

One of the directors most synonymous with American filmmaking in the 1970s was Hal Ashby, in part because his rise was so meteoric, and his decline in the 1980s was just as steep. After a strong career as an editor, he transitioned to directing in his forties, and made a string of criticaly beloved, socially conscious films, often about oddballs and dreamers forging their own paths in life. Well, there was one of Ashby's '70s films that nobody seemed to likea the time of its initial release, but it found its audience and much greater appreciation over time.

"Harold and Maude" is about a young man who falls in love with an elderly woman. Harold, played by Bud Cort, is nineteen years old, obsessed with suicide, drives a hearse, and likes attending funerals in his spare time. Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, is a sunny free spirit who rides a motorcycle and is just about to turn eighty. She loves art and music, and also attends funerals for fun. Inevitably, the pair meet at a gravesite and connect, to the dismay of Harold's wealthy mother, who is trying to marry her son off for his own good. Harold, however, would much rather marry Maude.

The film's black humor was found by many to be too morbid and in bad taste. After all, it opens with Harold methodically carrying out one of his many fake suicide attempts, which his exasperated mother coldly ignores. Harold also stages shooting, drowning, burning, and even committing seppuku upon himself. However, it all comes across as pretty tame in hindsight, since morose youngsters have become much more common in the American media. And there's far more fun and wit in the movie than simple shock humor. I love the parade of blind dates Harold's mother forces on her son, and the mean prank Harold pulls on his uncle. I adore the reactions of the psychiatrist and the priest to Harold's relationship with Maude, especially the priest's outraged histrionics. I still can't hear the word "comingling" without snickering.

Still, what gives the film so much lasting power is that the romance between the leads is played straight. Harold and Maude are perfect for each other, and watching them spend time together, just talking about life and living is a delight. Ruth Gordon has long been an actress who I've happy to see in anything, whether it's in "Rosemary's Baby" or an episode of "Taxi." She gives Maude all the youthful enthusiasm for life that Harold lacks, filling the role of manic-pixie-dreamgirl with an added dose of mature wisdom gained from a long, interesting life. And Bud Cort is great, both at channeling Harold's stone-faced depression and his gradual emotional awakening. Like the best cinematic odd couples, they're incredibly specific personalities, but simultaneously very universal ones.

As with many films from the '70s, there's a particular sort of dreamy, languid atmosphere to the visuals that I associate with "Harold and Maude," in spite of its occasional jolts of fake violence and more madcap humor. The cinematographer was the great John Alonzo, who would go on to shoot "Chinatown" and "Scarface." There's such a delicacy to how he handles the more intimate moments, and the wonderful sense of place that he captures as Harold and Maude ramble around the San Francisco bay area together. It's also difficult to imagine the film without the cheerful folk-rock soundtrack by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), especially Maude's rendition of "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out."

Most Hal Ashby films spend some time thumbing their noses at convention and traditional authority figures. Harold and Maude certainly make for good counterculture heroes, ignoring the constraints of class, age, and tradition in the name of love. The film became a cult classic within a few years of its release, sparking especially fierce devotion from younger audiences in the 1980s. It's still the best remembered of Ashby's films, I think because it so wholeheartedly embraces its own oddity. A common criticism of the film is that the downbeat ending undercuts the life-affirming messages. And yet, it's completely true to who the characters are, and I can't imagine the film ending any other way.

What I've Seen - Hal Ashby

The Landlord (1970)
Harold and Maude (1971)
The Last Detail (1973)
Shampoo (1975)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Coming Home (1978)
Being There (1979)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Top Ten Films of 1998

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.

Rushmore - For me, this was the first Wes Anderson film that really felt like a Wes Anderson film, establishing a lot of his favorite tropes: the nostalgic soundtrack, the elaborate visual gags, the precise cinematography, and of course the extensive use of the Futura font. The school activity montage may still be my favorite thing that Anderson has ever been responsible for. It also benefits from having a truly great Bill Murray performance, that sparked a quasi-comeback, and a hell of a debut by Jason Schwartzmann.

Black Cat White Cat - Emir Kusturica's rowdy, tumultuous tale of love and romance among gypsies, thieves, and oddballs. It took me a while to warm up to the peculiar charms of the characters, who are all a little off-kilter in one way or another, but once the plot got rolling, it was impossible to do anything else but enjoy the ride. There's such a wonderful sense of community in Kusturica movies, perhaps best exemplified by that band of gypsy musicians, always ready to provide music in the midst of escalating chaos.

Happiness - One of the most cringe-inducing films I've ever sat through, the darkest of dark satires on human relationships. Featuring an array of horrible human beings with awful behavious and predilections, Todd Solondz firmly established himself as a fearless provocateur. Sundance famously couldn't handle the level of depravity. I appreciate, however, that this did give several excellent actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker, the chance to play some uniquely screwed up, wretched people.

Elizabeth - Cate Blanchett leads a stellar cast in an unusually gripping historical drama, full of romance and intrigue and eye-catching visuals. The final shot is iconic, of course, but the art design overall is impressive, and Shekhar Kapur brings such richness and atmosphere to the whole film. And then there's Michael Hirst's script, which plays fast and loose with history, but gives Blanchett such fantastic material to work with. The mix of elements here is just right - just as it was all wrong in the unfortunate sequel.

Shakespeare in Love - This effervescently lovely romantic comedy encapsulates nearly everything I love about the movies. It is an utterly charming feel-good film, beautifully written and scored, wonderful to look at, and features a bumper crop of good performances. And best of all, it's funny. Shakespeare was never less stuffy or remote onscreen, as the filmmakers used a variation on the old "putting on a show" plot and some meta twists to give both the theater nerds and the groundlings a good time at the theater.

Pleasantville - The first half of the film is a fun little satire on media and nostalgia, but once the black and white world starts transitioning to color, it becomes something truly sublime. The use of spot-color in this film is a perfect marriage of cinematic art and digital technology, providing a gorgeous metaphor for the characters' moments of enlightenment. The allegory isn't perfect, but it is ambitious and complex and handled with great care. In a year full of big, high concept fantasy films, this one was my favorite.

Dark City - Combining film noir with science fiction and German Expressionism, director Alex Proyas created the twisted, eternal night world of "Dark City." It's a stylistic precursor to the cyberpunk action and vitual reality films like "The Matrix," though "Dark City" remains a more timeless, unique creation. It's fascinating to watch the story unfold, revealing the ins and outs of its worldbuilding a little at a time. I also adore the cast, including Kiefer Sutherland and William Hurt in memporable smaller roles.

Run Lola Run - There are action films, and then there are the iconic, career-making action films like "Run Lola Run." I have seen other filmmakers try to make similar pictures with some regularity over the years, but nobody else has managed to capture quite the same verve and energy of "Lola." Something about the music and the editing and the magical realism and Franka Potente running with her bright red hair just tapped into something electric. You can't ask for a better time at the movies than this.

Waking Ned - I prefer the international title, "Waking Ned Devine." There's just something more fitting about it, more evocative of the little Irish town where the events of the film take place. There have been lots of UK comedies about people in small villages and towns just trying to get by, and about the elderly getting up to no good, but Ian Bannen and David Bradley's hijinks never fail to make me smile. I hope at that age, I'll still be riding motorcyles naked and conning the lotto and keeping such very good friends.

A Simple Plan - For years I thought that this was a Coen brothers film, but it's actually a rare drama from Sam Raimi. And upon reflection, it's a far darker, thornier piece of work than anything else that Raimi has ever done. It's power is in its simplicity, following a small crime that spins out of control, three people fighting over what to do, and a lot of spectres of the past being resurrected. And while Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thorton are great, it's Bridget Fonda's performance that still sends chilss up my spine.

Honorable Mentions

Tale of Autumn
Saving Private Ryan
Kirikou and the Sorceress
A Simple Plan
Gods and Monsters
The Truman Show
Velvet Goldmine


Friday, April 7, 2017

"The Night Manager" is an Acting Showcase

"The Night Manager" is based on a 1993 John le Carré espionage novel, which talented people tried to turn into a film a few times, but was probably always best suited for a limited series format. And the BBC and AMC have certainly turned their six-hour adaptation into a high class affair, starring big name actors, with a great director, and a globetrotting production. However, I was a little surprised at how generic it felt.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Jonathan Pine, the night manage of the Nefertiti Hotel in Cairo. He becomes involved with a woman named Sophie (Aure Atika), who he helps to pass along information to British intelligence regarding an illegal arms deal. One of the major parties involves is business mogul Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie), the "worst man in the world." Several years later, Pine and Roper cross paths again. Pine lets himself be recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), an intelligence operative, to infiltrate Roper's operations and get to know his inner circle. These include "Sandy" Langbourne (Alistair Petrie) and his wife Caroline (Natasha Little), Roper's best friend Major "Corky" Corcoran (Tom Hollander), and Roper's deeply unhappy girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Burr, meanwhile, has to contend with her operations being threatened and undercut by other parties in the government who are in bed with Roper. However, she does have an ally in Joel Steadman (David Harewood), a member of the US intelligence community.

I wonder if it's because there have been so many spy movies in the same vein lately, or if "The Night Manager" just isn't as thematically dark as some of the other le Carré books, but there's much less of the murk and moral ambiguity here than what I usually associate with his work. This feels more like a modern Bond or "Mission Impossible" movie sans the fight scenes and gadgets. Hiddleston's Pine, despite his character's existential funk, is a fairly straightforward good guy, while Laurie's Roper is a baddie in almost every respect. The internal politicking of the intelligence organizations is more than familiar, and the villain's sexy girlfriend who falls for the hero is positively cliché. Not to mention the exotic locales, the opulent lifestyle of Roper, and the neat and tidy ending.

Of course, in the right hands this isn't a bad thing at all. Director Susanne Bier is an excellent fit for the material, being a veteran of so many torrid dramas, and her leading men play a very good game of cat and mouse. Hiddleston's identity-juggling is compelling and engrossing, but it's Hugh Laurie who dominates the series, despite not really getting in on the action until the second episode. I haven't seen Laurie in much since "House" went off the air, and I've missed his presence. Thanks to him, Dickie Roper is charming, wryly funny, and absolutely terrifying. He's never gets remotely physical with anyone, and yet he's a walking threat of violence. Every scene where he and Hiddleston interact is terrifically fun, even when they're not confronting each other directly.

The series is a great showcase for the talents of the ensemble, and all the familiar little bits of spy thriller business go down much easier for it. Tom Hollander adds new dimensions to the standard suspicious henchman. Elizabeth Debicki, in the most grounded role I've seen her in to date, is perfectly lovable as Jed. And then there's Olivia Colman, whose bulldogged Angela Burr spends the last few episodes heavily pregnant, but hardly loses a step. It's been great seeing Colman rise in prominence these last few years, and the bureaucratic travails of no-nonsense Burr makes a wonderful counterpoint to the sexier spy shenanigans being played out by Hiddleston and Laurie. I wouldn't have minded at all if the whole series was about her.

I came away from "The Night Manager" impressed with everyone involved, but a little unsatisfied. Maybe it's because I've been watching "The Americans" lately (review forthcoming), and the straightforward plotting of "The Night Manager" felt overly familiar by comparison. As an eager consumer of prestige television, this is certainly worth a watch, but it would have made a far greater impact if it had come out a decade ago, before the glut of recent spy media.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Loving" and "The Birth of a Nation"

Still catching up. Forgive me for lumping these two together.

Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, are the subject of "Loving." Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, so their marriage was illegal in the state of Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s due to miscegenation laws. They married nonetheless, and after being ejected from the state, spent many years fighting their way through the courts to have their marriage recognized. All of this is depicted in the film, but the courtroom drama stays mostly in the background. Director Jeff Nichols is more interested in showing the couple as they were for the majority of their lives: quiet, unassuming, and hard-working people just trying to get by.

Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the Lovings come across as a pair of very nice people, first and foremost. He's the more reticent one, but fiercely devoted and determined to stand by his marriage. She's very gently the brains of the operation, who plucks up the courage to write to Bobby Kennedy for legal aid, and who eventually becomes more comfortable with the press. Negga is wonderful here, but it's Edgerton who is the impressive one, as Richard has to push himself to accept the help of the lawyers and remains uncomfortable in the spotlight to the end. He never says very much, but there's an appealing steadfastness to his convictions, and a sweetness to his affection. The early scene where he proposes to Mildred is a charmer.

But while I appreciate that Nichols was trying to do right by the Lovings, and trying to avoid all the cliches that come with this kind of material, "Loving" still strikes me as awfully sparse. There are long sequences devoted to watching the couple live out their daily lives, and navigating racial tensions when they arise, all very subtly, carefully done. However, the lawyers, led by Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), are cartoonish by comparison, and come across a little odd. Also, as someone who does enjoy political and legal fiction, I was disappointed that we learned so little about the particulars of the case and its strategy. There were times I wish I was watching a documentary instead of a dramatization. Still, Nichols' filmmaking is very enjoyable, and I'm certainly not going to fault him for telling the kind of story that he tells best.

On to "The Birth of a Nation," which was controversial for all the wrong reasons. The dream project of Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film, this was predicted to be a major 2016 awards contender and cultural event after its triumphant premiere at Sundance last year. Dramatizing the life of Nat Turner, a black preacher and slave who lead a slave rebellion in 1831, the film is highly ambitious, provocative, and daring, both thematically and from a production standpoint. The title alone seemed to be declaring war on the cinematic establishment. But while it does have some great dramatic moments, and reveals Parker to be a very promising young filmmaker, "The Birth of a Nation" is far from a great piece of cinema.

Initially, the brutal depictions of slavery and plantation life are very impressive, and I enjoyed the unfolding love story between Turner (Nat Parker) and his eventual wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). However, we're ninety minutes into the two hour film before the rebellion gets underway, and it feels like it's over with in an instant. Instead, Parker takes his time building up Nat Turner into a martyr figure, including a lot of heavy-handed symbolism and increasingly dubious dramatic devices. The main villains are a slave catcher, Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and Nat's initially friendly master Sam (Arnie Hammer) who come across as especially two-dimensional. I resisted comparing "The Birth of a Nation" to "12 Years a Slave," but I appreciate the latter film so much more after watching Parker's well-meaning, but much clumsier handling of this material.

Still, "The Birth of a Nation" is a film that I'm very glad was made, and made in such an uncompromising fashion. We simply do not have enough media in this vein, and as flawed as it is, this movie is a good example of the kind of big stakes, big ideas filmmaking that I want to see more of. Nat Turner's rebellion should have been brought to the screen by a more seasoned director long before this.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Revolution of "Utena"

One of the most fascinating animated series ever made celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month. To appreciate why requires a little background information about Japanese anime. There are distinct subgenres of anime programs aimed at specific genders and age groups. Anime aimed at young girls are called "shojo" series, including the "magical girl" shows like "Sailor Moon," where the heroines transform into superhero-like do-gooders. Gender ambiguity and hiding behind male guises are also common tropes, established in one of the first shojo series, "Princess Knight," from the 1960s.

"Revolutionary Girl Utena" was created by anime director Kunihiko Ikuhara and manga artist Chiho Saito, after Ikuhara left the hugely popular "Sailor Moon" over creative differences. Initially, it seems like a typical magical girl show, though one with a very distinctive visual sense. A girl named Utena enters the prestigious Ohtori Academy, and becomes invovled in a series of duels that her upperclassmen are participating in. The prize is becoming engaged to another girl named Anthy, the Rose Bride, who has the mysterious power "to revolutionize the world." All the characters are color-coded, and there's extensive use of visual symbols like roses and shadows. At many points, events take on a surreal quality, and only make sense if you think of them as happening allegorically. A Greek chorus of shadow girls provides commentary and humor. Also, add a choral score full of ominous lyrics about an oncoming apocalypse.

There are subversions of the shojo formula and fairy tale tropes everywhere in the show. Utena's great desire is to be a "prince" who can protect the weak, and dresses and acts like a boy as a sign of her resolve. All her potential male love interests end up being positioned as the villains. Anthy is the princess figure, which makes her Utena's de facto love interest. The lesbian relationship between them is implied, but not made explicit until the subsequent Utena movie, "The Adolescence of Utena," which operates as an alternate universe retelling of the story. However, there are other same sex relationships explored in the series through other characters. And in the later episodes, a whole smorgasbord of adult topics come into play, including sexual coercion, abuse, suicide, and incest. One of the major villains is an outright sexual predator. Eventually, the series reveals itself to be a deconstruction of the entire magical girl subgenre, pushing common tropes to their extremes, and presenting a sobering look at how these stories could play out if you took them to their logical ends.

The content restrictions in Japan have always been far more lax, but keep in mind that "Utena" was still a program aimed at teenage girls, and aired in the early evenings, rather than a late night timeslot. Also, the show was so effective because it gradually darkened from a fairly typical fantasy show with many lighter, humorous episodes, into much darker, psychological stuff. It largely maintained the same standard shojo format almost all the way to the end, with its cost-saving reused transformation sequences, and a lot of emphasis on friendship and loyalty. Anthy even had a cute animal sidekick. Some distributors who aired the show internationally completely cut the last thirteen episodes and the final rounds of duels, opting to treat "Utena" like an average magical girl fantasy that just happened to have trippier aesthetics than most.

When I first saw the show in the late 90s, only the first thirteen episodes were available in the US legally, with squabbles over the rights putting further releases in limbo. So, I watched the rest via fansubs, and was absolutely bowled over by the direction the show took. Nothing I was watching on American television at the time was nearly as daring, or pushed the boundaries to nearly the same extent. The only point of comparison I really had was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," which had taken the typical giant robot genre to similarly dark and heady places the year before "Utena." But what really won me over was how much I liked the main the characters, especially Utena herself. On one level, the whole story is about her disillusionment and maturation, her "revolution to change the world" really her own journey to break free of a childish, constraining worldview.

And all these years later, she's still my favorite anime heroine, as there are precious few that I've really found both relatable and admirable. I'm generally not a fan of the magical girl shows, which can be overly cutesy and bogged down by cloying romances. However, every couple of years a good one comes with a little ambition, usually the ones that remember to push the boundaries a little, in the spirit of the old classics like "Princess Knight" and "Rose of Versailles." To date, "Utena" still has the most romantic lesbian relationship I've seen in anime. And it rarely resorts to cheap shocks with its more adult material, which far too many post- "Utena" shows have been guilty of. I've actually come to appreciate the series more over time, as we've seen more media tackle LGBT themes and female coming-of-age stories with varying degrees of success.

The movie is another story, but more on that another time.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Late Night Under the Trump Administration

I've avoided talking about the Trump administration over the past few months, because frankly it's all been difficult to process, and even harder to react to intelligently in the context of this blog. I've taken pains over the years to avoid being political here, limiting any overtly political commentary to only the most extraordinary events. However, what's been going on in Washington has been extraordinary by any definition, and the news media has become a never-ending deluge of alarming headlines, day in and day out. It's having an impact on everything and everyone, and to ignore that completely would be disingenuous of me.

So, let's talk about late night comedy, which has been utterly transformed these past few months. Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" has become a ratings champ, and Samantha Bee and "The Daily Show" have also gotten big audience boosts lately. It makes me feel less guilty for having essentially abandoned late night viewing completely. I still watch the occasional Colbert Youtube clip, and good for CBS for making those monologues so immediately accessible, but I couldn't bring myself to keep watching "THe Daily Show" after Trump's inauguration. The additional twenty minutes of doom and gloom every night was just too much after reading the horrific headlines all day. Sorry, Trevor. I stuck it out as long as I could. Your "TIME" cover looks fab though.

Still, it's great to see the nation's most prominent comedians taking such an active stand against this administration's absurd behavior. Seth Meyers on "The Late Late Show" has become a reliable source of critical commentary. Jon Stewart resurfaces occasionally on Colbert to put in his two cents, most recently after the White House started antagonizing the non-right wing news media. John Oliver shows no signs of slowing down. And it's really heartening that "Saturday Night Live" has suddenly become true "must-see" viewing again. Many of my Sunday mornings have included catching up on the best sketches from the previous night. Alec Baldwin's Trump has been fun, but Melissa McCarthy's appearance as hostile press secretary Sean Spicer was instantly iconic, and more importantly it really seems to have gotten under Trump's skin.

The rest of the U.S. entertainment industry has also been comfortingly anti-Trump. Some found the awards season grandstanding distasteful, but I was grateful for the celebrity outrage, helping to confirm that I wasn't going crazy and there was ample cause for alarm. Highlights included Meryl Streep calling out the Muslim ban at the Golden Globes, Patrick Stewart pledging to become an American, famous faces showing up at several of the women's marches, and even Samuel L. Jackson taking Ben Carson to task for referring to African slaves as immigrants recently. I've bemoaned the outsized importance that Twitter suddenly has on U.S. politics, but it's a two-way street. Whatever insane missives that Trump and company want to volley via tweet can be lobbed right back at them almost instantly.

As the Trump controversies have continued to pile up, and the U.S. political system continues to be stress tested, I've actually started feeling a little better. A part of me is still wondering when I'm going to wake up, but the rest of me has largely gotten over the nasty shock, and it's clear what my goal for the next four years is going to be: fight. Fight back against the intolerance, the hatred, the greed, and the fear that the Trump administration has spent far too much time encouraging. Fight back against the complacency, the cowardice, and the weakness of those who are trying to appease them. Fight against my own urges to be quiet, keep my head low, and wait for the storm to blow over.

Don't worry. This will remain a media blog, and I'll maintain my policy of only writing about politics when it's relevant to media. However, I'm through with trying to appear non-partisan or pretending that everything is okay. I am not okay, and my country is not okay. It's time to engage and start getting involved in the discussion. And I guarantee that the larger media is going to start reflecting this soon, not just on late night and the cable news.

And I have no doubt that I'll be a "Daily Show" viewer again eventually. I never could stay away for very long.