Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Rank 'Em: The Disney Afternoon, Part 1

I've wanted to talk about the syndicated Disney cartoons of the 1990s for a while now, since they were a significant part of my media consumption as a kid and preteen.  However, the Disney Afternoon programming block includes thirteen shows.  That's a lot of material to cover, and I'm not all that interested in going into much depth.  So, I figured a "Rank 'Em" post would be appropriate, my first involving the ranking of television shows.  

First, however, there are some quick categorization notes that need to be addressed.   First, the Disney Afternoon ran from the 1990-1991 season to the 1996-1997 season.  Shows produced after this like "101 Dalmatians the Series" (1997) and "Hercules the Series" (1998) were technically not part of the block even though they were usually programmed together with the older shows.  So I'm leaving them out of the ranking.  As a high-schooler, I wasn't watching much by that point anyway.

I'm going to order these from the worst of the bunch to the best.

"The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show" - An anthology show of cartoons done in the style of "Ren and Stimpy," sort of similar to Disney's Saturday morning shows "Raw Toonage" and "Marsupilami."  Only thirteen episodes were produced, and it ran as a midseason replacement for "Gargoyles" in 1995.  I never saw much of the series, but wasn't a fan of it when I did.  It just didn't fit what the rest of the block was doing.

"The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa" - This one probably doesn't deserve the very low opinion I have of it, and the Saturday morning episodes were reportedly better.  Still, the globetrotting adventures of Timon and Pumbaa struck me as so cheap and flimsy.  "Aladdin" at least felt sort of like the original movie, but "Timon and Pumbaa" was just constant wackiness with a lot of lame gags and not particularly impressive production values.  It rubbed me the wrong way from the start.

"The Mighty Ducks" - This was a weird one, a very short-lived action adventure show about alien hockey-playing anthropomorphic ducks.  It was conceived as a tie-in to the real Mighty Ducks hockey team Disney was pushing at the time, and only 26 episodes were produced.  It never stopped feeling like a hodgepodge of a lot of different elements slapped together, but some of the characters were memorable, at least.  I can't for the life of me, remember the plot of a single episode though.  

"Quack Pack" - An update on Donald and his nephews in the same vein as "Goof Troop" must have looked like a winner on paper, but the show stumbled with the portrayal of Huey, Dewey, and Louie as too-smooth teenagers.  Donald also felt pretty neutered, not allowed to really fly into his historic rages, and he didn't really work as a parental figure or even an authority figure here.  There were a couple of decently funny episodes with wild comic premises, but the show really suffered for never having much heart.

"Bonkers" - The Disney Afternoon had a string of winners up until "Bonkers," which was a definite bust.  The production was a notorious mess, which is why out of 65 episodes, nineteen give toon police officer Bonkers D. Bobcat a different human partner, and four are actually repurposed shorts from "Raw Toonage," which "Bonkers" spun off from.  The show was mostly still watchable, and I liked all the multiparters, but this was a clear step down from the other shows on the block, and the first that didn't run in syndication for a full four years.

"Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers" - I know this was a childhood favorite for a lot of people, but I never really warmed up to "Rescue Rangers."  Oddly, I really loved the old chipmunk Disney shorts, when the pair were antagonizing Donald or Pluto.  The two of them as bickering detectives is a good idea in theory, but it was only very rarely that Chip and Dale's old troublemaker personalities came through, so the pair were frequently upstaged by the more charismatic secondary characters like Gadget and Monterey Jack.  While the cartoon was a lot of fun, it also felt pretty by-the-numbers.  
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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Missmediajunkie v. "Your Name"

God, fans can be annoying.  Young, passionate, vocal fans can be especially annoying.  And speaking as someone who was totally immersed in this particular subculture for over a decade, anime fans are the *worst.*

"Your Name," the latest anime feature from Makoto Shinkai, is a massive popular success.  It's broken records in Japan and China, holding the top spot at the Japanese box office for an unprecedented twelve weeks.  Critically, it was also very well received, winning a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score.  UK critic Mark Kermode even found it a spot on his 2016 top ten list.  There was even some outcry from fans when "Your Name" wasn't nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

So I was very receptive to the film, despite not being much of a fan of Makoto Shinkai's previous work.  I'd seen "Voices of a Distant Star," "The Place Promised in Our Early Days," and "5 Centimeters Per Second" in my otaku days.  Shinkai's always been praised for using gorgeous imagery in his work, particularly his photorealistic backgrounds, but the actual animation and character designs tend to be pretty simple stuff.  The stories always revolved around melodramatic teen romances, often with some fantasy or sci-fi elements thrown in.  They weren't bad, but they weren't my thing.

"Your Name," I'm happy to say, is the best Makoto Shinkai feature I've seen yet.  The body-swapping story is a lot of fun, with a couple of great twists in the middle, and the characters are easier to warm up to.  However, I found that the film still had a lot of the problems I associate with Shinkai's work.  It's too long, gets way too bogged down in tepid teen drama, and is prone to using a lot of common anime visual shortcuts.  There's an absolutely insufferable montage in the last act set to a maudlin pop song that took me right out of the movie.  Still, overall I thought it was a perfectly good piece of anime.

And every shred of enthusiasm I had for the film has been completely obliterated by the fans of "Your Name" over the past few months.  I knew from experience that Makoto Shinkai's supporters are a very protective and passionate bunch, and I can sympathize with them to some extent, but every discussion I've seen of this film has been characterized by frenzied hyperbole.  Any criticism is met with instant, furious hostility.  It's gotten to the point where I don't want to talk about the film with any self-professed fans anymore because it's too frustrating to deal with the overhype.  

Things really got hairy back in April when the film had its US release, and I was being bombarded with recommendations for "Your Name" constantly for a few weeks.  Eventually I just had to ignore them, because engaging in any actual discussion about the film was just getting me into arguments that I didn't want to get into.  I am not looking forward to the inevitable home media and streaming platform releases which will no doubt unleash another round of this.

Let's just get it all out right now.  No, I don't think "Your Name" is one of the best animated films ever made, and Makoto Shinkai is not the new Hayao Miyazaki.  No, I don't think the film deserved an Oscar nomination, especially not over the far more visually interesting "The Red Turtle."  No, I don't think the story is particularly original, or deep, or amazing.  And no, while anime is often undervalued by non-fans, I don't think this one warranted much special attention.  

What really gets me is that I like the film.  I'd be happy to recommend it to the right kind of viewer in different circumstances.  However, I've let the hype get to me in the worst way possible, and I'm letting my opinion of "Your Name" become increasingly colored by bad experiences ancillary to it.  This has happened to me with other movies before, most notably with the "Watchman" adaptation, but I liked "Your Name" considerably more than "Watchmen."

Ultimately this is really my own problem.  The fans do what the fans always do, and a few months down the line it'll be another middling film with too much hype that exasperates me all over again.  I either need to develop thicker skin, or find different environments to discuss films - ones that attract fewer of the fanboy types.   
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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The MoviePass Math, Part 2

Well, there are bombshells, and there are world-shaking, potentially industry obliterating bombshells, and MoviePass just gave us the latter.

The movie theater subscription plan has just dropped their monthly fee down to $9.95 for unlimited films in all areas. They also removed a bunch of the restrictions - no more different pricing based on different markets, no more waiting 24 hours between screenings. The only major hurdles are figuring out which theaters will accept the MoviePasses and getting the incredibly overwhelmed app and website to work properly. Previously, the cheapest unlimited plan was in the $40 range, and the very cheapest plan was $15 for two movies a month in "Tier 1" markets. I live in the most expensive "Tier 3" market, where an unlimited plan is $50.

To put this into further context, a single early bird matinee ticket at my local theater is $8.50. Simply watching two movies in theaters a month pays for the subscription. But beyond that, renting three movies a month from iTunes is $9 at least. My Netflix subscription is $8 a month. Using a MoviePass to watch first-run films in theaters is suddenly more cost effective than watching them at home. Heck, going to an evening show every evening is looking downright frugal. I could easily see myself going to screenings at least once a week - or even every day during Oscar season - if all the movies I wanted to see were in participating theaters.

The MoviePass execs have already admitted that the $9.95 price point is not sustainable in the long run. Prices will go back up and some restrictions seem inevitable. Right now, they're trying to grab as much market share as they can before the theaters inevitably counter with their own loyalty programs or figure out a way to litigate their way out of the situation. AMC is already vowing to do everything they can to keep MoviePass out of their theaters, though MoviePass will be paying the full ticket prices to exhibitors. Frankly, the increased traffic could be viewed as a windfall, since it means more concession sales and other spending in theaters. However, what AMC and other theaters are afraid of is that filmgoers will get used to the cheaper ticket prices and come to expect the convenience of subscriptions plans.

While I can sympathize to some extent with the theaters, there's been a sense for a while that something about the exhibition business has to change. The summer box office has been down this year, and theater stocks have suffered on Wall Street. We've had a discouraging run of bombs, and many culture vultures have noted that everyone's talking about television instead of the movies this season. Ticket prices, while not as outrageous as I like to make them out to be, have been rising steadily for years, reducing attendance numbers and pushing the industry to make more blockbusters. MoviePass's stunt might revive the concept of the casual moviegoer, the type of viewer that once went to the movies regularly and didn't treat them as a special event.

Or it could all backfire spectacularly. The theaters could end up overwhelmed with new MoviePass users, and the service could quickly go out of business if they can't handle the technical logistics or the sheer volume of business. The only way MoviePass makes money with this model is if there are subscribers who simply pay for the service without using it much, which I find unlikely. Only movie nerds are even aware that MoviePass exists, and will be taking as much advantage as they possibly can. On the other had, subscription plans for theaters have been successfully implemented in many other countries, and I think it's likely that some version of this is going to stick in the U.S.

Alas, I personally can't take advantage of the new MoviePass deal the way that I'd like to. I simply don't have the free time to set aside three hours for an average movie theater trip more once every two months or so. And I don't see that changing for at least another five years, by which time MoviePass will have either raised their prices significantly or gone the way of other ambitious business disrupters like Aereo. But even if I have to stay on the sidelines, at least it'll be fascinating to watch how this all unfolds.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Great Wall" of Dire

Some probably watched "The Great Wall" and wondered how big American movie star Matt Damon wound up in the middle of an elaborate Chinese fantasy epic.  I watched "The Great Wall" and wondered how beloved director Zhang Yimou wound up helming an action spectacular full of CGI monsters and flashy action scenes.  Zhang is no stranger to epics, having given us "Hero" and "Curse of the Golden Flower," among others.  This one, however, was just so blatantly, unabashedly... Hollywood.  

Anyway, back to Matt Damon, who is playing a medieval European mercenary named William.  He and his Spaniard buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have come to China in search of "black powder," which will make them powerful and rich.  They come across the Great Wall one day, which is manned by Chinese soldiers of the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu).  Our heroes are captured just in time to witness and join in a siege on the wall by swarming monsters called Tao Tie.  Their efforts garner enough favor that the pair are treated as guests, though still regarded as prisoners.  William becomes close to a female commander, Lin (Jing Tian), complicating his plans to steal black powder from the Order and escape.

Now, despite the participation of so much Chinese talent, and its co-production status, "The Great Wall" was conceived of and written by Americans.  Familiar names with screenplay and story credits include Max Brooks, Tony Gilroy, and Edward Zwick, who was supposed to direct at one point.  You can definitely see the influence of Zhang Yimou all over the visuals, and it appears that he was largely allowed to orchestrate all the massive scale spectacle to his own liking.  And that's a major selling point of the film, where vast sums of money were spent to wow the audience with gargantuan battle sequences, CGI monsters, and all manner of action movie mayhem.  And taken individually, some of those elements aren't bad.  The film as a whole, however, leaves much to be desired.

While the Chinese elements certainly make "The Great Wall" distinctive, the story is formulaic and bland.  Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal get to do a little humorous bantering, but otherwise there's not much to their characters.  On the Chinese side, the Nameless Order members aren't token Asians, but they're similarly unmemorable, and most end up as cannon fodder.  Andy Lau features prominently as a strategist, but he doesn't get to do anything interesting and displays little by way of personality.  The best thing I can say about Jing Tian is that her English is better than most of the Chinese actresses who have attempted similar translator roles recently.  Oh, and Willem Dafoe shows up for a couple of scenes as another Western mercenary, really a plot device in search of a character.

There's plenty that the production does well, from the gorgeous cinematography to the eye-catching costuming, to the stunt work.  I found myself admiring the tower sequence, which is illuminated by sunbeams coming through rainbow-colored glass windows.  Even the CGI monsters, while not particularly memorable, wouldn't look out of place in a typical summer blockbuster produced by one of the bigger Hollywood studios.  However, none of it is put in service of anything worth talking about.  As the fight sequences began to pile up on top of each other, I found myself making comparisons to other tedious recent effects-fests like "Gods of Egypt" and the "Ben Hur" remake.

I understand that the Chinese are trying to capture the attention of western audiences by making films that fit their sensibilities, but here they've only succeeded in mimicking the worst habits of the big Hollywood blockbusters.  In the end, the whole project struck me as a massive waste of talent and effort on the part of everyone involved.  And it reminded me that I'd totally missed Zhang Yimou's last film, "Coming Home," which had excellent reviews but only the barest stateside release in 2015.
  
I understand that though the movie largely made its money back overseas, the failure of "The Great Wall" at the U.S. box office will likely mean fewer of these costly Chinese and American co-productions in the future.  And I don't view that as a bad thing in the slightest.
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Monday, August 14, 2017

The Top Ten Project Update: Greetings From the '70s

Last year, around October, I had just finished watching eighty films from the 1980s, in furtherance of my goal to watch at least fifty movies from each year as far back as I could go.  At that time, I needed to watch over 160 films to get through the 1970s, and I've been steadily working to bring the number down ever since.  Well, I just hit a pretty significant benchmark - I've just reached the halfway point with eighty-three films.  I think it's high time for an update.

As with the 1980s, I've taken the opportunity to patch a lot of gaps in my knowledge of movies, both highbrow and low.  So far, this has included watching every Best Picture nominee I was missing from the decade, and every Hal Ashby film.  However, I also took the opportunity to track down all the  James Bond and Dirty Harry I hadn't seen yet, and to watch '70s kung-fu movies, blaxploitation movies, and a lot of the gorier samurai films of this era.  I think I understand Quentin Tarantino's work much better now, having seen so many of the films he referenced in "Kill Bill" and "Jackie Brown."

Speaking of Dirty Harry, if there has been one creative force who has dominated my viewing choices so far, it's Clint Eastwood.  I think I've inadvertently managed to watch just about everything he directed or acted in during the 1970s.  He starred in several of the important revisionist westerns of this period, like "High Plains Drifter" and "Joe Kidd."   I wanted to watch "The Beguiled," since Sofia Coppola is remaking it this year, and had no idea that he was the leading man.  By the time I got down to titles like "Every Which Way But Loose" and "The Gauntlet," I was watching them because Eastwood had proved dependably entertaining.

In addition to Hal Ashby, I took the opportunity to watch some early Dario Argento, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog, and David Cronenberg films.  Also, two later films from John Huston.  It was more difficult to focus on particular auteurs because I was familiar with fewer of them that were active during this decade.  Those that were active, like Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, were ones with filmographies I'd already picked over pretty thoroughly.  The availability of certain titles has also been an issue, making me very grateful for the efforts of Criterion and other classic film distributors.  I'm still trying to track down the "Mishima" documentary.

So far, the best film I've discovered so far has been Jan Troell's "The Emigrants," starring Ingmar Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman.  The sequel, "The New Land," is one of the next titles I need to track down.  It's one of the best takes on the American immigrant story I've ever seen.  Other new favorites include "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," "Deep Red," "Rollerball," "The Duellists," Werner Herzog's take on "Nosferatu," and the Bollywood classic "Sholay."  I'm still debating whether "High Plains Drifter" is a good film, or if I should just count it as a guilty pleasure.  And then there's the absolutely fascinating cultural artifact that is "Pumping Iron" with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The one major disappointment so far has been the "Lone Wolf and Cub" movies.  I watched the first three, and decided to skip the rest.  The first film was decent, but the series quickly became repetitive, and the more exploitative elements increasingly distasteful.  I can definitely understand why various filmmakers have been trying to remake this property for years, but there are elements like the sexual violence and high-pressure bloodletting that really haven't aged well.  A number of prestige pictures also fell remarkably flat for me, including "Julia" and "Midnight Express."

I'll save the discussions of the wider cultural trends I've noticed in these movies for my next post, after I polish off the next eighty films.  However, I did want to point out that there's a surprising lack of films that address the Vietnam War so far after the inundation of them that I found in the 1980s.  1978's "Coming Home" is the only one from the '70s I've found so far, which along with "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" really kicked off the whole genre.  

But more on that next time.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

"Get Out" Gets It Done

I often feel a little hesitant when talking about media that tackles race, especially the experiences of African-Americans.  I am painfully whitebread (despite not being white), and know very few black or Latino people socially.  It doesn't feel like my place to get into the often heated discussions about race in American culture, especially where it involves police brutality and other topics where African-Americans are disproportionately affected.

So when "Get Out" started attracting a massive amount of discussion, I felt a little worried at first.  Was this going to be another movie like "Moonlight" where I'd struggle to connect?  "Get Out," is the directing debut of Jordan Peele, of "Key & Peele," a comedic thriller about a young black man, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) one weekend.  At first Rose's well-to-do dad (Bradley Whitford), mom (Catherine Keener), and brother (Caleb Landry-Jones) seem like perfectly average people.  However, their behavior is a little odd, and the behavior of the black housekeeper and groundskeeper are very odd.  Chris can't quite shake the sinister feeling that something else is going on.

And there is plenty going on.  In fact, there is so much going on in "Get Out," so many little jabs at people's race-conscious behaviors and assumptions, so much sharp commentary on racial issues, and so many bits of coded dialogue to unpack, that I could spend this entire post just enumerating all the ways that the movie talks about race the way so few movies this day actually talk about race.  It was kind of exhilarating to recognize some of those little microaggressions from the first half of the film as ones that I've been on the receiving end of before.  Different circumstances of course, but I found that I could relate in ways I wasn't expecting at all.     

And the best part is, the movie is so thoroughly entertaining.  There are a lot of little uncomfortable moments, but Peele uses that to fuel the tension of the larger plot.  All the seemingly normal awkwardness between Chris and Rose's family builds up into a wonderful paranoid thriller scenario that's simultaneously hilarious and pretty scary.  Many scenes simply would not play as well if the viewer doesn't have some knowledge of the current racial tensions in America, especially surrounding African-American men.  And the commentary goes down so much easier because it's couched in such familiar, enjoyable cinematic terms.  

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams are both great in this, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in bigger projects down the road.  Kaluuya has such a great screen presence, and I'm happy that he finally nabbed a more high-profile leading man role.  "Get Out" only works as well as it does because it's so easy to sympathize with Chris and follow his thought processes as he puzzles his way through the situation.  Williams, by contrast, does an excellent job of keeping viewers guessing about where her loyalties lie.  Also, kudos to newcomer Lil Rey Howrey as Chris's TSA agent pal Rod, a secondary hero and the primary comic relief.  

This is a big win for Blumhouse Pictures, which was also responsible for M. Night Shyamalan's recent "Split."  They've spent the last several years producing smaller movies, mostly low-budget horror.  However, "Split" and "Get Out" have proven how versatile and interesting the genre can be.  I love that it's giving opportunities to filmmakers like Shyamlan and Peele to make the kinds of films that the larger studios are showing less and less interest in, and get them in front of audiences.  The most interesting films often come from the outer fringes of Hollywood, and I can only hope that this is a lasting trend.      

It's oddly inspiring to find that America's thorny racial issues can be so deftly mined for entertainment value like this.  And the audience that enjoys "Get Out" has been universal - whatever your ethnicity or background, the movie plays great.  I hope that other filmmakers take the right lesson from its success though.  It's not the fact that the lead is black or that it isn't afraid to talk about race.  It's about not being afraid of taking a chance on a different point of view.    

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1995

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

"La Haine" - A generation-defining film that still impresses, thanks to its deft camera work, invigorating performances, and stark portrayal of three kids growing up in bad circumstances.  Socially conscious in every regard, the film was made as a response to police violence and escalating tensions in Paris's immigrant communities.  However, it's the innovative, energetic filmmaking that continues to impress, the way it captures the lives and the worlds that the characters inhabit.

"Ghost in the Shell" - One of the most thoughtful Japanese anime films presents a vision of the near future where humans have embraced technological enhancements to the point where they may be compromising their own souls.  When a rogue AI begins wreaking havoc, our heroine faces both an existential and social crisis.  Filled with iconic imagery, fascinating concepts, and disturbing implications, there's nothing out there quite like "Ghost in the Shell," animated or not.

"The City of Lost Children" - The film that best encapsulates the joyous weirdness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a fantasy adventure about misfits, clones, mad science, and dreams.  I love the use of child's logic, the beautiful production design, and the utterly go-for-broke oddity of those characters.  The clones in search of "L'originale" (all played by Dominique Pinon, of course), big-hearted Un, and tough little Miette have stayed with me after all this time.  And so has their movie.

"Toy Story" - The first big CGI animated film, and still a charmer.  While the novelty of the technology was certainly a factor, the film's success has just as much to do with its creation of memorable heroes, careful worldbuilding, and attention to detail.  You could have made the film with traditional or stop-motion animation, with very little compromise in quality.  So while CGI animation has improved over the years, "Toy Story" still remains an impressive achievement.

"Seven" - Few crime thrillers have managed to stick in the popular consciousness the way that "Seven" has.  David Fincher taps into the disturbed mind of a serial killer, creating a nightmarish atmosphere of easy depravity and moral decay.  It's a challenging film to watch, but a rewarding one in its own sick and twisted way.  This is best exemplified by the climactic finale, one of the most violent scenes I've seen in any film, despite only a single, brief violent act taking place onscreen.

"Babe" -  This is undisputedly a children's movie, but one that is so exquisitely executed on every level, it's no wonder that viewers of all ages fell in love with it.  A combination of live and animatronic farm animals tell the tale of a little pig who changes his destiny, making this a technological as well as an artistic marvel.  Chris Noonan's perfect storybook visuals are so charming and lively, it's disappointing to discover that the director as hardly made any other films since.   

"Before Sunrise" - So begins one of cinema's great love stories, as Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine meet by chance on a train to Vienna one night.  They walk, converse, and carry out their romance while being trailed by the movie camera and director Richard Linklater.  The simplicity of the premise belies the richness of the story, which now extends to two subsequent films.  "Before Sunrise," however, stands on its own as a love story and as an unusually absorbing film.

"Underground" - Emir Kusturica gets both political and patriotic in this madcap fable about the ups and downs of recent Yugoslav history.  The filmmaking is fabulous, the satire is ferocious, and some of the images are just unforgettable.  The monkey in the tank and the roving oom-pah band remain personal favorites.  In certain circles the film remains controversial, but there's no doubt that it comes from a place of great affection for the Serbian people, and great filmmaking.  

"The Usual Suspects" - I've been a little cool on this film over the years, since the famously twisty ending never struck me as all that much of a shocker.  However, upon rewatch, I'm come to appreciate all the little moments of humor, and all the little instances of style that Bryan Singer so neatly deploys.  And Kevin Spacey's performance as Verbal Kint just grows more iconic as time goes by.  So here's the "The Usual Suspects" and the enduring legend of the great Keyser Soze.  

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" - My black little heart will always have a soft spot for Dawn Weiner, a miserable teenager who never wins and sees her hopes dashed again and again.  In Todd Solondz movies, after all, the world is unfair as a rule, and the usual teen movie tropes are gleefully torn to shreds at every opportunity.  And once you understand what the movie is doing, it is very entertaining to watch it be as horrible to its characters as it possibly can.    

Honorable Mentions

The Bridges of Madison County
Sense and Sensibility
Memories
Whisper of the Heart
Casino
Mighty Aphrodite
Leaving Las Vegas
Heat
Midaq Alley
A Little Princess
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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Top Ten "21 Jump Street" Episodes

Little confession time. If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm a Johnny Depp fan going way back to the 1990s.  "Edward Scissorhands" started it, but what kept it going was my ready access to "21 Jump Street" reruns, which played in a convenient after-school slot on one of the local syndicated channels when I was a teenager.  The show had a troubled production, with most of the cast having bailed completely by the fifth season.  Depp notoriously lost interest in the show around the third season and was actively screwing with the production to get himself out of his contract by the fourth.  

Picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate:

"Mean Streets and Pastel Houses" - One of the big ironies about Depp's involvement in "21 Jump Street," was that his character, Tom Hanson, was a straightlaced goody-goody cop, while Depp was a notorious hellraiser.  So his best episodes were often the ones with Depp undercover - in this case playing a suburban punk.  The episode reportedly gets plenty wrong about the punk scene of the times, but gets a few key things right - and Depp is clearly having a blast.  

"Christmas in Saigon" - Dustin Nguyen was a rare Asian face on television in the early '90s, and the show often didn't know what to do with him.  However, they did devote their second season Christmas episode to his character, Ioki, specifically his complicated backstory as a Vietnamese refugee - based on Nguyen's own experiences.  He essentially plays a younger version of himself in flashbacks, and looks so different that I had to double-check to make sure they hadn't gotten another actor.

"A Big Disease With a Little Name" - Every episode of "21 Jump Street" seemed intent on being a very Very Special Episode for a while, thanks to the premise.  So, it being the early '90s, we had to have an AIDS episode.  And this is actually a very good one, featuring a kid named Harley who is ostracized for having the disease.  Oh sure, we had to have the cheesy moralizing over an important social issue, but Harley is very much a real kid, who is was easy to empathize with.      

"Orpheus 3.3" - Poor Tom Hanson could never keep a girlfriend for very long.  In this episode, a convenience store robbery offs the latest one, leaving Hanson to stew over whether he could have done anything to prevent it.  This is handled in the most melodramatic terms possible, of course, but Depp turns in a heluvah good performance as Hanson grapples with survivor's guilt, and it's always good to see the personal side of the Jump Street gang, which never got much press.

"Champagne High" - My favorite episode, and obviously a huge influence on the "21 Jump Street" reboot.  Hanson and partner Doug Penhall go undercover as the McQuade brothers, a pair of highly entertaining delinquents, to investigate a series of thefts and burglaries.  The comedic antics that these two get up to are so much fun, and it's no surprise that the McQuades would return multiple times throughout the show, and were resurrected for the movie version too.    

"The Currency We Trade In" - An abuse storyline of a different stripe sees a newly promoted Penhall, played by Peter DeLuise, get a little too zealous in nabbing a child molester, only for it turn out that the man is innocent.  Penhall has to deal with the fallout of having ruined another person's life.  This is a complete downer of an episode, but it does give all the actors involved a chance to shine.  DeLuise in particular never got enough credit for playing the show's most lovable lug.

"Swallowed Alive" - The McQuade brothers get sent to a high security juvenile detention facility, but there's nothing funny about this.  Instead, the whole episode is essentially a prison movie in miniature, and a surprisingly dark and harrowing one at that.  Penhall puts it best, that it's like finding out that all the kids the Jump Street crew nabbed over the years were sent to hell.  This existential crisis was not resolved in the end, but the intense episode remains one of the better ones.

"High High" - The gag at the end of "22 Jump Street" imagines the stars infiltrating all kinds of different educational institutions.  The show actually did this occasionally, including this episode set in a "Fame" style school for performing arts.  I admit that my biggest reason for including this on the list is for Penhall's scenes in acting class recreating "The Honeymooners."  And who's playing the drama teacher?  Michael De Barres, aka the villainous Murdoc from "MacGyver."  

"2245" - There's barely any involvement by any of the usual cast in this episode, which looks in on the lonely life of Ronnie Seebok, a youngster on death row.  A minor character from an earlier season brought back for a solo outing, flashbacks fill in the details of his crimes and relationship with a girlfriend played by Rosie Perez.  Genre fans may recognize two of the credited writers here: Glen Morgan and James Wong, who cut their teeth on the series.

"La Bizca" - And finally, in one of the the most wild digressions for "21 Jump Street," Hanson and Penhall travel to El Salvador to track down Penhall's wife Marta, and land themselves in the middle of the country's Civil War.  A Very, Very Special Episode that wanted to shine some light on the conflict, "Jump Street" managed to get Richard "Shaft" Roundtree to guest star, and U2 let them use "With or Without You."  A little cringeworthy, yes, but admirable stuff.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

"The Girl With All the Gifts" Deserves Her Due

I debated with myself how to describe this movie, since giving very much of a description could be called a spoiler.  So let's just say that this is a dystopian thriller with an unusually strong subversive streak, featuring a lot of monsters of all shapes and sizes.  It's not a great film, but it does a lot of things right, and in a way that I found very smart and appealing.  

At the center of the film is the fascinating character of Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a bright girl who is one of a group of children being held in a military base, under heavy guard, and always in restraints when interacting with any adults.  The one person who is kind to her is the children's teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), but her affection is frowned upon by Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), one of the base's commanders.  Melanie is also visited regularly by a scientist, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who is studying the children.      

"The Girl With All the Gifts" presents a familiar horror scenario, but one that examines and challenges its underlying framework.  It has a lot in common with other recent science-fiction films like "Ex Machina" and the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" series, where the audience is meant to question who they're rooting for and why. This isn't apparent until a fair ways into the film.  For most of the running time, this operates as a fairly straightforward dystopian survival movie, and not a great one.  However, it's been a long time since I've seen a science-fiction film that takes so many of the familiar old tropes and manages to make something genuinely different and interesting out of them.  The worldbuilding in particular is just fantastic.   

I wish some of the secondary characters could have been better fleshed out, especially as the cast is wonderful.  We really don't see enough of Glenn Close these days, and Paddy Considine is as dependable as ever.  However, this is really Melanie's story, and  Sennia Nanua carries the film just fine.  Her performance alone is worth a watch, as she gradually learns more about her world and herself.  Though the filmmakers aren't too on the nose about it, there are some elements of the  plot that echo current social issues.  Melanie is a rare cinematic creature in many respects, and the fact that she's also a person of color surrounded by, and under the control of more typical Caucasian hero figures creates some startling images.  

"The Girl With All the Gifts" was made a on small budget, and occasionally feels like an episode of a higher-end sci-fi anthology series like "Black Mirror."  It's no surprise that director Colm McCarthy has worked mostly on UK television series.  However, the film delivers pretty well on thrills and chills, and it does manage to create a distinct, engaging dystopia without feeling like it's cutting many corners.  The glimpses of London suburbs overgrown with vegetation are more vibrant and alien than the traditionally bleak images of decay that we get with similar movies.  On the other hand, the action scenes could have used some work, especially since there are so many.  

I want to stress, however, that this is not a film that's about the action in the end.  At hear, it's a character drama about a special girl finding her place in the world.  And on that level, it's an immensely satisfying watch.  It also does everything that a good science-fiction film is supposed to, developing interesting ideas and scenarios in a very thoughtful, socially relevant way.  I also appreciated that it was so female-centric, which is still a rarity, and so self-aware about all the usual tropes and cliches of this genre.  Just when I thought these kinds of stories were getting played out, someone has found a new angle to explore.   

It's a shame that smaller genre films like this are still getting overlooked.  The UK and Australian produced ones seem especially prone to slipping through the cracks, even when top tier talent is involved.   "The Girl With All the Gifts" is one of these, having had only a very limited Stateside theatrical and VOD release.  I hope that it finds its audience sooner rather than later.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Rewatching the Disney Renaissance

The biggest cultural touchstones of my childhood were the Disney Renaissance movies, everything released from "The Little Mermaid" to roughly "The Emperor's New Groove."  When I was young, these were the only movies that I was guaranteed to see in theaters, and the only movies my parents would buy on home video.  Because my music teacher mother would also used the songs in her classes, we'd also buy the soundtracks, which were played over and over again in our house and on long car trips.  I remember my mother remarking darkly at one point that my brother and I were being brainwashed by Disney, but whose fault was that?

Now, there were some of the Disney movies we liked better than others, but the big three were always "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King."  These were the ones that everybody liked and got the most play.  "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback" weren't nearly much fun, and by the time "Hercules" and "Mulan" came around, us kids were quickly aging out of the intended audience.  The music was getting progressively worse too, so we stopped buying the soundtracks and videos.  We still saw all the movies - I distinctly remember going to "Tarzan" multiple times, and we treated "Fantasia 2000" as a major event - but there was a clear sense of diminishing engagement as we got older.

The last time I saw "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" on my own was well over a decade ago, when they were released on DVD with tons of bonus features.  Cinephile that I was, I rented them specifically to listen to the commentary tracks and watch the making-of featurettes.  I had watched these movies so many times as a kid via VHS tapes that I knew every  shot, every frame, every line of dialogue, and every note of music.  I knew so much trivia, and even had the supervising animators for most the characters still memorized.  Disney Feature Animation was going through a rough spot around then, however, and I'd mostly stopped following the new films.  

And now in 2017 I'm a mom with young children, and Disney is hellbent on remaking the majority of these movies as live-action features to capitalize on my nostalgia.  The "Beauty and the Beast" remake made oodles of money, and "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" are on their way soon.  There are a lot of animated Disney films in my life again, especially "Tangled" and "Frozen."  However, we have revisited the older Disney classics, including the Renaissance films.  "The Lion King" went over especially well.  And the experience of watching these films again, for the first time in ages, has been a real eye-opener.

Yes, they still hold up beautifully.  I still like the parts that I liked when I was younger, and get bored at the parts I don't.  Some characters are more grating, and some less so.  What really surprised me, however, is how emotionally fraught the stories are.  The death of Mufasa is far more traumatic than the offscreen loss of Bambi's mother.  The Beast is legitimately frightening, and I kept eyeing my toddler, wondering if the kiddo needed some reassurance that it would all turn out okay.  I know parenthood has the effect of making  everything seem scarier, but Disney's recent output is rarely so intense.

I think back to the media hubbub around these films during the '90s, the endless spinoffs and reimaginings and adaptations into different formats, and it's comforting to realize that the Disney Renaissance movies really were something special.  I didn't like them just because I was a kid being bombarded with Disney commercials.  I liked them and continue to like them because they're legitimately fantastic pieces of cinema.  And watching them with my rugrats gave me a renewed appreciation for them.  

Somewhere along the way I stopped being a Disney obsessive while I was being an anime obsessive and then a general media obsessive.  I still enjoy animated films very much, and rarely miss a Disney or PIXAR feature, but it's been a long time since I bought one on home media for myself or bothered to listen to a full soundtrack.  My kiddos aren't quite big enough to have developed any long-lasting attachments to any media yet, but they're getting there.  And I'm enjoying getting reacquainted with the Mouse.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Anticipating the Movies of 2018

The movie season always seems to hit the doldrums in August, and this year is no exception, despite some good titles in  the mix.  So let's take a quick look at some of the movies that are coming up next year.  As I noted in last year's installment, I'm writing this post now because this is roughly the point where you can make pretty good assumptions about which projects are actually going to become next year's films, even if many of them don't have release dates. If a movie hasn't started filming by now, it's not very likely that it's going to be ready for audiences by next December.

Due to the lack of details, the titles below are mostly in list format with a few notes here and there.  Several of these are probably going to be delayed until 2019, especially the indie and foreign titles.  There are a couple from last year's post that are still MIA, and I've repeated one entry here.  So think of this as my little list of the titles that I'm keeping a close eye on.  They're the ones that we know are coming down the pipeline, with the best chances of actually becoming movies in 2018.

So what's on the slate for next year that I'm getting excited about?

Let's start with the bigger budget, studio films that already have distribution, and in most cases even release dates:  
 
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 - dir. Rich Moore
  • A Wrinkle in Time - dir. Ava DuVernay
  • Ready Player One - dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Oceans 8 - dir. Gary Ross - With Sandra Bullock
  • Han Solo - dir. Ron Howard
  • Avengers: Infinity War - dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
  • The Incredibles 2 - dir. Brad Bird
  • Alita: Battle Angel - dir. Robert Rodriguez - Still being produced by James Cameron.
  • Mary Poppins Returns - dir. Rob Marshall - With Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda
  • Scarface  - No announced director since Antoine Fuqua and David Ayers parted ways with the project, but guess who's taking the latest whack at the screenplay?  Joel and Ethan Coen.  

And the movies that are probably going to start out as limited releases, assuming that they come out in 2018 at all:

  • Annihilation - dir. Alex Garland - With Natalie Portman
  • Isle of Dogs - dir. Wes Anderson - Anderson's second stop-motion animated film after "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
  • The Irishman - dir. Martin Scorsese - With DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel so far.  But with Netflix producing, will this actually be treated like a theatrical feature?
  • The House That Jack Built - dir. Lars von Trier - With Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman
  • Annette - dir. Leos Carax
  • The Nightingale - dir. Jennifer Kent
  • Widows - dir. Steve McQueen - With Viola Davis and Daniel Kaluuya
  • Suspiria - dir. Luca Gugadino - With Chloe Moretz and Dakota Johnson
  • Insects - dir. Jan Svankmajer - Announced as his final film.
  • Freakshift - dir. Ben Wheatley - With Alicia Vikander and Armie Hammer.
  • Peterloo - dir. Mike Leigh
  • Last Flag Flying - dir. Richard Linklater - With Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell.  This is a sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 film "The Last Detail."
  • Enzo Ferrari - dr. Michael Mann - With Hugh Jackman and Noomi Rapace.
  • Three Christs - dir. John Avnet - With Richard Gere
  • Bel Canto - Paul Weitz - With Julianne Moore

And I may be tempting fate by even listing this one, but:

  • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - dir. Terry Gilliam - With Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver.  Fingers crossed!

I'll update on these films and others in my 2018 Top Ten Anticipated Films posts next year, once we know more.  Remember that none of these productions are out of the woods yet, and there's always the possibility of them getting tripped up or delayed.  The J.C. Chandor feature "Triple Frontier,"for instance, fell apart at the last minute back in April, despite having Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy  ready to star.

I also want to note quickly that there are a several higher profile features being helmed by female directors this year, including "A Wrinkle in Time,"  which is very good to see.  And a couple like Kay Cannon ("Pitch Perfect") and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the "Kung Fu Panda" movies) are making their live-action directing debuts.  Fingers crossed that this leads to more women-led blockbusters in the future.  

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