Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Podcasts Ahoy! 2017 Edition

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

Happy listening!   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Smartphone Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Surprisingly Watchable Emmys Telecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Samurai Jack," Year Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 15, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1994

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable mentions:

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


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On Being a Terrible Fan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Top Ten Episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond"

I passed over this show repeatedly, thinking I hadn't possibly watched enough of it to make a Top Ten list.  I watched the first three or four seasons regularly, but that tapered off as the show's popularity grew.  But as I was scanning through nine seasons worth of episode descriptions, it was a surprise how many of them were familiar.  "Everybody Loves Raymond" quietly permeated the popular culture to such an extent, it was a hard show to miss.  I even watched the documentary about Phil Rosenthal's efforts to help launch the Russian version of the show a few years back, "Exporting Raymond."  So here we are.

The episodes listed below are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Dog" - Ah, Shmansky.  Robert's new canine pal causes tensions between him and Raymond, and we learn exactly how much Ray loves his brother when the real owner shows up.  Brad Garrett's performance sells this one for me, especially when he's reminiscing about his old dog, and when he learns what Shmansky's original name was.  It's also a lot of fun to spot Shmansky in various episodes as the show rolls on.      

"Why Are We Here?" - Flashback episodes were a staple of "Raymond," usually saved for season finales for the extra emotional impact.  My favorite is still the first one they did, back when Debra was still on more friendly terms with Marie and Frank.  It's fun to look back a couple of years in the Barone's lives and look at how the family dynamics evolved.  The announcement of the impending arrival of the twins here is a highlight.    

"Marie's Meatballs" - Most of my favorite episodes involve incidents that could be easily mistaken for minor domestic tiffs, but they turn out to be vitally important to the characters and their relationships.  And so, Marie's sabotage of Debra's cooking lets us explore Debra and Marie's insecurities and Raymond's reluctance to choose sides.  And, of course, this was only the first of several other cooking battles to come.    

"Good Girls" - I thought that this episode came much later in the show's run, when Robert and Amy were a more permanent couple.  Instead, we find a new wrinkle in Debra and Marie's relationship fairly early on, in an episode where everyone talks about sex without actually talking about sex.  And it's one of the show's best moments when Frank spills the beans on Marie.  And somehow, the real loser in all this is Robert.  Of course.

"Halloween Candy" - I love that Peter Boyle gets to reprise Frankenstein's monster and make terrible jokes in this episode, which is actually about birth control.  Ray and Debra's sex life is in jeopardy once again, as Ray considers unappealing options.  I haven't said much about Ray Barone or Ray Romano yet, but his presence is such a big reason why "Raymond" works so well.  Here he proves as neurotic and tragic as any other Barone.

"The Can Opener" - Debra and Ray have a fight over a new can opener, which leads to a "Rashomon" style retelling of events from their two wildly different points of view.  All the Barones get involved by the end, culminating in Marie and Frank's glorious showdown over a jar of fat.  The plotting is so simple, but the resulting fireworks and the performances from everyone involved are just fabulous.  This is easily one of my favorites.

"Marie's Sculpture" - However, I don't think anything in "Raymond" can top Marie's uncomfortably yonic sculpture.  For a family friendly, PG rated show, they sure weren't shy about discussing sexuality, though usually in the sweetest and most inoffensive terms.  It's not the sculpture that's funny, but that nobody can bring themselves to tell Marie what's wrong.  Still, due to the subject matter, this episode wasn't shown in the UK for a number of years.  

"Lucky Suit" - Robert's big interview with the FBI is compromised by Marie, who ends up in the hot seat.  As you may have guessed, Marie is my favorite character.  As impossible as her behavior is, she's willing to go the distance for her boys every time.  Here, Doris Roberts is at her best as Marie tries to manipulate her way out of a bad situation, and finally has a rare moment of honesty when she realizes that she's outclassed.  

"Baggage" - It doesn't surprise me that the unpacked suitcase on the stairs came from the real life experience of one of the show's executive producers.  "Raymond" was always at its best when it felt the closest to reality.  However, the writers spinning that into Ray and Debra's epic battle of wills and resentment is what made the show so special.  It's one thing to be relatable, but another entirely to be so funny at the same time.

"Crazy Chin" - Robert's habit of touching food to his chin before he eats it is called out by his in-laws.  Suddenly, it's a big deal, prompting speculation, theorizing, and a trip down memory lane.  Amy and her family were later arrivals to the show, but they were a great new source of aggravation and character development for Robert.  It was great to see Robert grow a bit over the years too, proving he didn't have to be a sad sack to be funny and lovable.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Film Worth Fighting For

Once in a while, we see critical reevaluations of older films that were too quickly dismissed when they were initially released.  Jean-Pierre's Melville's "Army of Shadows" is a good example, which was hailed as a forgotten masterpiece when it was loving restored and reissued in 2006, nearly forty years after its initial release in 1969.  I haven't run into many films I've thought were in need of a reevaluation myself until now.

The thing is, though, WWII film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" isn't an especially maligned film, and has gotten a fair amount of attention over the years.  True, Roger Ebert did give it one star and called it "one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made," and the critical reception was very cool across the board, but it also nabbed five Academy Award nominations, all for technical categories.  It won the Best Special Effects Oscar for its recreation of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and clips were subsequently used in many other war-themed films and television shows in the following years, including Midway (1976) and Australia (2008).  It did decently well at the American box office, and was a smash in Japan.  However, its reputation in subsequent years has been decidedly mixed, and it never seems to come up in discussions of the great war films, which I'm convinced that this is.  

I think it comes down to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" not meeting certain preconceptions.  Firstly, it's an effects spectacular, produced by 20th Century Fox's legendary Darryl F. Zanuck's.  What made headlines were the cost of the picture, which was in excess of $25 million, and its three year productions schedule.  In order to tell the story of the Pearl Harbor attack from both the perspective of the Americans and the Japanese, the film was essentially two different productions, one American and one Japanese, each with their own contributing writers and directors.  The American director was Richard Fleischer, best known for adventure films like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Fantastic Voyage."  The Japanese director was initially going to be Akira Kurosawa, but he dropped out of the project, and the baton was passed to Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku.  Fukusaku, thirty years later, would cap off his long career by directing the two "Battle Royale" movies.

The trouble is, the film doesn't behave like any sort of blockbuster action picture of its era.  The nearly three hour running time is largely devoted to the political and military maneuvering that lead to the attack, with special emphasis on how the American government anticipated Pearl Harbor, but were tripped up by communication failures with the military.  There are a few familiar faces in the cast, but no characters who are really explored in any depth, no foregrounded melodrama to follow as the historical events unfold.  Instead, we largely see scenes of bureaucracy on both sides, as decisions large and small are made in the final fateful hours.  The tension doesn't really start rising until the second half, after well over an hour of sitting in on dramatized meetings and conferences with characters who are introduced with captions to help us keep them all straight.

The low-key docu-drama approach worked for me, however, and I appreciated the lack of the usual outsized melodrama and patriotic posturing.  And there are memorable personal moments of human drama scattered throughout the film: a white US soldier in Hawaii giving an Asian courier a suspicious look, efforts to track down an officer being stymied because he's gone horseback riding, and Japanese pilots enjoying the music they've picked up from Hawaiian transmissions.  It's remarkable how even-handed the film is throughout, especially as the film was made less than thirty years after the events depicted.  It's no wonder that it was such a hit in Japan, because the Japanese characters are allowed to appear downright heroic at times, and it's tempting to want to cheer for them as they pull off their raid on the Americans.    

And what an air raid.  The final forty minutes of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" can still be held up as one of the greatest action sequences ever captured on film.  The size and the scale of the production are still thrilling to see, with multiple scenes of aerial dogfights, bombing runs, and massive scale destruction of acres of expensive military hardware and property.  Famously, one of the stunts that went disastrously wrong was caught on film and included in the final film as part of the cinematic carnage.  Even forty-five years later, it's still impressive to take in.  I can't speak much to the accuracy of the events, but I do find it heartening that some of the movie's biggest fans are military enthusiasts.

I was so impressed after an initial viewing, I immediately started looking into why the film hasn't had the kind of attention that I'd expect.  People do regard it fondly, but it's seen as a popular success rather than a critical one.  The reviews of the day called it tedious and dry, a history lecture grafted to an exercise in expensive pyrotechnics.  I however, think it's one of the best war films of its era, and it holds up incredibly well today.

So, films nerds, it seems I've finally found it - an underrated film that really needs a second look.  

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Dealing With the Disconnect

"Scrubs."  "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."  "How I Met Your Mother."  "The Office."  "24."  "30 Rock." "Lost."  "The Walking Dead."

As much as I like to think that the television  monoculture has gone away, that's not entirely true.  The shows listed above are ones I see referenced commonly in the larger media, but that I've never really seen.  Oh, there was an odd episode of "The Office" now and again in college, and I did make it through the whole first season of "The Walking Dead," but otherwise these are the shows that I see references to regularly, but I never bothered to connect with in any meaningful way.  More importantly, these are the shows where I don't particularly care to be in on the joke.  Every time I see "Parks and Rec" or "The West Wing" brought up, I make another mental note that I really should go watch it sometime.  With "Always Sunny"?  Not so much.  

Now, when I was younger this used to bother me more.  I watched several programs like "Beverly Hills 90210" just to stay in the pop culture loop, even though I didn't much like them.  Especially when it came to genre shows, I felt like I was letting down my fellow geeks if I didn't give everything promising a shot.  I actually felt guilty that I wasn't watching the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot, even though I didn't have access to cable at the time, and was barely watching television as it was.  How could I call myself a sci-fi fan if I wasn't watching the biggest sci-fi show of its era?  During the anime phase of my life, I kept up with "Naruto" and "Inuyasha" and pretty much everything that was aired on Adult Swim because everyone in the wider anime fandom  watched  them.  The only anime I kept at a distance was "Dragonball" and its spinoffs, because there was just too much adolescent testosterone involved for me to take.

And now?  Well, I've figured out that a little common ground goes a long way.  There are plenty of pop culture references that I do get from media I do consume - "Game of Thrones," "Rick and Morty," and "Breaking Bad," to name a few of the big ones.  More importantly, it's really not difficult to absorb the most popular references from media I don't have much familiarity with - the "Always Sunny" characters are all monsters, Barney from "How I Met Your Mother" is a suit-loving womanizer, Jack Bauer from "24" is an over-the-top badass action hero, and Turk and J.D. from "Scrubs" have the best bromance of all time.  There's rarely any reference that goes much deeper than that.  I've filled myself in on most running jokes with just a couple of Youtube clips.  It's incredibly easy to find the relevant information these days.  

Besides, if you're going to connect to someone over a piece of media, it's better to connect over a show or film that you have a genuine interest in.  Sure, a "Friends" or a "The Simpsons" reference is always fun to see, but it always feels a little more special when you find that rare fan of "Eerie, Indiana" or "Paranoia Agent."  Also, with the dismantling of the monoculture, and the new reality of peak TV, nobody really expects anyone else to keep up with what they're watching anymore.  Everyone goes at their own pace and plenty of people show up fashionably late to the party.  Mainstream culture more or less reflects that these days.  The only shows it assumes we're all watching are "Game of Thrones," "the Walking Dead," and "Stranger Things."    

And oddly enough, I really don't mind the unfamiliar references.  On the contrary.  I've found that they can be a good way to tell whether or not I'd enjoy a show, whether the humor matches my own, and what the fanbase is like.  For instance, I adore the gruff Ron Swanson from "Parks and Rec," despite never having seen a single episode.  I really will get around to it someday.  Promise.  And I know that I'd probably never be able to sit through any amount of "24" with a straight face.  

Besides, that is a show whose time has definitely passed.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rank 'Em: Peter Jackson's Middle Earth Movies

Enough time has passed now that I think we can look back at Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies with a little more perspective.  As many problems as I had with the "Hobbit" movies, by and large they were pretty decent as blockbuster spectaculars go, and I'm sure that younger viewers especially will get a lot out of them.  Meanwhile, "The Lord of the Rings" remains a high water mark for fantasy in film, and have aged very well.  So, to talk about all of these films, I'm doing a "Rank 'Em" post.  After all, I think it's safe to say that we won't be seeing any additions to this franchise anytime soon.

The films are ranked below from greatest to least.

The Fellowship of the Ring - The first, the shortest, and the one with the dodgiest effects work.  However, it's also one of the loveliest, with its gorgeous opening scenes in the Shire, and our first looks at Rivendell and Lothlorien.  This was the film that sold me and many others on Jackson's take on Middle Earth, and I don't think he's ever really matched it.  The film was epic, but it was so much better grounded than the others, never letting the spectacle overwhelm the story of Sam and Frodo's journey together.

The Two Towers - "The Two Towers" runs a close second to "Fellowship," though I think the split storylines and bleaker aesthetics ultimately hurt its appeal and rewatchability a bit.  Even if you're not a purist, the scenes with Faramir don't really sit right, and the business with the Ents is endless.  There's no denying, however, that the climactic  battle at Helm's Deep is one of the best sequences of the franchise.  Also, there's Gollum, who at the time was the greatest CGI character to ever appear in a live action film.  There still aren't many that match up.  

The Return of the King - Despite the ridiculous number of Oscars, this is easily the least of the original "Lord of the Rings" films.  It's overlong, much too concerned with spectacle over character, and the narrative is much too lopsided in favor of the scenes of warfare.  I'd been looking forward to Frodo and Sam's journey through Moria for ages, and found it disappointingly brief compared to the other storylines.  Still, the film overall is very strong, with some of my favorite moments of the series.  Even the ending credits make me well up.

The Desolation of Smaug - I love the entire sequence with Bilbo and Smaug, which is the high point of the "Hobbit" trilogy in my book.  Thus, I am willing to overlook quite a few of the film's flaws, including the shameless invented romance between Tauriel and Kili.  I liked several of the major action set pieces, including the barrel escape and the fight with the spiders.  Like the other films in this set, "Smaug" has too much padding, but at least the more episodic structure keeps the momentum going strong.  I was never bored, as I was occasionally with the other "Hobbit" films.  

An Unexpected Journey - I thought the "Hobbit" films started out very well with the Shire sequences and the introductions of Bilbo and the dwarves.  Martin Freeman's Bilbo is perfect. However, it took much too long to settle back into the world of Middle Earth.  Peter Jackson's experimentation with the high frame rate format definitely had a negative impact on the visuals. However, I think the biggest issue was really all the new material meant to help expand the story, especially Gandalf's and Thorin's scenes, mucking up the narrative.  It took forever to get the plot rolling.

The Battle of the Five Armies - I don't expect I'll ever totally forgive Peter Jackson for Alfrid, the Jar Jar Binks of Middle Earth.  This movie really never should have existed in the first place, extrapolating a lengthy war out of short section of the book.  More importantly, while watching it I couldn't shake the feeling that Jackson was doing all the greatest hits of the previous films, but they weren't working - spectacular warfare, Legolas doing impossible things, and loads of CGI beasties all felt underwhelming.  The ending came as more of a relief than anything else.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Groaner of a "Ghost"

Now, if I had never heard of "Ghost in the Shell," I would think that the new film from Rupert Sanders, about a cyborg woman named Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johanssen), was a perfectly typical sci-fi action thriller.  The story, involving a corrupt technology company, a killer on the loose, and the Major looking for answers about her past, is mediocre but serviceable.  The hologram infested Asian cityscapes look like a variation on the ones from "Blade Runner," and the stylish action sequences are similar to what you'd expect from "Resident Evil" or "John Wick."  It's only the effects work used to realize the robots and cyborgs that stand out.  Sanders knows how to deliver some striking images, if nothing else.   

The trouble is, of course, that I'm very, very familiar with the "Ghost in the Shell" universe, enough to realize that Sanders is too.  And as a fan of the property, the choices that he makes with this new film adaptation often border on the bizarre.  He more or less relays an original story, but then uses existing pieces of the anime films and television series to tell it, including several extremely faithful recreations of shots and scenes from the original 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" film.  And I don't mean just once or twice, but at least a dozen instances of directly lifting images from the original.  Of course, that just made the problems with the new film more obvious.      

The story is dumbed down, which I expected to some extent, as "Ghost in the Shell" is notorious for its heady existential and philosophical storylines about the blurring of the lines between man and machine.  Mira questions her existence in about the most basic and straightforward terms possible,  by searching for a past she doesn't remember.  However, the way the film contrives to give her satisfying answers is pretty dodgy, especially as it puts some racial identity issues uncomfortably at the forefront of the story - which the film would have probably been better off ignoring because it fails to deal with them in any meaningful way.  Johanssen's performance is decent enough, but the character of the Major feels compromised and diminished.

What the film does get right, however, are several of the side characters, namely the Major's partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek), a much more relatable human figure who makes an excellent secondary protagonist, and Chief Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), who runs the militarized security force that the pair work for.  Takeshi is allowed to be a proper badass while never obligated to utter a single word in English.  The main villain Kuze (Michael Pitt), is also given a few good moments, but is otherwise underdeveloped.  He's a very odd choice of villain when you look at the other franchise favorites that "Ghost in the Shell" had to choose from.  I suspect he would have been more successful if he'd been an entirely original creation.    

Again, I want to emphasize that a newcomer to this material likely wouldn't have the same reaction to the film.  However, this feels like a movie made for the fans, as it includes so much that only the fans would notice and appreciate.  The filmmakers were clearly concerned with fidelity to their source material, but only up to a point.  Similar to Zack Snyder's "Watchman," all the little details and homages are perfect, but the larger work is lacking.  And it's very difficult to enjoy the things that the film did right, like the beautiful update on the opening sequence, when the fundamental themes are so mishandled.  It's frustrating to see so much misplaced ambition, so many good intentions that ultimately came to naught.

The live action "Ghost in the Shell" isn't the disaster I was preparing myself for, but it is a significant disappointment nonetheless, and there's plenty of blame to go around.  As Hollywood continues to run into trouble adapting Japanese media, I have to wonder how feasible similar projects are going to be in the future.  In some ways, "Ghost in the Shell" had every advantage and everything going for it - big stars, a big budget, and director with his heart in the right place.  But in many ways, they was the reason for the film's downfall too.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Disney and PIXAR's Animation Schedule

While I've still got the Disney animated features on my mind, let's take a look at what's coming up next for the studio.  The last time I checked in was 2013, when their schedule of future films looked like this:

Frozen (2013)
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Zootopia (2016)
Giants (2016)
Moana (TBA, likely 2018)
Untitled Dean Wellin Animated Feature (TBA, likely 2018)

And they mostly stuck to that, aside from swapping the dates for "Moana" and "Giants."  Now, after their April update, their schedule of future films looks like this:

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 (2018)
Frozen 2 (2019)
Gigantic (2020)
Untitled (2021)

The "Untitled" entry is probably still the Dean Wellin space-themed film, but we have no way of knowing for sure.  Also, there's another project Lin Manuel Miranda is working on with "Zootopia" director Byron Howard in the pipeline.  The only big news here is that "Gigantic," formerly "Giants," based on "Jack and the Beanstalk," has been pushed back again to 2020.  Note that this isn't rare for Disney, as retooling on these films happens all the time, often with very good results.  However, this does create a somewhat worrying situation, especially when you also take a look at PIXAR's schedule:

Cars 3 (2017)
Coco (2017)
The Incredibles 2 (2018)
Toy Story 4 (2019
Untitled film (2020)
Untitled film (2020)
Untitled film (2021)

The two 2020 films are planned to be originals, and nothing is known about the 2021 film.  However, it's clear that aside from this fall's "Coco," we're not going to be seeing any animated originals from either Disney Animation or PIXAR until 2020.  That's something to be concerned about, especially since there wasn't a single sequel on the Disney Animation slate back in 2013.  

Theatrical sequels have been pretty rare birds for the Disney, usually left to smaller satellite studios like DisneyToon Studios, which handled  "Return to Never Land," "The Jungle Book 2," and numerous direct-to-video sequels.  They've always been eyed with some suspicion by both fans and artists for generally being lower quality, and treated by the studio as a way to make a quick buck during the '90s and 2000s.  To date, the only ones counted as official Disney features are the ones with production actually handled by Walt Disney Feature Animation: "The Rescuers Down Under," "Fantasia 2000," and the 2011 "Winnie the Pooh."

However, if the new "Wreck-it-Ralph" and "Frozen" movies are successful, and there's every reason to expect that that they will be, sequels will become the new status quo like they are over at PIXAR.  And while I've liked some of the  PIXAR sequels and prequels like the later "Toy Story" movies and "Monsters U," I'd rather have a mediocre original like "The Good Dinosaur" in most cases.  Also, keep in mind that Disney, unlike their competitors, relies heavily on their animated output as source material for a whole multimedia empire including theatrical shows, television series, and now live-action features too.  

Sequels, no matter how strong, threaten to dilute that.  There was a "Shrek" musical, remember, but it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to make a "Shrek 3" musical.  "The Lion King" is being remade as a live action feature in the same vein as "The Jungle Book," but we're not going to see remakes of its sequels, "Simba's Pride," or "The Lion King 1½" or "The Lion Guard."  Heck, it's even odd to run across the branded merchandise for "Despicable Me 2" or "Ice Age 4" because there's such a clear cultural expiration date that comes with those movies.    

The only exception would be if the sequels turn out to be massively different from the originals, and the previous Disney feature sequels were actually pretty good at that.  "The Rescuers Down Under" shifted settings entirely to from the Southern bayou to the Australian outback.  "Fantasia 2000" really only used the same conceptual framework as the original.  I'd feel a lot more comfortable if  the new Disney sequels were spaced further from the originals like the PIXAR movies, and there were a greater sense of separation.  

Still, if the sequels help ensure that the original films keep getting made at the level of quality I want them to be, I can't complain too much.  And two or three years between original films is actually about the same rate that they came out back in the studio's glory days.  As long as the studio is still in the business of taking chances on movies like "Moana" and "Zootopia," I guess I can live with the inevitability of a "Big Hero 7."