Sunday, October 29, 2017

My Top Ten Television Title Sequences

I've been reading a lot of Art of the Title recently, and since we're in the middle of a revival of television title sequences, I figured that this was as good a time as any to make up a Top Ten list. My only real criteria is that the sequence in question should be one that I enjoy on its own apart from the show, and don't usually skip.

Entries below are unranked, ordered by airdate.

"The Twilight Zone" (1960) - For a classic entry, really the only title sequence that stick in my mind is the original "Twilight Zone." I'm partial to the second season's opener out of all the different ones produced, but they're all fantastic. The black and white animation was largely the handiwork of director Rudy Larriva. Marius constant wrote the iconic theme music. Though there was nothing else quite like it to this day, you can see the influence of the sequence on science-fiction television titles from "The Outer Limits" to "The X-Files."

"The Cosby Show" (1985)- My apologies, but I can't deny that "Cosby" had my favorite opening sequence when I was a kid. Stu Gardner's jazz theme was rearranged each season, but the central conceit of Bill dancing with each member of his family remained the same. Over time significant others were incorporated, the musical styles changed, and the kids slowly grew up. My favorite version of the theme is the Bobby McFerrin one from the fourth season, but the second season's dancing sequence is easily the best, the baseline that all the subsequent ones were variations on.

"The Simpsons" (1990) - I have to give this one the edge for what the title sequence became over time. The Danny Elfman theme is fantastic, and the blackboard and early couch gags were a lot of fun, but this didn't become a "best of all time" sequence until the show started turning the titles over to guest directors like John Kricfalusi, Sylvain Chomet, Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, and Banksy. And there was that epic "Rick and Morty" crossover. What animation fan could resist? Of those done in the show's house style, the sentient couch takeover gag is my current favorite.

"Star Trek: Voyager" (1995) - Jerry Goldsmith's sonorous orchestral theme provides the backbone to the absolute best of the "Star Trek" opening sequences, or really any of the space-themed opening sequences that follow the same model. The special effects work is elegant, the imagery evokes the grandeur of space exploration beautifully, and it also brings up great memories of the older "Trek" franchise. Alas, this is another case where the opening is the best part of the show. I respect many elements of "Voyager," but the show never won me over.

"Millennium" (1996) - I can't explain why this melancholy opener stayed with me over all these years, especially since I didn't much like the show that it was made for. Maybe it's because the brief images of despair and and the uneasy, apocalyptic mood did such a great job of reflecting an undercurrent of societal dread about the fast-approaching end of the '90s. Nothing else on television at the time looked like this or felt like this, not even spooky sister show "The X-files," and I'm impressed that the FOX network gave Chris Carter and composer Mark Snow free reign to go so dark.

"The Drew Carey Show" (1997) - All three of the show's opening sequences are fun, but the last and most famous one is the clear standout. "Drew Carey" had a well-known penchant for putting together elaborate musical numbers, and their celebration of all things Cleveland, set to the The Presidents of the United States of America cover of "Cleveland Rocks" was one of their best creations. The full extended version of the opening sequence is my favorite, but the last season of the show gets kudos for playing "Cleveland Rocks" in a different musical style for each episode.

"Paranoia Agent" (2004) and "Cowboy Bebop" (1998) - I could (and probably should) do an entire list consisting of anime openings, which are often very elaborate and used to new plug music. For now, however, I'm going to split this entry between two favorites: the iconic "Bebop" opener set to Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts' boisterous "Tank!" and the beautifully bizarre "Paranoia Agent" opener that appears to show all the main characters losing their minds to Susumu Hirasawa's "Dream Island Obsessional Park." Two very different shows, each with a perfect mood-setting OP.

"Dexter" (2006) - It's so simple and so clever. What better way to get into the head of the friendly serial killer next door than to shoot his innocuous morning routine like he's about to commit a series of violent murders? The playful tone and macabre framing of breakfast foods and Dexter's shaving routine make this one of the most unforgettable openers ever made. Shoelaces and floss never looked so sinister. Credit for the concept go to Eric Anderson and his team at Digital Kitchen. Composer Rolfe Kent used a lute-like bouzouki to get the theme's distinctive sound.

"Game of Thrones" (2011) - As a fantasy fan who has read many a book that includes maps of imaginary countries, I couldn't possibly leave the "Game of Thrones" opener off the list. I love the way that the sequence sets expectations, showing off the series' wide scope, hinting at the heavy use of special effects, and suggesting the Machiavellian machinations underlying everything, symbolized by all the animated clockwork and turning gears. Angus Wall and Leanne Dare were director and designer of the sequence, respectively, and Ramin Djawadi was composer.

"True Detective" (2014) - The Handsome Family's “Far From Any Road” is endlessly hummable and the biggest reason why the first season's title sequence makes the list. The eye-catching visuals, however, have been far more influential, and there are an awful lot of current series with "True Detective" inspired title sequences still running. While I like the second season variation, there's just something special about the western-infused original. Patrick Clair and Raoul Marks were director and designer, and the opener owes a lot to the influence of photographer Richard Misrach.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A "Colossal" Anti-Rom-Com Monster Movie

I've been a little concerned about Anne Hathaway, who has fallen off the radar a bit since she won an Oscar and aged out of the big blockbuster ingenue roles. She's still one of our most talented, versatile performers, and I was a little surprised to see her pop up in a Nacho Vigalondo indie sci-fi/fantasy film. However, I can certainly see why she was attracted to the lead role, a complicated, juicy character named Gloria. An alcoholic writer who has been thrown out by her New Yorker boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), Gloria is forced to retreat to her hometown in Maine to try and get her life together, with the help of childhood buddy Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). And she soon discovers that she's psychically connected to a giant monster who keeps mysteriously appearing on the other side of the globe in Seoul, to terrorize the Korean populace.

That's right, folks. "Colossal" is simultaneously an indie relationship film about a small handful of screwed up people and a kaiju monster movie, and somehow Vigalondo manages to make both sides of the film work. The more intimate scale self-destruction and interpersonal clashes of Gloria and Oscar are given massive-scale consequences thanks to some existential supernatural shenanigans. And on the flip side, the seemingly random actions of the kaiju are shown to be the result of all-too-human foibles. I should caution that those looking for more of a straight monster movie are likely to be disappointed, since the action is fairly brief, and the vast majority of the film takes place in Maine, with only news reports and internet videos filling the characters in on what's going down in Seoul. This is clearly a low-budget production, and the effects work is limited. Far more is suggested than actually shown. Still, the key sequences with the giant monsters are handled very well, and they make for some very potent symbolism as Gloria's situation goes increasingly sideways.

It's Hathaway and Sudeikis's performances that are the main event here. Both are playing characters with significant personal problems, Gloria's being the more obvious at the outset. "Colossal" does an excellent job of slowly laying down bits of information to help shift our perceptions of the situation as it develops, but the initial impressions of our lead as a barely functional alcoholic are vital. Hathaway is able to keep Gloria just sympathetic and funny enough not to be off-putting, but still a desperate trainwreck of a human being who has clearly crossed a few boundaries a few too many times. Gloria is the first time that Hathaway has gotten to play a really thorny, interesting character like this since "Rachel Getting Married," and she's still very good at it.

However, I think Sudeikis may be even more effective, and a big reason why the movie works as well as it does. Though he's not outwardly as out-of-control as Gloria is, Oscar similarly has bad impulses that he's not good at dealing with. Gloria's antics often overshadow his lapses, and it's fascinating to watch how Sudeikis is able to maintain a certain ambiguity about Oscar's state of mind almost all the way up until the end. It's easy to blame the state of Gloria's romantic life on her, but the film gradually susses out all the unhealthy contributions that her partners are making, and other friends and acquaintances enable. "Colossal" ends up being a film that has a fairly even-handed and insightful view on the difficulties of recovery and bad relationships.

As genre films have taken over the box office, and we've seen a resurgence in the "Godzilla" franchise and its kaiju relatives, it's great to see the familiar tropes being put to more thoughtful uses than the usual carnage. I've always loved these films, and found "Colossal" to be an imperfect, but highly rewarding watch. Vigalondo has to perform a tricky balancing act between the silly and the dead serious, and the film requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, but it is one of the bravest attempts at putting together two wildly different genres that I've seen in ages. And though it has some rough spots, and definitely could have used a full scale kaiju brawl or two, it mostly works.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Life Without Reruns

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

My Top Ten films of 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Finishing The '70s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Leftovers," Year Three

Spoilers ahead for the whole series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, October 13, 2017

A Beast of a "Beauty"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Favorite Brian De Palma Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I've Seen - Brian De Palma

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


Monday, October 9, 2017

"American Gods," Year One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Life Cycle of the Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 5, 2017

There's Nothing Little About "Big Little Lies"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"LEGO Batman" and "The Boss Baby"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Day Julia's Name Fell Out of My Head

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

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

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

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

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

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