Friday, December 29, 2017

The Best Classic Films I Watched in 2017

In an effort to highlight older films, here are the best films I watched this year that were not released in 2017 or 2016.  Entries are unranked and listed below by release date. Since this was the year I did a deep dive of  the 1970s, most of the titles are from that decade. Enjoy.

Little Big Man (1970) - Easily the greatest of the revisionist westerns, and my favorite Arthur Penn film to date.  It also features another great performance from Dustin Hoffman, and iconic work from Chief Dan George.  Full of dark humor and surprisingly gentle humanism, it reminds me of nothing so much as "Forrest Gump." "Little Big Man," however, offers a far less compromised, whitewashed journey through America's eventful past.

The Emigrants (1971) - Jan Troell sends 19th century characters played by Sweden's most beloved actors, Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow, on a long and harrowing journey from a poor Swedish village to the unknown American frontier.  It's a deeply affecting experience, and the way Troell presents it, an unusually immersive one.  A sequel film, "The New Land," was also very good, but not quite as transcendent as "The Emigrants."

High Plains Drifter (1973) - Clint Eastwood directs and stars in a revenge tale wrapped up in a brutal western.  It's the imagery that makes this one so memorable, particularly the painted town and the bleak, empty vistas.  I also enjoy the way that the supernatural elements are handled, with a level of restraint it's hard to imagine anyone getting away with today.  There are elements that haven't aged well, but far more that endure beautifully.  

The Bad News Bears (1976) - A sports film that happily thumbs its nose at being a sports film.  Full of cursing kids, an adult authority figure who loves his booze, and bads sportsmanship everywhere you look, there have rarely been such subversive films involving children.  It may not be appropriate for kids, but it's an excellent film about kids, and all the little hypocrisies that they endure in the name of upholding the grown ups' status quo.  

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) - A shining example of the classic Chinese martial arts action film.  Produced by Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers' Studios, the film boasts elaborate training sequences, a charismatic leading man in Gordon Liu, and just a little bit of high-minded spirituality to give the story some extra oomph.  It's a film largely built on spectacle, but the kind of spectacle that remains impressive to this day.    

Tess (1979) - Roman Polanski's adaptation of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" stars a young, intense Natassja Kinski.  And she manages to enliven a long, slow-paced, and psychologically gruelling film that is as much about the harshness of life in Tess's world as it is about her tragic love story.  Like Polanski's "Macbeth," the emotional reality of the characters' lives is mirrored by the cinematic depiction of surviving in gruelling, unfriendly environs to great effect.    

Real Life  (1979) - My favorite of Albert Brooks's comedies sees him playing himself trying to produce a documentary about an ordinary family, and the insane lengths he goes to in order to achieve this.  Looking back, from a world now awash in "reality television," it's hysterical to see the concerns and dilemmas that Brooks and his cohorts come up with for their fictional counterparts.  Mockumentaries have rarely been better conceived or executed.

Steel Magnolias (1989) - I love a film that can evoke a particular time and place and way of life, and nothing has come close to "Steel Magnolias" in capturing the contentious, dramatic world of a certain breed of Southern women.  I love the whole cast, but especially Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine as duelling grand dames.  It's no wonder this has been a cult classic for ages, much copied over the years, but never successfully duplicated.

White Men Can't Jump (1992) - This is such a smart film about race and relationships, following a pair of basketball hustlers who team up to play on the prejudices of their mostly African American marks.  The way the characters talk and play ball certainly doesn't feel like anyone's faking, and pains were clearly made to pay respect to the LA street culture of the era.  The movie's secret weapon, however, is Rosie Perez, in what may be her best role ever.

The Chaser (2008) - Director Na Hong-jin's debut feature is a nervy crime thriller that has so much impact because everything depicted feels so plausible.  The whole situation is complicated, the frustrated hero has too much baggage, and poor timing and lack of information wind up being vital.  Some elements, like the serial killer, are very familiar, but it's the way everything is grounded in the real world that makes him truly threatening


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Death Note" and "What Happened to Monday?"

Netflix has upped its release of feature films this year, and I wanted to put down thoughts on a couple of the genre titles from earlier in the year.  Keep in mind that Netflix's insistence on premiering its films on its streaming service first, or at least simultaneously with theatrical releases has caused an uproar among theatrical exhibitors and at film festivals, so their efforts at becoming a major distributor haven't been as successful as Amazon, which uses a more traditional release model. And despite their best efforts, at this point Netflix feels like a distributor of last resort.  It's hard to shake the feeling that their original films are the ones that simply couldn't cut it anywhere else.

Let's take "What Happened to Monday?" a science-fiction action film starring Noomi Rapace as seven identical siblings living in hiding.  They inhabit an overpopulated dystopia where an overwhelming baby boom has necessitated a strict one-child policy.  The seven sisters are named after days of the week, and share the identity of Karen Settman, a banker.  Raised by their grandfather (Willem Dafoe) to adhere to strict routines and protocols, they've managed to survive to adulthood undetected by the Big Brother-like Child Allocation Bureau, headed by Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close).  Then one day, Monday disappears, leaving her sisters to puzzle out what happened to her.       

"Monday" has one of the most entertainingly ridiculous high-concept premises I've seen in ages.  Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who gave us the "Dead Snow" movies, it's engaging enough as a cheesy sci-fi action movie.  The effects and action are low-end for a feature, but decent enough.  It appears that most of the budget was spent on helping Rapace to play seven different characters who sometimes appear together in the same shot in various combinations.  Alas, not nearly as much effort was spent to make the sisters particularly distinct from each other.  You have the nerdy one, the party girl,  the troublemaker, and the responsible one, and the rest just kind of blur together.  Rapace gamely does her best, but Tatiana Maslany she's not.   

As a sci-fi nerd, it also irked me that this is a case where the premise exists pretty much only to give an excuse for Rapace to play out the seven sisters gimmick.  The interesting overpopulation hypothetical is only touched on enough to suggest some doubt about whether the actions of Glenn Close's character might be justifiable, and give the happy ending some sinister vibes.  The worldbuilding is pretty generic, and mostly involves inserting holographic screens everywhere.  I do appreciate that Wirkola isn't afraid of getting dark and violent, making "Monday" a good bet for those who prefer their action on the bloodier side.  However, I found it a little too dumb for good, dumb fun, especially when Netflix has "Black Mirror" just a few clicks over.  

Now, onwards to "Death Note," Adam Wingard's adaptation of the Japanese manga series.  I'm very familiar with the source material, having read the whole manga and watched the anime adaptation.  A western adaptation didn't strike me as a terrible idea, but I expected that significant changes would be necessary to make the story appeal to American viewers.  So I was very surprised that though the story is moved from Japan to Seattle, quite a bit is kept the same, from character names and idiosyncrasies to culture-specific elements like the existence of "death gods."  The basic premise is identical: a teenager, Light Turner (Nat Wolff), finds a book, the Death Note, that kills whoever's name is written inside.  Light takes on the persona of "Kira" to execute whoever he deems fit, attracting the attention of a detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), who vows to stop him.

Taken on its own, Wingard's "Death Note" is a mostly watchable young adult supernatural thriller, with several underdeveloped elements that feel out of place.  L is a mess of eccentricities and odd behaviors that Stanfield never manages to make fully believable.  The death god Ryuk (Williem Dafoe) shows up to deliver some exposition and be creepy, but he doesn't actually figure into the story in any meaningful way.  I liked the new take on Light's girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), who is very active in this version and becomes Light's partner in crime.  However, the convolutions of the plot don't give us much time to actually get to know her beyond a very, very surface level.  The whole thing stinks of trying to cram way too much of the source material into a movie that doesn't have room for it all.  Why bother telling us there are dozens of rules for using the Death Note, when only about three of them ever come into play?

There are some things that the movie gets right.  Wingard's 80s-inspired visuals are impressive, and there's always something fun onscreen to look at, from neon lit chase scenes to a classroom full of scattered art supplies.  However, the story quickly becomes an over-complicated game of "Gotcha!" and the characters aren't charismatic enough to invest much sympathy in.  There are also constant tonal problems.  Should the movie be creepy and horrific?  Stylized and over-the top like a comic-book?  More realistic and grounded?  "Death Note" settles for a muddled middle ground, to pretty poor effect.  Likewise, Light is treated like an average teenaged schlub, except when the film needs him to be an ingenious megalomaniacal monster.   

Honestly, having seen a couple of these western anime adaptations, this could have been a lot worse.  The American "Death Note" did manage to successfully adapt several difficult parts of the manga, like Ryuk.  However, it also manages to royally screw up some of the basics, like Light's god complex.  Existing "Death Note" fans may get a kick out of some of the little references, but this one is probably best enjoyed by younger, less discerning viewers, who know absolutely nothing about "Death Note."    

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Orphan Black," Year Five

Minor spoilers ahead.

I appreciate that the creators of "Orphan Black" made some attempt to wrap up the loose ends of the series, though I don't think it was necessary.  The show figured out a few seasons ago that the best way to keep its momentum going was to cut the parts that weren't working after every season, and never look back.  And aside from some brief cameos, this is true of the final series as well.  So don't expect to see much of Paul.  Or Vic.  Or Angie.  Or Marion.  Or Shay.  Krystal makes a glorious return, but Tony, thankfully, does not.  

The theme of this year is parenthood, with Kira caught in a pseudo-custody battle between Sarah and Rachel after the pair agree to an uneasy truce.  Meanwhile, Cosima is living with a small commune built around Neolution leader P.T. Westmoreland (Stephen McHattie), still after her cure.  Rachel's mother Susan Duncan (Rosemary Dunsmore) and Dr. Coady (Kyra Harper) see their old rivalry reborn.  Meanwhile, Helena is preparing for the birth of her twins, Alison and Donnie continue to brave suburban life, and Felix remains fabulous.  

The technobabbly plot still makes very little sense, but this is the end of the line for the show, and it's well aware of that.  So there's no more stalling for time, no more running away to fight another day, and no more need to hold off on trouncing the villains too badly so there's someone else to fight next season.  "Orphan Black" definitively ends, Dyad and Neolution are permanently put on ice, and each of the four main clones gets a well-earned resolution to her story.  And, of course, just for fun we get a Krystal episode, an Alison and Donnie episode, and a rather touching Helena flashback episode to fill in a few more bits of backstory before we say goodbye.

The character I thought had the best arc this year was Cosima, who is in the thick of the action investigating Westmoreland's adventures in mad science.  In the past, Sarah would have shouldered the bulk of the investigative work along with battling Rachel, but it makes sense to split it up, and Cosima proves plenty compelling as she digs into Neolution's shady history.  Delphine is also back in the mix, but the dynamics have changed, so she and Cosima are on decidedly shakier ground romantically this year - and it's much more enjoyable to watch.  Sarah has plenty to do, dealing with her changing relationships with Kira and Siobhan.  I appreciate that after all the secret societies and corrupt corporations are dealt with, Sarah still has to face the personal failings that got her into so much trouble at the start of the series.  

It's fun to look back and see all the ground that "Orphan Black" has covered, and all the side characters and villains who have come and gone over the years.  However, in the end it's all about the Clone Club, and Tatiana Maslany's endlessly impressive performances as each of the sisters.  There is a lot about the fifth season that feels repetitive, like Alison and Donnie's wacky hijinks, and Sarah still being her own worst enemy, but we also see some breakthroughs and character growth.  For instance, Alison finally gets to square off briefly with Rachel, and prove she's as much of a force to be reckoned with as any of her fellow clones.  And Rachel engages in some self-reflection, which leads her to realize her priorities have changed.  And the show finally embraces being about bonding and family wholeheartedly, especially in its final moments.

This feels like the right time for "Orphan Black" to be ending, since the show's creators have pushed the original premise about as far as it can go.  Even with a few major deaths, the genre elements are difficult to take seriously anymore, and there's only so many times that we can be asked to care about Kira in peril or yet another of Art's new partners.  The final season isn't one of the better ones, unfortunately, but it does a fine job of helping us to say goodbye to this universe and everyone in it.  

Look out for a Top Ten list of "Orphan Black: episodes on its way soon.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

My 2017 Holiday Wish List

I got quite a few things I asked for from last year's list, including better diversity, some curbing of sequelitis, and the flourishing of Stephen Colbert on late night.  Alas, there is still no good way to easily access commentary tracks, and Twitter is still awful, but we can't have everything.  This year, I'm going to get a little more topical and serious.  (You should probably stop reading now if you're trying to avoid politics.)  

Dear Hollywood,

This year for Christmas I want…

For the 24 hour news cycle to make some attempts to put on the brakes.  I found it absolutely stunning that the Las Vegas shootings were completely out of the public's consciousness after two weeks, and everyone had moved on to the next catastrophe.  I understand that this year has been relentlessly eventful due to Trump's antics, but the degree of selective amnesia that descended when nobody could find a useful political angle on the tragedy was unreal.  FOX and the Sinclair stations I can understand to some extent, because that's just what they do, but I am severely disappointed that the saner wider media fell victim to the same mindset.

For the recent sexual abuse and harassment allegations regarding Harvey Weinstein and other prominent Hollywood figures to lead to wider changes in the entertainment industry.  As new allegations continue to surface about a growing list of powerful actors, producers, agents, and executives, there's no danger that anyone's going to be able to sweep all of this under the rug.  However, it remains to be seen what the consequences of this will be.  At the time of writing, a few careers have been ended, but no one is in jail, and nobody has taken any serious, concrete steps to change the way things are done, to ensure this can't happen again.        

For Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, and other social media platforms to stop enabling the Russian bots and the Alt-right trolls.  Each has taken a few baby steps to try and curb bad behavior, but I'm convinced that they're all partially responsible for the current climate of fake news follies and convenient internet outrage by allowing a staggering amount of hate speech and the blatant political manipulation to proliferate on their services unchecked.  Especially now that we know that it's happening, not doing anything is pretty much tantamount to endorsing it.  "Free speech" and "non-partisan" excuses aren't going to cut it.  Nazis and Commies are baddies.  Got it?  

For the continued health of Netflix and Moviepass.  (Full disclosure: I still own a couple shares of Netflix).  Both companies are in the middle of taking some big, ambitious risks that could cause them to sink or soar.  Netflix is pouring billions into building up its content library before the rest of Hollywood can get its own streaming services off the ground.  Moviepass is trying to grab as much market share as it can by drastically cutting the prices of its service, and thus the price of movie tickets, to the dismay of movie theaters.  Netflix has already caused a massive disruption to the existing media-consumption model, and Moviepass has the potential to, but I don't know if either are going to survive in the long run as the Hollywood establishment inevitably pushes back.        

For the animation industry to get its groove back.  I haven't written much about the individual films, but 2017 was a pretty lousy year for American animation releases.  I'm looking forward to the "Wreck-it-Ralph" and "Incredibles" sequels, but since the cancellation of "Gigantic," Disney and PIXAR won't have any non-sequel releases until 2020 at least.  Dreamworks is still struggling, and won't even have a release for 2018.  Illumination is making plenty of money, but their films still aren't very good.  After what they did to "The Lorax," I don't want to see what they have planned for "The Grinch."  Oddly, it's the largely ignored Sony Animation that has the most interesting 2018 slate, with "Peter Rabbit" and an animated "Spider-man" film in the works.

For all the new films and television shows coming out this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve.

And for the new "Doctor Who" and companions (and showrunner) to be given a fair shot.  Fingers crossed.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Rank 'Em: The "Die Hard" Movies

I've heard that plans are underway for a sixth "Die Hard" movie, supposedly aiming for a 2019 release, but they were going the reboot/prequel route the last time I checked, and everything was delayed as Bruce Willis went off to make a "Death Wish" remake/reboot.  We've definitely hit a lull, if nothing else, and if the series goes on from here, I expect that it's going to undergo some major changes.  So as it's Christmastime, and "Die Hard" is of course a beloved holiday favorite, this feels like a good place to go back over the existing "Die Hard" films and see how they all measure up.  All five installments are listed below from best to worst.

Die Hard (1988) - The original "Die Hard" remains a ridiculously entertaining slice of male wish-fulfillment vigilante fantasy, with Bruce Willis at his most charismatic and Alan Rickman at his most hateable.  The cat-and-mouse game feels formulaic now because, of course, everyone tried to copy the film in the wake of its success.  You heard multiple action films described as "Die Hard on a train" or "Die Hard on a submarine" for ages.  Alan Rickman may be single handedly responsible for an entire generation of snobby Eurotrash baddies.  And Bruce Willis never had a more loveable role than his everyman cop, John McClane.  

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) - In many ways I like this installment better than the original, largely thanks to the participation of Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus.  He's the real average joe caught up in crazy circumstances this time, and he and McClane make an excellent onscreen duo.  I should note that the film was based on an original script that also nearly became "Lethal Weapon 4" at one point, so certain elements are understandably a little generic.  The evil Simon, played by Jeremy Irons, is a memorable villain, and the action scenes and puzzle challenges are a lot of fun.  I also appreciate that the film is very much a New York movie, in the same way that the original was very Los Angeles.

Die Hard 2 (1990) - This one barely squeaks ahead into the third slot for me because while it's a pretty derivative early 1990s action film, it also feels more like a "Die Hard" film than any of the later entries of the franchise.  The plot is, of course, "Die Hard" at an airport.  And like most of the action movie sequels of its era, it tries mightily to duplicate the magic of the original and falls short.  Bruce Willis feels like he's trying a little too hard, and William Sadler is no Alan Rickman.  Still, it delivers the big, bombastic action and disaster beats that you want out of this kind of film.  And I love me some Dennis Franz.  Who doesn't love Dennis Franz?

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) - It's a totally unnecessary sequel, of course, but I've always felt that the film got an undeserved bad rap.  Toning down the violence with a PG-13 rating may have ticked off some of the gorehounds, but Willis wasn't exactly in the shape to be doing crazy stunts anymore.  And I really appreciate the injection of some humor with the participation of comedic actors like Justin Long and Kevin Smith.  The cybercrime-centric plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though, and sadly Timothy Olyphant is wasted in the bad guy role.  Still, the film is very watchable as a light action movie, even if it's not very good as a "Die Hard" installment.  

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) - The only "Die Hard" movie I just flat-out dislike.  There's McClane's oafish son played by a weirdly thuggish Jai Courtney, the cinematography by someone who apparently took "shakeycam" as a challenge, and the writing is just dire the whole way through.  The saddest part of the whole sorry venture is Bruce Willis, whose heart clearly isn't in it anymore.  The only parts I enjoyed were Mary Elizabeth Winstead's brief cameo and a nice little homage to the original "Die Hard" when the bad guy meets his end.  I'm hoping that this is where the "Die Hard" franchise finally stops, because there can only be continued diminishing returns after this.  


Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Top of the Lake" Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

The first season of Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake" was a mystery show and crime thriller that paid off for me in a more or less satisfactory way.  There was a definite sense of finality, and most loose ends were wrapped up.  The second season, however, offers none of these things and left me immensely frustrated.  However, while I don't think the series was successful at what it wanted to do, I can't stop thinking about it.

Detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) has joined the Sydney police, where she's given a new partner, Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie), and a new case.  The body of an Asian prostitute, dubbed "China Girl" is found in a suitcase dumped in the ocean.  We learn early on that the victim worked at a local brothel run by Alexander "Puss" Braun (David Dencik).  By coincidence, he's the much older boyfriend of a seventeen-year-old girl named Mary Edwards (Alice Englert), who Robin gave up as a baby, but has now decided to try reconnecting to.  Uneasily caught in the middle are Mary's adoptive parents Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman), whose marriage has fallen apart.

"China Girl" isn't a mystery in the traditional sense, because solving the crime is never the source of the real drama.  We already have most of the big pieces to the puzzle, and we know that they're all going to come together eventually.  Rather, the mysteries are the more personal ones, that are slowly unravelled through the examinations of the characters.  The central, and most fascinating one is the question of why Mary has fallen so obsessively in love with Puss, a horrible man who treats her badly and is an absolute menace to everyone else around him.  Mary is the one character who is present in all of the show's various storylines, and seems to be the most profoundly impacted by all the negative societal forces we see women contending with throughout.    

With the prostitutes at the brothel, Robin continuing to battle workplace misogyny and PTSD from her assault, and a surrogate motherhood storyline, "China Girl" continues to further Campion's examination of the abuses and exploitation of women.  However, the messages get very muddled, especially as most of them are delivered through a set of very imperfect female characters.  It's a little disappointing the series is ultimately more interested in examining white, middle-class female guilt and privilege than any of the sex trafficking or other more blatant abuses that affect the immigrant characters.  Mary learns that she can't simply step into the shoes of the girls at the brothel, no matter how much her self-destructive tendencies make her wish that she could.  We never hear much from the actual prostitutes though.  

The writing is mediocre stuff, full of too-convenient coincidences and odd storytelling choices.  The last episode in particular is a real head-scratcher, that gives us the requisite big, violent, external crisis, but doesn't bother about resolving any of the personal crises involving Robin or Miranda.  And while I understand the larger point of Puss's storyline, there's absolutely no sense of meaningful consequences, which made the whole thing feel abruptly cut off.  If there was a third series of "Top of the Lake" in the works, I could buy it as a cliffhanger, but I don't think that's what the show's creators were going for.  Also, frankly, I was disappointed that Nicole Kidman's Julia simply never got much to do.  Her rivalry with Robin is certainly well set up, but I thought "China Girl" lost a lot by avoiding so many direct confrontations and having many of the bigger moments happen offscreen.  The elliptical approach can certainly be compelling, but here it just left me deeply unmoved.

Still, I really enjoyed some of the characters in this latest series, particularly the complicated Miranda and innately decent Pyke.  Mary was absolutely infuriating, but I suppose that was the point, and it's a credit to Alice Englert that she remained sympathetic despite frequently provoking so much frustration.  David Dencik is rightly getting the most attention, similar to Peter Mullen in the first "Top of the Lake" series, for playing a very distinctive, very hateable villain.  Puss's look and mannerisms seem to be modeled off of Tommy Wiseau, but he's very much his own brand of malignant crazy.  Elizabeth Moss is decent, but her material here isn't nearly as strong as the first series of "Top of the Lake," and her character suffers for it.

Ultimately, there are plenty of intriguing ideas here, but the execution felt sloppy and more than a little half-baked.  It's rough seeing so much talent I respect put so much obvious effort into something that just didn't work.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The State of the Superhero, 2017

2017 has been a good year for superhero films.  Not all the films were great, or made as much money as the studios wanted them to, but there was definitely a sense of the genre stretching and trying new things that it hadn't before.

I count "Wonder Woman" as the biggest success, the highest grossing film in a historically lackluster summer.  It proved once and for all that a female-led superhero film could be a blockbuster, and that the DC cinematic universe wasn't dead yet.  Patti Jenkins became the highest grossing female director of all time, and Gal Gadot quickly became a superstar.  Sadly, that success didn't carry over to "Justice League," a troubled film that had to recruit Joss Whedon to fill in for Zack Snyder in post-production.  The critical notices weren't as dire as they were for "Suicide Squad" and "Batman v. Superman" at least, and I expect that the franchise will stumble along for a good while yet.  Warners also had the absolutely delightful "LEGO Batman" for the younger viewers, which unfortunately wasn't a bigger hit.

FOX continues to push the boundaries of what a superhero film should be.  The positive reception to last year's "Deadpool" meant that the R-rated "Logan" got more support behind it.  Few box office records were broken, but it made an excellent return on FOX's investment and everyone liked it.  I really want Hugh Jackman to stick to his word and retire from the role of Wolverine after this, because "Logan" was such a wonderful endpoint for the first run of X-men films.  Director James Mangold is talking about the possibility of a Laura spinoff film, which I would be all right with.  That's a corner of the X-men universe that I wouldn't mind seeing again, especially if they stick to the stripped-down neo-western vibe.  

Marvel is still Marvel, and can add three more successful moneymakers to their pile.  "Spider-man: Homecoming" may have only performed modestly for a Marvel movie, but everyone involved seems happy that it successfully rebooted Spidey for a younger crowd and made him distinct from the previous versions.    I was pretty lukewarm on "Guardians of the Galaxy 2," but it seems to have connected with some viewers emotionally in a way that its predecessor didn't.  And then there's "Thor: Ragnarok," which is about the most idiosyncratic Marvel film that's been made yet.  The prior "Thor" installments were pretty dull, so it's understandable why Marvel decided to just hand this one over to Taika Waititi to make into a superhero comedy.  

And that's the best part about the superhero genre now.  Everyone has been at this long enough, and become comfortable enough with the format, that some degree of risk-taking has become acceptable.  There has really been a concerted effort on the part of almost everyone to move away from the same old template of goodie v. baddie PG-13 spectacle with a gigantic, CGI-heavy fight at the end.   So "Wonder Woman" was a WWI story, and "Logan" killed off its best characters, and "Thor" went for the laughs first and the carnage second.  You have films willing to go after different segments of the audience, and taking pains to distinguish themselves from each other.  Suddenly six or eight major superhero films a year doesn't sound so bad after all.   

Looking ahead to next year, the films look less adventurous with titles like "Avengers: Infinity War," "X-Men: Dark Phoenix"  and "Ant-Man and the Wasp."  However, we're getting our first major black headliner in "Black Panther," and our first Native-American one in "Aquaman."  FOX has "New Mutants," which will stick a bunch of younger mutant characters in a horror scenario and see if that works out.  Deadpool will be back for another round of depravity, and "Venom" remains a giant question mark.  And don't forget, the long awaited "Incredibles 2" is coming this summer.  Beyond that, well, things get murkier, especially since we don't know what Disney's going to do with the "X-men."  I sincerely hope that they'll be as hands off as possible aside from the inevitable spinoffs.  

Finally, a little bit of love to the underseen "Captain Underpants" movie, destined to be a cult classic.  I don't personally count "Split" as a superhero film, but apparently it's the prequel to one, so I understand why some do.  And also the new "Power Rangers" wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.  


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Star Wars" Shifting Course

It's going to be a while before I get to see "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," so I thought that I'd catch up a bit on the production drama that's been going on behind the scenes with the various "Star Wars" films.  The big one, of course, is that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ejected from the Han Solo movie a few months ago and replaced by Ron Howard.  Directors are replaced all the time, but this situation was unusual in that a good chunk of the film had already been shot.  Since then, Colin Trevorrow was ousted from "Episode IX" and replaced by J.J. Abrams, and Stephen Daldry is rumored to be in talks to direct an Obi-Wan Kenobi movie.  Daldry, if you're unfamiliar, is a well-seasoned director best known for prestige dramas like "Billy Elliot," "The Reader," and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

Now these developments, coupled with the prior removal of Josh Trank and the rumors about Gareth Edwards being sidelined on "Rogue One," while Tony Gilroy stepped in for reshoots, point to Lucasfilm's early strategy of recruiting younger, less experienced directors to the franchise having mostly fallen apart.  With the exception of Rian Johnson, none of the younger directors have worked out.  This strikes me as odd, because several of the Marvel Universe films have been helmed by similarly inexperienced directors like Scott Derrickson and  Jon Watts, and the results have turned out just fine.  On the other hand, we're only three films into this latest batch of "Star Wars" movies, and expectations haven't been entirely ironed out yet.  Marvel didn't make it's first real risky move until it put Joss Whedon in the director's chair for ""The Avengers," the sixth Marvel film.  And, of course, Marvel has had its own behind-the-scenes drama with directors - see Edgar Wright and "Ant-man."

I think it's also important to keep in mind that with big franchises like this, the directors don't have as much creative control as they would on their own personal projects.  This has been true of "Star Wars" since the very beginning, as it was always George Lucas running the show, and few people remember that Irvin Kershner was the credited director of "The Empire Strikes Back," and Richard Marquand did
"Return of the Jedi."  The creative hierarchy is closer to television, with the "brain trust" writers and producers having a much larger voice, and many crucial elements like release dates and production timelines already predetermined.  Marvel has successfully employed several television vets like Whedon, Alan Taylor, Jon Watts, and the Russo brothers, despite their short lists of feature credits.   

So when everyone brings up "creative differences" and "culture clash" being the big culprits that sent all these "Star Wars" directors on their way, I suspect that the issue was that the directors didn't have the degree of creative freedom that they thought they did.  Now, Trank and Trevorrow's departures don't surprise me so much, because they're Hollywood newcomers who may have had issues adjusting to the environment.  Lord and Miller, however, have successfully launched at least three franchises and got their start in television ages ago.  Exactly how wide was the gulf between their sensibilities and those of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan?  Clearly at this point it's not an issue of the directors being untalented or unable to play ball, but the expectations of the producers not being met.  

But what are those expectations?  That's the big question right now.  With the shift toward more established, but relatively low profile directors, my guess is that the Lucasfilm bigwigs want more conventional, more traditional pictures for now, and are steering clear of anything flashy or daring or new.  And, of course, that's already been evident with the "Star Wars" spinoffs all revolving around known characters or direct links to the original films.  This is a little disappointing for those of us who wanted to see the "Star Wars" be bolder and more adventurous, and to feature more individual directorial voices.  

However, if the franchise continues to do well and the number of "Star Wars" installments increases, I expect that this will change.  Once the novelty of the movies wears off, creativity and innovation will become more important to avoid stagnation.  It may take a little longer, but the new generation of directors will get to make their "Star Wars" films eventually.     


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Great Movie Easter Egg Hunt

When I was watching "Spider-man: Homecoming," I was struck by how many little cameos, in-jokes, references, and homages were packed into the film, from the old 1960s cartoon theme song making an appearance during the opening credits, to former Spider-man candidate Donald Glover in a minor role, to the AI of Peter's Spider-man suit being voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who in real life is married to Paul Bettany, who voices JARVIS, the AI of the Iron Man suit.  

These were just the Easter Eggs that I caught myself.  When I went online after the movie, I found a staggering list of additional ones.  Apparently every thug that Spidey runs into during the film is a version of some future supervillain.  The school principal is a descendant of one of the Howling Commandos from the first "Captain America" film, which you'd only know if you managed to catch a glimpse of a photo in his office.  Even the license plates on some of the cars are issue numbers from the "Spider-man" comic book.  And then there's the incredibly obscure "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" reference.

Now, these Easter Eggs in "Spider-man: Homecoming" were handled well, and weren't distracting.  If you didn't happen to catch them, it didn't have much impact on your enjoyment of the rest of the film.  However, there have been many instances lately of Easter Egg heavy films handling these elements badly.  For instance, I think this is a big reason why the "Ghostbusters" reboot was such a clunker.  It felt like every five minutes, the movie had to stop dead in its tracks to acknowledge another famous face dropping in for a cameo, or to not-so-subtly point out another reference to the original film.  Or then you had the "Beauty and the Beast" remake, which seemed terrified to do anything differently than the animated version.   

I can't really blame the writers though.  Frequently, these Easter Eggs generate some of the most discussion about a film.  Watchers of remakes and reboots often are anticipating homages, and there's been a sort of gamification of the viewing experience, as filmmakers are now actively encouraging audience members to pore over every scene in search of the more obscure ones.  In PIXAR movies, we know to be on the lookout for the Pizza Planet truck, A113, and references to other PIXAR films.  Quentin Tarantino films frequently use the same brands, and many of the characters are distantly related to one another.  Fans have spent untold hours figuring out ways to connect disparate films together into vast cinematic universes, often based on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The internet culture around many big movies and television shows is a big reason for the greater scrutiny of media minutiae.  Fans love trivia and sharing trivia, and for a certain segment of them, the more obscure the better.  I noticed a few years ago that trailers were being taken apart frame by frame practically the minute they were released.  It's common now to find Youtube videos and articles detailing the specifics in exhaustive detail.  Filmmakers are responding in kind with more challenging Easter Eggs because they know that the fans are willing to go that extra mile to find them.  The creators of "Westworld" found out last year that even the tiniest clues, like a slightly different logo in a certain scene, could spill the beans on their big twist weeks in advance.  

Mostly, I don't think there's any harm to the greater proliferation of Easter Eggs when they're done well.  Both the filmmakers and the audience members seem to enjoy them.  The trouble comes when the writers lean too hard on the nostalgia, and get too attached to certain elements, leading to some reboots feeling like going down a checklist of all the good stuff from the original.  The reason the "Spider-man: Homecoming" references worked so well was because most of them were practically invisible.  Even if you didn't know that the two student newscasters were based on journalist characters from the comic book, they still worked fine as comic relief.

Personally, I'm not the kind of fan that goes looking for Easter Eggs, but it is fun to spot them when I do.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy 2" and "Spider-man: Homecoming"

Some quick thoughts on this summer's Marvel features.  Minor spoilers ahead.

I had a mixed reaction to the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," since I viewed it as an excellent children's film that was weirdly inappropriate for children.  I've changed my stance, after watching the sequel.  The "Guardians" movies contain plenty of content that kids would get a kick out of, but they're aimed square at adults, and function best as nostalgic, slightly subversive grown-up fun.  So while the sequel has curbed Star Lord's dirty mouth, there's way too much death and brutality involved here to recommend this to anyone under the age of ten or so.

Family matters are the major concern of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2."  Star Lord (Chris Pratt) reconnects with his long-lost alien father Ego (Kurt Russell), while Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fend off her murderous foster sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is dealing with a severe bout of self-doubt, and winds up unlikely allies with space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to make inappropriate comments and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) remains adorable.  Pretty much everything that people liked about the first film is back for another round - the '70s soundtrack, the dazzling action set-pieces, and the slightly off-color humor.  Some of it matches up to the prior film, and some of it doesn't.  However, the sense of spontaneity and freshness is gone, and none of the characters manage to summon the same amount of charm as they churn through a by-the-numbers plot.
The one big exception, however, is Yondu, who emerges as the MVP of the film.  His subplot turns out to be the most successfully executed, and gives "Guardians 2" something that the original didn't: heart.  While the other characters' stories all try to tug at the heartstrings, Yondu's is the only one that really connects.  Most of the other Guardians felt shoved into personal arcs that I just wasn't interested in seeing play out, and you can tell that the creators had trouble finding things for everyone to do.  Still, the good parts worked well enough for me to think well of the entire film, even if most of it was pretty mediocre.  I like this one marginally more than the original, but it's not one I'm likely to revisit soon.   

"Spider-man: Homecoming," on the other hand, is my favorite Marvel movie since "The Avengers," and my favorite "Spider-man" movie period.  I wasn't expecting this at all, with the character having gone through so much onscreen and offscreen mishandling over the past few years, and director Jon Watts being a relative newcomer.  Yet somehow, the integration of Spider-man into the Marvel universe has gone seamlessly, and he's been properly set up for future movies that I'm actually looking forward to.   

I think the key decision the creators made was to really scale back Spider-man's super-heroics and go back to basics.  This is the Marvel movie to take the kids to, because it offers something that none of the prior Marvel movies do: a hero who is a kid.  Played by a squeaky, ebullient Tom Holland, this version of Peter Parker is a fifteen year-old high school sophomore who is only just barely starting out on his career as a web-slinger (though Uncle Ben is thankfully never mentioned) and eager to join the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who gave Peter a high-tech Spidey suit in "Captain America: Civil War," functions as an often absent mentor, who bails him out of trouble, delivers lectures about risky behavior, and is frequently annoyed by his teenage antics.  

I like that "Homecoming" jettisons so much of what we've come to expect from a cinematic Spider-man movie.  He stays in Brooklyn instead of swinging around Manhattan.  J. Jonah Jameson and the Osbournes are nowhere in sight, but Peter's best friend Ned (Joseph Batalon) is a great new addition.  Love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) is entirely original, but there are plenty of references to other Spider-man universe characters, including reworked versions of bully Flash (Tony Revolori) and gal-pal Michelle (Zendaya).  "Homecoming" also boasts one of the best Marvel villains in the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a small scale, blue-collar weapons dealer who is just the right amount of threat for this film's greenhorn Spidey.

Best of all, the movie is fun.  It's got such a great energy and lightheartedness to it, and I love that Peter Parker really gets to enjoy being Spider-man in a way that his predecessors didn't.  With smaller stakes and plenty of gags and humor, "Spider-man: Homecoming" is a fantastic romp.  And it's exactly what the franchise needed to get back in its feet.    


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Life" and "Alien: Covenant" With Spoilers

I wasn't going to write up anything on "Life," which I found a decent, if by-the-numbers space thriller, but then I saw "Alien: Covenant."  The two movies have so much in common, I had to talk about them together.  So, here we are.  Spoilers for both movies ahead.

I liked "Life" more than I was expecting to.  It is absolutely patterned off of "Alien" and other thrillers set in space, but with surprisingly high production values, a strong cast, and some bloody good kills.  I couldn't tell you the names of Jake Gyllenhaal's and Rebecca Ferguson's lead characters, but at least they were compelling enough to keep my attention in the moment.  The monster, a quickly evolving alien organism dubbed Calvin, was plenty memorable too.  Even the predictable twist ending was pretty effectively executed.  Sure, it had the reckless scientists and other plot holes that everyone complains about, but I thought the movie worked pretty well as a slick genre picture.  

What I didn't expect was for "Life" to do "Alien" better than this year's actual "Alien" movie,"Alien: Covenant."  Now, "Covenant" had higher ambitions and some different elements in the mix to complicate things, but the basic formula was the same, and many of the finer details too.  The cast is picked off one by one by an alien menace.  A headliner was the first to be killed off.  The ending appears to nihilistically spell the doom of every remaining good guy and a significant chunk of humankind.  The complications boil down to "Covenant" being a direct sequel to "Prometheus," and therefore another prequel to the original "Alien" that further charts the evolution of the famous Xenomorphs.  

And I have to wonder, what was Ridley Scott's thinking here?  He's clearly more interested in delving into the franchise mythology than making another variant on the haunted house plot that all the "Alien" films inevitably seem to end up being.  "Covenant" fares no better than "Prometheus" at delivering thrills, not even having a standout suspense sequence like the nightmarish medical pod C-section.  All the human characters are uniformly bland, despite being played by a bevy of dependable actors including Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny Huston.  It all feels like an excuse to bring back the android character David, played by Michael Fassbender, and to pair him up with another android, Walter (also Michael Fassbender), for some darkly philosophical musings on humanity and playing God.

And to its credit, all of that material with the androids works fine.  Fassbender is excellent in both roles, and David continues to be the most fascinating aspect of these later "Alien" films.  The trouble is that he makes a pretty poor villain for the half-hearted creature feature that's happening around him, and the demands of that creature feature end up undercutting much of David's story.  "Prometheus," which I was moderately positive on, raised all these interesting questions about the origins of humanity and the alien race of "Engineers."  "Covenant" provides some answers, but they're very disappointing, compromised ones.  I'd have been much more receptive to a "Prometheus 2" that delved into events that "Alien: Covenant" is in too much of a hurry to gloss over.  

I think "Covenant" is worth a watch for those "Alien" franchise fans who are more interested in the mythology aspects, and maybe Fassbender fans.  The film is well made, and Ridley Scott hasn't lost a step where the actual filmmaking is concerned.  However, those who enjoyed the earlier "Alien" movies for being satisfying genre films may find themselves better served by the simplicity of the chills and thrills in "Life."  "Covenant" is too concerned with advancing  its serialized elements to be much fun on a visceral level.  

What really interests me, however, is the fate of the "Alien franchise" going forward.  "Covenant" leaves the door open for more of the prequel storyline in the future, but recycling the same formula again seems untenable.  Are we finally going to see a larger scale xenomorph invasion or attack in the next installment?  Is a next installment even a possibility after the disappointing performance of "Covenant."  I'd be more forgiving of "Covenant" if it was setting up something larger - but I have no guarantees of any payoff.    


Monday, December 4, 2017

"The Americans," Year Five

Spoilers ahead for the season.

This is the penultimate season of "The Americans," and it's definitely a slow burner. Some in the media have been wringing their hands that they show is treading water, that it's lost a step because so much time is devoted to set-up for the impending finale. Nothing particularly big or exciting happens this year, but there's still plenty of good character work, and a couple of major problems have been addressed. I expect that bingeing the season once it was over was the right way to watch this, since it was easier to appreciate the cumulative effect of the slower storylines.

I suspect a lot of the dissatisfaction comes from the fact that there are so many anticlimactic storylines and dead ends this year. Paige and Matthew's relationship falls apart quickly. Philip's son Mischa (Alex Ozerov) makes several appearances trying to find his father, only to be intercepted and sent home. He's been nicely established as a sympathetic character, but did we need to spend so much time with him? Or what about Oleg Burov, who takes on a new role investigating food suppliers for the KGB? His family dynamics are fascinating, but giving him such a big part of the season felt way too indulgent. Stan and Aderholt's attempts to recruit a new source, Sofia (Darya Ekamasova), could have used more attention.

However, it was nice to get updates on Martha, Kimmy, and Pastor Tim, while Paige and Henry's storylines are definitely progressing. Henry had his best season yet, and it was clever that the show worked the writers' tendency to overlook Henry into the actual plot. Keidrich Sellati actually had a fair amount to do this year, and it all played fine. Uncoupling him from Stan Beeman, however, removed a sorely needed source of tension for the Jennings. Whether new girlfriend Renee (Laurie Holden) is really a spy just isn't as worrisome as Stan becoming Henry's father figure. Paige finally getting to put the Pastor Tim problem to rest was very satisfying arc, though, and I love that she's become the show's biggest ticking time bomb.

As for Philip and Elizabeth, I thought that their season arcs were pretty strong, aside from the plan to return to Russia with the kids in the last two episodes. Frankly, I never bought that it was a real possibility and the show didn't sell it well. More interesting were the two major operations going on this year, the agricultural research assignment that shows the Jennings growing tired of trying to maintain more fake relationships, and their steady disillusionment with manipulating the lives of the Morozova family, where they go undercover as the parents of a teen operative from another agency. Tuan (Ivan Mok) is one of the show's most fascinating characters to date, and he was a big reason why I thought the Morozova plot was the most successful one this year.

Others have pointed out that the larger problem with this year was that the various plotlines didn't intersect much the way that they did in the past. At this point there's almost no feeling of danger that the Beemans will stumble on the activities of the Jennings, even after Henry visits Stan's office. Oleg's work with the Russian food chain ties to the agricultural mission slightly, but the connections are tenuous, and both stories are largely dropped in the second half of the season. Gabriel is the only character who provides any kind of linkage, and he's retired from all the exciting stuff.

This run of episodes does a fantastic job of table-setting, though, wrapping up loose ends and maneuvering everyone into the right state of existential funk where season six can set off some real fireworks. The Cold War's not quite done yet, but all the characters know they're on the losing side. And I do want to see how this all ends. I have every expectation that season six will be worth getting through season five for. I just find it a shame that the "Americans" creators couldn't find more ways to add more excitement this year. I mean, deeply introspective adult dramas are all well and good, but "The Americans" has never quite been that kind of show.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Digging Into "Dirk Gently"

I know I read "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" after finishing off Douglas Adams'
Hitchhiker" series, but I don't remember much about it. The book originated from unused story concepts that Adams prepared for "Doctor Who," so it seems fitting that a new version should be coming along now, as "Doctor Who" is enjoying its revival. However, very little of the new television series adaptation, produced by Netflix and the BBC, pinged as familiar, and the bulk of the characters appear to be original. So I'm pretty comfortable saying that the bulk of the credit for this version should go to the show's creator, Max Landis.

If you're familiar with Landis's work, many of his usual hallmarks are here: seemingly ordinary young man caught up in a big genre adventure, lots of flashy, chaotic violence, way too much exposition, and a few noticeably weak female characters. The plot revolves around Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a self-proclaimed holistic detective, who doesn't look for clues but instead focuses on the interconnectedness of events, and allows the universe to essentially point him in the right direction. So, to solve the murder of an industrialist, Dirk first recruits Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) as a reluctant assistant. Todd is an unemployed bellboy whose life is suddenly beset by an onslaught of calamities. Because Dirk knows there is no such thing as a coincidence, this means Todd is important. Eventually Todd's sister Amanda (Hannah Marks), the industrialist's bodyguard Farah (Jade Eshete), a holistic assassin (Fiona Dourif) and her hostage (Mpho Koaho), two police detectives, several government agents, a gang of anarchists, a dog, a kitten, and a shark all become involved, and these are just the good guys.

There's a slightly worrying sense of chaos to the first episode, where the show just keeps throwing outrageous events and ideas at wide-eyed Todd and the audience willy-nilly, with very little pause to let anything sink in. Dirk initially comes off as a manic weirdo, as though he's trying too hard to evoke the David Tennant version of the Doctor. Fortunately there were seven other episodes to flesh out the characters, sort out all the wackiness, and ensure that everything does make sense in the end. Too many of those characters tend to speak in overly verbose and rambly dialogue, and there are a few points where the good guys just decide out of the blue to be mad at each other or to do something very stupid. But on the whole, it's all very entertaining.

The cast is excellent, helping to ground the frequently ridiculous events in some kind of emotional reality. Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett are both likeable and charismatic, and play well together. My favorite characters, though, are Bart the assassin and Ken, her poor hostage. Fiona Dourif and Mpho Koaho manage to build up a sweet, if wildly improbable, relationship between the two of them. I had some trouble with more minor characters, though. Farah is one of those problematic heroines who is repeatedly told that she's a badass far more often than she's actually allowed to demonstrate that she's a badass, and prone to losing IQ points whenever the plot needs her to. Hannah Marks is great as Amanda, but the character is also constantly hampered by a convenient chronic ailment.

However, the mystery elements of this mystery show are handled very well, and I'm always a sucker for good whodunits. The explanations are imparted to the audience in neat little chunks, slowly ramping up the absurdity until the final reveals involving fantasy elements paranoid conspiracies make perfect sense. Dirk's not the only part of "Dirk Gently" that reminded me of the modern "Doctor Who." Both deal in high-concept, high energy genre hijinks, but "Dirk Gently" takes advantage of having so much more time to tell this one particular story, to do a lot of good worldbuilding and mythology spinning. Too many other shows never manage to get that right. And the result is a very fulfilling jaunt into a weird, but ultimately comprehensible universe, that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

Definitely room for improvement here, but "Dirk Gently" was a lot of fun, and I look forward to the next season.