Sunday, December 30, 2018

The December, 2018 Update Post

It's the end of the year and time to clean house.  I wanted to write a "Top Ten Classic Films" post, the way I have for the past couple of years, but I haven't watched too many this year.  Also, most of the titles I would have written about are going to pop up in my Top Ten lists for the early '70s and late '60s, and I want to avoid repetition.  I also don't feel I have enough for a "Let Me Sum Up" post either.

So, since there has been a lot going on that I've missed, I figured it was high time for new update post.  For those of you unfamiliar with these, I periodically write posts for updates on topics I've previously written about on this blog, but that I don't think need an entire post to themselves.

First off, I never got around to doing a summer season wrap-up, but I want to brag about the results of the Summer Movie Wager.  I got 53 points this year, my best score yet!  My best pick was nailing "Incredibles 2" in the runner up spot.  I was totally wrong about "Christopher Robin" though.

Rooting for Filmstruck and Imzy - One of the worst pieces of news this year was the sudden demise of the Filmstruck streaming service, roughly two years after it launched.  This announcement came only a few months after it was announced that the Warner Archive was shutting down and sending its content over to Filmstruck.  it's a giant blow to classic film fans, since Filmstruck was the best source of older media available. Other major platforms like Netflix and Amazon largely ignore anything made before 1990.  There's plenty of blame to go around, but most are pointing to the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner being a major contributing factor. Now, there's a scramble to find adequate alternatives. Fandor?  Mubi? Kanopy? The Criterion content will be back online with its own channel, but the Warner Archive films will be MIA for the time being. Fingers crossed that they won't stay away too long. Oh, and the "nice Reddit," Imzy, was a bust, which shut down in 2017 after less than a year of operation.   

A Decade of Depp - After fifteen years and five movies, Disney is rebooting the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise and kicking Johnny Depp to the curb.  He's still in the "Fantastic Beasts" movies, but his days as a high-powered movie star look to be drawing to a close. That's not necessarily a bad thing for audiences, as Depp has done the majority if his more interesting work in indie and art films.  As for the "Pirates" franchise, I don't know how much interest is left in the franchise. I think Disney should make sure there's plenty of distance from the last disastrous installment before trying again.

Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film?! - They walked it back. Of course they walked it back.  The negative response was so overwhelmingly bad, it would have been suicide to try and move forward with the new category.  This year's ceremony will likely still see smaller audiences, but that seems to be what's happening to all of network television at the moment.  At least Lady Gaga will be in attendance this year to draw some viewers. I expect that ABC will still try to take measures to try and shore up ratings, but they'll be smaller ones for now.  And I'm all for the push behind the Best Stunt categories.

Can You Reboot an Animated Film? - Well, the studios are certainly going to try.  Universal has announced plans to let Chris Meledandri of Illumination Studios retool "Shrek" and "Puss in Boots."  Meanwhile, reactions to next year's "The Lion King" teasers have been mixed, with several commentators pointing out that the only thing "live action" about the new version is the backgrounds.

The Resurrection of the Anime/Manga Adaptations - "Ghost in the Shell" and "Death Note" have come and gone, with "Alita" coming up quick.  However, it's the upcoming "Detective Pikachu" that looks to be the biggest potential moneymaker, and will probably set expectations for future adaptations.  Also, note that Netflix has announced a live action "Cowboy Bebop" series, which makes absolutely no sense to me, but we'll see what happens.

The Strange Cult Status of "Hocus Pocus" - And finally, I never in a million years would have predicted the huge marketing push that accompanied the twenty-fifth anniversary of this Disney Halloween film.  Spirit stores were awash in fancy new merchandise, a new special about the movie aired on Freeform, and Disney even published a YA book sequel. I still think the movie is terrible, but it's hard to begrudge the fans who are clearly enjoying every moment   


Friday, December 28, 2018

The State of the Superhero, 2018

When it came time to write this post again, I asked myself why I was giving so much attention to superhero movies.  Why not romantic comedies? Why not science-fiction or animated films? Well, for good or bad, superhero films are the most prominent and popular genre of the moment.  They've also been going through a fascinating period of growth and transformation.

2018 will forever be remembered for the success of "Black Panther."  The eighteenth MCU installment is far and away the most high profile and successful black-lead film of all time.  Then Disney went and topped themselves less than three months later with their epic cross-over "Avengers: Infinity War," which is currently the fourth highest grossing film of all time.  Next to those two, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" feels a bit like an afterthought, but it made decent money. Next year should be equally lucrative for Disney, with "Captain Marvel" and the fourth "Avengers" poised to be heavy-hitters.  I'm also looking forward to the next "Spider-man" installment.

Let's not forget that Disney also had another superhero blockbuster from one of its other studios.  Animated superhero films were big in 2018. PIXAR's "Incredibles" sequel performed better than expected - and expectations were already considerable.  Now it's the highest grossing animated film of all time, domestically. Sony's "Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse" was a spinoff that made sense, and will ensure that they hold on to their Spider-man rights for the foreseeable future.  And though Warners' "Teen Titans Go!" movie didn't make much money, it has some passionate fans and great critical notices.

At one time, FOX was supposed to release three superhero films in 2018.  However, "X-men: Dark Phoenix" and "New Mutants" both ended up being delayed, leaving "Deadpool 2" the lone superhero release on their slate.  As adult-oriented counterprogramming, it did well during the summer, and the "Once Upon a Deadpool" cut was cheeky enough to make the holiday re-release appealing.  The looming spectre of the Disney-FOX merger puts the future of all these franchises in limbo, but "Deadpool 3" is a given. I'm hopeful about the 2019 releases, though what I'm the most excited about on the FOX slate is Drew Goddard doing "X-Force."  There is still no sign of "Gambit."

Sony's "Venom" did very well in October, despite crummy reviews and troubling chatter about the production.  We can expect a sequel or two, which will keep the Sony Marvel franchise going for a while. However, it's future films like "Silver & Black," currently in limbo, and the Jared Leto "Morbius" project that will really test the viability of these spinoff films.  I still think it's only a matter of time before the Sony and Disney controlled Marvel film universes end up fully merged, but on the other hand, the current division means that we get cool experiments like "Into the Spider-verse," which I hope we'll see more of.   

And finally, the DC Universe on film is still pretty rocky, but starting to move in more interesting directions.  "Aquaman" is doing much better than expected, and Warners has plenty of promising titles in the pipeline. The Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix is a giant question mark right now, but it's certainly got my attention.  "Shazam" looks like a lot of fun, though I don't think it'll be the kind of success that Warners is hoping for. The "Wonder Woman" sequel has been pushed back to 2020, after a Harley Quinn-centric "Birds of Prey" movie with a ridiculous title.

2019 will also see the reboot of "Hellboy," and M. Night Shyamalan's highly anticipated "Glass."  And if you want to get technical, the "MIB" reboot with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, and the third "Kingsman" movie can also count as superhero media, depending on who you ask.  That all adds up to at least a dozen major titles coming next year, all vying for our attention. That would have seemed like a ridiculous notion a few years ago, but with "Joker" aimed at mature adults, "Shazam!" and "Spider-man" for kids, "Captain Marvel" courting female audiences, and "New Mutants" going for the horror crowd, it's not so ridiculous anymore.       

Stan Lee is dead.  Long live Stan Lee.  And happy watching.


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Updating the Tomatometer

I stumbled across this statistic today, from a recent study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, looking at the demographics of film critics and the impact that this has on the film industry: for every film critic who is female and a racial minority in the Rotten Tomatoes critical pool, there are 17.7 white male critics. The minority female critics wrote just 4% of the reviews on 300 films released in 2017, while white male critics wrote 65%. And this is a problem because our inherent biases related to race and gender tend to affect how we view media, and movies about women of color tend to get more negative reception from white male critics, and more positive reception from female minority critics. So, if you want to improve the prospects of minority women in Hollywood, you've got to boost minority women in the critical community too.

So, you may have noticed that I'm an Asian-American woman who blogs about film for my own amusement, and have devoted posts in the past to Hollywood's representation issues. Is it strange that I didn't notice the lack of diversity among movie critics was a problem until now? Paging through the two reports, I think they do a good job of pointing out issues with how Rotten Tomatoes operates, but I'm not so sure that they say as much about the actual state of film criticism. For one thing, Rotten Tomatoes traditionally only aggregated the opinions of critics who write their reviews for certain publications. The critical community is bigger than that, including bloggers, vloggers, and other social media figures, who tend to be younger and more diverse. These critics can be more influential than the traditional ones, since there are plenty of moviegoers who won't read a written movie review, but might watch a streaming video of one. Youtubers like Chris Stuckmann reach more young moviegoers than your average newspaper critic these days.

Taking this into account, are minority and female critics still underrepresented to such an overwhelming degree? I honestly have no idea, because I don't know who else is out there that I'm not aware of. In other words, I don't know what I don't know. I also have some considerable self-selection biases here, because I don't engage with the critical community nearly as much as I used to. When I do, however, I'm more likely to be reading something written by a freelancer contributing to a variety of different online publications than a big name like Peter Travers or A.O. Scott. I know that I've never had much trouble finding the critical voices from my own demographic. Shoutout here to Angie Han, Jen Yamato, and Inkoo Kang. On the other hand, not everyone goes looking for the critics that are more reflective of their views, the way I do. And I know I'm not exposed to black and Latino voices in the critical community as much as I should be. Like so many others, I'm guilty of not paying enough attention.

I do use the Tomatometer occasionally, when I'm trying to gage whether certain films are worth my time, and I'm all for making sure that it reflects a more diverse array of opinions. So I'm very happy that Rotten Tomatoes recently announced - in direct response to the Annenberg reports - that they were going to expand their criteria for critics in order to help diversification efforts. Now new media, like podcasts and video reviews, will be considered when determining the eligibility of critics. This means independent online critics like Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas of Double Toasted are finally on the Tomatometer. The site is also setting up a grant program to help get critics from underrepresented groups access film festivals, an important source of early buzz for smaller films.

Diversification is in Rotten Tomatoes' best interests too, remember. They only stay relevant as long as their users think they're accurately reflecting the critical consensus. As underrepresented and minority talent has made some impressive gains in visibility in Hollywood this year, it's only right that the most high profile platform of the critical community should follow suit. There's still a lot of room for improvement here, and this is a good reminder to stay mindful of the unconscious biases we're all subject to.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

No, "Kidding." Just No.

Some of my favorite films of the 2000s have come from French director Michel Gondry, namely "Being John Malkovitch" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I was excited when I learned that he was reteaming with Jim Carrey, who starred in "Eternal Sunshine," and Catherine Keener, who appeared in "Being John Malkovich," for a new showtime series, "Kidding." Gondry hasn't had a prominent Hollywood project in a while, and Carrey's also been scarce. I figured that "Kidding" might be a good opportunity for a comeback. And I made it through exactly two episodes before deciding I had to call it quits.

"Kidding" documents a hard time in the life of Jeff Picarillo (Carrey), who is better known as the star of the children's show "Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time." He's estranged from his wife Jill (Judy Greer) after the death of one of his twin sons, and in total denial about the marriage being kaput. His surviving son, Will (Cole Allen), has been acting destructively and hanging out with delinquents. Jeff doesn't get much support from the rest of his family, who are also employed by "Mr. Pickles." His father Sebastian (Frank Langella) recognizes that Jeff is on the skids, but is more worried about the impact on the show. His sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener) has her own worries, with a cheating husband and precocious daughter to look after.

I think what bothers me the most about "Kidding" is that it leans so heavily on the "Mr. Pickles" conceit. Jeff is essentially a screwed up Fred Rogers stand-in, and yet clearly is nothing like Fred Rogers in temperament. It probably doesn't help that I saw the documentary about Rogers' career, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" very recently, which highlighted the regular risks that "Mr. Roger' Neighborhood" took to address real world issues facing children. So the squeamishness of Sebastian and the emotional dysfunction of Jeff don't ring true. And when "Kidding" goes so far as to invoke old urban legends about Fred Rogers, and patterns the "Mr. Pickles" show so closely off of "Mr. Rogers," it feels really disingenuous.

I suspect the only reason so much attention is put on the puppet show is because Michel Gondry is involved, and these elements gave him the opportunity to inject his usual creative whimsy into "Kidding." However, the show actually doesn't play a major part in the story. Jeff's profession easily could have been anything else, from politician to math teacher. The bulk of "Kidding" is spent watching Jeff going increasingly off the rails in his private life - stalking his wife, trying to connect with his kid, dealing with his own grief, and eventually trying to move on. All of this is played completely straight, except where the contrast between the puppet show and various sexual shenanigans are used for cringe humor or shock value. Frankly, these moments come off as pretty damn distasteful.

And it's a shame, because I like so many members of this cast, and Jim Carrey's performance is strong. He deftly expresses pain under a veneer of silliness, and is alternately sympathetic and unsettling. The supporting cast hasn't had enough to do yet, but I like what I've seen from Langella and Keener so far. I wonder if it would make any difference if the show had more fantastic elements or framing devices, so the puppets and costumes could be more involved. Alternately, if "Kidding" were just about a regular man's life imploding without any of the distraction of the children's show visuals, I think it would go down a lot easier.

"Kidding" is a curious beast, a half-hour dramedy that wants very badly to be darkly comedic, but mostly just comes off as morose and depressing, with occasional weird digressions. It may very well get better as it goes on, but I'm not willing to give it any more time. As good as the ensemble is, they can't make this passel of miserable muppeteers engaging. It was a chore just to get through the second episode.

I find it ironic that in a year that gave us the Gondry-like "Sorry to Bother You" and "Maniac," the project that actually features Michel Gondry is easily the worst of the lot.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My Favorite Jean Cocteau Film

Jean Cocteau was undeniably a great filmmaker, but he was not primarily a filmmaker, directing only eight features in total. He was far more prolific as a writer, producing plays, essays, and volumes of poetry over a career that spanned six decades. He didn't direct his first film, "The Blood of a Poet," until he was in his forties, and already an established, influential figure in the French art world. Cocteau was also a painter, designer, scenarist for ballets, and wrote scripts for other filmmakers including Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville. I suspect we remember Cocteau best as a filmmaker because film was the medium that best reflected his own multidisciplinary, wide-ranging talents.

"Beauty and the Beast" is easily Cocteau's most popular film, but his most ambitious works were the three films that made up his Orphic Trilogy, which draw from the myth of Orpheus to explore the relationships between creators and their art, dreams and reality, and life and death. The second film, "Orpheus," is a full retelling of the Orpheus myth set in modern day Paris. The title character, played by Cocteau's regular leading man Jean Marais, is a poet rather than a musician. Cocteau described it as "a film in which I express a truth peculiar to myself," full of symbols and images that held very personal meanings.

However, I didn't find "Orpheus" to be impenetrable. There are certainly mysteries and ambiguities, but the story is very accessible, and the themes are clear. Orpheus's obsession with his art and immortality are linked to his infatuation with a woman, the Princess (Maria Casarès), who represents Death and acts as a guide to the Underworld. Cocteau was adamant that she was not literally meant to be Death, but it's hard to argue that anything in this film is literal. This infatuation complicates Orpheus relationship with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), who represents a more mundane, ordinary existence.

"Orpheus" has been described as a "poetic film," full of dream logic and abstract, avant-garde elements. The entryway to the Underworld is a mirror that requires magic gloves to traverse. A car radio relays only poetry that may contain coded messages. Cocteau incorporates experimental techniques like running the film backwards to show supernatural actions, and using negative images to create a surreal landscape. The nocturnal Underworld is a fantastic place, where time runs differently and unseen forces are everywhere. The cinematic tricks are simple enough, but it's the careful, artful execution of them that make them so arresting. The way people move in gravity-defying slow-motion in the Underworld, and the way that Orpheus slips through the mirror are still breathtaking to witness.

Jean Marais was a popular screen idol whose reputation was cemented by his double role in "Beauty and the Beast." However, it's Maria Casarès as the Princess (who might be Death) who I found the most memorable. Regally dressed, attended by male servants, and implacable in her demeanor, she projects an air of great knowledge and authority. She appears to Orpheus as an elusive, enigmatic figure, beautiful and remote. When he embraces her, she feels like ice. However, her existence is fragile, and her power is subject to strict rules. Orpheus and the Princess's love for each other is obsessive, but clearly doomed. And it's the Princess who pays the price.

Cocteau had very specific ideas of what "Orpheus" is all about. The immortality of artists and the sacrifices required to achieve this status are prominent themes. The mirrors are symbols of death, as they are a reminder of our mortality. Autobiographical elements, like Orpheus's frustration with being misunderstood by younger poets, are prominent. Several of the film's characters, including the Princess, would return in "The Testament of Orpheus," made a decade later with Jean Cocteau playing his own lead - another poet, naturally. In that film, Cocteau uses them to interrogate his own artistic worth more directly.

I have a special fondness for magical realist films and films that try to capture the feeling of being in a dream. Cocteau's films remain among the most popular and influential of this type for good reason. The fairy tale narratives and the fantastic imagery lend an air of timelessness, while Cocteau's personal struggles as an artist, seen through this lens, remain fascinating.

What I've Seen - Jean Cocteau

The Blood of a Poet (1930)
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The Eagle With Two Heads (1948)
Les Parents Terribles (1948)
Orpheus (1950)
8 × 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957)
Testament of Orpheus (1960)

Monday, December 17, 2018

My Parasocial Relationships

I was happy to learn the term "parasocial relationship" this year. It's defined as a one-sided relationship, found between an audience member and a media figure or organization. I finally have a name for the kind of emotional attachment that I've felt off and on for various actors, presenters, and other talent glimpsed through the screen throughout my life. Like everyone else, I've had the occasional crushes on movie stars, the feelings of dismay when a popular TV show gets cancelled, and the urge to roll my eyes at the antics of celebrities. Oh Kanye, not again.

I've always been an introvert and used to rely on parasocial relationships more than was probably healthy. I suspect a lot of people do when they're young, isolated, and going through transitional phases in their lives. In those situations it's nice to have any kind of friendly constant, be it a late night talk show host who makes you laugh, or a movie critic who likes the same cheesy movies that you do. These relationships can have very positive effects sometimes. Kids of the '70s and '80s knew they could rely on Mr. Rogers to tell them "I like you just the way you are." And of course, these relationships can also turn sour, resulting in stalkers and restraining orders.

It's odd to think of parasocial relationships being as important to some people as real world ones, but they involve very real emotions and can sometimes go on for long periods of time. I realized recently that I had been listening to some of my favorite movie podcasts for over a decade - specifically, since "The Dark Knight" came out. Over the years I've listed to some of the hosts talk about getting married, having kids, changing jobs, losing pets, and going through bad times. I feel like I've gotten to know them, even though I've never met them in person. And that's by design. The more engaged you are with a piece of media, the more likely you are to become a regular consumer of it.

In the Youtube era, parasocial relationships can be very intense. Some content producers will livestream for hours a day, share their personal lives to an uncomfortable degree, and make direct appeals to their audience constantly. Authenticity is a major selling point, and Youtube talent blur the lines between reality and fiction as a matter of course. Youtuber burnout has gotten a lot of press recently, as we've seen the ill effects of inexperienced, unsupported talent trying to maintain public facades and being "on" practically 24/7. It's been fascinating to see the negative impact of parasocial relationships on the people on the other side of our screens.

At the same time, there's also a corresponding negative impact on the viewers of this kind of media. Though social media stars present themselves as authentic, their facades are still manufactured. This can create unrealistic expectations that influence a viewer's self-image and self-esteem. There's also been some evidence that parasocial relationships can help to normalize voyeuristic behavior and skew viewers' real world interactions. There have always been fans who get carried away and have unreasonable expectations, but the amount of access they have to their favorite stars these days is far greater, and can encourage their worst impulses.

There's also the interesting wrinkle of relationships that start out as normal and then become parasocial. I've realized that many of the people I follow on Facebook fall into this category. I have several old schoolmates and ex-coworkers who I haven't talked to in years, but who share the details of their lives online regularly, so I feel like I'm still caught up with them. Sometimes it takes a minute or two for me to remember that I'm looking at carefully curated content that may not reflect reality at all. I found an old friend online recently, who had moved to Boston and excelled in academia. Is she really as happy as she looks in her faculty profile picture?

Finally we come to my own online persona, Miss Media Junkie, who as far as I know is not in any danger of attracting any kind of significant following - and I have no desire to cultivate one. Still, I've always worried about whether the things I post may be misleading or mean or simply reveal too much. From my experiences in various fandoms, I know that people can get attached to the strangest things, and take offense to the most minor faux pas. And when you're online, you can be in parasocial relationships and be affected by them, and never even know it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

About that Han Solo Movie

I tried my best to go into "Solo: A Star Wars Story" not thinking about all of its production troubles or the raging debates going on about its box office performance, the toxic fandom, and the lingering aftershocks of "The Last Jedi." I didn't really succeed, but I don't think it affected my enjoyment of the movie much. "Solo" is exactly what I expected it to be: a slick, noisy action romp leaning heavily on nostalgia for the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

The young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is introduced as a street kid from a rough planet, who escapes into the Imperial navy, but is forced to leave his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) behind. Trying to go back for her, he eventually deserts and joins up with a group of thieves under Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). He has his first meetings with Chewbacca the Wookie (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and gets himself tangled up in the dealings of the Empire, the nascent Rebellion, and a variety of criminal gangs and syndicates.

There are many more characters and quite a lot more plot, which is a big part of the problems I had with "Solo." The movie suffers for trying to do too much. The writers felt the need to jam pretty much every momentous event of Han Solo's past into this movie, and find more ways to connect him to the larger conflicts in the "Star Wars" universe. There's enough material in here for a full trilogy of Han Solo movies, and then it goes ahead and sets up a sequel anyway. As you might expect, not everything gets the attention it deserves. At two and a half hours, "Solo" is about average length for a "Star Wars" movie, but the episodic structure makes it feel much longer. I really enjoyed parts of the film, especially the first hour, but found myself losing patience with it by the end.

I spent a lot of time wondering what the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, would have done differently. We'll never know, but I think it's pretty clear why they were removed - they were trying to make a freewheeling comedy and "Solo" definitely isn't one. The movie is pretty lighthearted and has funny moments, but the densely plotted story takes some very dramatic turns, and has sober, even tragic moments. Taking place mostly in the Star Wars universe's criminal underworld, nearly every character is some variation of crook or con-man. There are also several deaths, plenty of violence, and a melancholy ending. Bradford Young's gloomy, desaturated visuals give "Solo" a distinctly scroungier feel than the other "Star Wars" movies, which is perfect for a story full of double-crosses and shady dealings. There's a little starry-eyed idealism too, of course. It wouldn't be "Star Wars" without it.

Ron Howard did a perfectly fine clean-up job with the production. "Solo" never feels like a rushed or compromised project, though it has some tonal inconsistencies and odd bits of editing. Alden Ehrenreich also delivers a strong performance as the title character. He doesn't look or sound much like Harrison Ford, but he nails the cocky demeanor. Ditto Glover's charming Lando, who is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, I didn't think much of Woody Harrelson's Beckett, who is supposed to be Han's mentor figure, or Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra. The actors aren't the problem here - it's the film's unwillingness to develop the characters beyond very familiar cliches. Qi'ra in particular seems like she'd be a much more sympathetic figure if the writers would just give us a little bit more of her perspective.

Still, if you want a diverting summer flick, "Solo" should fit the bill just fine. It boasts plenty of good action scenes and space opera eye candy. It's also certainly worth a look for "Star Wars" fans, with its loving throwbacks and references to the earliest parts of the franchise. I'm also heartened that "Solo" toys with some darker directions, even if the material ultimately stays very safe and predictable. So while I didn't come out impressed, I wasn't disappointed either. And I'm a little sad this may be the last time we see Ehrenreich and Glover as Han and Lando.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Random Youtube-ery, Part 6

This yearly Youtube playlist comes in the midst of the streaming site's gradual takeover by corporate forces and the tyranny of the Content ID system. Frankly, it's depressing to see original content creators caught in the fallout of the ongoing fight between the pirates and the overzealous corporate lawyers. Along with the site being negatively impacted by the demise of net neutrality, this has been a bad year for Youtube. It remains, however, the default place to find video ephemera online. And I will continue to take advantage of that for the time being.

Since this has become a regular feature, I'm trying to focus on somewhat more current videos.

Legion Finale Cold Open - This is one giant spoiler for the second season of "Legion," but screw it. Seeing the showdown between David and the Shadow King should have little impact on anyone's enjoyment (or frustration) with the rest of the season, and it really deserves to be seen. I love the weirdness of the floating, singing Dan Stevens and Navid Neghaban. I love the use of the animation. I love the cover of "Behind Blue Eyes." Perhaps this season was less than the sum of its parts - but just look at the parts!

Ballroom Blitz - Of course "Wayne's World" had a tie-in music video. How could "Wayne's World" not have had a tie-in music video? Tia Carrere, who is a legit multiple Grammy winner, provided all of her own vocals for the film and its soundtrack. Of course, we're all really watching for the antics of Wayne and Garth, which are charmingly goofy and downright nostalgic at this point. The production values are almost nonexistent, but in the early 90s, productions values for most music videos were almost nonexistent. This brings us to...

I'll Make a Man Out of You - I'm a little embarrassed that I didn't know that this tie-in music video existed until very recently. I knew that Jackie Chan did some of the dubbing for the Chinese versions of "Mulan" and that he even recorded some of the songs. This bare bones video combining Chan's Cantonese version of "I'll Make a Man Out of You" with a martial arts demonstration is a neat little extra for fans, included in the Special Edition releases of "Mulan" stateside.

Duck Dodgers - The Cartoon Network series was, alas, terribly short-lived and rather mediocre. The theme song, however, remains a glorious thing. Yes, that is the real Tom Jones singing the theme, which was arranged by the Flaming Lips.

White and Nerdy Behind the Scenes - Everyone's favorite musical parodist, Weird Al, finally got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few months ago. "White and Nerdy" is one of my favorites, and I was so tickled to find this video of the very first take of Donny "The Whitest Guy I Could Think Of" Osmond's full dance performance.

Lonely Island's Unproduced Oscar Number - After last year's Oscars, Lonely Island tweeted out this demo for a very expensive (and logistically bonkers) musical number they created for the big show. Entitled "Why Not Me?" it features multiple superhero actors questioning Oscar snubs, Michael Fassbender vainly defending "The Snowman," and a Groot cameo. The scary thing is, it seems like the Academy actually agreed with the sentiment when it announced the Popular Film category this year - at least temporarily.

Blue Song - An important predecessor to Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" was his 2003 music video for "Blue Song" by Mint Royale, featuring "Mighty Boosh" actors Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Reportedly, Wright used this as a proof of concept to get "Baby Driver" made, and there's even a brief clip that shows up in the film itself. Wright continues to direct music videos occasionally, including a recent one this year for Beck.

Craig Ferguson Explains Doctor Who - I miss Craig Ferguson on late night. He clearly had no budget, but would still make great efforts to deliver with what he had. This musical explanation of "Doctor Who" for American audiences, for instance, was meant to air as a cold open the night he interviewed Matt Smith. Unfortunately they couldn't get the music rights cleared in time, so it was delayed. I'm happy we still got to see it though, especially as we get to see Craig's nerdiness on full display.

Impeachment - I could fill a whole list with "Schoolhouse Rock" parodies. The CBS series "The Good Fight" delivered a doozy, however, with a recent one written by Jonathan Coulton and animated by Head Gear Animation. Directly aimed at Donald Trump, it's as much a warning to the current administration as it is a primer on the impeachment process.

"Shadow" - The closing credits musical performances for the "Twin Peaks" revival were such a treat, in part because it's rare to have full closing credits on television shows these days that aren't interrupted by ads. There were several to choose from, but something about the Chromatics singing "Shadow" at the Roadhouse right after our first glimpse of the aged James, who we are assured "was always cool," still sticks in my mind. They set such a great, wistful mood for the revival. And in "Twin Peaks," the mood is everything.


Monday, December 10, 2018

"Westworld," Year Two

Mild spoilers ahead.

I had very mixed feelings toward the first season of "Westworld," but was hopeful about the second.  A robot uprising sounded like a lot of fun, especially if it meant less emphasis on talky mind games and jumbled timelines.  Well, it didn't really work out that way. There are still plenty of mind games and jumbled timelines, though deployed a little differently this time.  The robot uprising doesn't really get anywhere, though there's plenty of carnage, with other concerns and intrigues taking center stage. Overall I enjoyed these episodes, but was left with no small amount of frustration too.

The narrative is neatly split into four major stories, each centering around a major character as they navigate the chaos of last season's finale.  Dolores is a major instigator of that chaos, who plots the overthrow of mankind and gathers an army of other Hosts. The Man in Black is given a new game by a spectre of Ford, and has to confront this sins of his past.  Meanwhile Maeve and a small band of her allies go off in search of Maeve's daughter, taking them to new corners of the park. Finally there's Bernard, who has become unstuck in time, trying to piece together what happened to him and Delos operative Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) after they went searching for an important cache of data.  And though each story had its ups and downs, I didn't find any of them boring or tedious, and the pacing was much improved.

It also helped greatly that each episode was much more self-contained, and the payoffs to certain mysteries came more quickly.  This allowed for very distinct, memorable episodes like "Riddle of the Sphinx" and "Kiksuya" that work in isolation, while I couldn't tell you what happened in any episode of last season, except for the premiere.  Many of the characters got better material, like the weaselly Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), and wholesome Teddy (James Marsden), once they were put in new situations and given important choices. I think the biggest improvement was to the Man in Black, whose search for meaning is much more interesting once you have the context of his personal history.  Some of the new characters, like James Delos (Peter Mullen) and the Native American Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), are excellent.

"Westworld" remains one of the most expensive and impressive-looking productions currently on television.  The cast is full of excellent actors, the effects work and cinematography are fantastic, and there are some really compelling themes and ideas being explored.  However, for as much as the show gets right, there are also some very unfortunate fumbles and unforced errors. Let's take Shogun World, for example, one of the other Delos parks that Maeve's group wanders into.  It's a beautifully executed samurai pastiche that provides a nice break from the western setting and gives the spotlight over to Japanese actors like Rinko Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada. However, Shogun World raises a lot of questions about the operations of the parks that never get answered.  The new characters are totally abandoned after two episodes, and nobody ever speaks of them again. There are a couple of nice thematic parallels, but narratively the whole trip feels like filler.

The big dilemma of the second season is what the hosts are going to do with their free will now that they have it.  However, "Westworld" spends surprisingly little time actually letting them grapple with this. Instead, there are so many of the usual mystery show distractions, like everyone searching for the "Valley Beyond," and Delos having ulterior motives, and Bernard trying to recover lost memories.  A lot of the basic moral questioning you'd expect to see with these newly conscious robots barely happens, and often far too quickly. It reminds me of Jonathan Nolan's previous show, "Person of Interest," which didn't bother to address any of the downsides of having an omnipresent surveillance system run by a God-like AI until about three seasons into its run.     

So while a lot of these subplots are fun, and the show's storytelling is getting better, there's still a lot of manufactured complication and a sense of going around in circles to avoid actually confronting the show's premise.  I feel like I'm grinding through the second season of "Game of Thrones" again, when they were stalling for time trying to give George R. R. Martin time to write more books. The second season of "Westworld" is more enjoyable than the second season of "Game of Thrones," but not by as much as it should be.  


Saturday, December 8, 2018

My 2018 Holiday Wish List

Dear Hollywood,

It's been an eventful year and it feels like the status quo is changing quickly.  I'm absolutely thrilled with the gains in diversity that the cinema world has made this year, and hope we keep on this path for a while longer.  The progression of the #Metoo movement is encouraging, if occasionally contentious. The broader American political climate remains volatile, and I remain alternately enraged and despairing over the state of the country.  If I start talking about Washington, it's going to take over this entire list, so I'm just going to put those thoughts aside for now, until they percolate enough for a separate post. This year, I'm going to try to stick to more frivolous stuff.  

So, this year for Christmas I want…

For Netflix and the Academy to bury the hatchet.  There has to be some middle ground here. The Academy cannot keep ignoring that Netflix is one of the few places still willing to fund a prestige picture, and has been turning out more impressive films every year.  Netflix, meanwhile, can't keep riling up nervous theater owners and expect to have the red carpet rolled out for them. Token limited theatrical releases in a couple of markets would make everyone happy. Besides, wouldn't having more nominees available on Netflix help with the problem of the Oscar ceremony's declining ratings?

For lessons to be learned from the Moviepass flameout.  I'm still a little sad that I never got the opportunity to use Moviepass during it's wildest promotional stretch, and I'm disappointed to see it essentially dead at this point.  At least it proved that there is still a healthy audience out there for theatrical exhibition, and that a subscription service is feasible with some tweaks. Competitors like Sinemia, Stubs, and Movie Club are still active and got a nice bump in subscribers as Moviepass users jumped ship.  It was a pretty good year for the movies in general, with mid-size films making a comeback, so we can all stop worrying about movie theaters becoming extinct. Exhibitors just need to think outside the box a bit more to keep them profitable.

For active moderation on social media to become more of a priority.  Putting aside all the political furor, it's become pretty clear that Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Youtube can't simply rely on automated systems and tiny crews of human referees in order to moderate the flow of content on their sites.  I expect that we're going to continue to see these sites only make incremental improvements, only really taking major action when a high profile blow-up like the Alex Jones situation happens. Fortunately, enough of these blow-ups have happened that social media has come under much higher scrutiny.

For Disney to see some better competition.  Between the launch of their new streaming service and a massive film slate for 2019, the Mouse House is poised to dominate our cultural landscape, especially when it comes to content aimed at younger audiences.  The acquisition of Fox's entertainment holdings is going to make them even more ubiquitous. I want to see the other studios step up and push back a bit. As much as I enjoy Disney's IP, they're showing increasing signs of creative stagnation.  There are four live action remakes of their animated films coming out next year. Four!

For more television and web series to know when to call it quits… or at least take a break.  If the revival trend has taught us anything, it's that sometimes a cancelled series should stay cancelled.  Also, there are so many great shows vying for out attention these days, it's much easier to spot the ones that have worn out their welcome.  Looking at you, "The Walking Dead."

For the incoming flood of projects about the Trump administration (and we all know they're coming) to give us a breather before descending upon us en masse.  Seriously, folks. Let's wait for current events to play out a little more before the dramatizations force us to relive all the madness. And I can't help feeling wistful that Philip Seymour Hoffman isn't here to play Trump.  He would have been a magnificent Trump.

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.

Happy holidays!


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Handling of "Sharp Objects"

I'm not sure that I would have finished the "Sharp Objects" miniseries if it weren't a murder mystery.  The author of the source material, Gillian Flynn, has admitted that her book was primarily intended to be a character study, with the investigation merely providing some handy narrative hooks.  The adaptation follows suit, mostly concerned with the stormy personal life of Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a St. Louis journalist who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate a death and a possibly linked disappearance.  This means interacting with her long estranged family and the scars of her eventful girlhood.

Camille is one of those romanticized trainwreck characters who strikes me as very iffy in construction, a woman with a checkered history and a laundry list of vices, haunted by a childhood trauma she never really got over.  Returning to Wind Gap sparks an immediate relapse into bad behavior. She starts drinking like a fish, engaging in risky sexual behavior, self-harming, and revisiting the worst parts of her past. The vast majority of the eight-episode run is spent watching her slowly investigate the case while teetering on the edge of self-destruction.  Frankly, it's not an easy watch, even with Amy Adams doing her best to keep Camille sympathetic and believable.

It's only when Camille is interacting with her family, the Crellins, that "Sharp Objects" becomes a fully-fledged Southern Gothic melodrama - and a very enjoyable one too.  Much of Camille's personal damage was wrought by her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), an ever disapproving, perfectionist figure of overbearing Southern maternity. There's also Camille's ennabler stepfather Alan (Henry Czerny), and a precocious teenage half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen).  Camille and Adora's tense reunion and subsequent encounters provide plenty of memorable moments, and Clarkson delivers a wonderful turn as the manipulative mother from hell. Scanlen also does some great work as the unnerving Amma, a sheltered girl itching to break out of her shell.

The trouble is that the juiciest material doesn't get underway until roughly the fifth episode.  For the first half of the series, "Sharp Objects" moves very slowly, looking into Camille's past and establishing the way the insular town operates largely by vicious gossip and deeply ingrained prejudices.  And while it was nice to have the background and context for the mystery, I was surprised at how little Camille and Adora's pasts actually mattered to the plotting. I wonder if it would have helped matters if the episode count were lower, or if there had been more POV characters.  A visiting police detective played by Chris Messina offers some contrast to Camille's story, but it's a fairly limited role. Other locals like the town gossip, the uncooperative sheriff, and the various suspects are set up well, but don't get to do as much as I expected they would.

The series has quite a bit in common with "Big Little Lies," sharing the same director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who uses a very similar visual vocabulary and editing style.  "Big Little Lies" had significantly more characters and storylines to fill out its episode count, however, while I think "Sharp Objects" would have been more watchable if it had been about half of its length.  When the show is being a dysfunctional domestic drama or a murder mystery, I like it fine. When it's all about Camille and her bottomless reserves of trauma, it feels like work. I caution that I may just be biased against the subject matter - I only got through one episode of the superficially similar addiction memoir "Patrick Melrose" before calling it quits.  

"Sharp Objects" is very much in keeping with HBO's recent roster of prestige projects.  The production values are excellent, and the writing is very intelligent. There's not a lot of hand-holding, and I appreciated that even if the story sometimes got a little ridiculous, the audience was trusted to put the pieces together themselves.  Also, one place where it's better than "Big Little Lies" is where it decided to stop. The final few minutes of "Sharp Objects" make for the best ending to any piece of media that I've seen all year. Thankfully, the creators have announced that "Sharp Objects" will remain a miniseries with no sequels.    

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

"Ghost Stories" and "Hereditary"

I approach many horror films with caution, because they can affect me more than I'm comfortable with.  The good ones especially, can be disturbing enough to keep me thinking about them for days. That's not always a pleasant experience.  And so we come to two horror films I watched recently, both of them very well made and very effective. I enjoyed one and not the other.

"Ghost Stories" is a pretty rare bird to come across in 2018. It's an anthology of three supernatural tales, presented as three cases that a paranormal skeptic, Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), is working to debunk.  It's also one of those films that functions like a magic trick or optical illusion, where the ending revelations put everything you saw before into a totally different context, and you have to go watch it again to spot all the clues leading up to it.  This is one of the better executed puzzle films I've seen, juggling different levels of reality and stories within stories, while also being a compelling examination of the central character.

Where the film falls a bit flat is at being a scary movie.  The three tales all involve paranormal sightings, one with a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) and the ghost of a young girl, one with a teenager (Alex Lawther) who sees the Devil in the woods, and one with a financier (Martin Freeman) who encounters a poltergeist.  All are very short with barely developed characters, though this is by design. There are some mildly diverting jump scares and a good amount of moody existential dread, but nothing to really get the heart pumping. The film is far more interested in cerebral trickery than gut-wrenching thrills, and I enjoyed it for that.  I especially liked how the big reveals were set up making full use of the ambiguities of cinematic language, constantly introducing odd imagery and background elements that signal something's not quite right. The answers are a little obvious, but very satisfying.

Now "Hereditary" is all about getting under the viewer's skin, and it managed to make me so uncomfortable that I ended up not liking it much.  The less you know about the film going in the better, but let's just say the plot concerns the Graham family: mother Annie (Toni Collette), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), older teenage son Peter (Alex Wolffe), and younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  After the death of Annie's difficult mother, a series of increasingly unsettling events occur that suggest that the family may be cursed. Over the course of two long, slow, bleak hours, we watch the four main characters disintegrate.

First time director Ari Aster does an excellent job of building excruciating tension and coming up with some really memorable nightmare imagery.  A recurring motif is dollhouse miniatures. Scenes are often shot to make the Graham house look like a dollhouse, and there's the constant sense of larger sinister forces at work, controlling the characters' lives.  Like "Ghost Stories," there are shifting frames of reality, often having to do with how Annie and Peter experience the passage of time. These contribute to larger metaphors related to family dysfunction, depression and grief.  "Hereditary" shares a good amount of DNA with the paranoid psychological horror films of the '60s and '70s, including "Rosemary's Baby" and "Don't Look Now." "Heredity," however, indulges in far more body horror. It also has a downright sadistic sense of humor.   

The film is so effective at pressing certain buttons that I paradoxically found much of it unbearable to watch.  I like several of the performances, especially those of Toni Collette and Alex Wolffe, but there's such a hopelessness to their characters, and an inexorable coldness and a meanness to their universe that I ultimately found it all very off-putting.  I usually enjoy horror films centered around families, but the Grahams are mired in so much toxicity and bitterness, it's too much to take. Viewers who are less squeamish about the copious gore, and less sensitive about the subject matter may enjoy this movie better.  I, however, found "Hereditary" too nastily bleak and nihilistic to connect with.

In short, I have no idea how the average viewer might react to these two films, but I think that my own biases are pretty clear.  "Ghost Story" appealed to my sensibilities and "Hereditary" did not. I think "Hereditary" is the better film, though, from a filmmaking perspective.  Even if I don't like it much, I can appreciate what it does well - the atmosphere of dread, the performances, the sharply effective editing, and the creepy production design.  And if it got me to recoil with this much force, it probably did something right.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"Preacher," Year Three

Very minor spoilers ahead.

The Angelville issues of the "Preacher" comic were some of my favorites, and the villains they introduced were among the series' best.  I found the bayou-dwelling L'Angelle family wonderfully gruesome and evil, in a way that was much creepier than the series' usual roster of freaks.  So I was tentatively looking forward to their appearance in the third season of the "Preacher" television series.

The premiere wastes no time introducing Jesse's voodoo practitioner Gran’ma (Betty Buckley), who lives at Angelville with her minions Jody (Jeremy Childs) and T.C. (Colin Cunningham).  Jesse is forced to go to them for help when Tulip is at death's door, and they demand a high payment. Once again, the epic "Preacher" road trip to find God is stalled for most of the season in a single location.  However, Jesse's family troubles aren't the only thing he has to worry about. The Grail's leader, Allfather D'Aronique (Jonny Coyne) is moving to bring about the return of the Messiah (Tyson Ritter), something that Herr Starr is desperate to prevent.  Also, Satan (Jason Douglas) sends the Saint of Killers on a mission to round up a few of Hell's escapees.

This year of "Preacher" avoids the dreaded mid-season lull by making much more use of its secondary cast and cutting down the episode count.  The motivations of Tulip and Cassidy are still pretty flimsy, but when they get split up, they actually get to do some fun stuff and have no shortage of good scene partners.  Tulip goes off with the Grail agents on her own mission and ends up dodging Satan's crew. Cass gets tangled up with another vampire named Eccarius (Adam Croasdell), who has cultivated his own cult of followers in New Orleans.  Herr Starr is essentially upgraded to protagonist for several episodes, and has some fantastic scenes with the memorably disgusting Allfather. Oh, and Eugene and Hitler are still in play, though they don't show up until later in the season.

I found the first few episodes of this year were the weakest, because they focus so much on the L'Angelles and Jesse's past with them.  Frankly, they're very different creatures in show, since a major character has been removed from the story, changing the context of the interactions, and some of the material has been toned way, way down.  In the comics, the L'Angelles were hideously abusive monsters. In the show, they're real people - perfectly reasonable, even occasionally goofy people. It took me a few episodes to get used to this, but it mostly works.  Attempts to add to the Angelville mythology, however, mostly fall flat. Additional love interests, a zombie fight club, and a squicky erotic roleplay interlude all feel a little half-baked and tacked on.

What does work, and what the creators should keep in mind for any future seasons, is getting the most out of their full ensemble.  Having the Grail elbow its way into other storylines was a great idea. Some of this year's best moments come from characters getting thrown together in new combinations or with new dynamics.  Tulip and Featherstone's ongoing hostilities morph into a delightfully bitchy forced partnership. Jesse and Starr are similarly uneasy allies when the Allfather comes into the picture. They anchor the best episode of the season, where an attempted assassination of the Allfather goes completely wrong.  Even the stoic Saint of Killers is more engaging when he has a scuzzy Satan to interact with.

I also like that "Preacher" has embraced absurdity to a greater degree.  Elaborate fight scenes break out with little provocation. New characters like the Allfather and Satan are cartoonish in appearance, but they work perfectly well in the off-kilter reality that has been established in the "Preacher" universe.  And I don't mind at all that the series isn't remotely faithful to the comics at this point, because it's doing some things better. Eccarius and Herr Starr, for instance, are far more fun in the show. There are plenty of winks and nods for fans, though.  John Wayne finally shows up this season in a dream sequence.
This has been the most consistent season of "Preacher" yet.  If the show's creators can keep this up, I look forward to seeing where Jesse and the gang get stranded next.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Tale" and "American Animals"

I'm a bit peeved that I saw both of these films so late in the year, and very nearly let them both slip through the cracks.  After generating buzz at Sundance, "The Tale" had its premiere on HBO, and "American Animals" was co-distributed by MovePass, which clearly did not have the resources to adequately market it.  Both films have some interesting elements in common, so I'm pairing them for reviews here.

"The Tale" is a memoir of writer/director Jennifer Fox, dealing with her discovery in her forties that a relationship that she had as a thirteen-year-old was far more inappropriate than she remembered.  Fox is played as an adult by Laura Dern, and at thirteen by Isabelle Nélisse. The emotionally fraught trip down memory lane is sparked by Fox's mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), who finds a story her daughter wrote as a teenager, detailing her experiences with her running coach, Bill Allens (Jason Ritter), and her riding instructor, Mrs. G. (Elizabeth Debicki).   

The difficult material involving child abuse is handled with care, and treated with the utmost sensitivity.  There is even a pointed disclaimer stating that adult body doubles were used in certain scenes with the younger actors.  However, what I think really makes the film so compelling and potentially valuable is that it's less about the relationship between the younger Fox and her coach, and more about the older Fox trying to reconcile with her past self.  There are several interesting narrative conceits to show unreliable memories at work. In addition, the older and younger versions of Jennifer Fox have conversations about various events as they play out onscreen. The self-examinations are incredibly personal and genuine.  

The film is anchored by Laura Dern, who keeps us engaged with Fox's emotional journey as she digs deeper and deeper back into her past and psyche.  Dern has been having a fantastic run of roles recently, and she's at her best here, grappling with ugly uncertainties and painful truths. Nélisse is also wonderfully infuriating as the youngster who is so convinced that she's in control of the situation, and kudos to Jason Ritter for bringing some humanity to a despicable role.  However, it's thanks to Jennifer Fox's unsentimental, unsparing perspective and refusal to look away, that "The Tale" has the impact that it does. This is one of the bravest feats of filmmaking I've seen in a long while.

On to "American Animals," a heist film from Bart Layton, who previously made the true crime documentary "The Imposter."  Now, "The Imposter" was a documentary that had some interesting meta storytelling tricks, but "American Animals" goes further by being a full blown scripted dramatization of real events combined with documentary elements.  Namely, interviews with the four perpetrators, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen, are interspersed throughout the film, where they are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner.  The heist took place in 2003, when the foursome were students at Kentucky's Transylvania University, and they robbed the school library's rare book collection. The real criminals directly comment and even interact with elements of the dramatized heist in some fascinating ways.  

We've seen movies with meta elements before, mostly comedies, including the recent "A Futile and Stupid Gesture."  What the interviews do here is to aid the film in the demystification of the usual heist narrative, and help to ground the characters more fully in the real world.  Layton does a fantastic job of keeping the two sides of the film balanced with each other, and both are compelling on their own terms. Fidelity is treated as paramount, even if some of the narrators are pretty unreliable.  Layton even does a few match cuts with the actors and the interview subjects as he transitions from one frame of reality to another.

The result is a much greater degree of verisimilitude than you ever find in these kinds of caper films, with perpetrators who are relatable and sympathetic.  We get to see exactly how the crimes snowballed, and hear about the groupthink that pushed all the participants to go through with their scheme. So even though we know how everything is going to turn out, the events depicted are incredibly tense to see unfold.  The four main actors also deliver excellent performances, especially Keoghan as Reinhard, and Peters as Lipka. The ending with the real criminals is also unusually satisfying, delivering the kind of closure that a traditional narrative never could.

- - -

Monday, November 26, 2018

"Ocean's Eight" Ain't So Great

I was really rooting for this one.  A stylish heist movie starring an ensemble of top drawer actresses, including Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and more?  This sounded so good on paper. Having finally seen it, the best thing I can say about "Ocean's Eight" is that it's not bad.  It's competently scripted, decently directed, and there are a couple of good performances in the mix. And that's about it, which is very disappointing.

Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" movies were never my favorites, but I appreciated their quality and their verve.  There was this wonderful aura of effortless cool about them, which is completely missing in "Ocean's Eight." The actors are talented and charismatic enough to fake a lot of it, but can only do so much.  The bones of this thing are pretty solid, at least. Sandra Bullock plays con-woman Debbie Ocean, fresh out of prison, who is the ringleader of the big heist. She and her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) assemble a team of fellow grifters, thieves, and other charming crooks to help them steal a diamond necklace at the annual Met Gala.  There's also a revenge element, involving Debbie's former beau Claude (Richard Armitage), who ratted her out and got her sent to the clink.

The film is at its worst when it's trying too hard to be an "Ocean's" movie.  There's something about Gary Ross's direction that makes everything feel oddly sluggish.  The editing choices seem a little off, and more than once I found attempts to ape Soderbergh's style came off pretty poorly.  More damaging is the dialogue - or really, the absence of it. The witty banter that was a fundamental part of "Ocean's Eleven" is simply nowhere to be found.  Instead, Debbie and Lou are pretty much all business, with some sparse bits of chit-chat to help fill in their personal histories. Frankly it's too sparse. Their partnership should be the core of this movie, but the relationship is woefully underdeveloped.  I like Bullock and Blanchett together, but there's really very little there for them to work with beyond a few mild quips and bone dry humor. I still have no idea who Lou is, except that she runs cons, likes motorcycles, and can't keep her bangs out of her face.     

So thank heavens for Anne Hathaway, who is far an away the best part of the movie.  She plays Daphne Kluger, a superb caricature of a spoiled starlet, who the ladies have to con and maneuver so she'll wear the necklace to the gala.  Hathaway gets to be unabashedly comedic, and looks like she's having so much fun doing it. Helena Bonham Carter also has a good turn as an eccentric fashion designer, and I liked Sarah Paulson's reluctant fence, even though she doesn't actually get to do much.  The rest of the main players are stuck with very broad characters that are mostly on the sidelines - Mindy Kahling's jeweler, Rihanna's hacker, and Awkwafina's street hustler. They get about two significant scenes apiece, and they're perfectly fine, but there's nothing on par with the hijinks that the original "Ocean's" crew got to play.

Nobody skimped on the production, however.  "Ocean's Eight" boasts plenty of gorgeous New York locales, wardrobe to die for, and the sparkly bling to match.  Much of the action takes place in the Met, and involves lots of figures from the fashion and art worlds, with plenty of appropriate cameos.  What action there is, is nicely choreographed, and the usual plot twists are all executed very well. As a heist film, "Ocean's Eight" checks all the boxes, and there's something to be said for the film happily avoiding all the usual cliches that usually come with girl power flicks.  However, it's not nearly as exciting as it should be. And as an "Ocean's" film, there is much to be desired.

That said, I'd love an "Ocean's Nine" and an"Ocean's Ten."  This is a fun group of actresses who are much better than the movie.  With the right people behind the camera the next time around, I see no reason why they couldn't match up to Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy.  And thankfully "Ocean's Eight" has been well received enough that there will very likely be a next time.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Disenchantment" Tries Something Different

A new Matt Groening series is something to celebrate, as the man has a track record in animation that few others can hold a candle to.  This one's trying a couple of new things. For one, it's a ten-episode Netflix series. For another, the story is serialized. Using the sword and sorcery genre as a basic template, "Disenchantment" tells the tale of Princess Tiabeanie, or Bean (Abbi Jacobson), the daughter of King Zog (John DiMaggio) of the kingdom of Dreamland.  On the eve of her arranged marriage, she meets her "personal demon" Luci (Eric Andre), and a super-naive elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon).

"Disenchantment" gets off to a bumpy start, introducing the booze-loving, rebellious Bean and her angsty existence in a fractured fairy-tale world.  Like the other Groening shows, the strength of "Disenchanted" is its worldbuilding and its big cast of supporting characters, and it takes a while to introduce all of these players.  Lots of familiar voices from "Futurama" are back, including Billy West as the crusty wizard Sorcerio, Tress MacNeille as Bean's amphibious stepmother Queen Oona and half-amphibious step-brother Prince Derek, Maurice LaMarche as Odval the shady Prime Minister, and Dave Herman as a herald, a prince, and a guy named Jerry.  These are all fun personalities individually, but the show initially has some trouble getting them to work within the framework of its story. Luci the demon, for instance, has a great design, and I love the conceit of him constantly being mistaken for a cat, but I don't really understand how he fits into the show. His motivations are vague, except for being a bad influence - which he's totally ineffectual at because Bean is already a screw-up.

As you might expect, "Disenchantment" often feels very derivative of previous shows, especially "Futurama."  You see a lot of the same kinds of gags and character types, and the visuals are all in the same style. I don't take too much of an issue with this, except where our main characters are concerned.  Bean and Elfo are somehow both derivative of Fry from "Futurama." Elfo in particular immediately gets stuck in the unrequited love interest role, largely abandoning the rebellious streak he had in the premiere.  And while I like that Bean is a schlubby, imperfect heroine, at times she really just seems to be a female version of Fry - a well-meaning young idealist whose best efforts tend to blow up in her face. I like Abbi Jacobson's performance, but wish Bean were a little more distinctive.  Even her drinking problem feels old hat.

The storytelling is also pretty dodgy at times.  There's lots of adventuring, chase sequences, fights and, and other derring do to make everything feel exciting, but the main characters' interactions can be pretty awkward.  Bean's growing pains and Elfo's crush are played completely straight, and come across as awfully trite at times. The writers try very hard to get us invested in the main trio's friendships, but are only sort of successful.  Still, a lot of the kinks in the comedy get worked out as the series goes along, and we get into sillier plots like Bean getting a job, or Bean throwing a party while the King is gone. I thought that the fantasy setting might be limiting at first, but this quickly proves not to be the case at all.  The show's creators have a ball with puns, satire, and skewering creative analogs for plenty of modern day targets.

I also like that "Disenchantment" leans into its melodrama, ultimately delivering a terrific finale full of twists and turns.  "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" had some continuity, but the story progression was very slow. It's nice to see "Disenchanted" embracing soap opera style reveals and cliffhangers.  After ten episodes, a lot has happened in Dreamland, and there's clearly plenty more to learn about how this universe operates. Not all of it works, but a lot of it does. I was especially happy to find that King Zog turned out to be one of the show's most sympathetic characters, and that the fate of Bean's hapless groom from the premiere became a running joke through several episodes.  There are a lot of places that "Disenchanted" could go in subsequent seasons, and it has a deep bench of characters already established.

In short, I'm very interested in seeing where "Disenchantment" goes from here.  This isn't as good as "Futurama" or "The Simpsons" at their best, but those shows also needed some time to become the classics everyone loved.  The first season of "Disenchanted" is only so-so, but it accomplishes a lot, and displays the potential to really be something special.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Fanfiction Media Era

"Write original stories," they said. "Come up with your own characters and stop wasting time scribbling that fanfiction," they said.  Well, it turns out that if you want to make it as a writer in Hollywood, you had better learn to write for existing characters and universes, and some familiarity with fanfiction can be helpful.  

Oh sure, franchise films have been around forever, and sequels and reboots are nothing new.  However, over the past couple of years some of our media is starting to look an awful lot like the stuff that I remember posting and reading on Livejournal in the mid-aughts. Exhibit A is Disney's "Descendants" franchise, the wildly popular series of live-action TV movies about the offspring of various Disney characters.  They go to high school with each other, date each other, have their spats, and, of course, regularly break out into song. The main character is a purple-haired girl named Mal, the daughter of Maleficent, and there's been endless speculation as to who Mal's father is. For the record, speculating over Maleficent's love life is something that I, a hardcore Disney nerd, find absolutely hilarious.  But as a kid, I would have been all over that.

Also, consider that the "Descendants" version of Maleficent, played by Kristin Chenoweth, is the fourth version of the character that currently exists in an entirely separate universe from the others.  There's the original 1959 animated version who still pops up in video games and Disney theme park extravaganzas. There's the live action theatrical film version, played by Angelina Jolie, who appeared in the 2014 "Maleficent," and will return in the sequel coming in 2020.  Then there's the Maleficent who appears in "Once Upon a Time," played by Kristin Bauer van Straten. That version also has a daughter, named Lily. And who's the father? Zorro, the 19th century Spanish Californian vigilante, because the "Once Upon a Time" universe is just that nutty.  

A few years ago, I wrote a bit about transmedia, the practice of storytelling over multiple platforms, and the challenges associated with keeping storytelling elements consistent over different types of media aimed at different consumers.  What we're seeing Disney do with some of its older IP is to take the opposite strategy, and embrace the idea of multiple versions and multiple takes coexisting. It's the fanfiction mindset of customizing stories to your own particular needs, or in this case the needs of different audiences.  "Descendants" is made for 7-12 year olds, and needs Maleficent to be a traditional villain. "Maleficent" is aimed a bit older and more sophisticated, at viewers who can appreciate Maleficent as a complicated, subversive anti-hero.

And why not, in a media age where there are so many different versions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson running around, James Bond and Doctor Who swap faces every few years, and Marvel movie crossovers are considered massive cultural events?  The beauty of the Disney strategy is that it's mining from a decades-old library of characters that only it holds the rights to. This helps to keep a 60 year-old character like Maleficent alive in the public eye and exploit the nostalgia of everyone who grew up with her.  Other studios that have tried this have had less success, because of skimpier libraries of children's content, and the public becoming less familiar with public domain characters. Sure, we all know who King Arthur is, but there's not that one iconic pop culture version of him that sticks out in everyone's memory.  Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, and the the Little Mermaid don't have this problem.

The irony is that Disney's embrace of the fanfiction mindset means that fanfiction authors are potentially on rockier legal ground.  One of the arguments for letting fan authors have their fun is that they tend to write the kinds of stories that the IP holders didn't really do - subversive reexaminations, crazy crossovers, and silly sequels about all the characters having kids who pair up and have their own adventures.  Well, times have changed. I don't think Disney's army of lawyers is going to go as far as sending out C&D letters to twelve year-old "Descendants" fanfiction enthusiasts writing about Mal joining the Avengers, but it feels like we're inching in that direction.

Or maybe Disney will just scout them for new writing talent.