Saturday, June 30, 2018

"Dirk Gently," Year Two

If you liked the first season of "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency," you'll probably like the second. However, if you didn't make it to the end of the first season, the second is not a good place to start. Nearly every member of the big, messy cast returns for a new adventure, joined by a couple of newcomers. And just like the first season, it takes a while to sort out what exactly is going on.

We could start with the fairy tale land of Wendimoor, where a civil war is going on between the families of Panto Trost (Christopher Russell) and Silas Dengdamor (Lee Majdoub), star-crossed lovers trying to fulfill a prophecy to defeat the evil Mage (John Hannah) destroying their lands. Or we could start with Project Blackwing, now lead by the dimwitted Sgt. Friedkin, which is holding Dirk Gently, the Rowdy Three, and Bart's friend Ken captive. Speaking of Bart, she finds her way to the little town of Bergsberg Montana, where a housewife named Suzie Boreton (Amanda Walsh) starts some trouble with a newly acquired magic wand. Todd and Farah, who also end up in Bergsberg looking for Dirk, team up with Sheriff Hobbs (Tyler Labine) and Deputy Tina Tevetino (Izzie Steele) to investigate. Oh, and we can't forget Amanda is still involved, as is a fifty year-old double murder case, a missing boy, a holistic actress, and an evil bounty hunter played by Alan Tudyk.

This year's mystery is much more straightforward and comprehensible than the first, and has more breathing room with an extra two episodes. Instead of time travel and brain-swapping, we have portals to different worlds and magic working in real life for reasons that the heroes have to uncover. To that end, the show is much less science-fiction and much more fantasy/supernatural this time out, especially everything surrounding Wendimoor, which is deliberately made to look like a child's fantasy land. The show is still very adult oriented, with a lot of people getting killed off in creative ways, but there's no denying that everything feels much sillier when you've got pink-haired people going around brandishing giant scissors, and people getting blasted with magic wands.

Though there are a lot of good individual pieces, this year felt a lot less successful in execution. I liked the first season primarily because of the mystery, which took a lot of wacky, random events and slowly revealed how they all fit together. The characters were a very mixed bag, and the writing was frequently overloaded with exposition, but I thought it worked pretty well overall. This year, the characters are mostly stronger, and I especially like some of the newcomers, but the mystery aspect was seriously downplayed, and less smartly put together. It feels like "Dirk Gently" is transitioning to something more character-centric and mythology-based, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The trouble is that the character work still has some significant bumps. Dirk spends much of the season in a gloomy, existential funk, which means that he's no fun at all until he snaps out of it. Bart is also questioning her place in the universe, which means she spends most of her time not killing people and not being dangerous. Maybe that's leading somewhere, but not that I can tell yet. The lead actresses both see significant improvements though. Amanda gets empowered and given a mission, which is great to see, while Farah benefits from being teamed up with the delightfully rough-edged Tina. A similarly good Odd Couple team-up occurs between idiotic Sgt. Friedkin and an incredulous Ken.

However, my favorite character is Suzie Boreton, initially presented as a sad victim of suburbia. Her arc nicely subverts our expectations, slowly revealing that Suzie is a far more complicated and formidable creature than she appears to be at first glance. Amanda Walsh is fantastic at giving her these twitchy, over-the-top reactions, and gradually morphing her from pitiful to something quite different. She also boasts the best costuming in a year of some very iffy production choices. I mean, the idea for Wendimoor and all its fantasy characters is fine, but a TV budget only goes so far.

To sum up, this year of "Dirk Gently" should be a decent watch if you already liked the first one. I suspect the changes in style and storytelling are really going to throw some people though, and it'll end up working much better for some viewers than others.
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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Goodbye to the Rotten Tomatoes Forum

I spent a couple of weeks toying with the idea of writing up a post on the changes that happened over at the AV Club last year, where the website was redesigned to become part of the Gawker network, and the comments were migrated over to a new platform called Kinja, throwing the site's community into predictable chaos. Cue another mass exodus of disgruntled media fans who felt they had been evicted from their turf. They went off and founded a new site called The Avocado (https://the-avocado.org) to continue their discussion activities in peace. And they brought the Disquis commenting platform with them, which I find kinda hilarious.

But then I went and checked in on the Rotten Tomatoes discussion forums, another review site adjacent media fan community, and discovered that their forums had been deleted by Rotten Tomatoes at some point in November, 2017. And my heart promptly sank through the floor. While I read the AV Club discussions occasionally and enjoyed them, I never really participated. Rotten Tomatoes, or RT, was different. These were the forums I had visited daily for several years between 2003 and 2010, where I knew many of the regular posters by name, and where I participated frequently. This was my online home during the years I really became a film geek.

I didn't post nearly as much as some, but I did count myself as an active member of the RT community. I was one of the forum's resident animation obsessives, and wrote up several lengthy, multi-post lists of favorite movies and shows. Others used similar formats for retrospectives, marathons, and analysis pieces on a myriad of different geeky media subjects. It was a tradition that when you hit a new post count milestone (10 thousand, 20 thousand), you wrote up a new feature. And then there were the debates, the tournaments, the polls and the contests, the most famous of which was a weekly Photoshop challenge. The long-running in-joke involving Vin Diesel in a ridiculous action pose from "The Chronicles of Riddick" is the only reason I still remember that movie fondly. The tone on RT was informal and people frequently went off topic, even though there was a dedicated "Off Topic" forum. TV, sports, and wrestling threads were common. Sure, there were trolls and creeps, but also some of the most knowledgeable and creative and bored film nerds on the internet, who just wanted to hang out and talk and write about movies.

And it's all gone. Totally, irretrievably gone. Hundreds of thousands of posts, and all that geeky fan content have been lost to the electronic ether. I spent some time with Google and the Wayback Machine sneaking peeks at the old forums, from before the 2014 redesign that drove some members away for good. But long before that, the RT forums had been neglected for several years by the Rotten Tomatoes leadership, and were often buggy and temperamental. They weren't even linked to from the front page after the 2010 Flixter acquisition, when a few experiments in social networking features meant rearranging a lot of the original site's architecture. The forum's heyday was really in the early 2000s, when fandom discussion migrated out of Usenet and into message boards and forums.

I miss being part of that community. We were mostly anonymous, but the core group of users were prolific and friendly enough that you could get to know people on the forum. The number of active posters was only a few dozen, the moderators were very involved, and it was the era before the bots and 4Chan kids really started gumming up the works. There was a lot of passion, but little ego. Ongoing conversation threads could stretch out over months and years. Everyone just seemed happy to have a listening ear. You weren't always going to get a lot of responses on posts about an unpopular show or movie, but you certainly wouldn't get a hard time about it either. I didn't even mind most of the trolls so much, since the ones that stuck around usually just wanted to talk about cartoons or "Star Wars."

Of course it couldn't last. My own activity on the forums started to peter out after 2010, when I started spending less time online. I could tell that the community was also growing restless. Social media was started to siphon away some users, and the remaining ones felt increasingly insular. The site's technological bugs kept getting worse and most of the main review site's users didn't even know the forums existed anymore. I found other corners of fandom to spend time in, and tried my hand at blogging independently. I kept an eye out for other movie forums I might replace RT with, but never found anything remotely close. And every time I went back to RT, the users were fewer and fewer, the conversations slower, and the updates more infrequent.

There's no going back. Some of the RT posters seem to have gone to The Corrierino to regroup. The IMDB boards are being recreated on MovieChat. Letterboxd has emerged as the social network of choice for movie fans, and there are plenty of dedicated spaces on Reddit and Tumblr and all the rest for whatever movie or show you could name. But for a community as weird and wonderful as the one I knew on Rotten Tomatoes? Still not a lot of good options.

Bye RT. You'll be missed.

Love, Vienna
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Monday, June 25, 2018

"Mary and the Witch's Flower" Borrows Some Magic

With Studio Ghibli having mostly ceased making feature films after Hayao Miyazaki's retirement in 2013, it looked like the end of one of the last major sources of traditionally animated features. However, some of the creative talent from Ghibli subsequently went off and formed Studio Ponoc, intent on continuing Ghibli's legacy. Their first film, "Mary and the Witch's Flower," is a children's fantasy film that often feels like a love letter to the work of Miyazaki.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is a little girl who has just relocated to a picturesque British village near the woods. She's come ahead of her parents, is staying with an elderly aunt, and school hasn't started yet, so Mary is bored. The only other child around is a boy named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who rubs Mary the wrong way. One day, she follows a black cat named Tib into the the woods, and discovers a special flower called the fly-by-night. The flower allows Mary to use magic, fly on a broomstick, and visit Endor College, a school for witches.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed the Ghibli features "Arrietty" and "When Marnie Was There," heads up the team of talented artists who do some stunning work here. The style and quality of the animation are indistinguishable from the later Ghibli films. Red-headed Mary looks like a cross between the heroines of "Ponyo" and "Arrietty." Endor College takes a lot from Laputa, the floating island from "Castle in the Sky." There's also a very obvious Ghibli witch, flying sequences, magical creatures, transformation scenes, ornate environments, and echoes of other Ghibli films everywhere you look. As you might guess from the plot summary, "Mary" often plays like a Ghibli "greatest hits" compilation.

To an extent, the film is very reassuring, as it proves beyond a doubt that it's possible to make a Studio Ghibli film without Studio Ghibli. "Mary" is a little weak in the story department, and leans a little too heavily on familiar elements, but I found it up to par with the Ghibli features aimed at younger children like "Ponyo" and "The Cat Returns." Yes, it's very derivative, and lacks a lot of the quieter, more thoughtful storytelling that characterizes Studio Ghibli's best work, but many of the later Ghibli features also have this problem. For Studio Ponoc's first outing, this is definitely a strong accomplishment that I hope they can build on the success of.

What worries me is if Studio Ponoc decides to only make films like "Mary" going forward, and keeps aping elements from Ghibli films to the same degree. I'm concerned that Yonebayashi's creative fingerprints are totally missing from the film, even though this is his third animated feature. One of the big problems that Ghibli had was its almost total domination by the Miyazaki films, to the point where audiences often treated them as one and the same. Younger talent had trouble establishing their own creative voices there. It would be a terrible shame if Studio Ponoc inherited the same problem.

However, it's worth reiterating that "Mary and the Witch's Flower" is only their first film, and it's enormously impressive that it's such a beautifully executed one. So much care and creativity are evident in every frame, and it's a treat to see traditional animation still being done at this level of quality. More character-driven scenes like Mary following the cats through the woods and her antics with the rambunctious broom were my favorites. The broom, who Mary refers to as "Little Broomstick," turns out to be the most memorable personality in the film, thanks to some charming animation.

I find it curious that "Mary" didn't get much attention during awards season, failing to secure an Oscar nomination in a very weak year for animated films. The Stateside release by GKIDS came and went without much fuss. I wonder if it's because Studio Ponoc is a new entity and didn't have the clout of Studio Ghibli, or if the film's obvious derivativeness worked against it. But as far as I'm concerned, they've proved themselves worth keeping an eye on. I hope Studio Ponoc is around for a long time and can eventually make films that no longer have to trade on their predecessor's reputation.
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Friday, June 22, 2018

"Carnal Knowledge" Still Provokes

"Carnal Knowledge" is one of those films that has gained a reputation over the years. It's infamous for being at the center of a major obscenity case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately deemed its contents not obscene. Offering multiple instances of nudity, simulated sex, several four-letter words, and plenty of very frank discussion of sex and sexuality, "Carnal Knowledge" was simply too much for many audiences in 1971 to handle.

Nearly half a century later, social mores are very different, and there's no longer much about the movie that's very shocking. There's still content that's a little distasteful, and plenty that still touches a nerve. As the title and the controversy suggest, "Carnal Knowledge" is all about sex, specifically the attitudes of a pair of men, Sandy (Art Garfunkle) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson), toward sex and the various women in their lives over a period of fifteen years. The first part of the film deals with their relationships with Susan (Candice Bergen), who dates Sandy and cheats with Jonathan. The second part follows Jonathan's relationship with a woman named Bobbie (Ann-Margret) several years later.

We first hear our leads talking over the title credits as a pair of young college students, eagerly discussing what they're looking for in the opposite sex. Jonathan's interest is strictly physical while Sandy has more high-minded ideas. Their language is often crude, demeaning, and misogynistic, especially on Jonathan's part. He calls his exes "ballbusters," and the older he gets, the more he has, and the more bitter he becomes toward women in general. The movie understands that Jonathan is a lout, and his awful attitudes are what cause him so much misery in his relationships. However, it's still rare to see any kind of media address this head on, and portray a man like Jonathan so candidly.

The performances are a big part of why the movie is so effective. Jack Nicholson does some of his best work as Jonathan, somehow remaining sympathetic even after betraying Sandy, and treating every woman he meets terribly. He shouts and menaces, but his insecurity is apparent in every frame, and in the end his worst victim is himself. Art Garfunkel's nebbishy Sandy stands in for the average schlub, whose romantic idealism seems to point toward happiness, but then finds himself beaten down by domesticity and monogamy. There's a priceless monologue where he clinically relays the state of his moribund marital sex life that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

And what of the women of "Carnal Knowledge"? More prurient viewers will cherish being able to see Candice Bergen and Ann-Marget in various states of undress. However, as the POV stays with the men, we only learn a little about their partners. Ann-Marget's Bobbie comes off as the most well-rounded, a sweet woman who initially seems to be Jonathan's perfect match, but grows increasingly dissatisfied and listless within the relationship. Bergen does a lot with a very abbreviated part. Carol Kane and Cynthia O'Neal play other romantic interests, and then there's Rita Moreno, who appears in a single, chilling scene as the representation of what Jonathan actually wants in a woman.

In the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, "Carnal Knowledge" feels more timely than ever as it explores the ins and outs of toxic masculinity, skewering the self-delusion and vanities of its two hapless protagonists. There have been other films that have similarly mocked such immature attitudes toward sex and relationships, but rarely have they been so biting, or relayed in such frankly sexual terms. And it's so fitting that director Mike Nichols is the one who brought this to the screen, having also helmed "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "The Graduate," with "Closer" still waiting in the future.

It's fascinating that Americans still don't like to talk about sex, or see it onscreen in anything other than a titillating fashion. A film like "Carnal Knowledge" probably has less of a chance of being made today, even though the audience has long been desensitized to expletives and partial nudity. Those who seek it out now for its racier content may end up getting far more than they bargained for.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rank 'Em: The Jason Bourne Movies

I don't think that we've seen the last of super spy Jason Bourne in movie theaters, but it's probably going to be a while until the next installment of his adventures. The spinoff didn't garner much interest, it's too early to reboot the series, and Matt Damon, despite his recent box office troubles, doesn't seem keen on coming back to "Bourne" any time soon - and nobody's going to risk recasting the part. So, this is as good time to take stock of the five theatrical films in the franchise to date (which means I'm leaving out the Richard Chamberlain TV movie adaptation of "The Bourne Identity" made in 1988). I've ranked them from best to worst below. There will be some minor spoilers ahead.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004) - I find it difficult to distinguish between "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" because they're stylistically so similar and they feel like two parts of the same narrative. However, "Supremacy" wins the top spot for establishing so many of the elements that I associate with the "Bourne" films - Paul Greengrass's iconic shakeycam chase scenes, Pam Landry being a stone cold badass, and all the cloak and dagger business around Project Treadstone. It also has my favorite ending out of any of the films - apparently a last minute addition that Greengrass and Damon came up with two weeks before the film's release.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) - This movie gives up all the answers to the questions asked in the first two films, and does so in a very satisfying fashion. The character getting a sense of closure and an endpoint to his character arc is something that James Bond never had. It's also a lot of fun to see all the ways that Paul Greengrass found to tie all three of the existing "Bourne" films together, really making them feel like one narrative. While I find "Ultimatum" has the best story of any of the films, and the critical notices definitely reflect this, the use of the shakeycam got to be too much for me at times. So it'll have to settle for second place, but only by a hair.

The Bourne Identity (2002) - The first "Bourne" film, directed by Doug Liman, is a perfectly good action adventure blockbuster. It feels a little generic in retrospect, with its romantic subplot and superspy with amnesia gimmick, but it proved that Matt Damon could be a very compelling action hero. I also enjoy Franka Potente here as Marie, and was always a little sorry that she didn't get to play much of a role in the sequels. "Identity," however, was a very different kind of film than its sequels, much lighter and more fantastical in its construction. Poor Marie simply didn't fit into the grimmer tone of the later, more ambitious "Bourne" installments.

The Bourne Legacy (2012) - The unsung hero of the "Bourne" franchise is Tony Gilroy, who scripted all the movies except for the most recent one. For the spinoff, he takes on directing duties with Jeremy Renner as the new leading man. Everyone does a very good job, and I was disappointed when it became clear that we weren't going to be getting any sequels to continue the Operation Outcome storyline. Aaron Cross is an interesting character and the new baddie played by Edward Norton has a lot of potential. The ending is a little weak, but I love some of the other sequences, especially the shootout with Zeljko Ivanek at the research lab.

Jason Bourne (2016) - I don't know what went wrong here, but it went very wrong. Maybe it was because Tony Gilroy wasn't involved. Maybe it was because the Treadstone and Blackbriar villains were replaced with the much weaker Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones characters. Maybe there just wasn't enough creative fuel left after the spectacular finale of "Ultimatum." Maybe everyone just waited too long. Anyhow, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass couldn't get Jason Bourne back in fighting shape. The film made plenty of money, but felt creatively dead. It's a shame that the series had to end with its worst entry, but then most franchises inevitably do.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

"The X-files," Year Eleven (Or Twenty-Five)

Minor spoilers ahead.

After the previous season of "The X-files," I wasn't expecting much from this one. The monster-of-the-week episodes were fine, but the Chris Carter penned "mythology" episodes that bookended the season were both inept and absurd. That pretty much holds true for this year too, with "My Struggle III" and "My Struggle IV" continuing the increasingly ridiculous alien conspiracy storyline that involves several soap opera twists, endless chase scenes, and some really horrendous dialogue. Fortunately, the eight episodes that take place between them are much, much better.

Aside from one quasi-mythology episode that Chris Carter mercifully didn't write, the middle episodes are all stand-alone monster-of-the-week cases. Varying wildly in tone and content, they feature monsters, doppelgangers, killer robots, witches, and all kinds of other supernatural business. While last year's Darin Morgan episode was the only one I'd really call memorable, this year boasts at least three stronger episodes - one of which was also written by Darin Morgan. Best of all, many of these episodes feel like the old "X-files" in a way that the previous season didn't. The actors feel more engaged, the writing more relaxed, and the show is on steadier ground as a whole. Having an extra couple of episodes for this order clearly gave the creators some breathing room.

It also helps that the status quo has been more firmly established. Mulder and Scully are romantically involved, but that side of their lives stays firmly in the background. None of the shenanigans with the "mythology" episodes carries over to the individual cases, making the season feel more like an anthology of their various adventures. This is especially apparent in episodes like "Rm9sbG93ZXJz," a surreal technophobic story that feels like it takes place in an entirely different universe than the others, and would make a good "Black Mirror" installment. Or there's "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," Darin Morgan's self-parody episode that confronts the silliness of the "X-files" concept in the age of Trump and fake news. It's definitely one of the season's highlights.

The writing staff was noticeably expanded, with several episodes being scripted by newcomers. Also, though Carter clearly retains a good amount of creative control, everyone seems to have realized that many of his contributions really were not working, and took steps to minimize them. So the new FBI agent characters played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose only have cameos, and the show retconned some of the events of the last season finale. The world is back to being on the verge of ending, rather than halfway there. Mulder and Scully's long lost son William, now a teenager played by Miles Robbins, takes a central role in the mythology episodes here. He's not all that bad, but feels like he belongs in a very different kind of show. Maybe on the CW.

Other familiar faces like Agent Spender, Agent Kersh, and Agent Reyes make appearances, but they're brief and mostly inconsequential. The one significant character from the show's past I was glad to see was Langly the Lone Gunman, who features in the stand-alone episode "This." They found a way to bring him back from the dead that was pretty clever. However, much more enjoyable were the return of the autopsy scenes, Mulder's snarky quipping, creepy character actors like Jere Burns coming over to play, and generally all the stuff that I liked about "The X-files" back in the '90s. All of it still works just fine, even though there's a lot more winking at the camera and everyone complaining about getting older.

I think "The X-files" probably could come back for another few seasons after seeing how well this year turned out, but I certainly don't want it to. Even with the improvements, I can't say bringing the show back was worth it. Also, Gillian Anderson says she's finished. We've seen what the series looks like without her and it isn't pretty. The last episode doesn't end on a great note, but it ends decently enough that I didn't come away from it feeling too badly, unlike last tine. I'm hoping FOX decides to leave well enough alone, and the whole "The X-files" revival experiment can finally come to a close.
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Friday, June 15, 2018

Anime on PBS

It's the twentieth anniversary of "Cowboy Bebop" this year, notable for being the gateway anime series for a lot of American anime fans. It was definitely one of the titles that got me to go full otaku way back in 1999-2000. However, a much bigger influence was the existence of my local PBS station's Sunday science fiction nights, the one of the only places in the U.S. at the time that was showing uncut anime, often subtitled.

KTEH was Silicon Valley's PBS station, based out of San Jose. Starting in the '80s, it showed imported episodes of "Doctor Who," and the station built a geeky evening of genre television around it over the years. "Red Dwarf," "The Prisoner," and "Blake's 7" featured regularly, and I know this was the first place I saw the 1980 version of "The Lathe of Heaven." Under programming director Karen Roberts, KTEH was known for going outside the usual channels to acquire broadcast rights for niche shows that nobody else was interested in. Starting in the mid-'90s, anime started appearing in the lineup, supported by the local otaku community via pledge drives. "Tenchi Muyo" and "Urusei Yatsura!" were some of the early titles.

The programming decisions were often fan driven to a surprising degree. The majority of the anime acquisitions were shown with subtitles because the donors were polled and that's what they wanted. I remember during a pledge drive in 2002, you could vote for which series would be licensed and aired next. I voted for the "Generator Gawl" OAV, but "All Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku-Nuku" won. However, there always seemed to be restrictions and complications behind the scenes. The pledge drive hosts would talk about titles that they were trying to get the rights to, but negotiations often fell through. When dubbed anime was shown, it was usually because the American rights holders refused to licensed the subtitled versions. Occasionally we'd only see a few episodes of certain series like "Bubblegum Crisis" make it to air because the rest ended up licensed to a different network.

Still, for a couple of years the 10PM hour on Sunday night on KTEH was reserved for anime. It reminded me of a proto-"Adult Swim" in many ways, because the selections were very eclectic, the scheduling was a little chaotic, and it was never guaranteed what was going to show up there. Some offerings, like the "Ranma ½" movies, were really a stretch to call science-fiction. However, the anime always ran uncut, which was highly unusual for the time. A silly sex comedy with the occasional nudie shot like "Urusei Yatsura" or a violent techno thriller like "Serial Experiments Lain" could air on KTEH without the censoring that most other broadcasters demanded. Only a few premium cable operators like Encore and STARZ were willing to air anything unedited.

Easily the highest profile anime to ever run on KTEH was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the notorious, controversial 1996 giant robot series that pitted three teenagers in giant robots against the apocalypse. It was bloody, it was traumatic, it was unapologetically for mature audiences, and all twenty-six episodes aired on a succession of Sundays on KTEH starting in March of 2000, completely uncut and subtitled. During the accompanying pledge event, viewers were polled on the correct way to pronounce the title. I don't remember which one won, though I remain a proponent of "EvanJELLYon." The anime fandom circles I was active in at the time were jubilant about KTEH pulling off the deal. However, the American anime ecosystem was already in the middle of drastic changes, and the particular confluence of factors that put anime on PBS were evaporating quickly.

Literally the day after "Neon Genesis Evangelion" had its US premiere on KTEH, "Mobile Suit Gundam Wing" premiered on Cartoon Network's Toonami block and became a massive hit. Suddenly there was fierce competition to license anime for American consumption by both cable and terrestrial networks, and KTEH never really managed to land any titles as large as "Evangelion" in the following years. Instead, we got increasingly obscure things like "Sakura Wars" and "Ruin Explorers" for a while, and then anime quietly disappeared from their schedules after 2003. And then KTEH merged with nearby station KQED in 2006, and that was the end of Sunday science-fiction nights.

I always found it surprising that KTEH's anime broadcasts were largely unknown among most anime fans. But then, KTEH didn't have an especially large audience, and most of the shows it aired remain pretty niche. Today's anime fans tend to skew younger and less nerdy. Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" carries on where KTEH's Sunday science-fiction night left off, though, and they even showed all of "Evangelion" uncut in 2005 and 2006. It aired on PBS first though, five years earlier and with its credit sequences intact.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Ambitious "Annihilation"

It really takes a filmmaker with some guts to attempt a film as high-concept and potentially alienating as "Annihilation." Fortunately we have Alex Garland, hot off the success of "Ex Machina," directing his strangest and most ambitious project to date.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, "Annihilation" is about a group of five female scientists who journey into a place called Area X on the Gulf coast that has been affected by an unknown force called "The Shimmer." Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), was part of the last mission into the Shimmer. He returned alone and disoriented before falling deathly ill. Lena is joined by a psychologist, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist, Radek (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic, Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist/surveyor, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

This is a hard science fiction film, heavy on ideas and light on action. There are some scenes of suspense and horror, but mostly of the existential kind. That's not to say that the film is ever a bore. It's quite the opposite. From the moment the team passes the iridescent soap bubble borders of the Shimmer, we're inundated with fantastic, otherworldly images. The colors are saturated, the atmosphere is tense, and there's this lingering sense of dread that hangs over the whole picture. There are several nods to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker," which has some plot similarities to "Annihilation," but this is a very different kind of story. Its metaphors are more specific and its storytelling is much easier to parse. Audiences will still need to have some patience with it, and be willing to put some pieces together themselves, but the narrative is ultimately pretty conventional.

On the other hand, the story often feels beside the point. "Annihilation" works best as a sensory experience. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create this fascinating, nightmarish place where it seems like nature has gone mad, and the characters are constantly battling the urge to go mad along with it. Mutated plant and animal life, abandoned and overgrown structures, and even the light filtered through the Shimmer all look uniquely strange and unnerving. There are long stretches of silence or very limited music to really help all that atmosphere soak in. We know from very early on that the majority of the characters are going to fall victim to the Shimmer, just not when or how or in what horrifically phantasmagorical fashion.

I also appreciate that the ideas that the film tackles are thoughtful ones, and handled in a fairly detached and ambivalent manner. The Shimmer could represent a lot of different things, but the film compares its destructive powers to the spread of cancer and the self-destructive impulses of its heroine. It argues that these are things that are better understood through scientific observation, without trying to impose a system of morality on their function. The film also leaves us without many concrete answers, suggesting that there is much about the Shimmer that is simply inexplicable. And frankly, not enough media is brave enough to do that.

In a film like this the characters are pretty thinly drawn by necessity. Still, I found the performances of Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh very effective. All of them have to sell some very outlandish material, but they do sell it. We see enough of Lena and Kane's relationship in flashbacks to give Lena's present day actions some emotional weight. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is as disturbing as any of the creepy Shimmer critters. "Annihilation" is ultimately as much about the characters' motivations as it is about the phenomena that they investigate, and we're left with a lot of ambiguity here too.

In short, "Annihilation" is determined to make the viewer engage with its themes and ideas, to follow the patterns and pick apart the details in search of meaning. It's one of those films that rewards multiple viewings, but is certainly impressive enough after only a single one. It's a film too cold and cerebral to really love, but it succeeded in getting under my skin. And it did get me to think and wonder and second guess myself in a way that few films have.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Trailers! Trailers! Fall 2018 and Beyond

A big batch of trailers premiered over the past few days, so I've decided to write a bit about the ones I found interesting. All links below lead to Trailer Addict, because those little pre-trailer trailers on Youtube are really starting to irk me.

Mortal Engines - It's good to find that Peter Jackson is still working after the whole debacle with "The Hobbit." However, as interesting as the idea of these mobile cities are, the actual plotting and characters ping as pretty typical YA fantasy. And the YA fantasy genre is supposed to be on its way out, right? There are enough glimpses of good worldbuilding here that I'll give this one a watch eventually, but I'm tempering expectations.

The Lego Movie 2 - I love the whole idea of the "Lego" universe turning into a wasteland - did the kid grow up and abandon them? Are they in storage or lost, maybe? The return of Chris Pratt as super-peppy Emmett was the best bit though. Chris Pratt is so good as that character, I keep forgetting that it's Chris Pratt. After the underperformance of the other "Lego" movies, I hope this one does better, because we really could use more kids' films in this vein.

Widows - Well, there's no confusing this one with "Ocean's 8." I am very excited that this appears to be the most audience-friendly film that Steve McQueen has made yet, and just look at that cast! Look at who's playing the villains! I also can't help comparing this to all those slick action movies where Liam Neeson has played an action hero recently. This time around, he gets bumped off in he first act, and has to be avenged by the female leads. Of all the films on this post, this is the one I'm the most excited to see by far.

Suspiria - I confess that I'm not a big fan of the original Argento "Suspiria," and I'm hoping that the Gudagnino version might be more to my tastes. With the appearance of Tilda Swinton, it's certainly looking that way. I'm very interested to see how Gudagnino is going to handle a horror film - or even if this is going to properly be a horror film. The trailer is wonderfully moody and atmospheric, but tells us almost nothing about any story or character specifics. And that's perfect.

Bumblebee - This looks better than the Michael Bay "Transformers" films, which is not a high bar. Still, I like that the series is going back to its roots with the old VW bug design for Bumblebee and what appears to be the original Starscream as the villain. Hailee Steinfeld has left me a little cold on her previous outings, but she's looking much more surefooted here. And John Cena's involvement is always welcome. As much beef as I've had with the series over the years, I hope this one turns out well for them.

The Old Man & the Gun - Reportedly Robert Redford's final acting performance. Everything about the marketing is referencing Redford's films from the '70s, from the posters to the title font. I've had mixed reactions to David Lowery's films, but this project looks like a good fit for his sensibilities. And it's certainly always nice to see Sissy Spacek. This is likely being primed to be an awards contender, so we'll probably be hearing a lot more about it in the months to come.

The Girl in the Spider's Web - Claire Foy has definitely shown why she got the role of Lisbeth Salander. The look, the accent - all of it works. I haven't seen either of Fede Álvarez's previous films, but he seems to have a good handle on the tone and the visuals here. It's been long enough since the David Fincher film that a quasi-reboot of the Millennium series makes a certain amount of sense. I still have some misgivings, but this looks a lot better than I was expecting.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse - This looks so different from every other cinematic take on Spider-man, and I mean that in the best way. I love the style of the animation, the shady older Peter Parker, and the Lord & Miller humor. If the tug-of-war between Sony and Marvel for the Spidey rights was good for nothing else, at least it meant that an alternate universe project like this could get off the ground.

A Star is Born - I'm still a little disappointed that the Clint Eastwood version of this project never got off the ground, but I'm willing to give Bradley Cooper's a shot. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. Can he sing? Can Lady Gaga act? The trailer suggests they can, but trailers can be misleading. We'll just have to wait and see.

Bad Times at the El Royale - I feel that I might have already seen too much here. Drew Goddard's latest is supposedly filled with neat twists and double-crosses, and the trailer appears to give away several key pieces of information it probably shouldn't have. I definitely want to see this movie, but will be avoiding all further marketing from this point on.


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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Look Back in Anticipation

I've been writing lists of my most anticipated films for several years now as a matter of habit. However, it occurred to me that part of the purpose of these lists was going back at the end of the year and seeing how the reality matched up. I haven't been doing this, and I think it's high time I remedied that. So I'm going to use this post to go back over the lists from the last six years, from 2012 onward, and see what these picks look like in the rearview mirror.

2012

The Picks: "John Carter," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Gravity," "Django Unchained," "The Master," "Prometheus," "Life of Pi," "The We and the I," "Seven Psychopaths," and "Cloud Atlas."

This actually turned out pretty decently. "Gravity" didn't come out until 2013, as ambitious movies getting delayed is pretty common. And though some of the others underperformed at the box office, I wouldn't say there's a single bad one in the bunch. "Seven Psychopaths" was probably the most disappointing, and "The We and the I" turned out to be one of those little Michel Gondry experiment films that was interesting, but didn't really work.

2013 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Man of Steel," "This is the End," "The World's End," "Pacific Rim," "Elysium," "Ender's Game," "Frozen," and "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

The Picks, Part II: "Upstream Color," "Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "Snowpiercer," "Mood Indigo," "Fruitvale Station," "Labor Day," "Foxcatcher," "Her," and "12 Years A Slave."

From 2013 onwards, I essentially wrote two lists, one for mainstream blockbusters and one for the prestige pics and indie films. I picked some real stinkers for the blockbuster list here, including "Into Darkness," "Elysium," and "This is the End." And boy was I misguided about the prospects of "Man of Steel" and "Ender's Game." The smaller films mostly came out well, with "Upstream Color," "Her," and "12 Years a Slave" all making my Top Ten for the year. The one major misfire is "Labor Day," which was a Jason Reitman melodrama from right when he started to go off the rails.

2014 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Godzilla," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "The Boxtrolls," "Big Hero 6," "Annie," and "Into the Woods"

The Picks, Part II: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Cobbler," "Ex Machina," "Whiplash," "The Voices," "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence," "Gone Girl," and "Inherent Vice"

After they overwhelmed my lists the previous year, I tried to cut back on the blockbusters. All the ones I did pick turned out to be pretty meh. I still have very mixed feelings on "Godzilla" and "Guardians," and view the musicals as wasted opportunities. The smaller films were a mixed bag. I admit that I skipped "The Cobbler" after the terrible reviews, and didn't think much of "The Voices" or "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…" "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Gone Girl" were winners though, along with "Ex Machina." Also, three of these films ended up delayed to 2015.

2015 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Tomorrowland," "Fantastic Four," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,"
"Crimson Peak," "Spectre," "The Martian," and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

The Picks, Part II: "99 Homes," "See You Tomorrow," "The End of the Tour," "Sicario," "Queen of the Desert," "The Lobster," "Spotlight," and "The Other Side of the Wind."

Good grief, I really did pick "Fantastic Four," didn't I? Well, both lists turned out to have films of roughly comparable quality. 2015 saw some surprisingly good genre films like "Fury Road" and "The Martian," while directors like Werner Herzog made some notable stinkers. Because of a title change, I didn't even realize that "See You Tomorrow," produced rather than directed by Wong Kar-Wai, was actually completed. There were also some massive disappointments like "Tomorrowland" and "Spectre." I'm glad Tom McCarthy recovered from "The Cobbler" quickly, however, and "The Other Side of the Wind" is still MIA.

2016 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Money Monster," "The BFG," "Doctor Strange," "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Assassin's Creed," "Passengers," and "The Light Between Oceans."

The Picks, Part II: "Certain Women," "Hail Caeser!" "A United Kingdom," "High Rise," "Personal Shopper," "Raiders!" "Birth of a Nation," "The Circle," "The Red Turtle," and "Arrival."

Well, this was a bad year for predictions all around. "Assassin's Creed," "Passengers, and "The Circle" were among the year's worst misfires. Others simply weren't much to talk about, like "Certain Women," "Raiders!" and "Money Monster." Even the better films like "Arrival" and "The Red Turtle" were ones I found I appreciated more than I really enjoyed. It felt like an off year in general, with a lot of familiar auteurs out of commission, and others turning in only mediocre work. My biggest disappointment was actually "Doctor Strange" for not doing much with its fantastic cast.

2017 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Ghost in the Shell," "War for the Planet of the Apes," "Dunkirk," "Blade Runner 2049," "Thor: Ragnarok," "Murder on the Orient Express," and "Star Wars: Episode VIII" "Downsizing."

The Picks, Part II: "Annihilation," "Dark River," "Free Fire," "Mute," "The Death of Stalin," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," "mother!" "Roma," and "Detroit."

"Ghost in the "Shell" aside, the blockbusters all came out pretty well. "Downsizing" was a mess, but at least is was an interesting mess. The smaller films, however, saw a lot of delays and disappointments. "Roma" and "Dark River" are still pending, "Free Fire" and "The Death of Stalin" underwhelmed," and the less said about the long-gestating "Mute" the better. I'm happy with the films that did arrive on schedule, though, including "Three Billboards" and "mother!"
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Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1987

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

Babette's Feast - The best foodie films are about sensuality, and there's no better example than "Babette's Feast," where a pair of severe, religious Danish sisters find their convictions tested by a gift from their cook, Babette. The film is a sweet-natured moral fable at heart, more concerned with its questions of piety, spirituality, and the value of the arts than it is with the food. However, it also makes a fantastic case for enjoying what the world has to offer and not being afraid to live life to its fullest. There's plenty for viewers to chew on, so to speak.

The Princess Bride - This is one of the most well-written parodies of its era, with a slew of immortal one-liners, but it works just as well as a genial genre picture played straight. It beautifully balances cynicism and wonder, knowing humor with heartfelt romance and heroism. I can't think of a picture more charming or good-natured, and few have aged so well. Of the talented and memorable cast, the MVP remains Peter Falk, playing grandfather and narrator, who delivers gentle reassurances on the existence of love and miracles with a twinkle in his eye.

Au Revoir Les Enfants - A child's eye view of WWII, based on an event from the director's own boyhood. Louis Malle's nostalgic, intimate filmmaking captures the innocence of his young characters during wartime, and their gradual disillusionment. This one hits particularly close to home because the protagonist's life and experiences seem so ordinary at first, and the danger so remote. The young actors are compelling, and very effective at drawing us into the boys' private world of schoolyard rivalries, whispered secrets, and eventual friendship and loss.

Dirty Dancing - The ending is pure Hollywood fantasy, but everything leading up to it is far more interesting. A teenager's first eventful romance and confrontations with her own social privilege turn a dull family vacation into a voyage of self discovery. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's onscreen chemistry is sensational to watch ignite, and Baby makes for an unusually smart and memorable female protagonist. The film also nails the Catskills resort culture of the 1960s like no other, making it as much of a time capsule as it is a timeless romance.

Full Metal Jacket - I have some issues with the second half of the film, but the first half with Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman breaking down the new recruits in basic training is perfect. I've never seen a better representation of the dehumanizing process of militarization. Kubrick's exacting visuals are as nerve-wracking as ever, and the performances by R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D'Onofrio are rightly considered iconic. There are surely more factually accurate Vietnam War films, but few are as psychologically astute and cinematically uncompromising.

Raising Arizona - From the opening yodels over the title credits, this is a uniquely Coen brothers film. Everything from the exaggerated characters to the florid dialogue to those racing Steadicam shots are unmistakably the work of the Coens, establishing a distinctive style and tone in what was only their second film and first full-fledged comedy. Off-kilter, outlandish, and surprisingly warm-hearted, "Raising Arizona" remains one of their best films, and easily their funniest. The chase sequence over a pack of Huggies is one of my favorite things they've ever done.

Where is the Friend's Home? - The film that brought Iran's Abbas Kiarostami onto the world stage. It dramatizes a child's seemingly simple dilemma with care and insight, using it to examine the larger society around him. The world of young Ahmed is one of stern adults and rigid rules, where trying to help a friend can be an enormous undertaking. This was also the first film in Kiarostami's innovative Koker Trilogy, named after the village where the films were shot. Each story leads to another and another, ultimately showing many different sides of the participants.

Withnail and I - Two frequently drunk young wastrels stumble through one calamity after another in Bruce Robinson's comedy based on his own experiences as a young actor. Of all the movies about being down and out, this is one of the most endearing and entertaining. Playing its blisteringly loquacious title character made Richard E. Grant a star. The film has naturally gained cult status over the years for its counterculture vibes, soundtrack, and black humor. However, I'll always love it for subverting the notion that there's anything romantic about alcoholism.

The Last Emperor - A sumptuous epic about a huge transitional moment in Chinese history, helmed by Bernardo Bertolucci with special permission from the Chinese government. Massively ambitious, with cinematography of the Forbidden City by Vittorio Storaro, the film offers a spectacle that few could match. It is also a deeply moving one, as we watch the fortunes of Puyi rise and fall with the changing times. The weight of so much history occasionally threatens to overwhelm the picture, but Bertolucci keeps the story very personal and very human.

Moonstruck - The irresistible story of a widow who finds love again, with complications, of course. Involving multiple members of two boisterous Italian families, a trip to the opera, a man with a wooden hand, and the magical powers of a full moon, the film frequently threatens to go over the top. However, there's such an easy charm and warmth to all the romantic farce, and there's not an unlovable character in the whole bunch. Cher proved herself a leading lady worth falling for, and it's a real shame that she never had another part as good as Loretta.

Honorable Mention

Wings of Desire

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Maudie" and "A Quiet Passion"


As much as I liked Sally Hawkins in "The Shape of Water," the 2017 performance of hers I'm going to remember is her appearance as the title character in "Maudie," a biopic of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. Afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis, and shamed for a past scandal, Maud is treated as a black sheep by her family in the 1930s. She strikes out on her own, becoming a cleaning woman for a local fisherman, Everett (Ethan Hawke), in exchange for room and board. Everett is harsh and crude, and Maud isn't much of a cleaning woman, but the two learn to get along. And in the tiny shack they share, Maud finds the freedom to become the artist she always wanted to be.

"Maudie" is fairly minimalist film, and it's clear the production was a modest one with few frills. Maud and Everett's evolving relationship forms the backbone of the story, with Hawkins and Hawke both delivering excellent performances. There's a considerable physical element to both of them. Hawkins uses very limited, rigid movements to convey the extent of Maud's arthritis and other physical ailments. Hawk's Everett often seems to tower over her, every word coming out in a barking command, punctuated by rough, often violent action. It's fascinating to watch the two of them interact with each other, and with the rugged Nova Scotia environment.

Maud's paintings are all of the natural world around her, rendered in bright colors and simple forms. Likewise the movie only gives us a very abridged, simplified view of Maud's life, career, and relationships. It was mildly shocking to see photos of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film and discover that many of the events depicted actually happened when the couple was decades older than the actors portraying them ever appeared. And yet, I feel the actors did justice to The Lewises, capturing their odd, but very touching relationship. I saw "Maudie" quite some time ago and wasn't intending to write a review, but the film has stayed with me like few others have.

Another smaller 2017 film that hasn't gotten nearly the attention it should is Terence Davies' "A Quiet Passion," a character study of Emily Dickinson. It features a delightful performance by Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, portrayed here as obstinate, temperamental, and incredibly sharp-minded and intelligent. The film dramatizes several incidents in her life that are meant to give possible insight into her prickly personality and reclusive behavior. And as with all Terence Davies films, there's no straightforward narrative here. Rather, the film unfolds as a series of vignettes that come one after the other in a loosely connected fashion. It feels appropriate, given the style of Dickinson's own writings.

Cynthia Nixon does remarkable work, showing us many different sides of Dickinson. Particularly important are her relationships with family members and friends, and her internal war with her own desires and nature. There's a fantastic scene where she turns away a potential admirer with cruelly cutting remarks, refusing to come downstairs to address him directly. The camera cuts between the action downstairs and a close-up of Nixon's face, revealing her emotional state as the situation becomes heated. There's also a fantastic sequence when Dickinson's health is in decline, where she grapples with her mortality.


It doesn't surprise me that audiences haven't been very receptive to "A Quiet Passion." It's a slow film, moody and atmospheric, and doesn't play by the rules of conventional Hollywood biopics. However, it's hard to imagine a better film about Emily Dickinson existing. There's an unusual authenticity to the production, from the filming taking place in a replica of Dickinson's actual family home, to the formality of the language, to the use of period photographs to show the progression of the Civil War instead of more cinematic recreations. Some viewers might find the approach stifling, but I couldn't be happier with the results.
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Sunday, June 3, 2018

"A Fantastic Woman" and "Loveless"

I really haven't been watching as many foreign films lately as I should, but I've been doing my best to catch up. Below are reviews of two of last year's big Oscar contenders.

"A Fantastic Woman" is a Chilean film about a transgender woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), who faces difficulties when her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly dies. Harassed by the suspicious authorities and Orlando's estranged family, Marina struggles to move on with her life and make her peace with Orlando's passing. The film was directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio, best known for 2013's "Gloria." However, the movie is Daniela Vega's show through and through.

What I so appreciate about "A Fantastic Woman" is that it understands that the best way to get us on Marina's side is to simply let her be herself. Other characters around her may insist on prying into her personal relationships, the details of her transition, and the more uncomfortable questions tied to her identity, but the film treats Marina as perfectly normal, a woman dealing with a bad situation in the best way that she can. Vega's performance is lovely and unaffected, especially when Marina is at her most vulnerable. And because she's so relatable and sympathetic on that level, the fact that she's trans doesn't define her. Instead, Marina's singing prowess, her fanciful daydreams, and her gradually emerging self-confidence are what make her so memorable.

How Marina is framed and shot plays a huge part in this. She's onscreen for the majority of the run time, and the camera doesn't shy away from showing us her body. However, we are always shown Marina from her own point of view, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively as her self-image is challenged by those around her. She is constantly being confronted with mirrors and doubles, as well as phantoms of her late Orlando. I love all the little ways that the camera was placed to emphasize her femininity, and there's one particular intimate shot near the end of the film that is one of the best I've seen in a film all year.

Now on to a much colder and more tragic film, Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless." A Russian domestic drama, "Loveless" follows a divorcing couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), as they're in the thick of the separation process, selling their home and making plans with their other partners. The two are viciously at odds with each other, and their twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is handling the split as well as you might expect. Then one night, after Zhenya and Boris have both spent an extended amount of time away from home, Alyosha disappears without a trace.

As with all of Zvyagintsev's films, the characters' troubles are meant to help reflect the larger societal ills of Russian society. This one pointedly takes aim at the way families are treated and created. As our hostile couple are forced to spend more time together, we watch them rehash all their past grievances and all the different reasons why the marriage fell apart, or perhaps never should have happened in the first place. Spivak and Rosin are very good at trading barbs, but it's difficult to be sympathetic to either of them when their behavior is so awful. However, "Loveless" still works very well as an uneasy melodrama, especially as the search for Alyosha ramps up in the final part of the film.

The frozen terrain mirrors the icy state of the relationship, and portentous landscape shots open and close the film. Inclement weather and long drives through empty, barren countryside also contribute to the miserable atmosphere. This is not the best film to watch if you're feeling depressed. It is, however, yet another thoughtful, touching Andrey Zvyagintsev film about ordinary people going through tough times. I don't think "Loveless" is one of his stronger efforts however, because the characters are so relentlessly unpleasant and the situation feels very contrived. The ending, however, is one that you'd never see in a mainstream American film - and exactly what it should be.
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Friday, June 1, 2018

The New Breed of Video Game Movie

I think it's high time I looked at the state of video game influenced movies again. Way back in 2010, I spent a post wondering Will Video Game Movies Finally Have Their Day? Movies based on popular video game properties have continued to perform below expectations, and there have been some notable busts including "Warcraft," and "Assassin's Creed." The new "Tomb Raider" got okay reviews, but it didn't exactly set the box office on fire. I continue to hold out hope that one of these adaptations is going to connect eventually, because the studios keep making them. The next best hope is probably the upcoming "Uncharted."

However, even if direct video game adaptations aren't doing very well, video game themed movies are definitely becoming more popular. The biggest surprise hit of 2017 was "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," which is largely a parody of RPG style video games. You can also find major video game elements in this year's "Ready Player One" and the "Wreck-It-Ralph" sequel. "Edge of Tomorrow," which heavily relied on video game mechanics, has a new installment in the works potentially titled "Live Die Repeat and Repeat." Since "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" put video game iconography all over movie screens in 2010, we've been steadily seeing Hollywood get more comfortable with using and commenting on video game elements in mainstream films.

There are two distinct differences between these new video game movies and the adaptations that we've called video game movies up until this point. First, the adaptations like "Prince of Persia" and "Tomb Raider" tend to try their best to erase their video game roots. They look like generic action adventure films to those who aren't familiar with the properties. The newer video game movies do the opposite, often playing up the artifice of gameplay mechanics and exaggerating the video game graphics. The Adam Sandler comedy "Pixels," for instance, relies heavily on having monsters designed like old 8-bit arcade game characters. "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" gets a lot of humor out of parodying specific elements of RPGs, like the non-player characters who talk in loops, the cut scenes, and the silly hero attributes.

The other major difference is that the new video game movies are at least somewhat aimed at people who play video games. Nearly all of these titles have meta elements and humor that require the viewer to have some familiarity with actual gaming. One of the big selling points of "Wreck-it-Ralph" is its fantasy universe where classic video game characters can all interact with each other. Sonic the Hedgehog, Q-bert, a "Pac-Man" ghost, and several "Street Fighter II" villains all have lines, and a ton of others have cameos. It's interesting to note that most video game references are still to '80s and early '90s style arcade games, rather than the more recent Playstation and Xbox era games.

This is a strong indicator that gaming is still considered a niche hobby in Hollywood, despite all evidence to the contrary. I suspect this is a big reason why there's still this tendency to want to hand-hold when talking about certain video game elements, and nearly all the adaptations of existing properties tend to feel watered down and overly generic. When moving these characters and stories from one medium to another, filmmakers keep trying to make them more accessible to wider audiences. This usually ends up backfiring, of course, because video game heroes are already very tropey and generic to allow for easier player identification. Some early adaptations like "Doom" had to invent their protagonists out of whole cloth.

"Jumanji" mocks this wonderfully by sticking its players into game characters with clashing personalities. "Wreck-it-Ralph" subverts the good guy/bad guy dichotomy as part of its premise. It's no wonder that the majority of the successful video game movies are comedies that poke fun at video game conventions. It's way more entertaining to see video games being goosed for their wacky idiosyncrasies, and having their more distinctive gameplay elements put onscreen than it is to see them forced into the typical mold of your usual action blockbuster. It still baffles me that most video game adaptations don't take more advantage of this.

Going forward, however, I expect there's a good chance we'll see a video game adaptation actually embrace being an adaptation of a video game. And maybe that'll be the big break that this genre has been looking for.



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