Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Tough Love of "Thoroughbreds"

We've seen films about two young women becoming friends and plotting a murder together before.  "Diabolique" and "Heavenly Creatures" are the obvious reference points. "Thoroughbreds" tackles this situation from a different perspective, working on a frequency closer to teen angst reveries like "Ghost World," full of wry humor and darkly macabre moments.  It also has the benefit of two fantastic performances from its lead actresses, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke.

Wealthy Connecticut teens Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) reconnect after a long estrangement, and this is the catalyst for some very bad behavior.  However, Amanda is a literal sociopath who is already in hot water for having killed an ailing horse, and Lily is far more troubled than her picture perfect exterior suggests.  For one thing, she hates her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), who makes her life difficult. The girls decide to kill him, roping a local drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin) into their schemes.  This is one of Yelchin's last roles, which is a little unfortunate because there's really not much to the part. It's the girls and their complicated friendship that stay firmly at the center of all the melodrama.      

Despite the plot hinging so heavily on murder and blackmail, "Thoroughbreds" doesn't function much like a typical thriller.  It's more accurately described as a character study of Lily and Amanda, and how they influence each other. Cooke's Amanda is memorably strange, unable to feel or care about things the way everyone around her does, saying off-putting things that make her seem alien and remote.  It's clear why she's a social pariah and why Lily develops a fascination with her. She sees the benefits of being a sociopath, saying and doing things that Lily secretly wishes she could. Taylor-Joy gives one of her better performances as Lily, as she slowly comes to embrace her wicked side, and the two actresses play off of each other well.

Toxic friendships have been the source of plenty of interesting cinema, and this one is notable for being surprisingly positive for both of the girls.  Amanda gets to spend time with a peer who actually wants to be around her. Lily has someone to confide in, who encourages her to be honest about what she wants.  Sure, they bond over their mutual violent impulses and seriously screwed up worldviews, but there's the sense that Amanda and Lily were already on their own personal roads to Hell, and at least this way they have some company. The twists and turns of the relationship are familiar, but they play out very differently than I've seen in other media, with a surprising amount of heart and empathy.  

"Thoroughbreds" was originally conceived of as a stage play, which explains the sparse cast and lack of any real action set pieces.  All the violence is kept offscreen. However, first time writer/director Cory Finley avoids any staginess in the proceedings. The girls meet in Mark's large, empty house, which often reflects their emotional isolation.  We frequently see them surrounded by luxury, but they barely seem to notice or care. To others they project bored disaffection, and Finley has some fun with images of the pair playing at being upper crust ingenues. Otherwise, the direction is only decent, pretty good for a first outing, but with plenty of room for improvement.   

So I don't think that "Thoroughbreds" matches up to the classics in this genre, but it's still very enjoyable.  I like that it's short, simple, and lacking in any manufactured convolutions. The themes are laid out very clearly, and yet there's a lot left ambiguous.  Mark may or may not deserve Lily's loathing. Amanda may or may not have more feelings than she admits. It's left up to the viewer to decide what to make of the girls and their actions, and whether their friendship left them better or worse off.  I can't help wishing it were a little longer and dug a little deeper, but that's probably what the filmmakers intended.

Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke have been popping up frequently in recent mainstream blockbusters, and it's nice to see them get a chance to play something more off-kilter and unusual.  I hope that this isn't the last time that the two cross paths.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How Did You See That Movie?

As a media junkie with certain tastes for snooty foreign films and festival favorites that aren't very accessible, I spend a lot of time hunting for media.  New releases are fairly easy these days. You just keep an eye on iTunes or Amazon for release dates. In some cases, the releases may be very slow in coming, but most notable titles, like the 2016 Portuguese art film "The Ornithologist," will get here eventually.  You just need some patience to wait them out.

But what about older films?  How do you find movies long out of print, or that were never properly released at all?  While I'm not against piracy in some cases, I prefer to exhaust all other avenues first.  I thought I'd share a couple of tips on how to locate and watch some of the more elusive media out there.

The first step should always be your local library.  Larger cities will have more diverse media holdings, especially for non-English speaking populations, but you never know what will turn up. I was lucky enough to live very close to the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library for a couple of years, and took home Criterions by the armload every week.  Many libraries also take part in interlibrary loan programs, where you can borrow media held by other libraries throughout the country, usually for a fee. Library holdings can be searched through

Universities and colleges often also have media collections and film archives, which can be accessed by the public.  Nearly all have fee-based memberships, and some, like Stanford, offer limited free research access. UC Berkeley's Pacific Film archive is where I first saw most of the Studio Ghibli films, before Disney picked up the distribution rights in the early aughts.  If you want to see more art and experimental films, museums become very important. There are certain art films that are pretty much only screened at museums, like Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls" and "Empire." National film institutions like the BFI and the National Film Board of Canada are also good sources of information.

Then there's the free-for-all of the internet.  There's a lot of gray area here legally, but it's pretty much the only way that some especially rare media is viewable at all.  Let's take the case of "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam," an anti-war underground animated short that was made by an amateur animator with absolutely no permission from Disney.  Since nobody could monetize it, the short is destined to never have a proper release. The only existing 16mm copies were in the hands of private collectors for decades, and it was very, very difficult to find.  Then, about five years ago, someone uploaded it to Youtube, and it was no longer a rarity.

All sorts of interesting things pop up on private trackers, or on the various streaming sites like Youtube, Vimeo, and Daily Motion.  As an animation fan, I've found old student films like "Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown," test footage, workprints, propaganda shorts, industrial videos, and ancient ads.  Recently the contents of PIXAR's infamous "Made in Point Richmond," a DVD intended to be distributed only to employees, surfaced online. Created in 2001, it contains a huge cache of the studio's obscurities made from 1985-2000, including rare animation tests, yearly Christmas party videos, and the uncensored version of "Knick Knack."

Tracking lost and rare media can be an entertaining rabbit hole to climb down.  At one point, the Lost Media Wiki forum members were actually tracking who had physical copies of "Made in Point Richmond."  While I'm not too active in these circles, I do recommend keeping an eye on them and using them as a resource. More older content is being found and uploaded every day, and something that was impossible to find a year ago might be on Amazon Prime tomorrow.  Sometimes it's as simple as the rights finally clearing for online distribution, or a company deciding that they can't monetize something, and making it available for free. That's happened with titles like Neil Jordan's "In Dreams" and Peter Greenaway's "The Baby of Macon."

At the moment I'm keeping an eye out for a couple of They Shoot Pictures Don't They titles.  I finally got my hands on a pair of obscure German Fritz Lang movies a few months ago, which were worth the wait.  Still looking for some of Vittorio DeSica's older work. It's strange how little of his output is currently available Stateside.  I know the movies are out there though, and I'll keep looking.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Wacky " Wrinkle in Time"

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, American

Let me start off by saying that I'm very familiar with Madeleine L'Engle's book, "A Wrinkle in Time."  It was one of my favorites growing up. It is an exceedingly weird and very earnestly corny children's book, where one of the characters is a literal "happy medium," and the heroine wins by using the power of love to save her brother.  It's not exactly easy material to adapt, especially in 2018. There's already been one terrible adaptation, the 2003 TV movie. And after the awful reviews and audience reaction, I wasn't expecting much from Ava Duvernay's version.

But I didn't dislike it.  Yes, the movie is pretty ineptly made.  There are some very odd adaptation and editing choices, with important bits of story and exposition excised for no discernable reason - including the vital scene that explains what a "tesseract" is.  The concepts of space travel and the spread of evil in the universe are ludicrous as presented, action scenes are shoehorned in at regular intervals, and there's the constant feeling of the whole film being absolutely smothered in expensive CGI effects.  In fact, the whole film is quite a bit more tolerable if you simply ignore the story and just enjoy the spectacle for its own sake.

And yet, the film actually gets the major parts of the book right.  Troubled teenager Meg Murray (Storm Reid), her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and Meg's classmate Calvin (Levi Mller) are taken on an adventure, hopping through the galaxy via tesseract (a wrinkle in space-time) with three cosmic beings, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).  They're going to retrieve Meg and Charles Wallace's father, Alex Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared after a tesseract experiment, and is now the prisoner of an evil force called IT.

The cast has been purposefully diversified, so Meg is the product of African-American and Caucasian parents, her brother is Filipino and adopted, and the Mrs. Ws reflect a bit of everything.  However, Meg is recognizably Meg, a broody, low self-esteem oddball who can't help acting out. Storm Reid is excellent in the part, coming across as perfectly emotionally genuine in even the most ridiculous circumstances.  Reese Witherspoon also stands out as a cheerfully nutty Mrs. Whatsit, who wanders into the Murray household draped in sheets. Deric McCabe, alas, is rather plasticine as Charles Wallace, but it's an impossible role, and I'm actually impressed that they got it anywhere close to right.

Of course, for as much as the bones of the story are there, it is often hard to tell with so much distracting visual madness heaped on top.  The Mrs. Ws are given ostentatious costumes that change with every new leg of the journey. Oprah gets the wildest look, with thick, glitter-encrusted makeup and her hair sculpted into a variety of massive polyhedrons.  The three planets that our heroes visit present the opportunity for lots of strange alien landscapes, one populated by colorful flying plants, and another by sinister synchronized suburbanites. One important confrontation randomly takes place on a crowded summer beach.  Sadly, these locations come and go too quickly, often feeling like random jaunts into whimsy without much weight.

The production design is great, and it's almost worth watching the film for the trippy sensory overload alone.  However, there's really no excuse for the narrative being as incoherent as it is, full of wonky chunks of mythology that don't suggest any kind of internal logic at work.  Occasionally you get a clever line of dialogue or a particularly creative image that hints at something more, though. And these are what keep me from writing off the movie completely.  I remember watching and being fond of many similarly nonsensical fantasy films as a child. And "A Wrinkle in Time" wasn't made for me, but for younger, and perhaps more forgiving audiences.          

Adapting "A Wrinkle in Time" would have been a tall order for anyone, and Ava Duvernay was clearly out of her depth tackling this as her first genre project.  The movie is in no way a success, but it's so weirdly memorable and strangely loyal to the book that I'm having a hard time thinking of it as a failure either.  The people who made this film clearly cared about what they were doing, and it shows.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Oh Right, The Emmys…

I completely missed the Emmys.  It wasn't until I saw the news headlines this morning that I even realized that they had happened.  I blame a recent illness, a busy schedule, and the fact that NBC decided to air them on a Monday this year so they wouldn't conflict with football.  Fortunately, the ceremony was easy enough to find online through NBC's site and Hulu. Youtube also had most of the broadcast available in three-minute clips.  

I would have liked to watch this one live, though.  There were a handful of good surprises, including Rick and Morty presenting an award, Thandie Newton's fleeting F-bomb, and a genuinely touching marriage proposal.  The Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special category has never been so exciting! I was less enthused about Betty White's awkward appearance and the constant talk about diversity efforts.  Oh well, at least it was better than talking about Donald Trump all night, and I thought Michael Che's "Reparations Emmys" were fun. Politics were otherwise mostly off the table - but why was John McCain in the "In Memoriam" segment?

I've pretty well given up trying to treat any of the races seriously, since it seems like the Emmy voters don't bother to.  The only races where I had watched enough of the nominees to follow at all this year were the drama categories, and the winners felt random.  How else to explain Thandie Newton and Peter Dinklage's wins? How did "Game of Thrones" win again for one of their most lackluster seasons? David Lynch lost to Ryan Murphy?! Broader trends, however, were more telling.  "The Marvelous Ms. Maisel" was an overwhelming winner for Amazon, now the second streaming service to snag a major series victory after Hulu's success with "The Handmaid's Tale" last year. "The Americans" also scored its first major wins for its final season - and I'd completely forgotten that Matthew Rhys was a Brit.  And good grief, AMC didn't get a single major nod.

Netflix had the most nominations and walked away with the most trophies, narrowly beating HBO.  I think their continued presence at the Emmys is going to be good for everyone in the long run. More people actually watch their shows than the ones on most other platforms, so the Emmys benefit from a more engaged audience.  Almost no broadcast network shows got major nominations, so Netflix is the populist option by default. On the flip side, I wonder how many people were in on the joke involving the creepy Teddy Perkins from "Atlanta." Or then there was Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen doing their odd schtick as Emmy experts.  Was that supposed to be a tie-in to their new Amazon show, "Forever"? The ratings for the telecast have come in, and they're not great.

However, I thought that this was a very well produced and structured Emmys.  Things were very brisk. I like how they presented the nominees, with every category listing them with clips before the presenters even went onstage to do their bits.  That saved a lot of time, and prevented any flubs with reading names. In past ceremonies, which categories got clips and which didn't, often felt completely arbitrary.  This year's set design was essentially a giant screen acting as a backdrop, with sections that would move to form entry and exit ways. This meant that little time was lost to scenery changes, and the "Rick and Morty" segment was integrated perfectly.  

There's still noticeable monkeying around with the categories themselves though.  We got to see Charlie Brooker accept an Emmy for writing "Black Mirror," but not for it winning Best TV Movie, which was presented as part of the Creative Arts Emmys roughly a week ago.  I really should pay more attention to the Creative Arts Emmys. How long has there been a Best Narrator Emmy category?

Colin Jost and Michael Che from SNL's "Weekend Update" hosted, and were pretty unmemorable and unobtrusive.  I don't think I'll ever forgive NBC for banishing Conan O'Brien a year before they got the Emmys again, forever denying us a follow-up to his legendary 2006 hosting turn.  Alas, three more years until the telecast is back on CBS and Stephen Colbert has another go.
Happy 70th, Primetime Emmys.  But the way things are going, will you still be broadcast on television in another ten?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Looking Ahead With DreamWorks and PIXAR Animation

We're at a nice lull in U.S. animation at the moment, so I thought I'd take stock of how two of our major sources, PIXAR and DreamWorks, have been doing, and what we can expect from them in the future.  

First, let's start with PIXAR.  They're on top of the world again after the sensational performance of "The Incredibles 2" over the summer.  However, the company is at a bit of a creative crossroads. John Lasseter is leaving at the end of the year, brought down by scandal, to be replaced by Pete Docter.  The majority of the studio's output over the last decade has been sequels and spinoffs, including next year's "Toy Story 4." However, there are no more plans for sequels for the time being, and the two features scheduled for 2020 are both originals.  

A big reason for PIXAR's deluge of sequels and prequels is because it has been under tremendous pressure to deliver a steady stream of hits.  They also had their first real flop not that long ago, the troubled "The Good Dinosaur." For a while, it seemed like PIXAR was in danger of being eclipsed by its sister studio Walt Disney Animation, which is only fully embracing sequels now with "Wreck-it-Ralph" and "Frozen" follow-ups.  Disney recently acquired Blue Sky Studios, which has three originals announced, including next year's "Spies in Disguise" with Will Smith. They also recently closed down Disney Toon Studios, which mostly made direct-to-video and spinoff films like "Planes" and the "Tinkerbell" features.

My hope is that the new leadership and the housecleaning going on a PIXAR will lead to a creative resurgence at the studio.  We won't see the results for a couple of years, since everything moves slowly in the animation world, but everyone is aware that things have to change.  Details on specific projects have been scarce, but I am looking forward to Dan Scanlon's "suburban fantasy film" about two kids searching for their dad.  Brian Fee, Mark Andrews, Pete Docter, and Domee Shi are also reportedly working on original projects. More sequels are inevitable, of course, including "The Incredibles 3," but hopefully we'll get back to the promised plan of originals and spinoffs having greater parity.

Now over at DreamWorks, things have been changing more rapidly.  Comcast bought the company in 2016, and Universal is now distributing their pictures.  After a series of leadership changes, DreamWorks is currently being run by former Warner Bros. producer (and Peppermint Patty voice actor) Chris DeFaria.  It should be noted that Universal also owns Illumination Studios, and Chris Meledandri has also been involved as a senior advisor. He did not take over DreamWorks, as some had speculated he might.  This is a huge relief, as Illumination may be financially very successful, but their output is relentlessly bland and notoriously cheap.

As part of the reorganization, the China-based satellite Oriental Dreamworks is striking out on its own as Pearl Studio, with an interesting slate of planned projects.  Pearl and Dreamworks will collaborate on the original feature "Abominable," about an abominable snowman, due out next September. Two movies a year are planned for the foreseeable future, most of them sequels.  The third "How to Train Your Dragon" movie is finally coming next year. "Trolls," "Croods," and "Boss Baby" sequels are slated for 2020 and 2021, along with "Spooky Jack," an original horror feature to be co-produced with Blumhouse Pictures.  Guillermo Del Toro also signed on to produce family films with them a few months ago.

I'm completely fine with this.  DreamWorks has had a very rough couple of years, overextended themselves, and they need some time to get back on their feet.  ("How to Train Your Dragon 3" was at one point scheduled for a 2016 release date.) If they need to lean more heavily on franchises for a while, so be it.  I'm especially happy that previously announced "Shrek" and "Madagascar" sequels are off the schedule completely. Instead, newer properties like "Trolls" and "Boss Baby" did well enough to get follow-ups.  There's also a lengthy list of other projects in development, including a villain film, "The Bad Guys," YA fantasy "The Wizards of Once," one about Japanese yokai, and something called "Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts."  


Saturday, September 15, 2018

"Killing Eve," Year One

Minor spoilers ahead.

There has been so much media constructed around serial killers and assassins over the years, it's difficult to be surprised by them anymore.  However, "Killing Eve," a BBC America series created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is definitely something new. Frankly, I'm not sure how to classify the show, because it does so many things at once, some of them contradictory.  Let's just say that this is a very adult, very idiosyncratic serial killer dramedy, with a lots of violence, lots of talk about sexuality, and a really sick sense of humor. And yet, weirdly, there's also a lot of heart.

The Eve of the title is Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), a member of the British intelligence who is on the trail of a splashy young contract killer codenamed Villanelle (Jodie Comer).  Villanelle is an unpredictable psychopath, but very good at her job, taking her assignments from a Russian handler named Konstantin (Kim Bodnia). Eve has a bureaucratic role at MI5, supporting her boss Bill (David Haig), but wants to see more action and has an obsession with female serial killers.  She is also very good at her job, which puts Eve and Villanelle on a bloody, nerve-wracking collision course.

The show's first outing is short and sweet. Eight episodes, full of violence and mayhem, chart the relationship that develops between Eve and Villanelle, as it moves from mutual fascination to something more complicated.  Beautiful Villanelle is casually cruel and clearly a monster, but there's a wacky sweetness to her deplorable behavior that makes her sympathetic. She's lonely and wants to connect to people, but has a tendency to show her affections in the most horrifying ways possible.  Her extravagant lifestyle and disdain for typical social conventions are also frequently hilarious. Comer's performance is mesmerizing, and key to the show's peculiar atmosphere and chemistry.

And on the other hand you have Eve, a very unusual lead character on television who is East Asian, female, and well over forty.  Sandra Oh portrays her as a little spazzy and well-settled into a domestic rut. She loves her husband Niko (Owen McDonnell), but there's a growing sense of dissatisfaction with both her personal and professional life.  She's drawn to Villanelle, it's suggested, because she represents what Eve finds lacking in her own world. Oh gives Eve just the right amounts of loveable prickliness, sharp-minded professional competence, and self-destructive impulses while remaining totally relatable.      

The supporting cast is also fantastic all around.  I love Fiona Shaw here, as a more senior MI5 agent with an epically unflappable demeanor.  Bill Hargrave gets some of the best lines as the constantly put-upon and exasperated Bill. Kim Bodnia plays a common type of ne'er-do-well, but one with a lot of different facets and a lot of interesting ambiguities.   I'm still not sure whose side he's actually on from moment to moment. Even the actors in some of the very minor roles are great, particularly Villanelle's various victims, and it's often a surprise who survives a scene with her and who doesn't.

However, it's the writing that sets "Killing Eve" apart from the rest.  I sat through every episode completely in the dark about where the plot was going, because it refuses to follow any of the usual rules.  Eve and Villanelle are both likeable protagonists, and they clearly have a connection on some level. But should I be rooting for one over the other?  Should Villanelle be reformed? Should Eve break bad? Do they belong together romantically or are they more fun as enemies? Similar shows like "Luther" and "Hannibal" explored these themes, but not to this extent this quickly.
The ratings success of "Killing Eve" means we'll get to see the story play out fully, and I can't wait.  There are a lot of places that the characters could go, and I hope the globetrotting continues. We've explored Villanelle's past already, so why not Eve's next time?  Yet, I'm wary of too much coming too fast. There's a delicate balancing act between the two sides of the show that needs to be maintained, and the unusual quasi-comedic, occasionally horrifying tone would be easy to upset.  I'm hopeful that the creators will tread carefully and keep the show on track.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Legion," Year Two

Spoilers ahead.

After the first season ended with the Shadow King being driven out of David's mind, and David being spirited away by a shameless deus ex machina, I wondered if "Legion" would be able to maintain its weird, stylistically ambitious storytelling.  Now that we were largely out of David's headspace, would we still be getting wacky dance numbers, cartoonish monsters, people living in ice cubes, and all the other wonderfully demented visuals that helped to distinguish the first season? Oh yes.  In fact, Noah Hawley and crew actually doubled down this year. See the desert journey via rickshaw. And the donut submarine. Tuning fork. Sushi boats. Cow?

David returns a year after his disappearance  to find that Division 3 and Summerland have joined forces to combat a strange plague, believed to have been caused by the Shadow King, Amahl Farouk, who is now going around with a borrowed body, played by a delightful Navid Negahban.  He has Oliver and Lenny in tow. The long separation has also put David and Syd's relationship on the rocks, which is further complicated by David being in contact with a future version of Syd, who orchestrated his kidnapping and clearly isn't telling him everything.  Themes of madness, compromised perception, and unreliable storytellers are still very much in play, as David and Farouk prepare for battle.

Division 3 introduces the literally basket-headed Admiral Fukuyama and the robotic Vermillion, identical female automatons with Sonny Bono moustaches and electronic voices.  They are incredibly disconcerting. So is the plague, which involves people freezing in place with the exception of their constantly chattering teeth. And later on in the season the heroes have to contend with tar-black chicken monsters, a minotaur, and other nightmare fuel that keep "Legion" teetering on the edge of David Lynch territory.  This is still a superhero action show, so the plotting is more comprehensible, but not by as much as you'd think. This remains one of the most adult of the Marvel TV programs as far as content.

"Legion" has become a show to watch largely for its out-of-the-box style, its fantastic production design, and the sheer daring of its visuals.  I love the constant experimentation with colors and shapes and comic book language. My favorite new device this year was the Jon Hamm narrated primers on mental health concepts, like delusion and moral panic, that pop up throughout the season.  They're probably the most straightforward things in the whole show, and have such a wonderfully sinister vibe. I'm having a harder time staying invested in the main story, because the show puts so much effort into keeping the audience in a state of confusion.  Who is the hero and who is the villain? Is Farouk still manipulating everyone? Whose perspective is the correct one? Is David actually mentally ill?

Hawley is very good at making sure the viewer is always with the characters emotionally, even if what they're seeing onscreen is inexplicable.  However, with so many layers of metaphors and the constant graphic overload, at times the characters feel ungrounded and the stakes get muddy. Jean Smart, Jemaine Clements, and even Aubrey Plaza felt terribly underused this year.  Don't get me started on poor Jeremie Harris. And while I continue to enjoy Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller, they weren't much fun this time around as protagonists. Too angsty and morose, even in their happier moments, and the turns and reversals come too quickly.  I was rooting for Farouk most of the time just because his schtick was the most entertainingly bonkers.

Still, I am hugely impressed with everything that "Legion" has accomplished here, and very relieved that we're getting a third season.  There is nothing else aside from "Twin Peaks" that is doing anything remotely similar. The last big psychic battle with the lip-synching to "Behind Blue Eyes" and the animation is one of my favorite things I've seen all year.  The bodyswap reveal was horrific in the best way. Some of the big climaxes would have had more impact, though, if there had been a little more time spent on character and a little less time spent on giant drain stoppers, evil beaded curtains, and hexagons.  So many hexagons.

Oh, and I'm not the only one who caught that "Labyrinth" reference, right?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Soldiering on With "Steven Universe"

Spoilers ahead.

It's about time I checked back in with Steven Universe and crew, who have withstood another few rounds of long hiatuses as they keep chugging along.  I think that we're at or near the end of the fifth season, but it's hard to say for sure. Also, Cartoon Network's scattershot scheduling continues to do the show no favors.  I spent most of the year a little frustrated that the story was being so drawn out, with not much progression happening until the last handful of episodes, where everything accelerated to a string of good payoffs.

Let's take stock of where we are.  Jasper is still incommunicado. Greg is still rich.  There have been no new fusions. It also doesn't appear that there are any real looming threats to Beach City at the moment - nothing on the same level as the Cluster or Malachite.  On the other hand, Steven finally made his first visit to the Gem Homeworld, which was awfully brief and a little anticlimactic. Lars has turned into a pink space pirate with a Captain Harlock cape and a crew of "off-color" gems."  Sadie and the Cool Kids have formed their own horror-movie themed band, which has been very entertaining. There's also been a regime change in Beach City, landing the former Mayor Dewey behind the counter of the Big Donut.

For a long while, nothing much seemed to be happening with the Crystal Gems.  Steven and Connie had a minor estrangement, and Lapis briefly left Earth with the barn in tow.  Instead, the show had a big arc exploring Pink Diamond's history on earth, finally leading up to the big revelation that Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond were the same person.  This had been heavily hinted at earlier in the series, and I actually assumed they were the same person until the whole story about Rose shattering Pink Diamond came into play.  Anyway, this explains Pearl's unusual devotion and history of clamming up. I suspected that Pearl was Pink Diamond's servant just because of her coloring, but wasn't sure why that loyalty had transferred to Rose.  The answer was so simple, and not nearly as dark as I'd expected. That's a nice outcome.
All in all, these are positive developments, and the individual episodes have been enjoyable.  The character progression for the Beach City folks has been nice to see, and Steven continues to grow and change and learn new things about his Gem heritage and Rose.  The little visual nods to "Revolutionary Girl Utena" are great. However, I can't help comparing these episodes to the early ones, where we were spending much more time with the Crystal Gems.  The Garnet wedding and the Amethyst spotlight episode just served to emphasize how scarce these characters have been. I've wondered whether some of the voice actresses might be too busy to record new episodes.  Certain storylines feel so dragged out now, and there are little subplots like the Rubies and Peridot's fusion jitters that the creators seem to have entirely forgotten about.    
Meanwhile, others are suddenly being sped up like there's no tomorrow.  I like where the show is going with the Diamonds, though the recruitment of Blue and Yellow felt awfully quick.  Really, the last couple of episodes were very rushed, pulling elements like the Cluster back into the mix that haven't even been namechecked in ages.  I'm glad to see Bismuth again, and learn that Lapis has finally found some courage, but the reunions happened so fast that a lot of potential impact was lost.  We had several episodes dealing with the fallout of the Pink Diamond revelation, but suddenly it's urgent to get Steven back to Homeworld to talk to White Diamond about the corrupted gems, and everything else is on the backburner.  
"Steven Universe" has been on long enough now that I'm not worried about the show being cancelled abruptly the way that the "Thundercats" reboot was.  However, their scheduling remains frustrating, and the ratings continue to slide. That means that the show will become a lower and lower priority for Cartoon Network until they end up holding back the last chunk of episodes to run all together as a finale event in a few years.  See "Adventure Time," which amazingly just ended a few weeks ago. So, I may stop trying to keep up with the newer "Steven" episodes until that happens.    
Or maybe that recently announced "Steven Universe" movie will help jump start interest again.  Here's hoping.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Year I Was the Target Audience

Let me start off by saying that I've had a complicated relationship with the American media's depiction of Asian-American girls and women.  As a kid in the '80s and early '90s, I took whatever I could get. Jubilee from "X-men," Tina from "Ghostwriter," and even the yellow Power Ranger were at least acknowledgement that I existed.

As I got older, and action heroes having pretty (and utterly bland) Asian girlfriends came into vogue, I got pickier.  I had more access to Chinese and Japanese media, where there was no shortage of heroines that looked like me, even if they didn't sound like me.  That helped quite a bit. I still loved American media, and found a lot of characters like Buffy and Xena who I could cheer for unreservedly. However, I stopped expecting much from American media when it came to representing Asian-Americans.  Whenever they did try, it was often very clumsily, or so inauthentically that it stood out like a sore thumb. I appreciated the effort, but sometimes wished that they wouldn't bother.

For a long time I thought that it didn't matter.  I made excuses for Hollywood, reasoning that Asian-Americans were a minority in the US, and the status quo of occasional supporting roles was fine.  However, a number of whitewashing controversies over the years changed my mind, along with the steadily growing list of Asian-American actors and characters who were slowly making improvements to Asian-American representation.  Since then, I've been keeping closer tabs and tallying the little wins over the years. "Fresh Off the Boat" premiered and didn't get cancelled. Thick accents and Chinatown episodes have gradually disappeared. And then, suddenly, this year was the year I finally saw myself onscreen.    

I had heard about Ali Wong a few years ago, and some of my cousins have gone to see her stand-up shows live.  However, it wasn't until this past spring that I sat down and watched her two specials on Netflix, about the struggles of becoming a wife and mother.  She's super sexually explicit, relatable, funny, and an Asian-American woman who is my age. She's also a regular on the ABC sitcom "American Housewife" and has written for "Fresh Off the Boat."  I really regret not watching more network television now, because I might have stumbled across her refreshingly no-holds-barred brand of comedy sooner. Sitcoms, alas, just haven't been my thing for a long while.

I do, however, occasionally enjoy a good romantic comedy.  "Fresh Off the Boat" matriarch Constance Wu is currently starring in the high profile "Crazy Rich Asians," which I haven't seen yet, but absolutely will once I get the chance.  Wu plays the outsider marrying into a rich family, but in this case she's a Chinese-American woman marrying into a family of Singaporean real estate developers. Her future mother-in-law is played by my eternal girl crush, Michelle Yeoh.  I don't think I've seen a romantic comedy from a proper Chinese-American perspective since Ang Lee's films from the early '90s, and certainly nothing so high profile since, well, ever.

And to top it all off, there's the runaway success of "Killing Eve," the BBC America series about an MI5 agent hunting a female serial killer.  The MI5 agent, Eve Polastri, is played by "Grey's Anatomy" alum Sandra Oh. Serial killer procedurals are one of my biggest guilty pleasures, and I watched this one with increasing glee.  I have a proper review coming soon, but I'll just say here that it is so good to see Sandra Oh again, and in a major Emmy-nominated leading role. This is going to further cement her as a major star, and it's been so long in coming.  It felt like "Killing Eve" appeared out of nowhere, and I might have missed it completely if it weren't for all the good press.

But like all overnight successes, it takes thirty years to get there.  And this sudden confluence of so much media starring Asian-American women over thirty didn't happen by accident.  I've got to say it is a strangely empowering feeling to be the target audience for once, to be the person that a piece of media is aimed at and talking to directly.  Sure, other people will watch and enjoy all the shows and movies that I listed, but they'll be doing what I've been doing for pretty much my entire life - putting themselves in someone else's shoes.  And this time around, I didn't have to jump through hoops to find the media - it all but came looking for me.

Representation does matter, no matter who you are.  Even if this turns out to be a momentary trend that fades away quickly, I'll remember this feeling.  And I'll keep my eyes peeled for the next season of "Killing Eve" and Ali Wong's romantic-comedy with Randall Park next year, "Always Be My Maybe."  And though I'll never get my big screen superhero movie starring someone who looks like me, maybe my kids will.

So happy watching everyone.  And Wakanda forever.


Friday, September 7, 2018

My Top Ten Episodes of "The Americans"

With the finale still rattling around in my head, I don't think there's any better time for this list.  I'll caution that it's been a long while since I've seen the episodes from the earlier seasons, and there are some major spoilers ahead in the various entries.  As always, episodes are unranked and ordered by airdate.

"The Clock" - What I appreciated about "The Americans" from very early on was how brutal it was.  The second episode left more of an impact on me than the first because it established that Jennings were willing to do terrible things to innocent people in order to get the job done.  Every opportunity that comes up to sugarcoat or soften their actions is ruthlessly denied. This is also the beginning of Stan and Nina's relationship, which was such a huge part of the show's early years.  

"Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" - The show's most disturbing execution is one that happens with little violence.  Lois Smith's appearance is so brief, but also utterly unforgettable as she verbally spars with Elizabeth. It's another reminder of the terrible chaos that the Jennings often wreak without a thought.  The show's beloved mail robot was such a fun running joke, and it was exciting to see it actually become a major plot point in this season, but it's difficult to look at it the same way after this.

"March 8, 1983" - Paige was always a difficult character for me, because she came across as so painfully naive for so long.  The third season did a good job of keeping her hard to predict, but also selling Elizabeth's genuine attempts at connecting with her.  The trip to West Germany is poignant and touching. That's why the cliffhanger hits as hard as it does. I found the Pastor Tim storyline left a lot to be desired, but the show mined a lot of good melodrama from it and some really terrific tension.  

"Chloramphenicol" - Poor Nina.  I always liked her so much better than Stan, and was hopeful that the show would continue to figure out ways to keep Annet Mahendru around.  However, it would have been entirely against the ethos of "The Americans" to soften any consequences, so Nina had to go. The quarantine storyline with the Jennings stuck away from the kids, and Martha's worsening situation are also excellent, helping to set up bigger developments later in the season.  Which brings us to...

"The Rat" - Poor Martha.  She was doomed for a very long time, but being stuck in the safe house with Gabriel, with Philip away on another job, finally helps her to realize it.  Alison Wright was even harder to lose than Annet Mahendru as a series regular, but the material she got in this run of episodes made her departure worth it.  The whole second half of the season with Martha's tense exfiltration was excellent, but this installment in particular stands out for Wright's stellar performance.  

"The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" - The fallout of Martha's departure hits everyone, and all the tensions in the Jennings' household boil over.  Philip and Elizabeth finally start talking, and every resentment and grudge we've seen since the beginning of the series finally gets hashed out. Even Claudia and Gabriel get involved by the end.  It's an explosive hour, and the really thrilling parts aren't the violent ones. This was the high point of the show's best season.

"Dyatkovo" - Sometimes the one-off missions had the best moments of "The Americans."  A simple hit on a Nazi collaborator in hiding turns into one of the tensest, most emotionally fraught situations that Philip and Elizabeth ever encounter.  The fifth season was a slow burn, but it had plenty of strong episodes like this one, where the Jennings come to a major decision after looming tensions finally become too much to bear.  Also, this is the one where Henry meets the Mail Robot.

"Harvest" - The most technically impressive episode of the final year, built around a big action set piece where a mission in Chicago goes terribly wrong.  We had seen Philip and Elizabeth have major failures before, but the death of a fellow agent hits particularly hard here because the Jennings make so many personal compromises just to make the attempt to retrieve him.  Even more worrying, their absence resurrects Stan's old suspicions, setting up the show's long-awaited finale.

"The Summit" - Elizabeth was always the true believer and the loyalist compared to Philip, but her gradual loss of faith over the last season feels completely right.  Erica's death and the decision to spare Jackson are both momentous in different ways, and then there's the bombshell from Claudia. Keri Russell carried so much of the show, and I'm glad that she got so many little moments here to really sell Elizabeth's soul searching and difficult change of heart.   

"START" - And finally, I will once again gush over Matthew Rhys and that amazing scene in the parking structure.  And the U2 backed scene on the train. And the phone call. And the last few minutes with the former Jennings in Russia.  Dasvidanya, "The Americans."

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

"The Americans," Year Six

Spoilers ahead for the entire series.

From the interviews I read after the finale aired, one sentiment expressed by Keri Russell stuck with me.  The creators wanted a "Russian ending," rather than a typically bombastic American one. And that's what they got.  The final season of the show sees the full unraveling of Philip and Elizabeth's lives and work. Nobody important dies, but everyone has to live with the hard consequences, which is arguably worse for everyone involved..

After all that table setting in the last season, it was a little surprising to come back to a major time skip of three years.  However, the new circumstances for everyone definitely helped liven things up. Philip has left the KGB and is running the travel agency into the ground.  Elizabeth and Claudia are shepherding college student Paige along in her career as a novice spy. Henry is away at school. Stan has left the counterespionage side of the FBI and is still with Renee.  Most importantly, it's 1987 and Gorbachev now leads the USSR, with the end of the Cold War just around the corner.

Philip and Elizabeth's arcs are riveting to follow, especially Elizabeth's realization that she can no longer trust her orders from the Center and how her constant lying to Paige catches up with her.  Philip, however, gets that final monologue in the parking structure that's the highlight of the entire year. I'm going to miss watching Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys being miserable. It was also immensely satisfying to see Stan finally put the pieces together after so many years, though the triumph is short-lived, of course.  Ultimately, he still felt a little shortchanged, with nary a glimpse of Matthew or Sandra.

I like that though there was a definite sense of finality to the ending, so many questions were left unanswered, and everyone is pretty much left in limbo.  Paige remained a weak point, but at least we get to see her taking part in the action this year, and make her own choices. There simply wasn't enough Burov, and I'm still disappointed in where the series decided to leave him.  It was good to see Margo Martindale return as a regular this year, though I missed Frank Langella. Also, as much as I wanted to find out what happened to many of the other characters, like Martha, I'm glad the cameos were fairly limited.

The production has never looked better, and the writing is the best it's ever been.  There were no weak episodes this year and no loss of momentum from week to week. Also, it never felt like stories were being dragged out the way they sometimes have in the past.  The big summit, the various missions, the defector, and even Stan's renewed investigation into the Jennings all paid off quickly and all played well. I especially enjoyed Miriam's Schor's character, a terminally ill artist who proves instrumental to Elizabeth's development.  The story actually moved along so much faster than I was expecting, the ending came as a bit of a shock.

Thinking about how far we've come since the first season, "The Americans" became a very different kind of show, slower and more contemplative.  I was never a big fan of the storylines involving the Residentura, or the ones set in Russia, but they were invaluable to establishing the mentality of various characters.  The last few seasons were slower, but more dramatically fulfilling. Notably, the last episode was almost entirely free of violence. The show also avoided the trap of leaning too heavily on commentary.  Despite recent developments, there was nothing that alluded to the recent election scandals.

Part of me can't help wishing for another season so we can see Philip and Elizabeth's transition to life in a new Russia, or Paige and Henry trying to survive the fallout of their parents' escape.  However, it's probably a good thing that the show left me wanting more. "The Americans" is ultimately too murky and morose to be one of my favorites, but it is absolutely the best version of what it wanted to be.  I'm glad I saw it through to the end.

And I'll have my Top Ten episodes list up in a few days.

Monday, September 3, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1985

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.

Brazil - Terry Gilliam's pitch black comedy about a dystopian future required the director to engage in and out-and-out battle with Universal Studios and its president in order to release the film with its nihilistic ending intact.  And the effort was worth it. The film remains a marvel of practical special effects and epic art direction, possibly the most ambitious and elaborate production that Gilliam ever undertook. It also proved to be eerily prescient and mercilessly satirical, taking aim at all the dehumanizing aspects of modern bureaucracy and industrialization.

The Color Purple - In retrospect, Steven Spielberg simplified and toned down Alice Walker's novel more than he should have in the process of adapting it for the screen.  However, the end result is still an uncommonly powerful and emotional cinematic experience. The jawdropping screen debuts of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, the shameless tearjerker ending, and the vivid depiction of the black experience in rural Georgia during the pre-Civil War era all help the film to leave a remarkable impression.  And it's an impression that's hardly faded at all over time.

Come and See - This is one of the most brutal films I've ever seen, presenting the nightmare of war in its most distilled form, as seen through the eyes of a naive child.  Over and over again we see mindless death and destruction, carried out with brutal efficiency against the helpless and innocent. Though the invaders are Nazis, there is a disorienting universality to the carnage.  The film was shot in color, but the images are so stark that I tend to remember them in black and white. This is one to approach with caution, as there are atrocities depicted that will not be easy to forget.

My Beautiful Laundrette - A British crime film, a Pakistani immigrant memoir, a cross-cultural gay romance, and more.  This early Stephen Frears film is full of unexpected twists and turns, combining multiple genres in ways that never feel inauthentic, and remain fairly unique even now.  It's also become an important snapshot of the less visible communities of London of the 1980s. I only wish that we could have spent longer in the universe of "Laundrette."  There's so much packed into the film that it easily could have run twice its length, and there would still be plenty to explore.

The Purple Rose of Cairo - A lovely, nostalgic little fable that is one of the best commentaries on the relationship between the movies and a certain breed of movie fan that I've ever seen.  Plenty of media has gone the meta route in recent years, but there are still few that try to deal with the actual ramifications of breaking the fourth wall and inviting your fantasies into your life.  Short, sweet, and heavy on the whimsy, this is nonetheless one of Woody Allen's most thoughtful films. It's also a charming romance on its own terms, featuring Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow at their best.        

Ran - One of Akira Kurosawa's undisputed masterpieces, an epic war film loosely based on "King Lear" and Japanese folklore.  The imagery is beautiful and terrible, realized by an ambitious production that was the most expensive cinematic undertaking for a Japanese film of its time.  The chaos of "Ran" has been suggested to symbolize many struggles, from modern day warfare to the director's own storied career. However, what's certain is that Kurosawa saw himself in the main character, a weary titan in the waning days of his life.  The film was not his last, but it's a fitting goodbye.

Shoah - As we move farther in time from the film, it becomes all the more important in its own right as a historical document.  Not only does it capture the survivors' memories of the Holocaust, but how those survivors processed and lived with those memories decades later.  Claude Lanzmann was wise not to use too many reference materials like photographs, instead keeping the focus on the present day and his interview subjects.  And as massively long as the film is, it's clearly not enough to capture more than a fraction of the horror and the tragedy that was already slipping too quickly in to the past.      

Tampopo - A rolicking Japanese comedy about food and people's relationships to food.  The film is also an enthusiastic goof on other films, particularly martial arts movies and American westerns.  There's an appealing silliness and earnestness to the whole enterprise, especially all the little side stories that involve sex, revenge, and over-the-top behavior.  Any lack in cinematic sophistication is made up for with plenty of creative energy and passion. I especially love the universality of the final shot, and the way that it neatly sums up the the film's whole philosophy toward food.  

The Time to Live and the Time to Die - Hou Hsiao-hsien's partially autobiographical story of a Chinese family transplanted to Taiwan from the mainland, and how each generation adjusts during tumultuous times.  It's a bittersweet, deeply felt domestic drama that unfolds over several years until it quietly reveals itself to be an epic story. Like the best coming-of-age films, it mixes the characters' triumphs with losses, and new dreams with old regrets.  However, it does so with great restraint and subtlety, making wonderful use of meaningful silences and small interactions.

A Zed and Two Noughts - The film that really cemented Peter Greenaway's modus operandi as a filmmaker, straddling a fine line between art piece and commercial film.  The ornate tableaux, the myriad artistic references, Sacha Vierny's cinematography, and of course the Michael Nyman score, all reflect the obsessions of the main characters and their director.  It's difficult not to be caught up in the downward spiral of our wonderfully weird protagonists as they indulge their insane quest for perfect symmetry and self-destruction. There's simply nothing else like it.    

Honorable Mention



Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Great Directors, 2018 Update

I think it's time for a proper update on the the state of the "Great Directors" feature, profiling various major directors through posts on my favorite films that they've made. I'm up to over sixty entries now, and despite a few long hiatuses, it's still going strong. Every time I think that I'm running out of directors to profile, another name or three turns up. Way back in 2015, during the longest hiatus, I posted a list of eleven directors I wanted to profile. There are still three directors, Sergei Eisenstein, John Cassavetes, and Elia Kazan, who I haven't gotten around to yet. And it may still be a while. More on that below.

First, a little housekeeping. I mentioned before that I'd already written about a couple of films outside of this series of posts that I wanted to retroactively incorporate into "Great Directors." So I went ahead and added the posts on Martin Scorsese's "King of Comedy," David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," and Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game" to the official directory. I didn't alter the original posts except to add the little "What I've Seen" footer at the end of each one. Another post I'm considering for this is the one for Alain Resnais's "Providence," though I want to see a few more things from his filmography first.

Picking specific directors is still a lot of fun. After avoiding them for ages, I've worked my way through a good sampling of the most famous French directors like Godard, Truffaut, Demy, Rohmer, and even the dreaded Robert Bresson. My recent bingeing of '70s films spurred posts on Ashby, De Palma, and Peckinpah. And being mindful of the domination of the profession by old white men, I was finally able to feature Spike Lee and Agnes Varda over the past two years. Looking ahead, however, it's still a struggle to make sure I'm featuring a representative sampling of important filmmakers.

There should be a documentarian in the mix by now, for instance, but the only director whose output I've seen enough of is Robert Flaherty, and he's kind of a bore. A huge cache of Frederick Wiseman's films were recently made available, so he's a possibility. And I never managed to solve the problem of how to feature directors whose work is primarily in shorts, so Stan Brakhage is still MIA. I also struggle with filmmakers from the silent era, like Eisenstein, Melies, and D.W. Griffith, who are sorely underrepresented. And then you have experimental filmmakers, underground filmmakers, and other non-commercial types.

I've been considering changing one of the criteria for eligibility for directors, which currently require that I've seen ten films from their filmography, or simply half of their output if they're deceased. There are a couple of cases where a director who hasn't been very prolific hasn't passed away yet, but is unlikely to be making very many more films. Alejandro Jodorowsky, for instance, is 89 years old and has made eight films. I've seen six of them and have been itching to write up a post for "The Holy Mountain." I don't think he's got another five films in him, though the promised "El Topo" sequel seems likely. On the other hand, it's conceivable that he might pull a Terence Malick on us.

For most of the directors I've hit roadblocks with, however, the issue is the availability of the films. It's become a recurring problem that there are so many interesting directors whose more obscure films are very difficult to get ahold of. Vittorio De Sica, for instance, has made thirty-four films, only a fraction of which are available anywhere. I've only managed to see six of his films to date. Criterion and Filmstruck have been invaluable, but the streaming revolution hasn't been the boon to classic film fans that many were hoping for. In some ways it's harder to find certain titles than it used to be.

Anyway, you can expect more "Great Directors" posts soon, even if the rate of them is going to be slowing down for a while. In addition to the aforementioned directors, Ridley Scott, Louis Malle, and Joseph von Sternberg are other names that could be featured in the next few months.