Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Tale" and "American Animals"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - -

Monday, November 26, 2018

"Ocean's Eight" Ain't So Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Disenchantment" Tries Something Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Fanfiction Media Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Book Club" and the Boomer Blues

As I've been working my way through the films of the '70s, I've had the nice experience of seeing a lot of familiar actors at the beginning of their careers.  Well, lately I've also had the mostly not-so-pleasant, opposite experience of seeing several 70s and 80s actresses at the end of their careers. It's not that the actors are any worse, mind you, but that the opportunities for them to actually do anything interesting onscreen seems to have shrivelled to practically nothing.  

The recent sleeper hit "Book Club" put Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Jane Fonda, and Diane Keaton onscreen together for a forgettable romantic comedy that I'm not going to get into much here.  I came out of the film annoyed, not with the dullness of movie itself, but because I hadn't seen several of these talented actresses on the big screen in a long time, certainly not in anything more than bit parts playing someone's parent or a healthcare professional.  It's been far too long since any of them have had a leading role, and seeing them squandered here was infuriating.

It was especially obvious when I had just recently been watching films like "Carnal Knowledge," "Looking For Mr. Goodbar," "Melvin and Howard," and "Coming Home," the movies that made the "Book Club" ladies famous.  It helps a little to know that Fonda is still keeping busy with "Grace and Frankie," and Bergen is back as Murphy Brown, but it's still depressing to think that these talented actresses ended up in such a throwaway movie like "Book Club."  And it's even more depressing to think about the dearth of options for the movie-loving Boomers that "Book Club" was aimed at.

On the one hand, I get it.  Older actors slow down. Sometimes they don't age well.  They retire, like Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson. They go for lighter fare that allows for easier work environments and shooting schedules.  There have been a couple of documentaries about older actresses in circulation recently that detail this, including "Nothing Like a Dame" with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, and one about '50s Hollywood starlet Leslie Caron.  Hollywood is notoriously terrible to actresses as they get older. The Brits seem to hold out a bit better, thanks to a hardier theater community that actors can fall back on. Maybe that's why so many of the most high profile older actors and actresses that populate movies like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" are from the UK.      

It galls me that we have such a wealth of talent with our older thespians that is so sorely underutilized.  Is "Book Club" and its ilk really the best we can hope for? Frankly, I'm tired of the life-affirming pablum that so often gets programmed for seniors these days.  I understand that downer films with older actors like "Amour," "45 Years," "Norman," and "I, Daniel Blake" don't appeal to everybody, but there's got to be some middle ground, right?  Meryl Streep is still a legitimate movie star, and she's in the same age range as the "Book Club" women. Or is this a case of there only being enough room in the industry for one older leading lady?  Or is everyone just moving to television?

I have my suspicions that the dearth of good American films for our boomer era actresses is another unfortunate result of the mid-range film having disappeared over the last decade or so.  Adult dramas are scarce, and so are many of the films that would have starred older actors and actresses, like the melodramas, the travelogues, the legal thrillers, the political pictures, and even a good chunk of comedies are now content that the studios aren't interested in.  When I think of recent American films starring older actors and actresses, it's all indies like Robert Redford in "The Old Man and the Gun" and "All is Lost," Sally Field in "Hello, My Name is Doris," and Bruce Dern in "Nebraska."

Mostly, I'm worried about missing out by not paying enough attention.  It makes me uneasy that I haven't seen Susan Sarandon in anything since 2012.  It's been a full decade since my last Jack Nicholson film. It sounds silly, but these are actors I've watched onscreen all my life, and their departure from the limelight, even in the best circumstances, always makes me sad.  Honestly, we don't have many real movie stars left - and their era will be over before we know it.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Podcasts Ahoy! 2018 Edition

It's time once again to look in on what's going on in the podcast world.  Below are a couple of new and new-to-me offerings that I've started following this year.  There aren't too many this time around, but I'll have room to check out more soon, as several of the previously featured podcasts have ended or gone on indefinite hiatus.  The most painful of these to lose has been "TV Avalanche," which ended a few months ago with Alan Sepinwall's move to "Rolling Stone," but I'm hopeful that he'll pop up somewhere with a new show eventually.  

The Director's Cut - a DGA Podcast - The Directors Guild of America presents a series of interviews with directors on their latest films, conducted by other directors.  It's a fun conceit that has yielded some great pairings like Kevin Smith interviewing Werner Herzog and Christopher Nolan interviewing Edgar Wright. The inaugural episode had Martin Scorsese interviewing Steven Spielberg about "Bridge of Spies."  The interviews are usually very short, about thirty minutes apiece, but offer a great glimpse into the filmmaking process. The bigger names usually come around during awards season, but there are interesting titles featured throughout the year.

Unspooled - Paul Scheer of "How Did This Get Made" and Amy Nicholson of "The Canon" have joined forces to watch the AFI Top 100 films together (2007 edition).  This is a nice way to revisit the classics I haven't watched in a long while. There are a lot of these classic film podcasts around, but it helps when you've got a seasoned actor and a seasoned film critic with good connections running the show.  Each episode features lively commentary, some listener participation, and interesting interviews with relevant guests. For instance, they couldn't get any of the creative talent from "Citizen Kane" for the show, but they did manage to find the guy who owns the film camera it was shot with and got him to come talk about the cinematography.  My favorite bit is their habit of finding "Simpsons" references for each film. My only regret is that this is only going to be a 100 episode podcast - well, maybe longer if they decide to expand to some of the other AFI lists.

Sammy Ain't Seen S---  The Double Toasted guys have rolled out a couple of shows in recent years that I hadn't gotten around to checking out until recently.  "Sammy Ain't Seen S---" is a spinoff from another show, following film school grad Sammy González (aka the Mexcellence) and co-hosts as he catches up on nostalgic favorites that he's managed to avoid watching until now.  This is essentially the more lowbrow and low culture version of "Unspooled," but often it's just as entertaining. Listening to Sammy try to wrap his head around old '80s and '90s blockbusters, many of which have aged badly, is a lot of fun.  And when he finds a new favorite, it's great hearing his analysis from a totally fresh perspective. I have to wonder how a guy who loves films and went to film school missed out on so many of these titles - and how has he STILL not seen "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"?    

Toast to Toast - The other Double Toasted podcast I've been catching up with is "Toast to Toast," hosted by Will Vale.  There have been several different co-hosts, but Ian Butcher is the most regular one. This is a tough program to categorize, but it's a more casual discussion show that centers around current media and culture, occasionally wandering off to talk about other topics.   There was an episode devoted to the fall of Toys 'R' Us, for example, and another on the role of critics and Rotten Tomatoes. Double Toasted has several varieties of these discussion shows, but I like this one because it's usually more focused on the topic at hand, and there's less of the rambling drinking stories you tend to get with some of the site's other personalities.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1983

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.

The King of Comedy - My favorite Martin Scorsese film is this uncomfortable thriller about an aspiring stand-up comic.  It blends different levels of reality with ease, illuminates the nasty side of fame, and gives Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis, and Sandra Bernhard the opportunity to deliver sensational performances.  The irony is that there's nothing funny about "The King of Comedy," but it's one of the most tense, memorable looks at show business ever made. As I've said before, I never related much to Travis Bickell or Jake La Motta, but Rupert Pupkin was someone that I understood far too well.      

El Norte - A heartbreaking immigrant narrative that follows a brother and sister pair from their tiny village in Guatemala to "El Norte," the unknown promised land of the United States.  Partially funded by PBS and often shown in schools, the film is notable for being an unusually candid and sympathetic look at the plight of Central American refugees. Despite the tiny budget, the scope is epic, following the characters' travels through multiple countries.  It's their humanity, however, that gives the story so much emotional impact. It's striking how relevant the film has remained after all this time.

Local Hero - A small, heartwarming Scottish film about getting back in touch with the simple things in life.  Director Bill Forsythe charmingly evokes the small town sweetness of his previous feature, "Gregory's Girl," but on a larger scale.  It's a film of earnest conversations, heartfelt personal connections, and wistful nostalgia. The performances are deft, and the filmmaking is lighthearted, but it's the magic of the little village of Ferness that really sells the story.  It's terribly disappointing to learn that it's not a real place, but alas only exists on celluloid and in the daydreams of its viewers.

Trading Places - This is still one of the best outings for Eddie Murphy, as part of a stellar comedic ensemble.  Both a rags-to-riches and a riches-to-rags story simultaneously, the script isn't afraid to be smart and complicated, with just the right amount of clever social commentary.  It's also not afraid to be utterly ridiculous, allowing all the primary actors their chance to shine and make us laugh. And ultimately, the financial world gets gloriously sent up by John Landis and company with one of the best endings of all time.  Shorting commodities markets never looked like so much fun.

WarGames - When I first heard about the film, I thought the premise was terrible.  However, the execution couldn't be better. It's so much fun watching a goofy little adventure film about the nascent hacker subculture escalate into a full blown Cold War parable.  The final set piece with the simulated nuclear wars is especially impressive considering that it's really just some rudimentary animation playing out on computer screens. However, the editing, the music, and the performances all help to make it feel grand and exciting.  It's also nice to have an AI that doesn't fit the usual mold of amoral silicon monster.

Yentl - Barbara Streisand directed and starred in this curious musical, about an Ashkenazi Jewish woman who disguises herself as a boy to pursue an education.  It was very much ahead of its time in many ways, exploring religious, gender, homosexual, and even transsexual themes. However, it works beautifully as a personal memoir too, anchored by Streisand's performance and Michel Legrand's music.  I have some reservations about the ending, but the care and commitment in getting this project to the screen is very apparent in every frame. It's a passion project in the best sense, one that turned out very right.

Nostalghia - As with all Andrei Tarkovsky films, the pacing is slow and meditative, but the images are ambitious and grand scale.  The story, involving a Russian traveler confronting his own spiritual emptiness, is fairly obtuse, but it's easy to become entranced by the fantastic long shots and the visual beauty.  Christian iconography is especially prominent here, with several hallucinatory dream sequences playing a big role in the film. The final shot is legendary, gradually pulling back to reveal a spectacular composition with all of Tarkovsky's favorite elements - mirrors, nature, and the spiritual world.

The Right Stuff - A fantastic recounting of the early years of the American space race, told from the point of view of the competitive pilots.  The film is successful as both a historical narrative and an action film, with its soaring test flights and thoughtfully grounded portraits of the various aeronautical figures involved.  The systematic approach to showing the training process, and the care and the attention to detail in the testing recreations makes a huge difference here, setting the film apart from similar pictures.  There's never a dull moment, and the three hour running time goes by very quickly.

Videodrome - One of David Cronenberg's most memorable, and yet most perplexing films.  It's definitely one of his body horror pictures, but a very heady, psychological one, full of conspiracy theories and paranoid delusions.  The way it explores the thin line between media manipulations and their real world manifestations remains disturbing and engrossing. I can't begin to explain what happens in the film, or what exactly its message is, but the sight of James Woods becoming a human VCR and being menaced by a fleshy television set are impossible to forget.  Long live the new flesh indeed.

The Fourth Man - Paul Verhoeven's early Dutch films were always far more interesting than any of the flashy American ones, more outrageous and more shocking.  "The Fourth Man" is a pulpy psychological thriller, gorgeous to look at, and unusually bold in its depiction of sexuality and its use of religious themes. The cinematography by Jan de Bont stands out for its vivid colors and graphic depictions of violence.  At times the style and content are so outre that they straddle the line between high art and camp. This doesn't impact the entertainment value at all, fortunately, which remains high throughout.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Miss Media Junkie vs. Puzzle Games

Taking a break from match-games, I decided to try my hand at some puzzle games.  I always liked puzzle gaming, mainly because there is often no time limit and you can take things at your own pace.  Back in ancient times, I was a fan of the puzzle-heavy point-and-click adventure games, like the "King's Quest" series,  "Neverhood," and of course, "Myst." I like cypher and codebreaking brainteasers, and was always intrigued by puzzle boxes.  Seeing a couple of recommendations for gaming apps built around these concepts inspired me to try out the highly rated "The Room" from 2012.  It seems to be the most popular and influential title in the genre, and spawned several sequels, the latest released earlier this year.

I played the whole game through twice over the weekend and mostly enjoyed it.  Each of the five levels involves opening and manipulating ornate puzzle boxes and other mechanical devices.  There's lots of poking around hidden panels and assembling various objects. I managed to get pretty far without using the hints much, and even then it was usually for non-intuitive things like having to press two buttons at once, or missing a secret panel entirely.  Some of the game mechanics are very clever, like having to tilt my iPad to get objects to slide into the correct positions. There's much more emphasis on physical manipulation than on riddles or codebreaking. You spend a lot of time repairing things and getting stubborn clockwork to work right.  The physicality of all the objects is excellent.

What I didn't like, and what hindered some of my progress a few times, was the game's lighting.  I understand that the dimness was for dramatic effect in some cases, or to make some of the surprises less obvious.  However, I got tripped up twice with puzzles where I had trouble seeing some of the elements that I needed to solve them - deciphering red markings on black stones at one point was especially aggravating.  Moreover, "The Room" is horror themed, taking place in a series of darkened interiors with a lot of black space. The storyline, relayed epistolary style through a series of yellowed letters, is essentially a mad scientist story about messing with a sinister "Null" energy that opens the door to an evil dimension.  I find this sort of narrative very dull and played out, but thankfully the horror imagery was mostly limited to some scary doors and glowing bloodstains.

Frankly, I'm not a fan of horror games, and decided that I wouldn't be playing any of the other "Room" installments, given that they appear to double down on the dark and creepy stuff.  Also, the puzzles in the subsequent games become less about puzzle boxes and more about the mechanical tinkering. I went to look for some alternatives, only to discover that almost all the popular puzzle games out there right now are horror-themed.  "The House of Da Vinci"? A murder mystery that ends with the player getting clobbered and left for dead. "Device 6"? A paranoid thriller that leaves you with an existential crisis. Now that I think about it, even "Myst" had feuding evil brothers trapped in books .  There are also escape room games and the old point-and-click adventure games with more diverse aesthetics, but apparently you can't have a puzzle game that doesn't also contain creepy or disturbing elements.

I've found over the last few years that I enjoy certain segments of  gaming very much, but have very particular sensibilities that are at odds with the current trends in gaming.  Dark, gloomy, industrial visuals bore me, along with anything trying to look too realistic. I like stylized, brighter, flatter visuals that pop more.  I'm also the very definition of a casual gamer, who likes to take my time and relax while gaming. Anything that makes me feel overly anxious or uncomfortable is no fun for me.  So "The Room" was entertaining, but also left me a little frustrated that there aren't games like this that are more to my tastes. I mean, nothing about a puzzle game is inherently creepy.  Real world puzzle boxes are completely benign.

So why do the digital versions all seem to think they have to be the next Lament Configuration from "Hellraiser"?            

Saturday, November 10, 2018

My Top Ten Movie Props

I've written before about not really being the kind of movie fan who likes collecting movie-related stuff.  I don't have action figures or toys, don't keep my ticket stubs, and don't even have much physical media lying around anymore.  This doesn't mean that I don't have daydreams about being able to own some of my favorite movie props. I thought I'd make a list for your enjoyment.  An embarrassingly high percentage of these are jewelry, and most are from films I watched as a kid. So, to indulge my nerdy side today, here's a top ten list of some of my favorite movie props that I would totally hoard away if I ever got the chance.

The AURYN - This topic came up because I saw a picture of Kevin Feige's memorabilia-filled office at Marvel, and started wondering what I'd decorate my own theoretical movie mogul office with.  And, of course, that brings us to the famous wish-granting AURYN from "The Neverending Story" that Wolfgang Petersen famously gave Steven Spielberg. As far as I know, it's still in Spielberg's office.

The OZ key and Mombi's Key - The original OZ key prop from "Return to Oz" actually came up at auction about a year ago, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw it in the catalogue.  There are a lot of knick-knacks (and Tik Toks) from the film that I'd love to own, but there's something about the keys that immediately bring me back to that gorgeous, weird, wonderful movie.  I'd take the ruby key over the ruby slippers any day.

Wicked Witch's Crystal Ball and Hourglass - That's not to say I don't love "The Wizard of Oz" and its props.  However, the objects that I was the most fascinated by were all related to the Wicked Witch. Her hourglass with the red sand and that huge crystal ball were especially memorable.  It probably says something about me that my decorating choices are more in line with the villain of the piece than anyone else in the movie.

Golden Ticket - This should be self-explanatory, right?  There are tons of replicas and templates out there to make your own now, but that creased up gold foil original from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is what I want to frame and hang over my door.  The redesigned ones may look snazzier, but they're also just not quite right. I also love Wonka's brown top hat, the one Gene Wilder famously gave notes on.

The One Ring - The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is right about where my movie nostalgia stops these days.  I enjoy the "Harry Potter" films, for instance, but have no particular attachments to wands or Hogwarts letters.  "Lord of the Rings," however, is a series I got really emotionally invested in. There are some great props here, including Sting, the Evenstar, and those amazing leaf brooches.  The One Ring, however, rules them all.

The Fedora - Most of this list is tchotchkes rather than costumes or weapons.  However, the most iconic object in the "Indiana Jones" series is Indy's fedora.  It's also definitely an object that becomes part of the action multiple times, my favorite being it's miraculous return at the end of the tank chase sequence in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  Yeah, the golden idol is shiny, and the bullwhip is sharp, but nothing beats the fedora for pure cool.

The Bedknob - I found this one on an auction site recently too.  One version of the prop bedknob from "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" was perforated so you could stick a light source inside and it would look like it was magically glowing.  The final shot of the movie is a close-up of this very image. It would be very comforting to know that a trip to the Isle of Naboombu or the bottom of the briny are only a couple of twists and taps away.  

Eternal Life Potion - I'm not interested in eternal life, but that elaborate potion bottle from "Death Becomes Her" was to die for.  Even if it doesn't magically float or glow purple, it would be so much fun just to unbox that thing with the different wrappings and pretend I'm Isabella Rossellini with the wild accent and everything.  Siempre viva! Live forever! It would also be a handy place to keep the emergency tequila.

Wizard's Key and Horn of Dagoth - One of my favorite movies from my childhood was "Conan the Destroyer," and the two magic Macguffins it featured were a big shiny gem and and a jewelled horn.  I don't really recall what they did - one was some kind of key, and the other turned a statue into a giant monster, but I just remember as a kid thinking that they were amazing looking.

Annie's Locket - The heart-shaped locket broken into two pieces is so familiar now that it's a cliche.  However, one played a very prominent role in the 1982 version of "Annie," directed by John Huston. It was one of the very earliest movies I remember seeing, and has always had a place in my heart.  The locket is its most prominent symbol - appearing right there in the title cards too.

Honorable Mentions: Memory crystals from "Superman," goblin masks from "Labyrinth," the bishop totem from "Inception," the medallion from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the puzzle box from "Hellraiser," the snow globe from "Mary Poppins," the typewriter from "The Shining," and all the Muppets.  All of them.

This was a lot of fun, and made me realize that I need to do a corresponding list for TV props.  You'll see that one posted in a month or two.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Revenge" and "Upgrade"

Let's take a look at some recent B-movies.

First we have Coralie Fargeat's "Revenge," a Franco-American take on the "rape and revenge" picture from a pointedly female perspective.   Jen (Matilda Lutz) is an American party girl who accompanies her married lover Richard (Kevin Janssens) to a remote retreat in the wilderness, where they enjoy some time to themselves before Richard's annual hunting trip with his pals Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dmitri (Guillaume Bouchède).  Jen rebuffs advances from Stan, sparking escalating violence, and ultimately Jen is left for dead in the desert. She's not dead, of course, and the three men will come to learn exactly how hard it is to kill her.

The pulpy pleasures of "Revenge" are its images and atmosphere, full of sex and violence and sweaty tension.  It's practically a silent film at times, with no particularly interesting dialogue and very bare bones plotting.  Though mostly in English, neither the writer/director, nor most of the actors involved are native speakers. It doesn't matter though, as they're able to get across plenty with strong physical performances and some very enjoyable takes on very old genre tropes.  The setting is especially evocative, a sun-baked desert landscape full of searing colors and pulsing sounds. Some might be tempted to treat "Revenge" as an artsier mood piece, but the copious amounts of blood and gore, and Jen becoming an indestructible terminator against all sane logic, make this indisputably an exploitation picture.

And that's a fine thing, as "Revenge" is self-aware and embraces its genre conventions.  I expect general audiences will enjoy its full buffet of thrills and splatter, but I do so appreciate seeing this kind of story from a feminine point of view, with more emphasis on the the girl power.  Thus, the movie is far more interested in the revenge than the rape, and doesn't dwell on the skeevier sexual material. Sexuality is present in the story, and regularly equated with violence, but not in a titillating fashion.  Rather, it's often used to illuminate the power imbalance between characters or to heighten the intensity of standoffs. There's a lengthy sequence where Jen and Richard stalk each other through the house while Richard is stark naked.  It's one of the most fantastically bonkers action set pieces I've seen in a while, and worth the price of admission by itself.

Next up is "Upgrade," the latest from Leigh Whannell of the "Saw" and "Insidious" films.  It's an action thriller set in the near-future, starring Logan Marshall-Green as Grey, a mechanic who becomes a quadriplegic after he and his wife Asha (Melanie Valejo) are attacked by thugs.  Grey takes a shady deal from a reclusive tech genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), allowing Eron's to implant a biochip into Grey's neck that will allow an AI to help him regain motor function.  The AI is named STEM (Simon Maiden), and turns out to have a mind of its own. Soon Grey and STEM are hunting down the men responsible for the attack, and avoiding the police detective, Cortez (Betty Gabriel) running her own investigation.     

In keeping with the usual Blumhouse aesthetic, "Upgrade" is low budget, no frills, bare bones filmmaking.  However, the scripting is tight and clever, and Marshall-Green delivers a convincing performance as a man who is sharing his body with an AI that can turn him into an action star in the blink of an eye.  The fight scenes are flashy and exciting, and there's an extra layer of fun from Grey and STEM's banter during each bout and chase. However, what makes the film so memorable is the way that it gradually morphs from a high octane buddy-comedy into something darker and more horrific.  Sci-fi fans will find the resolution predictable, but the execution is great. Comparisons to "Black Mirror" and "RoboCop" are appropriate.

It's nice to see Whannell stretching his creative muscles with an action film, after years of horror, and this is easily the most memorable role I've seen Logan Marshall-Green in yet.  I have no doubt that the big studios are going to be hounding them both to go work on the big franchise pictures, like Whannell's "Saw" creative partner James Wan. And while I'm sure that they would both do well, it would also be a shame, because it's the smaller films like "Upgrade" that offer more creative freedom these days, and are often far more enjoyable.   

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

About those "Deadpool" and "Jurassic World" Sequels

Catching up on some of the big summer movies.  I didn't have very high expectations for either of these, but I think they were worth my time.

Let's start with "Deadpool 2," which sees superpowered anti-hero Wade Wilson suffer another tragedy that puts him in the role of unlikely protector to an angsty mutant kid named Russell (Julian Dennison), and up against a time travelling mercenary from the future, Cable (Josh Brolin).  New characters include the super-lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz), and the evil mutant Juggernaut, while all the various sidekicks and side characters from the first film are back.

Fox upped the production budget and brought in David Leitch from "John Wick" to direct, so the sequel looks more slick and polished than the original, and can afford things like the James Bond-inspired intro sequence set to a Celine Dion power anthem.  It's also not afraid of being more graphic, more violent, and more vulgar. Unfortunately, it's not more clever or more well written than the original, and doesn't quite have the same heart. Deadpool was always juvenile and malicious, but his emotional core was genuine.  This time around, I felt the balance was off. The jokes are meaner, and the self-reflection is a lot less convincing. There are a lot of missed opportunities with Russell in particular, and Dennison is never given much opportunity to be as fun or as cool as we know he can be.  Ditto Josh Brolin, whose Cable is mostly relegated to playing straight man to Deadpool's goofy antics.

Plenty of the humor here does work, though.  I love that Karan Soni's Dopinder has morphed into a wannabe hitman, and Brianna Hildebrand's Negasonic Teenage Warhead has found herself an adorable girlfriend.  The meta commentary and Deadpool's constant references to other superhero films continue to be a lot of fun, though the novelty value has definitely worn off. There's also less restraint being exercised in pretty much every regard, from the R-rated content to the fancy action sequences to the amount of shameless pandering to the fans.  The movie is very watchable and enjoyable, but it has every problem that you'd expect a sequel to have. I'm happy it exists, if only to help Ryan Reynolds exorcise some demons, but won't be revisiting it soon.

Now on to "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," which legitimately surprised me.  It doesn't have quite the same sense of spectacle as the first "Jurassic World," and the writing is a mess, but it's fundamentally more adept at being an adventure-thriller, probably because a legitimate horror director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is at the helm this time.  Since this is a direct sequel to "Jurassic World," and still has several members of the creative team heavily involved, some of the problems I had with that film have carried over. The leads played by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are still very flimsy. A new kid in the mix named Maisie (Isabella Sermon) and some comic relief characters, nervous IT guy Franklin (Justice Smith), and dino vet Zia (Daniella Pineda), don't help much.  At least the new baddie, a corporate shark named Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) is agreeably slimy. There are also several notable actors in smaller supporting parts, including James Cromwell, Geraldine Chaplin, and Toby Jones.

"Fallen Kingdom" covers a lot of the same material as "The Lost World," the first "Jurassic Park" sequel from way back in 1997.  However, it's presented in such a way that it gets to have more fun with the concepts. Quite a bit of the action takes place in creepy, haunted-house style environments instead of the wilderness.  That's a nice change of pace, and lends some variety to the tone and scale of the action sequences. There's also much more emphasis on the dinosaurs themselves, so we're rooting for them as much as we're rooting for the human leads.  All the pieces here are familiar, but they're still very effective at delivering the thrills. The only thing that I think falls flat is whenever Bayona is obliged to try and evoke Spielbergian moments of childlike wonder. Also, I have no idea what the cloning subplot was doing in this movie.

I'm not thrilled that the "Jurassic Park" movie series shows no signs of slowing down, but at least this film signals that they're willing to try different things and push into new directions.  The ending in particular has me hopeful that we may see more departures from the established formula. However, the biggest change that has to happen is finding someone who can write actual characters - Pratt and Howard are talented actors who deserve so much better than this.  And the audience does too.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

On to "The Conners"

Spoilers ahead.

Three episodes into "The Conners," I don't much miss the presence of Roseanne.  I mean, I always liked Roseanne Barr in the show, and think it's a shame that she self-destructed to the point where ABC washed their hands of her.  However, "Roseanne" was never just about the character of Roseanne Conner, and "The Conners" has no trouble picking up without her.

Darlene has become the de facto main character, still hunting for a steady job and trying to parent her kids.  Everyone else around her is just doing their best to get by, though Becky's role has come into sharper focus - the premiere revealed that she has a drinking problem.  The writers have also introduced quite a few new characters. There are lots of new love interests played by recognizable names in the mix: David's new-agey girlfriend Blue (Juliette Lewis), Darlene's new beau Neil (Justin Long), and a fussy academic named Peter (Matthew Broderick) dating Jackie.  D.J.'s wife Geena (Maya Lynne Robinson) has also returned from overseas, and joined the main cast.

As we've all heard by now, Roseanne was killed offscreen by a painkiller overdose, which was handled with all due consideration and sensitivity in the first episode.  The season premiere was wisely set after the funeral, at a point where the Conner family had already had some time to process Roseanne's death. I was a little disappointed that only the first episode really dealt significantly with grief, mostly Dan and Jackie's, but you see little nods to Roseanne's absence in other episodes too.  As evidenced by the title change, the show had to move on, and put "Roseanne" behind it. And it's doing a pretty good job of it so far.

I think the first season of "The Conners" is actually a bit better than the revival season of "Roseanne."  Actors have gotten more settled into their roles, there's not as much emphasis on the characters dealing with modern, hot topic issues, and there's a better sense of where the show is going.  The best episode so far was the second, where Darlene meets Blue for the first time, and instantly hates her guts. "Roseanne" was always better when it was dealing with interpersonal family tensions that hit close to home.  So I'm glad Johnny Galecki will be sticking around for more co-parenting aggravations.

There's no denying that "The Conners" is a different beast than "Roseanne."  Darlene is a younger and more progressive POV character than her mother. However, the show doesn't lose its darkly acerbic streak or anti-authoritarian bent.  The Halloween episode might not have been as wild as some of the old ones, but it still features Darlene standing up against overly PC rules for Halloween costumes, and everyone in gory getups.  The Arab family from last season may be invited to the party, and Mark likes boys and wears skirts, but "Roseanne" was always about being inclusive and thumbing its nose at the establishment.

Also, more importantly, "The Conners" is still fully committed to realistically depicting how working class Americans live.  Characters are constantly being shown at work, hustling for side jobs, and discussing their economic insecurity. Becky and Jackie joke about the dating pool being full of unemployed and damaged men.  The most unrealistic element from the "Roseanne" revival season, Becky becoming a surrogate for another woman's pregnancy, has been quashed for good. No mention of Jackie's efforts to become a life coach either, though I wouldn't count that development out just yet.

I'm still interested in some of the questions that were never answered last year, like what happened to Jerry and Andy, and the circumstances around Mark's demise.  There is plenty of material for the writers to draw from going forward, and "The Conners" could be around for a long while. As I mentioned in the last review, I want more of Dan and Jackie, as their actors remain the strongest performers in the cast.  Lecy Goranson is much improved, and all the kids and the newcomers have been fine.

So, yes, we lost Roseanne, and that was a blow, because I like her.  However, there are several other characters from her show that I like just as much, and I'm glad that ABC is giving the creators an opportunity to keep telling their stories.      

Friday, November 2, 2018

Rank Em: The Aardman Films

After watching "Early Man," it struck me just how long Aardman Studios has been around, and the impressive run of films they've created over the years. The next two Aardman films are going to be sequels to "Shaun the Sheep" and "Chicken Run," so I think this is a good time to take a pause and look back on their cinematic contributions to date.

Chicken Run (2000) - It's "The Great Escape" with chickens! Aardman's first theatrical film remains its best, with some of its most memorable characters and set pieces. Mel Gibson's brash American Rocky, Jane Horrock's cheerfully dimwitted Babs, and Miranda Richardson as the evil Mrs. Tweedy stick out for me as the highlights in a terribly charming, beautifully executed caper film. It delivers some real suspense and moments of pathos too, representative of Aardman's best work.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) - Aardman's "Shaun the Sheep" television series is a lot of fun for tots, but the film version is on another level. The largely silent feature takes our familiar fluffy heroes off the farm and to the big city, when their beloved boss, the farmer, goes missing. The gags are great, the characters are memorable, and the stakes are high enough to get really emotionally invested in. I look forward to next year's sequel, titled "Farmageddon," with eager anticipation.

Flushed Away (2006) - I find myself a rare defender of the studio's first CGI effort, about a domesticated pet rat who is accidentally flushed down into the sewers, and discovers a city of rodents living there. Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet are fantastic as the furry leads, up against Ian McKellan and Jean Reno as evil amphibian crime bosses. The fish out of water story is a familiar one, but told here with a lot of great energy and creativity. I also love the worldbuilding and the peppy soundtrack.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) - Like most people, I first encountered Aardman through the "Wallace and Gromit" shorts. I think I would have liked the movie considerably better if I didn't have the shorts to compare them to. Frankly, the horror spoof is only moderately successful, and I felt the supernatural elements weren't a good fit tonally for our intrepid inventors. But that said, it's impossible not to root for Gromit, and all those adorable stop-motion bunnies and giant vegetables make for a lot of great visual gags.

The Pirates! (2012) - I'm going to leave off the second part of the film's title, which changes depending on what country you're in. This wonderfully silly pirate movie has a lot going for it, including a stellar voice cast led by Hugh Grant and some really impressive character designs. Alas, the story never really adds up to much beyond a lot of pleasant farce, and a lot of the derring do is pretty forgettable. I admit that I completely forgot that "Pirates!" existed as I was compiling the titles for this list. In the end, this one feels awfully derivative, and a little half-baked.

Arthur Christmas (2011) - A very competently made Christmas film that clearly has its heart in the right place, but this one didn't connect with me at all. There's just something about the squabbling family, the treatment of the North Pole like a modernizing business, and the generic character designs that made this one feel overly slick. I know I've seen this, and more than once, but I barely remember anything about it, except for the parts that I didn't much like. Like the ""Prep and Landing" short from around the same time, attempts to update Santa leave me cold.

Early Man (2018) - Was anyone else surprised that this was actually a soccer movie? "Early Man" is Nick Park's first major directorial effort in a decade, and I'm sorry to say that it's a very minor effort. While there is some undeniable joy in seeing Park's brand of stop-motion animation back on the big screen with all his little signature hallmarks, there's just not enough here to justify a full film. And it's a shame because I think that a few characters and concepts had some promise. Oh well. Back to the drawing board and better luck next time.