Tuesday, October 15, 2019

My Top Ten Episodes of 2018-2019

I'm using Emmy rules for cutoff dates, which unfortunately disqualifies the most recent seasons of "Westworld" and "The Expanse," as well as the end of "The Americans."  However, there's been plenty of other good television between summer of 2018 and spring of 2019.

Keep in mind that, unlike with films, I'm not trying to be remotely comprehensive about what I watch, and my tastes tend toward genre media, and away from comedies.  I've limited my picks to one episode per show, with one cheat. Entries are unranked below. Minor spoilers ahead.  

The Good Place, "Jeremy Bearimy" - Season three of "The Good Place" felt like a step down, with a lot of the show's usual high concept ideas not really clicking with the characters stuck on Earth.  However, a big exception was the Megan Amram scripted reveal of Michael and Janet's shenanigans to the humans. Michael's explanation on how time works in the afterlife is a wonderful piece of absurdity.  And William Jackson playing Chidi going off the deep end was my favorite thing they've ever done with the character.  

The Haunting of Hill House, "The Bent-Neck Lady" - This was easily the best episode in an otherwise fun, but pretty middling horror series.  It's one of the only installments I found legitimately scary and upsetting, and its twists and turns are set up very well. Delving into the sad history of the youngest Crain sibling, Nell, the show pays off elements set up in the previous episodes, and shows off the nicer side of Hill House's supernatural nature before pulling the rug out from under everyone's feet.    

True Detective, "Now Am Found" - The latest season of "True Detective" is worth watching for the performances of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff.  The plot is a messy and infuriating thing, leading to a resolution in the final episode that isn't very satisfying. However, the way that the show handles the character arcs, and the way that our heroes finally find peace with themselves and the outcome of the investigation is perfect.  I much prefer this conclusion to the way the first season played out.

Chernobyl, "Please Remain Calm" - The scope of the disaster comes into sharper focus with the second episode of this miniseries, where our main characters finally start getting some answers.  I love the performances from Skarsgaard and Harris, the depiction of the Soviet bureaucracy, and the way that the events unfold more like a genre film than a historical drama. The previous episode made the ingrained system of blame avoidance the real enemy, and this episode is all about the inevitable consequences.

Sharp Objects, "Milk" - I'm generally not a fan of those endings that put so much emphasis on a big twist, but the one in "Sharp Objects" is so well done and packs such a visceral punch.  I don't even mind that a good portion of the reveal actually takes place during the credits, neatly filling in blanks and recontextualizing much of what we saw come before. "Sharp Objects" struck me as a little too atmospheric and amorphous for its own good, but I think it's worth a watch for the finale alone.  

Counterpart, "Two Cities" - A beautiful piece of science fiction that gives us vital backstory for the rest of the series.  Following the early days of the Office of Interchange, we see how the initial wonder of discovery was corrupted by the human weakness of our protagonist.  The episode features one of the more gutting examples of the butterfly effect I've seen in fiction, as well as a great double performance by Samuel Roukin. And it works perfectly well as a stand alone piece, without the rest of the series.

American Gods, "Treasure of the Sun" - The second season of "American Gods" was a terrible mess, but it did produce the best episode of the series to date, a profile on the character of Mad Sweeney.  Pablo Schreiber was always one of the show's MVPs, and there could be no better showcase for his performance than this. We flash back and forth through Sweeney's history as a Gaelic god-king and Wednesday's minion, finally leading up to one of the more satisfying face-offs of the series.  

The Venture Bros., "The Bellicose Proxy" - This has been my favorite season of "The Venture Brothers."  I love the way the Monarch and 24 have been developed, and the way they've been evolving in their villainy.  I love the Monarch's relationship with his wife. I love the way that the show managed to repurpose a middling minor villain and set up an ongoing arc for Pete and Billy.  I love the bureaucracy and the regulations and everyone rolling their eyes at how lame it all is. It's ridiculous and amazing.

Fosse/Verdon, "Who's Got the Pain" and "Where am I Going?" - In the end I couldn't decide between the episode where Gwen and Bob first meet and experience their halcyon days together, or the one where a weekend getaway ends up setting Bob on a course for self-destruction.  They're both so different too, one full of theatrical pizzazz and taking place over two different eras, and the other a fairly somber affair, with the drama being hashed out in one location over a few hours like a stage play. The fact that they're both so strong reflects the quality of the miniseries, one of my favorites of the year.  

Game of Thrones, "The Bells" - While there were clearly some flaws in the final season's storytelling, it did deliver some feats of spectacle that I've never seen the like of on television.  One was the destruction of King's Landing. I kept comparing it to the Minas Tirith battle from "The Return of the King," except this battle focused on all the carnage and terror experienced by the people caught in the crossfire.  Having Arya as the POV character was a good choice, and watching her fumble through the chaos turned out to be far more affecting than the episodes' more hyped up clashes.  

Honorable Mention:

Russian Doll - A fantastic, weird, idiosyncratic little mindbender of a series, that was unexpectedly one of the best things I saw over the past season.  And I found it impossible to single out an episode to praise, so I guess this entry will just have to be for all of them.  

Sunday, October 13, 2019

About Those "John Wick" Films

At this point I've watched all of the "John Wick" films, and this is the first time I've written about any of them.  "John Wick: Parabellum" has been a surprise hit at the box office, its star Keanu Reeves is once again a pop culture darling, and director Chad Stahelski is being attached to a lot of other projects, so I figured this post was past due.  However, I'm reluctant because my reaction to the series can really be summed up in a resounding "meh."

"John Wick" exists to provide an excuse for R-rated action scenes, and these are absolutely wonderful, crazy, R-rated action scenes where some of the best stunt people in the business get to show off their skills without too much CGI gumming up the works.  Around them, the filmmakers have created this elaborate underworld of assassins and ne'er-do-wells, who operate a detailed shadow economy with very strict rules. In the first movie this system was mostly limited to the Continental, a hotel for assassins run by Winston (Ian McShane).  By the third film, this has expanded to many different businesses, schools, services, and networks of criminals operating over multiple continents.  

The series has gotten less grounded and more fanciful over time, while its budget has increased and its fight sequences have grown ever more complex and grandiose.  So what was originally a very simple revenge story about John Wick and his dog, so simple that it's been repeatedly mocked in-universe, has turned into this ornate action fantasy franchise full of secret societies and obtuse mythology.  The world building is fun when it comes to things like John Wick visiting an armorer who presents him firearms like a sommelier. However, it's notably sloppy when handling characters like Wick's ally Sofia (Halle Berry), who seems to have contradictory motives, or any time it tries to pull anything resembling a plot twist.  

The series is at its best when it's providing us with spectacle like John Wick fighting thugs on horseback, or dispatching foes with library books, or stalking enemies through a room built of projectors and mirrors, or the famous Red Circle Club sequence.  To its credit, it's well aware of this, and the movies have been overwhelmingly action-heavy with very little plot or story to complicate things. Keanu Reeves remains a charismatic, interesting presence and a perfect fit for the role of the terse John Wick.  I like some of the supporting actors who have popped up, including McShane, Berry, Lance Reddick as the Continental concierge, John Leguizamo, Peter Stormare, and even Angelica Houston in the latest installment.

The trouble is that the movies keep getting longer, the action keeps getting more unrealistic, and John Wick is pretty much an invincible superman by this point.  I liked the first film for being this scrappy little action thriller that had a sense of humor about itself. It had stylized language and some fun genre elements, but it was also very hands-on and tongue in cheek.  Two films later, it's not nearly as entertaining with John taking everything deadly seriously, and the filmmakers pushing a lot of those interesting little flourishes too far. It's clear that they enjoy the worldbuilding, but they aren't very good at it.  If you think too hard about how the universe functions, it all falls apart.      

Yes, I know you're not supposed to be thinking too hard in these movies, and I'm glad that the filmmakers are always willing to suspend logic in order to show the audience a particularly cool shot or stunt.  However, the only level that these films are truly satisfying on is the visceral level. And that would be fine if that were the only thing that "John Wick" was interested in. However, clearly it's not, and the clumsier attempts at storytelling are getting in the way of the thrills and chills.  I had a similar problem with "Atomic Blonde," from the first "John Wick" film's co-director David Leitch. The action and visuals were great, but the scripting for the spy thriller bits was incoherent.

I keep watching the "John Wick" films because they provide some easy cinematic pleasures.  John Wick fights the main players from "The Raid." John Wick puts down Alfie Allen from "Game of Thrones."  John Wick buys a wicked cool bulletproof suit. John Wick has the greatest knife fight ever. However, I don't love the films or look forward to them the way other people do.  I need more than just cool fight scenes and bullet ballet for that. However, I respect what they do well, and admire their commitment to a bloody good time.

Friday, October 11, 2019

My Ariel Dilemma

My darling five-year-old wants to be Ariel from "The Little Mermaid" for Halloween.  I don't really have a problem with this. She's been Elsa from "Frozen" and Rapunzel from "Tangled" in past years, and had a blast.  However, there's a paranoid, media-conscious part of me that's worried about where the Ariel love is coming from.  

My best guess is that one of her friends likes Ariel, or there's been some "Little Mermaid" content floating around school, because it sure didn't start at home.  Kiddo has seen "The Little Mermaid" movie exactly once and hasn't asked for it since. We've also listened to some of the songs via Spotify's Disney channels. However, we have almost no "Little Mermaid" merchandise at home  - plenty of "Moana" and "Frozen," but Ariel is only a fleeting presence on a few pieces of Disney Princess branded items. Moreover, "The Little Mermaid" is thirty years old. Unlike "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," the live action remake is still a long ways off.  A Broadway theatrical adaptation came and went a decade ago. As far as I can tell, it's not in the current hype cycle anywhere. Ariel made a brief appearance in the last "Wreck-it-Ralph" movie (which my kid hasn't seen), but that's about it.     

There haven't been any obvious precursors either - "My Little Pony" has been her go-to franchise for nearly a year.  Before that it was "Frozen" everything, though "Moana" is the movie she's seen the most often. With "Frozen 2" on its way, I had been bracing for round two of Elsa fever, but suddenly it's all about the mermaid.  Kiddo is singing the songs. She's pointing out the merchandise at the store. She consistently chooses the mermaid coloring sheets when she has the option. Honestly, I think the only reason I haven't been inundated with Ariel 24/7 is because Disney isn't pushing "The Little Mermaid" right now.  My kid is currently fixated on the Halloween costume, which probably points to this Ariel phase being limited to wanting to playact her.  

In that case, I'm not too worried about Ariel being a negative influence - because that's always the nagging worry I always have whenever my kids start getting attached to certain pieces of media.  Looking at "The Little Mermaid" after all this time, Ariel is pretty problematic as a role model. She's a rebellious teenager who falls in love with a prince she doesn't actually know, and then goes and blows up her home life and changes herself drastically to be with him.  It's the kind of narrative the recent Disney princess films like "Frozen" and "Moana" have been distancing themselves from. However, I remember going through an Ariel phase myself after I saw "The Little Mermaid" as a kid, which was mostly tied to her being a good singer. The infatuation lasted until I saw "Beauty and the Beast," and decided Belle was way cooler.     

I remember some of the discussion of the major '90s Disney heroines, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine, from back in the day.  Articles cropped up around that time wondering what kind of messages they were projecting, or trying to figure out why so many little girls were obsessed with the princesses. That was the era where parents started getting more aware and more critical about the media their kids were taking in.  Remember Tipper Gore and Peggy Charren? However, with Disney movies It was never anything too alarmist. There was the occasional prude bemoaning skimpy costume choices, and lots of frustration about the overwhelming marketing campaigns, but the films were big mainstream successes and reflected the tastes and mores of the times.

Critical examinations were happening though, and became part of the larger cultural conversation about Barbie dolls, gender roles, and body image.  Over the years I've heard those earlier Disney movies blamed for all kinds of millennial neuroses, from unrealistic expectations about love, to irresponsible buying habits.  "Disney Princess" has become a massive, ubiquitous brand that is practically impossible to escape if you have little girls of a certain age. Disney has done some work to minimize problematic aspects of the characters, but there's still a lot of touchy issues with them to this day.  So it feels like there's a lot more wrapped up in buying a piece of "The Little Mermaid" merchandise these days than just your kid liking Ariel.      

But is there, really?  I mean, I don't think letting my kid dress up like a mermaid and sing off key in the bathtub is doing any harm, especially when she's got a lot of other, more varied characters in her media diet.  It's not 1989 anymore, and Ariel's not the only princess in town by a long shot. We all love crummy kids' films when we're young, and as long it's not all we watch, we outgrow it. I don't think my kiddo even remembers anything about "The Little Mermaid" except for Ariel being a mermaid.  I find it kinda flabbergasting that Ariel is still such a draw, but when you're five, mermaids are cool.  

And so, I'll banish my inner worry-wart until next time, and see about finding a Flounder plushie.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

My Favorite Josef von Sternberg Film

Many directors and stars struggled to traverse the shift from silent to sound pictures, but one pair managed the transition with relative ease.  Austria's Josef von Sternberg found success in silent films in the '20s, particularly for his crime films. His first sound picture, the German film "The Blue Angel," was where he first met Marlene Dietrich, and the two would go on to make a run of six pictures together for Paramount over a five year period.  It's difficult to talk about Dietrich and von Sternberg's careers separately, since it was von Sternberg who helped create Dietrich's magnificent screen presence, and Dietrich who proved the perfect subject for von Sternberg's particular screen style.   

Their big Hollywood debut after the success of "The Blue Angel" was the romantic drama"Morocco," designed to be a star vehicle to launch Dietrich as a major Hollywood player.  Dietrich plays a cabaret singer who falls in love with Gary Cooper's dashing young French Legionnaire, when they meet in Morocco during the '20s. And there's absolutely no doubt that it is Dietrich's picture, as von Sternberg spent the bulk of his efforts on presenting her in the best possible light, quite literally.  Von Sternberg's films are distinguished by their technically accomplished cinematography, especially the intense and dramatic use of shadows and light. In "Morocco," von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes took pains to only shoot Dietrich from certain angles, with lighting above or behind her, to emphasize certain features of her face.  

Much has been written about Dietrich's screen mystique and von Sternberg's obsession with perfecting it.   And that's understandable, as there is no question it was the vital element in all the films they made together, especially "Morocco."  The film is a template for nearly all their subsequent pictures - an exotic locale, a few sultry song numbers, a tragic ending, and plenty of atmosphere.  Dietrich always plays a woman of questionable reputation, but one who is independent and worldly, almost always some kind of glamorous performer. Von Sternberg was always more concerned with style over substance, with sensuality and romance over plot.  He portrayed Dietrich as an icon of feminine power and allure. In their later pictures like "Shanghai Express" and "The Scarlet Empress," his cinematography would become even more complex and expressionistic, the image of Dietrich more heightened and grandiose.

I prefer her here, however, as the lighthearted, playful singer, Amy Jolly.  In the pre-code era, von Sternberg and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Jules Furthman, were able to push some boundaries with regards to the depiction of onscreen sexuality.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with Dietrich's mesmerizing appearance in top hat and tails during the nightclub sequence, and her open flirting with a woman in the audience. This was part of a cabaret performance piece, an impersonation of masculinity that nobody took much offense to, but there's still a thrill in seeing Dietrich and von Sternberg getting away with the gender subversion.  That touch of androgyny and mystery would become part of Dietrich's persona for the rest of her career.    

As a romance, "Morocco" succeeds almost in spite of itself.  Von Sternberg had no interest in what Gary Cooper was doing whatsoever, leading to some famous behind-the-scenes clashes.  The two did not get along, fueling von Sternberg's reputation for being difficult. Nevertheless, Cooper managed to be a memorable presence in "Morocco," which few of Dietrich's male co-stars in her subsequent von Sternberg pictures could claim.  Cooper and Dietrich display wonderful screen chemistry together, and their repartee is lovely. There's also the interesting wrinkle of Amy Jolly being simultaneously pursued by an ineffectual rich suitor played by Adolphe Menjou - who many have pegged as a stand-in for von Sternberg himself.

Over the years, many of the Dietrich and von Sternberg movies haven't aged well, and many elements come off as much sillier or over-the-top than intended.  "Morocco" is no exception, but it's held up better than most. The performances are still charming, the humor still endearing, and Marlene Dietrich is still as intriguing onscreen as ever.  The ending, where our heroine walks off into the desert to follow her Legionnaire, is totally absurd, but still deeply moving. It works because it's Dietrich - or rather, because it's Dietrich directed by von Sternberg.          

What I've seen - Josef von Sternberg

Underworld (1927)
It (1927), (uncredited, with Clarence Badger)
The Docks of New York (1928)
The Blue Angel (1930)
Morocco (1930)
Shanghai Express (1932)
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
The Devil is a Woman (1935)
The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
Anatahan (1953)

Monday, October 7, 2019

For "The Boys"

Minor spoilers ahead.

While waiting for the new HBO "Watchman" series to arrive, I was blindsided by Amazon's eight-episode first season of "The Boys," another dark superhero satire that proudly displays a TV-MA rating and list of content warnings in front of every episode.  The show is based on a very violent Garth Ennis comic of the same name, with "Supernatural's" Eric Kripke and "Preacher's" producing team of Seth Rogen and Adam Goldberg at the helm.  

"The Boys" is set in a universe full of superheroes who are backed by major corporations.  Vought International handles the most famous headliners, a superhero team known as "The Seven," using their star power to make a fortune off of related media, merchandise, endorsements, and other deals.  They also go to considerable lengths to protect the reputations of their "Supes." The newest Seven recruit, Annie January/Starlight (Erin Moriarty), quickly learns that the heroes are terrible people behind the scenes.  In the first episode, she's sexually assaulted and coerced by the fish-gilled The Deep (Chace Crawford). Shortly after, the speedster A-Train (Jessie Usher) accidentally runs down and kills the girlfriend of electronics store worker Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid).  Hughie is then recruited by a vigilante named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who wants to bring down The Seven for their crimes, and has a special grudge against their leader, the super-patriotic Homelander (Antony Starr).

The superheroes of "The Boys" are patterned off the Justice League, with Homelander standing in for Superman, Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) for Wonder Woman, The Deep for Aquaman, and A-Train for The Flash.  However, their level of success and pervasiveness in the popular cultural are similar to what Disney has achieved with the Avengers. Except Vought is more like FOX News and seems hellbent on seizing political power and taking over the world.  By focusing on Vought, embodied by the team's handler Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue), as well as its roster of superheroes, the show can take aim at some targets that are a little more serious than a couple of amoral egomaniacs in capes and spandex.  After all, the Seven would have never been able to cause as much damage or go to such depraved lows if they weren't being enabled by a corrupt conglomerate and its marketing department.  

And the show goes after them all with gusto, happily tearing down the superhero mythos on every level.  Making good use of that TV-MA rating, "The Boys" features full frontal nudity, lots of gore, copious swearing, and all manner of sexual deviance.  The heroes are shown to be careless and reckless when dealing with the public on a good day, often with catastrophic results. The ones that aren't miserable and self-destructive are terrifying narcissists who are driven by greed and ego.  It's not that they're malicious, but most of the time they simply don't care, and view people as expendable. A lot of humor and horror is derived from riffing on classic superhero tropes and scenarios, like the unfortunate realities of having laser eye beams or super strength in normal life.  The Deep, being the Aquaman analogue, is of course subjected to several jokes about being useless for land-based crimefighting.  

What really sells it is the show's high level production values.   The detail involved in the worldbuilding is fantastic, from the pervasive presence of the superheroes in so many different aspects of daily life, to the massive public relations aspect of their jobs, to the terminology and history we keep hearing referenced.  There's an episode that takes place at a Christian "Believe Expo," where Starlight finds the event's organizers are using superheroes to push intolerance. The way the event is portrayed is remarkably grounded and believable, despite the fantasy elements. Costuming is gaudy, but not over-the-top, so the superheroes can look silly or menacing as needed.  Ditto the special effects, which really emphasize the brutality of fight and action scenes. Superpowers in this universe are outrageously dangerous, and every appearance is more likely to make the audience squirm or cringe than cheer.   

The other half of the show, featuring Hughie's recruitment into a life of vigilantism is less impressive, but still strong.  Butcher's team of blue collar bruisers forms slowly as the show goes along, ensuring that supporting characters like Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso) each get some time in the spotlight and really register as personalities.  They're not as fascinating to watch as the dysfunctional superheroes, but the performances are good and writing is tight. Karl Urban is the standout performer here, as a British hard ass who everyone is wary of, but who is so convincing that everyone ends up doing what he wants anyway.   

My only issue with "The Boys" is that I don't think they quite stuck the ending.  It's a cliffhanger that sets up the next season, not providing much closure or resolution to any of the myriad storylines.  I'm honestly a little disappointed that the plot seems to be moving into more typical melodrama territory, though this may be a bait-and-switch, considering the nature of the show.  However, I love the screwed up world that "The Boys" has introduced to us. It's easily the most successful piece of anti-superhero media I've seen to date, and a very timely one.     


Saturday, October 5, 2019

"Hotel Mumbai" and "Never Look Away"

A couple of odds and ends today that I wanted to get down some thoughts about.

First up is "Hotel Mumbai," based on the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, and the invasion of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in particular.  It's an unusually brutal dramatization of a terrorist attack, especially when you put it up against similar films like "Patriot's Day." Usually, I watch films like this and wonder to myself how I'd respond in a similar situation.  "Hotel Mumbai" makes it very clear that I'd die almost immediately. The terrorists are smart, well trained, utterly without scruples, and relentless. They kill people in great numbers, and none of the main characters have any means to try and stop them.  Survival largely means evading detection and having tremendous luck. So "Hotel Mumbai" often feels more like a horror film than an action picture.

Nearly all the major players we see are fictional, stand-ins for the real life individuals.  I suspect this was done to allow the filmmakers to take more dramatic license and to show more graphic and upsetting images than we'd see if they had to worry about being sensitive toward the actual victims.  So the lovely international couple, David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), and their baby boy are put into harrowing situations that didn't actually happen. Sikh waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) is brave and heroic to a fault, representing all the hotel workers who helped to hide and protect their guests.  One of the few real life figures is the head chef, Hemant Oberoi, who takes up a leadership role during the crisis and is played by the beloved Indian actor Anupam Kher.    

This is the feature directing debut of Australian Anthony Maras, who orchestrates the chaos and the melodrama very well.  He also co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee, which makes some interesting choices that a typical Hollywood production wouldn't have.  In many ways "Hotel Mumbai" follows the standard template of a disaster epic, keeping the POV with a small group of photogenic leads, and manufacturing an uplifting ending despite the overwhelming tragedy.  On the other hand, there are some scenes and developments that feel like they were included to subvert the typical narrative. It's difficult to get into without spoilers, but let's just say that I appreciate the amount of narrative emphasis placed on certain characters.  Also, between this and "Counterpart," Nazanin Boniadi is quickly becoming an actress I'd watch in anything.  

"Never Look Away" is a title I almost skipped, mostly because of its three hour running time.  From Florian Henckel von Donnarsmarck comes an epic piece of historical fiction, loosely based on the life of Geman artist Gerhard Richter.  We follow the life and times of Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), who grows up in Nazi Germany and is deeply affected by the commitment and execution of his aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) for mental illness.  As a young man, after the war, he becomes an art student and falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch). Seeband was secretly once a highly placed Nazi doctor and official, who disapproves of therelationship and tries to thwart it.  

The narrative is unhurried, spending roughly a third of its running time on Elizabeth's story, and another third on Kurt and Ellie's romance, before the final third finally gets around to Kurt's development as an artist and paying off all the thematic elements that the first two thirds of the film set up.  As with von Donnarsmarck's "The Lives of Others," the narrative is very straightforward and quickly digestible, with all the major ideas clearly delineated. It's a fairly easy watch in spite of its length, with a trio of good performances from the leads. Frankly, it's the kind of film we don't see much of anymore, with its unusual structure and emphasis on grand ideas over characters.  I haven't seen a film romanticize artistic freedom in such epic terms in ages.     

And for me, that's irresistible. I love films about artists and the artistic process.  The last third of "Never Look Away," though terribly indulgent, was pure catnip for me.  I loved seeing Kurt's rebirth as an artist, finally allowed to follow is own impulses and paint for himself.  I loved the portrayal of the nutty Dusseldorf art institution he joins, and the modern artists he becomes friends with.  Obviously the film's grand finale needs the context of the earlier sections to pay off properly, but I'd have been happy just watching Kurt's modern art antics for the entire three hour running time.  Of course that would have been a very different film, and the one that actually exists is a perfectly lovely, sensitive, piece of cinema. And I hope more people take the plunge and seek it out.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

"Veronica Mars," Year Four (With All the Spoilers)

Spoilers ahead, guys.  I mean it.

Still here?

Oh my god, they fridged Logan Echolls.  They literally let him get married to Veronica and then blew him up for maximum emotional damage.   And from all the interviews and post-mortems I've been reading, this was definitely intentional and on purpose.  If the show continues, he's not coming back. I've been watching the fallout from this all over the internet, and clearly some of the fans are thoroughly pissed off.  I would be too, I guess, if I had been invested in the Logan/Veronica relationship since 2004 and put money in the Kickstarter, and cheered on the revival thinking I was going to get more of these two together.  There are many claiming that his death has killed the whole series. But wasn't that kinda the point?

The best take I've seen on this so far is a piece written by Linda Holmes for NPR, "The Crowd Fundeth, And The Crowd Taketh Away: The 'Veronica Mars' Problem."  It makes the case that Logan has always been a problematic type of character that only became more problematic over time. To make a long story short, he went from angry bad boy to Prince Charming, largely because Rob Thomas tried to give fans what they wanted for the 2014 Kickstarter funded "Veronica Mars" movie by having Veronica and Logan end up together.  However, this was a misstep that removed everything interesting about Logan, and simultaneously ensured that he would be a huge presence in Veronica's life and all her future adventures.  

Rob Thomas's reasons for killing off Logan are very sound.  "Veronica Mars," both the show and the character, have been stuck in a state of arrested development, and a big reason is this epic high school love story that they've never been able to move past.  "Veronica Mars" can't remain a teen drama in 2019, because none of the main characters are teenagers anymore and it's well past the time for them to mature into adults. One of the big themes of the fourth season was Veronica finally letting go of Neptune and leaving her old life behind for good.  The impetus for that could have been Keith Mars dying, which was a possibility the show alluded to all season, but removing Logan solves a lot of existing problems and forces Veronica to confront others. 

It's part of the move to push "Veronica Mars" away from its origins as a teen soap and toward traditional detective noir territory.  Noir traditionally does not have happily ever after endings. This isn't a hard and fast rule - Bogart usually got Bacall in the end - but the writers never figured out a way to have Veronica and Logan in a stable relationship together and remain interesting.  You could tell in season four that they were stretching to keep Logan involved in the action. And as much as I enjoy Jason Dohring, he wasn't given enough to do and it didn't feel right to have him be the mature and well-adjusted one to Veronica's self-deluded basket case.  The show could have broken them up again, had Logan relapse into bad behavior, or just sent him off with the navy, but I can't fault Rob Thomas for just wanting to walk away from the whole thing.     

Of course, you can't be mad at the fan reaction either.  They killed off Logan! They barely let us see any of the aftermath and ended the episode with Veronica resolving to move on a year later.  We didn't see the reactions of any of the other characters, the funeral, the grieving process, nothing. It felt like less of a goodbye to a beloved character than a rude shove out the door.  It felt like Rob Thomas just didn't want to deal with it. I sincerely hope we get little more acknowledgement of the impact of Logan's death next season. And if there's not a next season, I will be very upset.    

Part of me is kind of impressed at the writers' chutzpah for taking the risk and going through with this.  And yes, it actually feels kind of progressive that the straight white guy is the one getting horribly murdered to further his significant other's character development, even though I hate that trope.  It bodes well for whatever "Veronica Mars" is transforming into. I'm going to miss the old show that we're never going to get back, not really. But I also want to see what Veronica does next. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

"Veronica Mars," Year Four

Minor spoilers ahead.

It didn't really hit me that the new batch of "Veronica Mars" episodes that recently premiered on Hulu constituted an actual revival of the original show until I was listening to Veronica's hard boiled narration in the first episode, taking us back to the seedy world of Neptune, California.  And despite having to juggle a lot of balls, the new season is a pretty strong piece of work. You can see the creators taking steps to convert the show from high school noir to full on neo-noir.  

Veronica is now in her thirties, still a private investigator alongside her aging father Keith, who is using a cane after a car accident.  She's cohabitating with Logan, now a decorated Navy officer. He's away for long stretches of time, but has worked through a lot of demons and is ready to settle down.  Veronica, however, has major doubts. Her latest case involves the bombing of a local motel, and there are an array of possible suspects: pizza delivery guy Penn (Patton Oswalt), local realtor Big Dick Casablancas (David Starzyk) and his prison buddy Clyde (J.K. Simmon), an Arab-America congressman, Maloof (Mido Hamada), and a local bar owner, Nicole (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).  Also in the mix are two Mexican hitmen, Alonzo (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Juan Diego (Tyler Alvarez), trying to exact revenge for one of the victims, and the dead motel owner's daughter, Matty (Izabela Vidovic ), a nosy teenager who reminds Veronica of herself.  

With series creator Rob Thomas back at the helm, it hardly feels like any time has passed at all since we last saw Neptune.  Everyone still quips and throws references around constantly, though carefully updated ones. The divide between Neptune's haves and the have-nots is alive and well, though this time the have-nots are small business owners trying to avoid gentrification.  The social commentary feels a little more pointed this time around, but also broad enough that it better captures the zeitgeist of 2019. As usual, the best part of the show remains Veronica's relationship with her father. The Veronica/Logan pairing is a little rockier since Logan has changed so much, both temperamentally and physically.  There's been a lot of controversy about how this season treated this relationship, enough that I'm tempted to write a separate post about it. Ultimately I admire how it all played out as a critic, but kinda hate everyone involved as a fan.  

And of course, the large extended supporting cast of the original series is back, but mostly in minor roles and cameos.  The only three actors who appear in the opening credits are Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, and Jason Dohring, as Veronica, Keith, and Logan.  And this is very important, because it avoids having to find excuses for other characters to keep hanging around, and getting mixed up in those oddball subplots that were a drag on some of the earlier seasons.  We get just enough of Weevil, Wallace, Dick, Leo, and the rest to get a sense of how they've been doing, but they aren't major players. This season is much less interested in fanservice than the overindulgent 2014 Kickstarter movie was, though there are plenty of little references and inside jokes for fans.  With only eight episodes in this run, the show has to devote every second it can to the big mystery and getting us into Veronica's increasingly troubled head.    

One of the nice things about Veronica being a grown-up now is that there's less beating around the bush about her personal failings.  She's a danger junkie and hasn't dealt with a lot of the baggage that she's accumulated over the years. A big theme of the season is that nearly everyone else in her life has moved on, but Veronica is stuck in a rut.  It's still as entertaining as ever to watch her chase down suspects and lock horns with her enemies, but there's also a sense of restlessness and staving off the inevitable. More than ever, this is Kristen Bell's show, and she's firing on all cylinders.  I love her as Eleanor on "The Good Place," but "Veronica Mars" offers so much more opportunity for her to really shine. Veronica remains one of my favorite television characters, and this season does right by her - even if it comes at the expense of others. 

I'm glad that the show has lost none of the inventiveness and efficiency that made its mysteries such a pleasure to see unspool.  With the new characters in particular, the writing does such a great job of setting up these interesting personalities who then collide in interesting ways.  Penn is an attention seeker and conspiracy theorist who is part of a group of "Murder Heads" who investigate cold cases. Clyde is shady as anything, but also becomes drinking buddies with Keith.  Nicole is intriguing and admirable, but there's a nagging sense that she's got too many secrets. The Maloof family is the weak link, but only because the show doesn't do nearly as much with them as we know that it could. 

I'd have liked another episode or two to let the plotting breathe a bit, but the fourth season of "Veronica Mars" is one of its best.  I think it's stronger than the second and third seasons by a wide margin, because of the tighter serialization and lack of extraneous characters.  Also, as unpopular as some of the creative choices may be, it's also set up a scenario where Veronica could go to more interesting places in the future.  And change is good, especially for a show with such an eventful history and so much unrealized potential.     

Sunday, September 29, 2019

And Now, "Alita"

"Alita: Battle Angel" is the best Western adaptation of a Japanese anime or manga I've seen yet.  This is not a high bar, considering recent titles like "Ghost in the Shell" and "Death Note." However, "Alita" is pretty entertaining and does manage to capture some of what made the original property appealing.  Notably they got the character of Alita pretty much right, an amnesiac cyborg girl who lives in the future dystopia of Iron City.  

I haven't read Yukito Kishiro's "Alita" manga, originally titled "Gun Dream," but I am a fan of the 1993 anime adaptation.  The live action film, directed by Robert Rodriguez and scripted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, follows it pretty closely.  Alita (Rosa Salazar) is discovered by the kindly Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) on a scrap heap, and he rebuilds and rehabilitates her. She falls in love with a young man named Hugo (Keean Johnson), who is desperate to go to Zalem, a city in the sky that is closed off to those below.  Iron City is a dangerous place, full of crime, and policed only by "Hunter Killer" bounty hunters. Alita, however, is attracted by the danger and fighting, which may be related to her old, forgotten life.

The plot is kind of a mess, full of all sorts of outlandish elements like the Hunter Killers (I can't believe they kept that term), mad scientists, and an arena sport called Motorball.  It doesn't all cohere together too well. However, I do enjoy a lot of the worldbuilding, including so many different cyborg characters who have replaced parts of their bodies with hardware.  There are several memorable cyborg grotesques, created by placing actors' faces on CGI bodies, including villains Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Zapan (Ed Skrein). Alita herself has gotten a lot of attention for her digitally enlarged anime eyes.  I think the effect is executed very well, making Alita look otherworldly. And though initially a little distracting, I largely forgot about it after the first few minutes.

More importantly, many of the performances are good.  Rosa Salazar gives Alita a lot of personality, selling her teenage recklessness, her battle lust, and her passionate idealism.  I also really enjoy Christoph Waltz as fatherly Dr. Ido, and predict he's going to get plenty of offers for similar parts in the future.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't do much with other members of the cast like Jennifer Connelly, playing a rival cyborg doctor, Chiren, or her boss Vector, played by Mahershala Ali.  There's too much crammed into the movie to give all the characters their due. The worst victim of this is Hugo, who loses a good chunk of important backstory and doesn't come off well in this version at all.  Alita seems to fall in love with him because he's literally the first boy she sees, and their relationship never really works.  

Also a little lost in the shuffle is the whole dichotomy of Iron City and Zalem, which was central to the anime version.  Iron City actually seems to be a pretty nice place to live, at least during daylight hours. Several characters desperately want to go to Zalem, but it's not clear why it's so much better.  Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium" got across the concept of the elevated elites subjecting the masses below much more effectively. And though "Alita" keeps a lot of the imagery from the earlier version, it doesn't work so well without the original context.  "Alita" is PG-13, and tones down a lot of content, to the point where one memorable death happens offscreen entirely. And for all the carnage of the cyborgs chopping each other to bits, the violence is mostly bloodless.    

I'm hopeful that "Alita" gets the sequel that it has very obviously sets up, and we get to see more of her world.  I prefer the animated version of this story, but the new movie is an interesting piece of work, for its effects and its concepts if nothing else.  It's weird and ambitious and tries a lot of new things. Some of it's not very successful, but it's something different and promising. And that's more than I can say for most of this year's big studio blockbusters so far.  


Friday, September 27, 2019

My Favorite Richard Williams Film

Let's get one thing straight.  It might be Robert Zemeckis's name listed as director of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" but the movie is Richard Williams' triumph.  The Academy knew it, awarding him a special Oscar for his achievements as the film's animation director and chief character designer.  His fellow animators and filmmakers knew it, voting him "The Animator's Animator" in a London Times poll in 1990. Audiences, alas, never caught on, and Williams never really got the wider recognition for being one of the greatest animators who ever lived.

I respect and admire Zemeckis, but "Roger Rabbit" could not have been made without the work of Richard Williams.  Combining live action and traditional hand-drawn animation had been done before, but live actors interacting with animated characters to the degree that they do in "Roger Rabbit" would not have been possible without animation as fluid and spatially complex as what Williams and his team provided.  Known for his high standards and high ambitions, Williams was always described as demanding but inspiring. He was capable of generating astonishing work that violated all the usual rules of animation. He could accommodate a moving camera and shifting perspectives, even though that meant all the animation in "Roger Rabbit" had to be painstakingly drawn "on ones," or frame for frame with the live action footage.  Williams did plenty of the actual animating himself, claiming that he worked on nearly every scene in the movie.    

So Roger Rabbit and the other "toons" could splash in live action water, bump live action lamps, and adjust live action clothing.  This was thanks in large part to the efforts of Zemeckis and his practical effects team. But it's thanks to Williams and the other animators that the character do all these things while moving and reacting like the old school squash and stretch Tex Avery cartoons.  And they were also responsible for the resurrection of dozens and dozens of beloved classic cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to Betty Boop, in order to populate the world of "Roger Rabbit." It's one thing to conceive of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck having a piano duel at the Ink and Paint Club, but it's quite another to actually see the two of them in their prime, banging away at those real, physical pianos, executing wild gag after gag at lightning speeds.      

And so, Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit are able to convincingly embark on their buddy comedy/detective noir, solving the mystery of who killed Marvin Acme and foiling the plans of the evil Judge Doom.  And so, we get to explore this marvelous universe where humans and toons coexist seamlessly in a nostalgic 1940s Hollywood. At its heart, the movie is an excuse to pay homage to all the animation greats of the golden era of cartoon short subjects, full of references and in-jokes and countless cameos.  The original characters, like Roger Rabbit, Jessica, and Baby Herman, all contain elements inspired by specific cartoon shorts, and feel like products of that era. Jessica is a Tex Avery pin-up girl. Roger is an amalgam of Warner and Disney characters - he's got Mickey's gloves, Porky's bow-tie, Goofy's pants, and a Mel Blanc-worthy lisp.      

As a kid, I loved "Roger Rabbit" for its silliness and its madcap nature, for breaking the barrier between the human and cartoon worlds in a way that I'd never seen before, and wondered why they didn't do more often.  After all, it looked so easy and natural for Eddie and Roger to share the screen together. As an adult, however, I marvel at how the filmmakers got all those disparate elements to make coherent visual sense. Now I know that it took multiple teams of artists months and months of Herculean effort to breathe life into that world and those characters, frame by frame.  And that the work was done with an inordinate amount of care, under the guidance of an animation director who wouldn't settle for anything other than brilliance.  

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is a film that could never be made again for a long list of reasons - and keep in mind that the studios did try for years to make a sequel.  But even if you got all the studios to play nice and the legal matters squared away, nobody does traditional animation on the level that Richard Williams did it anymore.  Sure, there's plenty of talent out there, and improvements in technology have helped things along, but Williams' superhuman dedication to his craft and yen for doing the impossible aren't so easy to replace.

What I've Seen - Richard Williams

Raggedy Ann & Andy (1977)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006)


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Disney's 2020

A year ago, Disney's release schedule looked like this:

Untitled Disney live-action film - February 14, 2020
Untitled Pixar film - March 6, 2020
"Mulan," - March 27, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - May 1, 2020
"Maleficent II" - May 29, 2020
Untitled Pixar film - June 19, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - July 31, 2020
Untitled Disney live-action film - October 9, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - November 6, 2020
Untitled Disney animated film - November 25, 2020
Untitled Disney live-action film - December 23, 2020   

I figured that we needed an update.  To keep things simple, I'm ignoring all the Fox projects that Disney has gained through the merger, like the live action "Call of the Wild." 

Right now, the schedule looks like this:

"Onward” - March 6, 2020
"Mulan," - March 27, 2020
“Black Widow” - May 1, 2020
“Artemis Fowl” – May 29, 2020 (delayed from 2019)
“Soul” - June 19, 2020
“Jungle Cruise” – July 24, 2020 (delayed from 2019)
“The One and Only Ivan” – August 14, 2020
Untitled Disney live-action film - October 9, 2020
“The Eternals” - November 6, 2020
"Raya and the Last Dragon" - November 25, 2020

So, we lost what was probably supposed to be "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" to some undetermined future date,  "Cruella" was in the December slot but got bumped to 2021, and the "Maleficent" sequel was moved up to 2019. Also, "Artemis Fowl" and "Jungle Cruise" were delayed from 2019  to 2020, and "The One and Only Ivan" got added to the slate. It is nots clear if "Ivan" was the Untitled Disney Live Action Film previously scheduled for February 14th, that has disappeared, or if this is a different project.  It's been difficult to keep them straight, with Disney's habit of dubbing every in-development project "Untitled." Some of the in-production ones too, actually.

I expect the October 9th film to move, since the slot is currently occupied by Fox's "Death on the Nile." "The Eternals" is also currently in the same November 6th slot as Fox's animated film "Ron's Gone Wrong," about a boy and his robot pal.  "Cruella" was likely moved to avoid Speilberg's "West Side Story." All the kinks from the recent merger are clearly still being sorted out. 

Now, compared to the insanely profitable 2019 slate that is closing in on $10 billion in receipts , 2020 is probably not going to do even half as well.  Even with the Fox titles, it'll be a stretch. The big Marvel film for next year is "Black Widow," and probably the only surefire moneymaker is superhero sequel "Venom 2."  There are a ton of original titles, including all the animated films and the wacky Rock star vehicle "Jungle Cruise." There are live action remakes of animated Disney classics, but of less popular titles "Mulan" and "101 Dalmatians."  Also a factor is that the launch of Disney Plus is going to be taking up a huge amount of the company's attention. Note that several of the less promising Disney titles in development have been turned into Disney Plus content, like the live action "Lady and the Tramp," and the Anna Kendrick Christmas movie, "Noelle." 

Investors and exhibitors may be nervous, but film fans should be happy, because this is a slate that is far, far more interesting than last year's.  Sure, most of these are adaptations, but there's every indication that they're adaptations that are willing to take more creative risks. "Mulan" is taking a very different, more action-oriented  approach to the original material. The Marvel films are riskier ventures like "The Eternals" and Spidey spinoff "Morbius." Even "Black Widow" is going to be this weird midquel spy film that I don't think anyone's really got their heads wrapped around yet.  

The films I'm most interested in are the ones I know almost nothing about, like PIXAR's "Soul," which will be Pete Docter's follow-up to "Inside Out," and the action comedy "Jungle Cruise" with Dwayne Johnson.  After the recent proliferation of sequels, it's honestly a relief to see the studio putting out anything that doesn't have a number in the title - even if some of them are inevitably going to be franchise starters themselves.       

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Summer Movie Wager Update

Now that summer movie season is over, let's have a look at the aftermath.  So here are my predictions for the 2019 summer box office from back in April:

1. Avengers: Endgame
2. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu
3. Hobbs and Shaw 4. The Lion King 5. Spider-man: Far From Home 6. Toy Story 4 7. The Secret Life of Pets 2 8. Godzilla: King of the Monsters 9. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum 10. Aladdin

Wild Cards:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Men in Black: International

And here's the actual top 10 films of summer 2019:

1. Avengers: Endgame 2. The Lion King
3. Toy Story 4 4. Spider-Man: Far from Home 5. Aladdin 6. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum 7. Hobbs and Shaw 8. The Secret Life of Pets 2 9. Detective Pikachu 10. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

That gives me a grand total of 40 points.  "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" passing "Godzilla" in the end cost me an extra six points.  Still, this was not my worst showing by far. I managed to get nearly every major title somewhere on the list, only missing the Tarantino.  There were no "Ted 2" level blunders. However, there were also no "Straight Out of Compton" or "Girls Trip" level surprises either, which is a little disappointing.  2019 turned out to be a pretty predictable year.  

My biggest mistake was spreading out the Disney releases throughout my list, figuring that audiences weren't possibly going to show up to all of them.  Well, I was wrong. The top five are literally all Disney movies, if you count "Spider-man." "Aladdin," which I thought looked very promising in spite of the negative attention around the early promotional efforts, exceeded expectations.  However, I chickened out and stuck it at the bottom of the list, expecting it to perform more like past Disney flops "Prince of Persia" or "The Lone Ranger." 

Thanks to the Disney dominance, the other family films took big hits, notably "Detective Pikachu," "UglyDolls," "Angry Birds 2," and "Secret Life of Pets 2."  I wonder if any of them are going to be seeing continuations. "Pikachu" and "Secret Life of Pets" were profitable, but not nearly as much as their studios were hoping.  No comedies broke out like we've seen in the past, though "Yesterday" and "Good Boys" had unexpectedly strong showings. "Booksmart" and "Long Shot" had some good press, but failed to break out.  Indie films in general had a terrible season, with only "The Farewell" getting much attention.  

The big R-rated action film this year was "John Wick," which I expected to exceed the box office of the prior installments.  Just not by this much. I expect that we'll see several more entries in the series now, since we're officially in blockbuster territory.  "Hobbs & Shaw" feels like it underperformed, but it made plenty of money, especially overseas. It's important to remember that it's a "Fast & Furious" spinoff and not a proper sequel, so it shouldn't be held to the same standard.  For a Rock vehicle it did pretty well. For a Staham vehicle, it was fantastic. I guess "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" also fits into this category, bringing in the biggest box office of Quentin Tarantino's career despite some mixed reactions.     

Horror had some hits, though they were often under the radar.  Chucky and Annabelle got little traction, but "Crawl," "Ready or Not," and "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" made decent profits on smaller budgets.  "Midsommar" did too, but wasn't in the same ballpark as Ari Aster's previous film, "Hereditary." The 800 pound gorilla, of course, is "IT: Chapter 2," which Warners is wisely keeping in September, but I can't help wondering how it would have fared in July or August.  

Finally, we all knew "Dark Phoenix" was going to bomb, and it did.  This will be the end of the Fox "X-men" franchise, as "New Mutants" is being reworked to be a standalone feature.  I suspect that this is also the end of "MIB," unless Sony can lure Will Smith back for a direct sequel.       

Next summer should be more interesting, with Disney's much weaker slate, a big selection of non-franchise films, and the return of Christopher Nolan and Tom Cruise.  Until next time.