Monday, July 29, 2019

"Counterpart," Year One

Minor spoilers ahead.

It took me much longer than I intended to finish the first season of "Counterpart." I was initially drawn in by the cast, which features J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd, and Stephen Rea. I was less enthused about the gloomy visuals and Cold War atmosphere. The series is set in and around Berlin, full of cold gray architecture and people in heavy overcoats. However, it's the perfect setting for a spy thriller.

And that's what "Counterpart" is, ultimately. The premise may emphasize the more fantastical elements, but the bones of the series are all about the espionage. Howard Silk (Simmons), is a low level cog in a Kafkaesque organization, the Office of Interchange, or OI, that is hiding the existence of a parallel universe that contains doubles of everyone in our world. There are, however, key differences that have resulted in strained relations between the two sides. Harold's double, an arrogant, much higher ranked agent, crosses over the border one day and begins to involve Harold in the unfolding intrigue.

"Counterpart' functions similarly to "The Leftovers," which was also about an alternate reality where something fantastical had caused a fundamental change to the world. Neither of these shows is really interested in the mechanism of the big cataclysm, and there's not much else supernatural going on. Instead, the focus is on the consequences of the change on a very human scale. "Counterpart" is tightly focused on the employees of the secretive organization that controls the crossing point between the two worlds. They chase infiltrators, uncover conspiracies, and tussle over the control of information. Part of the fun is figuring out how all the various characters are related to each other and impact the story. In addition to Howard and his wife Emily (Williams), other major characters include a weaselly young OI director, Peter Quayle (Lloyd) and his lovely wife Clare (Nazanin Boniadi), a contract killer, Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), and a secretive mastermind, Alexander Pope (Rea), who mentored Harold's double.

It's easy to see why J.K. Simmons picked this project as his follow-up to "Whiplash" - playing the two versions of Howard Silk gives him a lot of opportunity to flex his acting muscles. Some of the most exciting moments in the series involve Simmons essentially having conversations with himself. The lives and personalities of Harold and his double are so different, that it invites the audience to puzzle over how the divergence happened. Was it because of the influence of Alexander Pope? Was it because certain events happened to one and not the other? Or is it something more innate? The series also examines the cases where doubles have switched sides or even switched places, and the impact this has on the people around them.

All the material involving Howard Silk is fantastic, and Simmons' performances shine, especially when the doubles interact. However, some of the secondary characters are less successful. The whole subplot with Baldwin is pretty tedious, especially as it seems to exist mostly as an excuse for dodgy lesbian sex scenes. The narrative is often murky and I had trouble telling some of the actors apart. However, I like what they do with Emily and the Quayles. It takes a while, but Harry Lloyd emerges as a strong secondary lead, and there's a fantastic episode entirely built around Clare. Olivia Williams doesn't get as much to do as she should, but I'm hopeful that she's being set up for more interesting things next season.

So far the worldbuilding has been slow, as the creators are more interested in digging into the characters' personal lives and deep dark secrets. There's the potential for the show to become more of a genre piece, as we learn more of the series mythology, but the first season does a good job of being an entertaining espionage thriller and character study. However, it does take some patience to get through the slow spots, which is why I think "Counterpart" didn't attract nearly the audience that it could have.

It's a little disappointing to know that this is one of those cases where a much longer planned series has been cut short by cancellation, but the execution of the first season is strong enough that I'll be looking forward to the second.

Friday, July 26, 2019

"Sandman" is Coming

An adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic has been one of my holy grails for decades.  It is far and away one of my favorite pieces of media, and I've kept an eye on the various attempts to turn it into a theatrical film or television series over the years.  After multiple failures, I've learned not to get my hopes up whenever a new effort is announced. This time around, however, it looks like it's finally going to happen.  

Netflix has just paid DC an exorbitant sum just to license the property, and "Sandman" creator Neil Gaiman is onboard as an executive producer, along with David Goyer.  However, the creative reins seem to be with Allan Heinberg, who wrote "Wonder Woman" for Patty Jenkins, and has a background in comics. The plan is to adapt the first arc of "Sandman," "Preludes and Nocturnes," into an eleven episode first season.  Something could still go wrong at this point, as it has with every other attempt to adapt "Sandman." Netflix has been trying to curb expenses, and several high profile projects have never made it out of development. However, the odds look pretty good compared to the last few attempts.

And I have such mixed feelings about it.  Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that no adaptation of "Sandman" is far preferable to a bad adaptation of "Sandman."  Going the series route means that there's going to be more opportunity to do "Sandman" right, to give the story the time and space that it needs.  However, the creators may waste that opportunity. The worst case scenario is what happened to "Lucifer," the adaptation of a "Sandman" spinoff comic.  The FOX "Lucifer" series just took a couple of the characters and concepts from the comic and stuck them together with a typical police procedural formula.  Suddenly a series about examining the nature of free will was about fighting crime. And "Lucifer" was a hit, of course, running three years on FOX and another on Netflix.     

Also, frankly the creative team isn't inspiring much confidence.  Gaiman's involvement is a plus, of course, but Goyer has a very mixed track record.  I'm less familiar with Heinberg, but the vast majority of his television work is in dramedies and soaps, like "Grey's Anatomy" and "The O.C."  I know the auteur theory is bunk, but there doesn't seem to be anyone with a really strong voice or vision involved here, like a Noah Hawley or a Sam Esmail.  And with a property as wildly ambitious, weird, and unorthodox as "Sandman," you really need someone with some sort of abiding vision to get that across. Goyer and Heinberg strike me as awfully pedestrian for the job.  On the other hand, there's such a thing as too much vision. Witness the glorious mess of Bryan Fuller's first season of "American Gods," adapted from Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel.    

I have to remind myself that different doesn't necessarily mean bad.  I'm sure you could make a perfectly lovely show about Morpheus, Lord of Dreams and personification of the human concept of fantasy, solving mysteries and fighting crime.  It's more likely that we'll see some variation on the superhero action movie template, which would be perfectly fine. "Preludes and Nocturnes" becomes a fairly typical fetch quest story without too much tinkering, and features a decent villain.  So does the second big arc, "The Doll's House." Even watered down and rejiggered to be more appealing to the mainstream, like the "Preacher" and "The Walking Dead" adaptations have been, this kind of take on "Sandman" could be a lot of fun to watch.  

However, the parts of "Sandman" that I'd really love to see onscreen are the parts that don't fit comfortably into any formula.  It's the issues like "Three Septembers and a January," which is a loving biography of a nineteenth century madman. Or "Facade," about a superhero who has become a shut-in.  Or "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which stages the Shakespeare play and fills the audience with real, dangerous faeries. The series became as much an anthology as a serialized work toward the end, full of dozens and dozens of wildly different kinds of fantastical stories.  And it'll be impossible to do that justice. And I know I'm bound to be disappointed.

Still, in spite of myself, I'm really excited about the Netflix "Sandman."  It'll be at least two years until we see so much as a promotional image, but I've spent the last few days scouring Twitter and Reddit and the usual comic book news sites.  I've been reading up again on the past adaptation attempts, and wondering if a feature version with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Corinthian would have been so bad. And, for the umpteenth time, I've been reading my "Sandman" graphic novels, and reminding myself that anything that gets people to pay more attention to the series will ultimately be a good thing.   


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

And What Didn't Make My Top Ten Films of 2018

As a companion piece to my Top Ten list, every year I write a post to discuss some of the other major films that got a lot of attention, in order to give some context to my own choices. I find that writing this type of analysis piece helpful when working out how I feel about my list and the year in film as a whole. It's also usually a lot of fun. Please note that I will not be writing about films listed among my honorable mentions, and there's already an entire post devoted to my middling responses to "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" and "Paddington 2."

Oscar season this year was a lot of fun, because the reactions to some of the nominees were so divided.  Going down the list of Best Picture contenders, I have no particular hard feelings toward "Green Book" or "Bohemian Rhapsody," which I thought were just fine for what they were, if a little old fashioned in a comfort food kind of way.  Apparently, I like them better than most. "A Star is Born" was lovely, and the right movie for the right moment in time. It wasn't, however, a version of the story that connected with me, especially as I have very fond memories of the Judy Garland and James Mason musical version.  "Black Panther" is an indisputable cultural milestone for doing some important things really, really well. However, I also found it too deficient in other areas to call it exceptional as a whole. Oh, and "Vice" was pretty awful.

More interesting are the films that attracted a lot of attention because they were snubbed.  This includes "If Beale Street Could Talk," "First Reformed," "Eighth Grade" "Hereditary," and "First Man."  Now "Beale Street" is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, but the impeccable style can't make up for the sparseness of the content.  I spent so much of the movie wishing it were about everyone around the central couple instead of the couple themselves. "First Reformed" completely lost me with its ending, though I appreciate its aims.  "Eighth Grade" is such a perfect little slice of teenage misery and topical in a way that not enough films are. It was just so slight, it left me frustrated. "Hereditary" was good fun as a visceral experience, but I found it more disgusting than scary or disturbing.  As for "First Man," the technical quality is first rate, but there's no mystery why such a cold, somber take on the space race didn't catch on with audiences.

Smaller films that had a lot of heat behind them included "Blindspotting," "The Rider" and several documentaries.  I really enjoyed "Blindspotting," especially alongside "Sorry to Bother You," but it was a year of lots of good films about Oakland and the African-American experience, and "Blindspotting" just didn't make the cut.  "The Rider," frankly, is a film which I don't understand the appeal of. I'm sympathetic toward the protagonist, but I don't feel that having Brady Jandreau essentially play himself adds much to the experience. And while I grew up with Fred Rogers and adore his work as much as anyone, "Won't You Be My Neighbor" strikes me as having been so successful due to the nostalgia of its audience.  It's a nice walk down memory lane, but that's all it is. "Three Identical Strangers" and "Free Solo" have far more interesting subject matter, and are explored in welcome depth. Didn't crack my top twenty, but they're up there.

Popular hits that I feel deserve a mention include "Game Night" and "Blockers," which were both enjoyably adult comedies without being too immature about it.  "Ready Player One" was a technical marvel even if there was a lot wrongheaded about it. I thoroughly enjoyed "Infinity War" as stupidly outsized spectacle, and "Crazy Rich Asians" made me very happy and almost made thirty-plus years of Asian solidarity watching worth it.  Finally, "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" was certainly an interesting experiment, even if nothing ultimately comes of it.

Alas, I didn't watch enough foreign films to be able to include a section for them this year.  Films that just missed spots on the honorable mentions roll include "Revenge," "Isle of Dogs," "The Tale," and Asghar Farhadi's "Everybody Knows."

And that's my 2018 in film.  See you next time.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 2018

This list is coming fairly early in the year with me, though there are a lot of 2018 foreign films that I still need to see.  I'm perfectly happy leaving those for the "Plus One" spot for next year. I saw slightly more features in total than last year, reversing the recent downward trend.  However, I've been shifting away from mainstream films toward more independent and Netflix releases lately.

My criteria for eligibility require that a film must have been released in its own home country during 2018, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count.  Picks are unranked and listed in no particular order, previously posted reviews are linked where available, and the "Plus One" spot is reserved for the best film of the previous year that I didn't manage to see in time for the last list. And here we go.

You Were Never Really Here - A horrific, whimsical, terribly sad look into the mind of a traumatized hit man as he struggles to complete his latest job.  Director Lynne Ramsay examines the physical and psychic costs of violence in unusual detail, and there's real thoughtfulness and care in the way that violence is depicted in this film.  The stream-of-consciousness narrative is potent and absorbing, while Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one of his most touching. His casual conversation with a dying man he's just shot is unforgettable.

The Favourite - I've been wary of Yorgos Lanthimos, but I love how he and Olivia Colman turned the obscure Queen Anne into a cinematic icon.  Here, she's a distaff King Lear, a figure of great power and tragedy trapped in a hell of her own making. Unlike Lear, however, she's very funny, and supported by an ensemble of vile schemers who are also very funny.  As they vie for position and influence, old costume drama tropes are upended, bawdy adult content is liberally applied, and the trappings of nobility never looked so perverse.

Leave No Trace -  I like how deliberately paced the film is, giving us a chance to experience each new development and change of scenery along with the characters.  And here the scenery is everything, mirroring the emotional state of our leads and their relationship. It's also a rare film where there is no villain, no character can be said to be in the wrong, and everyone generally wants to be kind and welcoming.  It questions the worth of society, but embraces community and compromise in such a lovely way. And the act of letting go.

Capernaum - What makes this portrait of childhood misery a cut above the rest is the committed performance of its young lead.  The systematic breaking down of the protagonist is made so much more impactful because he demonstrates again and again that he is resourceful, clever, loyal and worthy of our sympathies.  I also appreciate the way that the film approaches certain hot button political topics, tying the social ills we see to various moral questions. The child's perspective neatly reframes the conversation in a way that really drives its points home.     

BlacKkKlansman - One of the most pointedly political and topical films that Spike Lee has made in a while, but also one of the most entertaining and funny.  It helps the copious commentary go down so much easier, as skewerings of the KKK, the media, and the Man, are deftly worked into a rolicking yarn about a daring police operation that delivers some real fist-pumping moments of triumph.  The cast is especially strong, from John David Washington and Adam Driver as the leads, to the unsung character actors playing the ghastly gang of KKK members

Burning - Lee Chang-dong considers the nature of belief and the transience of human existence, this time through the story of a murder that we have no evidence was actually committed.  The pace is slow, but the story is absorbing, laying out how our protagonist's obsession grows and grows until the shocking ending seems all but inevitable. Lee finds such intriguing ways to express the film's themes, from the unseen cat to momentary glimpses of reflected sunlight.  Then there's the reptilian interloper played by Steven Yeun, a fascinating mystery himself.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? - In a year of so many self-important dramas about substance abusers and  LGBT folks, it's nice to come across a film about a pair of LGBT alcoholics who have absolutely no time for or interest in self-pity.  Melissa McCarthy kills it as the misanthropic Lee Israel, with Richard Grant as her charming partner in crime/drinking buddy. Watching them con their way through New York's literary establishment is a joy, but watching Israel rediscover and accept her own passion is even more so.  They don't make enough biopics like this anymore.

Lean on Pete - A harrowing boy and his horse story that is the farthest thing from uplifting.  It follows an Oregon teenager who is desperate to save an aging racehorse, though they boy's situation is hardly much better than the horse's.  Candidly exploring the lonelier expanses of the Pacific Northwest and its fringe-dwelling inhabitants, this can be viewed as a western of a sort.  However, it's a western that's bleakly devoid of much hope or promise, where the indifference of modern society can be just as dangerous and cruel as anything in the wild.   

Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse - I like saving a spot my lists for the mot purely enjoyable film I saw, and this year that spot has to go to "Spider-verse."  It is an explosion of creativity and innovation, willing to upend the Spidey status-quo even as it pays homage to it. I love all the new characters, and the way the old ones are rebooted or recontextualized.  The storytelling is so clever, the concepts are so appealing, and the central messages of diversity and perseverance are immensely touching. Miles may not be your Spidey, but he's the one we all deserve.

Roma - Alfonso Cuaron's most intimate and personal film is set in the Mexico City of his youth, but contains events and images as epic as anything found in his Hollywood work.  The level of the filmmaking is exemplary throughout, and every element from the performances to the sound design are just a pleasure to experience. The cinematography stands out, however, with more than one impressive shot where I was left to wonder how the filmmakers had managed to accomplish such a feat.  The greatest marvel however, was undoubtedly Yalitza Aparicio's heartfelt lead performance.

Plus One

Western - A group of German construction workers take on a job in Bulgaria, where tensions develop between them and the local villagers.  Barely able to communicate with each other, the two groups keep their distance until one of the Germans becomes curious and starts reaching out to the villagers.  The films is an absorbing, frequently frustrating watch that got me intrigued and kept me guessing. One potential key is the film's title, evoking other tales of unknown frontiers and clashing cultures.

Honorable Mentions

We the Animals
Minding the Gap
Happy as Lazzaro

Friday, July 19, 2019

Resurrecting "Romeo and Juliet"

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film version of "Romeo and Juliet" has a reputation that precedes it.   Fifty years ago, it was a smash hit and a critical darling that secured a Best Picture nomination.  It was the first major production to use teenage actors in the main roles, newcomers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.  It was shot in Italy by a largely British and Italian crew, with the production company of the legendary Dino de Laurentiis. The main theme by Nino Rota was a popular instrumental piece that I heard often when I was younger.  

Despite all this, I was not looking forward to watching the movie.  Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was never remotely one of my favorites.  Honestly, I found it pretty tedious and difficult to relate to, both as a teenager who had to read the play for school, and as an adult.  I'd enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's wacky modern-day retelling from the '90s, but wasn't especially impressed with it either. Everything seemed to happen so quickly and with so many histrionics - love declarations, marriage, feuds, duels, banishments, deceptions, and finally death.   The kids marry less than 24 hours after they first meet and die three days after that. It was silly and absurd.

What I was missing, of course, was so much of the cultural and historical context - context  that Zefirelli's version does a much better job of providing than any of the modern versions.  With a dreamy Italian landscape full of beautiful architecture, and everyone decked out in Danilo Donati's colorful costumes, it was easier to accept that we were hundreds of years ago in the Renaissance era, when a girl could expect to be dutifully  married off at thirteen, and matrimony was a strict prerequisite to physical affection. And while the rival families are more easily converted into Jets and Sharks, or crime organizations, that sense of absolute familial loyalty is far more palpable here.    

Whiting and Hussey are a big part of why the film works as well as it does.  Shakespeare's lines sound far more natural coming out of their mouths than they ever did from Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.  The dialogue is truncated for the film, but otherwise untouched. Romeo and Juliet's declarations of love are still overly flowery and ridiculous, but there's something about hearing the words coming from a pair of enthusiastic youngsters who are completely swept up in their passion for each other.  The actors are so energetic and lively, breathing so much life into the poetry. The two of them feel like they're constantly in motion as they navigate the throes of young love, and their notorious intimate scenes are wonderfully earnest and physical. Even Juliet musing aloud to herself on the balcony involves hugging herself in a private moment of delight.  The film never feels stuffy or outdated for a moment.

What struck me over and over again was how foolhardy the kids are, and yet how admirable.  This is the first version I've seen where it hit me how much the two of them give up to be together, how much they risk and how much they're up against.  The feud between the Montagues and Capulets is never merely in the background, but a far more constant element of the story. Zeffirelli stages a full scale riot right at the start, and the threat of violence never dissipates.  The floppy-haired gang of youths playing the Montagues and Capulets can't help looking like "West Side Story" extras, and the part of Romeo famously almost went to Paul McCartney. However, their fighting and dueling sequences are terrific, and violent enough to make the deaths impactful.  A standout sequence is the death of Mercutio (John McEnery) at the hands of Tybalt (Michael York), an awful, miserable end that provides the impetus for all the tragedy to come.

In the end, this is the only version of "Romeo and Juliet" I've seen where I was sad to see the young lovers expire.  Zeffirelli sold the tragedy because he and the actors got me to believe that once upon a time, Romeo and Juliet were believable human beings who were truly in love.  And maybe that love made them desperate and stupid, but they never hesitated to embrace their fates wholeheartedly, as only bright young things ever could. Maybe it's because I'm no longer young myself that it's easier to see and appreciate that.

And after all this time, it's nice to know that the film's love theme has lyrics.  Pretty good ones too!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Are We Past Peak TV?

Netflix cancelled "The Santa Clarita Diet" and a few other underperforming shows.  Amazon Prime has been pulling indie films out of rotation. "Game of Thrones" and "The Big Bang Theory" are over, and there are no obvious replacements in sight.  There are still some massively ambitious projects on the horizon, like "The Mandalorian" and the "Lord of the Rings" series, but it feels like the crazy momentum behind television series production has started slowing down.  

We've been living in the era of Peak TV for a while now.  495 scripted series were aired or streamed in 2018, a slight increase from the 487 in 2017.   By contrast, there were 216 scripted shows in 2010. Online platforms are responsible for most of the deluge, currently producing over half of these shows.  However, cable output has also increased significantly. The numbers are expected to climb further with the introduction of more streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV, defying earlier predictions that the bubble was due to pop.  However, the expansion seems to be slowing.

As I've previously opined on this blog, Peak TV has brought us some wonderful things.  We get new content year round. Shows have been allowed to become more niche and idiosyncratic, with their creatives enjoying far more creative freedom than they would have in the past.  The quality of shows in general has massively improved, even though there are plenty of stinkers. I'm constantly inundated with recommendations for interesting shows that I have to reluctantly pass up on watching, because I'm already watching too many others.  Someday I'll get around to "Barry." Someday.

Even better, the industry has seen a positive transformation as it has left the monoculture behind, making efforts to diversify.  There's still a long way to go, but women and minorities are making significant gains in representation, both onscreen and off. Last year, I mentioned that it was the first time I ever remembered seeing programming that seemed tailor made for me - an Asian American woman over thirty.  "Fresh Off the Boat," has been on the air for five seasons, the longest any Asian-American-centric show has ever run on American television. The sixth, with or without Constance Wu, will be due next year, along with more "Kim's Convenience" and "Killing Eve."

On the other hand, the volatility of the media ecosystem is definitely taking a toll.  AT&T's takeover of HBO threatens one of the most reliable producers of high quality, curated content of the past three decades, one that is arguably responsible of the rise of Peak TV in the first place.  There have been warning signs that the broadcast networks are steadily approaching oblivion as their audiences erode, and basic cable is also feeling the pinch. Transitioning from broadcast to streaming platforms has its advantages, but the overwhelming majority of the major ones so far are subscription services, and a big chunk of the population still relies on more traditional platforms.    

Netflix remains an interesting conundrum.  (Quick disclosure - I'm still a shareholder.)  They've successfully disrupted the television business and have shown that they're going to be around for the long haul.  However, their refusal to share their viewership numbers also makes meaningful analysis of their actual impact difficult, and their antagonism of the major studios has seemingly locked in their outsider status for the time being.  They seem to be constantly in the conversation, having had a very successful awards season and their share of buzzworthy hits. On the other hand, I'm constantly hearing about their disappointments too. How long can they hold on to their status as the default streaming service?  

Most of the latest round of speculation about the health of Netflix is directly tied to their new willingness to cancel shows.  Where every decent performer seemed bulletproof a year ago, now all the adult Marvel show are on their way out, the critically lauded "One Day at a Time" is kaput, and everyone is nervously eyeing any show that's run longer than three seasons.  Over at Amazon, several of its flagship shows like "Mozart in the Jungle" and "Transparent" have gotten the axe, and "Man in the High Castle" is on its last year. This is supposedly part of a housecleaning effort after their regime change.

On the other hand, maybe this is just a normal programing cycle coming to an end in the streaming world - it's hard to tell because we haven't really had many of them yet.  It's hard to believe it's only been six years since "House of Cards" premiered on Netflix and kicked off the streaming wars. What's "normal" is still very much in flux. However, with the new services coming in, and the earliest batch of shows almost all gone, it feels like the end of an era.  And we still have a long way to go.

Hang on tight everybody.  It's going to be a bumpy ride.   

Monday, July 15, 2019

"Black Mirror," Year Five-ish

Only three episodes have been released for the 2019 series of "Black Mirror," which is in line with what the first two series of the show did, back when it was being broadcast on the UK's Channel 4. And frankly, I'm all for it. If fewer episodes mean higher quality, and avoiding the show being watered down and Charlie Brooker getting burned out, great. I don't think the move made this fifth series, or season, or grouping of episodes, any better than the previous ones, but it's not any worse. "Black Mirror" has always had its ups and downs since the beginning. This year, we got a great episode, a mediocre episode, and an episode I'm having trouble quantifying. The nice thing about the small episode count is that I can spend this post going into all three of them in some detail.

First, the great episode. "Striking Vipers" stars Anthony Mackie and Nicole Beharie as Danny and Theo, a couple getting bored in their marriage. Danny reconnects with an old gaming buddy, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), through a VR game and the relationship takes an unexpected turn. The episode is a fascinating, mature look at a trio of people navigating changing sexual dynamics that have been brought about by new technology. This is one of those episodes where the technology is not the enemy - it wasn't designed for the purpose that the characters find for it - but that nonetheless opens up a whole can of worms as it creates new ways for people to interact and relate to each other. The performances, especially Nicole Beharie's, go a long way toward elevating the hour above a typical genre "what if" story. I especially like the complicated, but hopeful resolution.

On to "Smithereens," which sees a hostage situation play out with added complications from social media. The episode stars Andrew Scott as Chris, a rideshare driver, who abducts Jaden (Damson Idris), an employee of the social media company, in order to get to Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), the CEO. The story takes place in the present day, more or less, with current technology, and the tone is largely satirical. The episode takes a lot of current trends, such as distracted driving, ridesharing, online account memorialization, and privacy concerns, and tries to make a compelling narrative out of them. The result isn't bad, but it's not very strong either. "Smithereens" feels very derivative of other media about these topics, and there's not much bite to the humor or the commentary. Still, I like the performances of Andrew Scott and Topher Grace, and there are a couple of good zingers.

Finally, there's "Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too," which has drawn some ire for being a very atypical "Black Mirror" episode. Sure, it has scary new technology like mind-reading tech and toys that contain copies of a real person's personality, but it's all in the context of what is essentially a Disney Channel adventure, the kind that its star Miley Cyrus rose to fame with. The plotting initially suggests darker designs: shy teenager Rachel (Angourie Rice) is a fan of wholesome pop star Ashley O (Miley Cyrus). She's gifted a high tech new doll, the Ashley Too, who becomes her only friend, to the disapproval of Rachel's older sister Jack (Madison Davenport). However, the way things play out is very kid-friendly. It isn't just that the episode has a happy ending, but that its entire tone and attitude feel watered down. No matter the pointed jabs at the entertainment industry, Miley Cyrus getting meta, or Ashley's penchant for cursing like a sailor, it's hard to get away from the episode being a lot lighter and more positive in its handling of some of "Black Mirror's" favorite dystopian concepts than other installments have been.

In short, "Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too" plays like baby's first "Black Mirror" episode. It's watchable as an edgy tween caper, and even as a "Hannah Montana" spoof. On the other hand, it sticks out like a sore thumb when you put it next to the rest of the series. Charlie Brooker has talked about wanting "Black Mirror" to not only be disturbing and fearmongering stories about technology. I have to wonder if this might be course correcting a little too hard, however. "Cute" is not a descriptor I normally associate with "Black Mirror," and a little goes a long way.


Saturday, July 13, 2019

"Star Trek: Discovery," Year Two

Moderate spoilers ahead.

As any long term "Trek" fan knows, it takes a while for a new "Star Trek" series to find its groove, and "Discovery" is no exception.  Its first season had some good moments and good characters, but it often got tripped up by its own good intentions and some really bad choices involving the Klingons.  The second season has made some considerable improvements. It still has some rough edges, but it's a lot more self-assured. And a lot of this series' idiosyncrasies are starting to feel more like features rather than flaws.

First off, we have some major additions to the cast.  Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike and Ethan Peck as Lieutenant Spock are the big ones, but there's also Tig Notaro as the cranky new engineer, Jet Reno, and Alan van Sprang as Captain Leland, who works for a secret Federation outfit called Section 31.  Everyone's great, and I'm deeply unhappy that some of these new additions are only temporary. Pike and Spock are characters from the original 1960s "Star Trek" series, so this season of "Discovery" functions very much like a prequel. In fact, a few episodes are probably much more fun if you're a fan of Original Recipe "Trek" and are familiar with the future events being alluded to.

It takes a few episodes for the plot to be laid out fully, but the basics are that Discovery is assigned Pike as its temporary Captain while it investigates the appearance of several strange signals that have appeared throughout the galaxy, along the a figure that has been dubbed "The Red Angel."  Spock has a mysterious connection to the Angel, but getting to Spock is a complicated venture that requires Michael Burnham to rehash a lot of old childhood trauma. Spock is Michael's foster brother, and for various reasons their relationship has become very strained over the years. Also in play is the Federation's secretive black ops outfit, Section 31, which recruits Georgiou and Ash Tyler into its ranks.

As with the first season, "Discovery" is sticking with its serialized format and its more melodramatic approach to its characters.  That means a lot of Michael angst again, but it's more self-aware this time around. The addition of Spock is so good here, because it introduces a testy sibling dynamic that lets the show call Michael out for her flaws.  Meanwhile, Tilly continues to be peppy verging on annoying, and Stamets is still a grump, but they get some different people to play off of, and feel more comfortable in their roles. The presence of Anson Mount's charismatic PIke as an old school style "Trek" captain is very important as it makes all the standard "Trek" adventuring feel suitably Trek-y, even as the more unorthodox personal stories are playing out with other characters.

I like that the show has decided to lean into its silliness and very obvious progressive stances.  Michelle Yeoh's performance as Georgiou has become even more campy, and she gets all the best lines.  This makes me indescribably happy, even when it doesn't work. Stamets' love life continues to get more screen time than it reasonably should, and the number of female badass characters introduced or foregrounded this year far outweigh the male ones.  Jet, Po (Yadira Guevara-Prip), Airiam (Hannah Cheesman), Dettmer (Emily Coutts), Number One (Rebecca Romijn), Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), and a major spoiler are all given ample opportunity to shine.

At the same time, Discovery is more fully embracing its "Trek" roots.  In additional to the heavy presence of all the elements from the '60s "Star Trek," there are callbacks to other areas of "Trek" lore.  The Klingons are mostly back to normal. Sure, the effects are spiffier than ever and the social messages are a little different, but the earnest space adventure part of the equation is firing on all cylinders.  The show is clearly not trying to be "Battlestar Galactica" or "The Orville," though it may have picked up a few pointers from both.

Finally, there are a couple of bumps that are the result of CBS being in an awful big hurry to expand its "Star Trek" output, including a future Section 31 series.  There are also the "Short Treks," which watched about halfway through the series, that contain some interesting background stories relevant to this season's plot. And a totally irrelevant Harvey Mudd short that's the best of the lot.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

My Top Ten Episodes of "Game of Thrones"

To wrap up discussion of "Game of Thrones" on this blog, here are my top ten episodes of the series.  The installments are unranked and ordered by airdate.  Spoilers for everything lie ahead.  Here we go.  

"Baelor" - A defining  moment of the series was the death of Ned Stark in the first season.  The show had set itself apart early on by showing its willingness to maim small boys and depicting all kinds of sexual shenanigans.  Killing off your lead character, played by the biggest name in the cast, however, was something that hadn't been done yet. It's laid out out so perfectly too, with the reactions of Sansa and Arya, and the following episode essentially playing out like an epilogue.  Speaking of which...

"Fire and Blood" - This is still my favorite Daenerys episode.  We watch her decisively end one life and start another, truly taking on the role of leader for the first time.  And while Ned Stark got all the press, and most of the episode was spent watching how the news of the execution hit everyone else in Westeros, for me the death of Khal Drogo was just as meaningful and tragic.  We also see the start of massive character arcs for Sansa, Arya, Tyrion, and others that will span multiple seasons.

"Blackwater" - This was the show's first big battle episode, and the first to only feature one location and set of characters.  It was arguably Tyrion's finest moment, helping to defend King's Landing from Stannis and Davos. However the real fun was seeing the events unfold from all sides - the naval attack, the infantry defenses, and the surprise deployment of the wildfire.  Notably, this was a precursor to the bigger and more expensive battle episodes that would increasingly come to define the show.

"Second Sons" - Most will remember this episode only as the prelude to "Rains of Castamere," but it has some great moments in it.  I love it as a Tyrion episode, where he's humiliated at his wedding to Sansa, but shows his fundamentally decent nature in spite of it.  This is also the episode where Sam kills the White Walker, where Cersei threatens Margaery, and where Melisandre uses Gendry to curse three of the five kings.  It's also nice to see any episode where Joffrey gets smacked down in any capacity.

"The Rains of Castamere" - This is the one that almost didn't make the list, because even though the events of the Red Wedding are so important to the overall story of "Game of Thrones," and the depiction is so memorably awful, I was never all that invested with this particular group of characters.  Walder Frey makes a great villain, and Catelyn Stark has some interesting dimensions, but Robb and Talisa always bored me to death. I was actually a tiny bit glad they exited the narrative so quickly.

"The Laws of Gods and Men" - Tyrion's big trial episode.  Is it obvious that he's my favorite character yet? The storyline with Shae wouldn't have come off nearly so well if she was in a relationship with any other character, and the betrayal here is a showstopper.  Peter Dinklage was nominated for Emmys multiple times for playing Tyrion, but in my opinion this was the season where he really deserved to win one. The strength of this episode was also a big reason why the following one made the list too.     

"The Mountain and the Viper" - This is where "Game of Thrones" peaked.  This episode set up a wonderful showdown with one of the show's most charismatic, appealing characters squaring off against a loathsome brute.  Everybody was anticipating seeing justice prevail - and the show denied that in the harshest way possible. Pedro Pascal's performance as Oberyn was so good, I was really looking forward to the fifth season introducing more characters from Dorne.  But as I said, the show peaked...

"Hardhome" - My favorite of the show's big battle episodes, and the highlight of a very bumpy fifth season.  This one is designed to sell the full horror of the Night King's army, and it succeeds wonderfully. It gets us to care about several characters who only exist in this episode, sells Jon's continuing alliance with the Wildlings, and provides the opportunity for so many great visuals.  This is also the episode that first introduces Daenerys to Tyrion and gives Arya a significant costume change.

"Mother's Mercy" - The finale of the fifth season sees the final downfall of Stannis Baratheon, the assassination of Jon Snow, and the deaths of several others.  However, the really memorable event was Cersei's walk of atonement, which immediately became iconic. I've scoffed at the show's use of "sexposition," but it's the nudity that really gave the six-minute scene so much dramatic power.  The scale and the unflinching nature of it is something that only "Game of Thrones" could offer.

"The Bells" - Finally, I've been disappointed with the last few seasons of "Game of Thrones," which have had rushed storylines, leaned more heavily on spectacle, and put several interesting characters on the backburner.  However, I have to give it to "The Bells" for delivering a truly memorable action finale. Dany's turn could have been handled better, but it doesn't take away from the annihilation of King's landing, "Cleganebowl," or the bleakly ambiguous ending.   

Honorable mentions: "Winter is Coming" "The Wolf and the Lion" "And Now His Watch Is Ended," "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," "Oathkeeper," "The Children," "The Dance of Dragons""Battle of the Bastards," "The Long Night"


Monday, July 8, 2019

"Game of Thrones," Year Eight (With Spoilers)

I thought so many more major characters were going to die.  I thought there would be so many more confrontations and dramatic clashes, more resistance from some of the bigger villains.  We had way too many characters at the end who felt like they really didn't have all that much to do. At the same time, parts of the narrative were sped up so fast that years of story were compressed to the point of absurdity.  

Over the last few seasons the sped-up timeline has increasingly been the norm, and that was true in the final season to a much greater degree.  Part of the problem was that it was so inconsistently done, to the point where an episode might spend half of its story on the events of a single evening, and the other half charting events that happened over the course of several months.  Other things were also maddeningly inconsistent - how strong the dragons are, how smart certain characters are, and how good anyone is at fighting. The fourth episode, where we move from the aftermath of "The Long Night" to Missandei's death, is an absolute mess.  Jaime and Brienne's relationship seems to last a few days at most. Euron downs a dragon like it's nothing, right before the episode where Drogon fries King's Landing to a crisp.

I'm seriously considering writing up an entirely separate post about Daenerys Targaryen, who went from heroine to final boss far too quickly.  I'm very sympathetic to the idea that they were trying to make her a tragic anti-hero in the vein of Walter White, but how the creators chose to do it left a lot to be desired.  Dany's descent into madness didn't necessarily need a whole season to set up, but it had to be more obvious and given more attention. An extra scene or two with Missandei and Jorah to hammer home their loss might have done it.  Instead, Dany snaps with seemingly very little provocation, and her mind and mental state remain a mystery for far too long. There weren't even have any close-ups of her on Drogon during the attack, which might have given Emilia Clarke a chance to fill in some gaps with her performance.

And it was the same, though to a lesser extent, with Jaime, with Cersei, with Varys and Bronn and Melisandre and many others.  I'm perfectly happy that Jon Snow didn't end up on the throne, and that he had a relatively miserable ending. Bran and Sansa becoming the rulers of Westeros feels perfectly acceptable, as does Arya's decision to quit the continent entirely.  Part of me was hoping that the show would do a "Veep" and end in a much darker place, but these weren't bad choices. However, there was so much that felt arbitrary, so much that felt unearned. Peter Dinklage's Tyrion spent most of the finale talking, convincing other characters (and the audience) to go with Dany's death and Bran's ascension.    

And thank heavens for the cast, who helped a lot of the really moronic material go down easier.  I can be upset that Sam somehow survived the Night King's forces despite essentially lying on the floor and waving a sword around, but I'm so grateful that John Bradley got to be in the finale and set up the best joke in the show.  Bronn ending up with Highgarden and all the money was outrageous, but I love how Jerome Flynn played it. And then there was Cleganebowl, which had several media watchers discussing the concept of fanservice in non-ironic terms. Frankly, I was never sold on the hype for Cleganebowl, but seeing it actually play out was pretty satisfying.

The part of me that loves spectacle thoroughly enjoyed the last season.  This is without a doubt the most gorgeous piece of media of the past several years.  The insane size and scale of the conflict, the quality of the production, and the artistry of so many talented people involved in "Game of Thrones" went a long way toward making me forget about my issues with the plotting.  Miguel Sapochnik's razing of King's Landing was a highlight. I suspect that "The Long Night" would have also been viewed much more kindly if the contrast had just been turned up a few notches.

So, overall the ending was massively flawed, but I had a good time watching it.  I'm sure someone will remake the series and improve on the finale someday.

But for now, our watch has ended.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Game of Thrones," Year Eight (Without Spoilers)

I had originally intended to write up reaction posts for each episode of the final season as they aired, but scheduling and access issues made that impossible.  Instead, I marathoned the entire season all at once, leading up to the finale. I'll spend the next post getting into what I thought of specific events in the show, but today I want to talk about the season in a more general sense, along with the show's legacy and its place in the pop culture.

I think it's going to be a long while before television sees a piece of event programming this momentous again.  Millions were spent on this season, particularly the two supersized battle-heavy episodes, with production values that rival anything we've seen in a theatrical film.  It was treated like a pop culture event on the same level as the the roughly analogous "Avengers: Endgame." The show got a ton of press coverage, a behind the scenes documentary, and dozens of brand partners.  I was tickled to find that an HBO show notorious for adult content was getting commemorative limited edition Oreos and Mountain Dew cans sporting Arya Stark's kill list.

However, as multiple critics predicted, there was no way that the show was going to be able to wrap up a story this complicated to the rabid fanbase's satisfaction with only six episodes.  And this was clearly the fault of the creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who turned down more seasons and higher episode counts in favor of ending the series more briskly. There were some grumbles over the first two episodes, but it was the third, "The Long Night," where the unfortunate reality really sunk in.  Keep in mind that this was one of the show's most expensive, elaborate installments that required eleven weeks of night shoots to film the big battle sequences. It was at the center of HBO's promotional efforts and massively hyped for months. It turned into the biggest blunder of the show's entire run, a combination of bad planning, technical issues, and a couple of unpopular artistic decisions.  Not only was one of the show's weightiest, most meaningful plotlines capped off with only a single episode, but the cinematography was so dark that nobody could see what was going on for good chunks of the running time.

Parts of the fanbase started turning on the show after that point.  Ratings victory was assured due to the tremendous hype, but the reactions became increasingly nitpicky and dissatisfied.  We spent several days after episode four talking about a misplaced coffee cup, and a goof with Jaime's prosthetic hand after episode five that turned out not to be a mistake after all.  I wound up getting spoiled for a few major plot points, but I think I actually enjoyed the season more, knowing that they were coming. Though I found "The Long Night" disappointing, I thought "The Bells" mostly made up for it in the spectacle department, and the ending - though clearly not to everyone's taste - felt mostly sound.  The payoff may have been rushed and left a lot of loose ends, but it was at least in keeping with the grim, untidy nature of the books.

I'm not interested in any of the spinoffs currently being prepped or the books that George R.R. Martin may never finish.  Frankly, I don't really count myself as a fan and haven't been truly invested in the story since around the fifth season. I'm glad I saw the whole series through to the end, but I view "Game of Thrones" much like I view "Harry Potter" - lots of fun and helpful for keeping on top of pop culture, but not a franchise that I ever really connected with.  I appreciate that it helped usher in the era of blockbuster television shows, and that it's done wonders for the fantasy genre, but in the end I thought it was far too preoccupied with sex and spectacle, and didn't do right by many of its characters. I knew we were in trouble when cataloguing how many important characters died in various episodes became a thing.

But I'll get into the specifics of that in the next post.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"Booksmart" and "Always Be My Maybe"

Aside from being comedies and employing the talents of music producer Dan the Automator, these two movies don't have much in common, but I liked both of them, and I think they need more spotlight.

"Booksmart" is a teens behaving badly comedy, one that features best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein). The two are straightlaced overachievers, who decide to throw caution to the wind and go to a wild party the night before graduation. Getting there, however, is another matter. So begins a "Superbad" style nocturnal journey that follows the girls through one detour after another as they search for their last chance at high school hedonism.

I identified with the leads in a way that typically don't in teen comedies. These two are aren't stereotypically cool or attractive and aren't obsessed with status. The people they have crushes on aren't the obvious catches either. However, they're smart, endearing, and have a lot of strong screen chemistry together. Frankly, the whole movie is refreshingly free of easy labels, and goes out of its way to subvert expectations for the few that do crop up. Amy is a lesbian, but it's a non-issue with her overprotective parents. The rich kid is an asocial loser and treated as such. The popular, promiscuous girl suffers the worst of the bullying. Nobody is subjected to a makeover. Everyone has to deal with rejection and gets called out on their flaws, Molly and Amy in particular.

Directed by Olivia Wilde with a cast full of up-and-comers, "Booksmart" feels very 2019. It's not just that the girls get around town by calling Lyft and follow party updates on social media. It's not that they drop recent pop culture references left and right and use "Malala" as an emergency code word. It's that the film doesn't make any apologies for or feel self-conscious at all about being a raunchy teen comedy starring teenage girls. The attitudes of everyone toward sex and alcohol and partying are more measured, and the girls themselves are largely happy in their own skins and identities. Wilde and crew don't do anything too noteworthy with the filmmaking, but they give Dever and Feldstein plenty of room to sell their banter, and there are some neat gags. The animated Barbie doll sequence is a special highlight.

Moving on, "Always Be My Maybe" is a typical piece of goofy, romantic-comedy wish fulfillment, one that happens to feature two Asian-American leads and takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ali Wong and Randall Kim play Sasha and Marcus respectively, who grew up together as kids and were briefly involved before going their separate ways for sixteen years. Sasha is now a celebrity chef, engaged to Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim), and comes back to San Francisco to open a new restaurant. Marcus is now dating Jenny (Vivian Bang) and looking after his aging father (James Saito). When the pair reconnect, the sparks are still there, but their lifestyles clash.

I went into this movie a fan of Ali Wong, and came out a fan of Randall Park too. Wong is fine in the movie, but her screen persona is distinctly more hard edged than the usual romantic comedy leading lady, and occasionally it feels like there's a bit of a mismatch with the cuddly tone. She's good with the more comedic material, but every time the movie wants her to be more heartfelt, it feels forced. Park, on the other hand, is a sitcom veteran and perfect schlubby, everyman, and feels far more comfortable here. The conceit of him fronting a band and writing nerdy hip-hop songs yields so many good things, including my favorite end credits song of all time.

Speaking of which, "Always Be My Maybe" is destined to be forever remembered for its celebrity cameo about halfway through the movie, one I didn't know was coming and was absolutely bowled over by. It is the best part of the movie by far and elevates it to a surreal high for about fifteen minutes. I don't feel that this spoiler is too objectionable, because knowing that a big cameo is coming will make more people want to see the movie. And the movie is worth seeing, if you're at all a fan of romantic comedies. Directed by Nanatchka Khan, best known for creating "Fresh Off the Boat," the plotting is familiar stuff, but there's a welcome subversive bent and cultural authenticity to it. And it's so good to see Wong and Park in starring roles that have been long overdue.


Monday, July 1, 2019

Dead Links

Nothing on the internet is ever truly deleted, but it can feel like things disappear without a trace.  I was given a good reminder of that recently, when I ran across a Reddit thread parroting an old urban legend about Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."  The claim was that the artists had used real cosmetics while painting Snow White, putting them directly on the animation cels. I knew that had an article disproving the story - except the site was gone.

Being the nerd that I am, this wasn't much of an obstacle for me.  Following a couple of links, I used the Wayback Machine to track down the original article, link to it, and use it as my proof that the anecdote was false.  However, anyone trying to fact-check the story, who didn't know that article existed, would have had a tougher time. I only remembered it because used to be one of my regular internet hangouts fifteen years ago, when I was a more dedicated animation fangirl.  Apparently the site went offline at some point in 2018.

I've talked about some of my other old online hangouts quietly closing down over the past few years, like the Rotten Tomatoes message boards.  However, I'm more worried about articles and reviews from the more content-oriented entertainment sites disappearing, the dead links that don't lead anywhere anymore.  One of my favorite movie blogs, Cinematical, went offline in 2011, after its original platform was bought by AOL and a merger with Huffpost resulted in a disastrous reorganization.  All those reviews and thinkpieces posted over six years don't come up in searches anymore. And where are all those articles from The Dissolve? Grantland? Did anyone save all those years and years of podcasts from before they went under?  

Even some sites that are alive and well will occasionally just delete content without warning.  My favorite, handy, go-to list of all-time great movie trailers was one compiled by in 2009.  It's no longer on the site and the Wayback Machine doesn't have it, though a few articles and forums still have links pointing to where it used to be.  I can't help wondering what's going to happen when the sites hosting those articles and forums also become defunct and close down. They say you never really die as long as people remember you.  Maybe on the internet, you're never really deleted until the last hyperlink to you goes too.

Of course, that IFC list is long out of date in 2019, and there are tons of other trailer ranking features out there.  Of course, there are plenty of other entertainment sites and plenty of new internet spaces for cineastes and film nerds to congregate.  Film Twitter and Letterboxd weren't around back then. It can't and shouldn't be 2009 forever. And yet, I can't get over the sense that important things are being lost - or at least significantly misplaced - as we move forward.  It's not such a big deal that the "Snow White" urban legend gets spread around again, but what happens if we lose the means to debunk the more damaging, less trivial falsehoods?

And maybe it's folly to get attached to these online spaces, but losing them feels an awful lot like watching the downtown businesses in my city close up shop one by one.  The area is gentrifying quickly, and rents are going up too fast for many of them to keep up with. Others are losing business to online equivalents. The travel agency and the Costplus World Market have been the latest casualties.  Others have decided to remodel or expand and no longer look like themselves. It's hard not to compare it to the way morphed into at the end of last year, and now won't load correctly on my browser.

I guess it's all part of getting old, watching your constants depart with greater and greater regularity.  I thought I'd gotten used to this on the internet, where the speed of information is so rapid, and everything is old news in a flash.  However, I was also operating under the misguided assumption that everything was still easily accessible if you ever wanted to look back.  And I've had reason to look back more often as of late, as online misinformation grows more and more sinister by the day.