Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"Big Little Lies," Year Two

Spoilers for the first season ahead.

There's been a lot going on behind the scenes of "Big Little Lies" that place it in an unflattering light.  Andrea Arnold is credited as the director, but apparently didn't have creative control. David E. Kelly and Liane Moriarty wrote every episode, but this run of episodes never shakes the feeling of being a wholly unnecessary sequel to the original miniseries.  The performances remain strong, and Meryl Streep's involvement is treat, but they're in service of a project that never quite comes together.

The second series of "Big Little Lies" examines the aftermath of Perry's death on the lives and relationships of the "Monterey Five."  Most of the big fireworks involve Celeste and Perry's mother, Mary Louise (Streep) becoming embroiled in a tug of war over the parenting of the twins.  Meanwhile, Bonnie reconnects with her mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), Madeline and Ed are in crisis over her infidelity, Renata discovers she's been living in a house of cards, and Jane is dating a co-worker, Corey (Douglas Smith).  Each storyline is fairly separate from the others, though the protagonists often meet up for clandestine huddles to discuss the continuing progress of the investigation into Perry's death.   

Over the course of seven episodes, we watch each story play out, some in very straightforward terms, some obliquely.  Celeste and Mary Louise's battles feel like David E. Kelley falling back on standard legal drama tropes. The implosion of Renata's life is showy and over-the-top.  Bonnie's story is very internal and the closest to Andrea Arnold's usual style - and sadly, the most affected by unfortunate cuts and excisions. I like that each story feels tailored to each actress, so Laura Dern gets to raise hell, Shailene Woodley gets a sweet romance, and Nicole Kidman gets some showstopper monologues.  Compared to the first season, however, it feels like there's much less going on, especially under the surface.  

Maybe it's because the characters are far more transparent now - we know everyone is feeling guilt and pressure from being complicit in the big lie.  There aren't many personal secrets left to uncover, and the few that do come to light feel comparatively minor. The conceit of everyone maintaining this veneer of perfection is mostly gone from the show - the gossipy Greek chorus framing device has been removed, and there's little outside pressure on the characters from the community, aside from a single bullying incident.  Big issues are simplified down to the point where everything feels very telegraphed, and there aren't many surprises. Then there are the loose ends everywhere. Kathryn Newton's Abigail shows up in the first episode to pick a fight with Madeline and then disappears for the rest of the season. One has to wonder why they bothered bringing her back at all.

A lot of the controversy revolves around Andrea Arnold's work being handed over to a team of editors who were tasked with making it look as much like Jean Marc Vallee's work on the first season as possible.  The trouble is that while the two directors' styles may look superficially similar, there are some significant differences. A big one is the pacing. Multiple episodes feel like they run short or have been truncated, because sequences created with Arnold's more lyrical output in mind have been rejiggered to fit Vallee's staccato editing style.  It's all very watchable, but you can't get away from the sense that something's not quite right.

So what's left?  The performances offer some reasons to watch.  Meryl Streep makes Mary Louise into a fantastically hateable villain, a soft-spoken manipulator and rug-sweeper full of terrible insinuations.  She spends the first several episodes creeping around the edges of the story and providing some great moments of tension. Laura Dern is fully unleashed as Renata's life falls into shambles, and there are some wonderfully entertaining rants and rages to enjoy.  Nicole Kidman remains the show's MVP, holding together a lot of the weaker material. And there's an awful lot of weaker material.    

In the end, HBO got more "Big Little Lies," but without taking the necessary time or creative steps to let the creators make something on the same level as  the miniseries. Instead, we got a compromised, oddly-formed new batch of episodes that aren't without their charms, but hardly worth all the fuss.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Rank Em: The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase Three

I like to think of this as the Spider-man Phase of the MCU, since it covers Tom Holland's entire tenure as Spidey to date, from "Civil War" to "Far From Home."  It feels like it's been a long time, but technically Phase Three covers the same timeframe that the Phase One films did - four years. However, with the ramping up of production, Phase One only had six films and Phase Three has eleven.  It also had the biggest films of the franchise, including the last two "Avengers" films and "Black Panther."    

Watch out for spoilers ahead.  I'm not holding back today.

Spider-man: Homecoming (2017) - With the exception of "Spider-verse," this is my favorite Spider-man movie.  I love how the character was modernized, localized, and integrated into the MCU. I love his interactions with Tony Stark and Happy Hogan.  Michael Keaton's Vulture was arguably the best MCU villain we'd had at that point, finally ending a streak of lackluster baddies. And the reveal of Liz and Vulture's connection, quickly followed by Vulture figuring out who Peter Parker was, was so well executed and so satisfying to see.  

Avengers: Endgame (2019) - I love this movie because it paid off so many things and made it feel like it was worth following all these characters through all their adventures over twenty plus films.  Heck, it actually makes "Age of Ultron" seem better in retrospect thanks to all the callbacks. Best of all, it let the characters grow and change in ways that the series had been resistant to up until this point.  And that made the final resolutions for Tony Stark and Steve Rogers all the more poignant. Natasha, not so much, but they still have a chance to correct that one.  

Black Panther (2018) - The movie was a phenomenon for a reason, breaking so much new ground and providing badly needed representation.  Ryan Coogler and company didn't simply create an African fantasy kingdom and superhero, but went and put the spotlight on current issues faced by Africans and  the African diaspora. They not only didn't ignore the ties to the Black Panther movement, they embraced and incorporated it into the story. Yeah, the CGI was spotty at times, but this was a bold, wonderful movie released at exactly the right time.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) -  This one is here mainly for the spectacle, but also its good introductions of Spider-man and Black Panther, and for trying to grapple with some of those nagging questions brought up by the previous films.  Why didn't he Avengers have any oversight? Who was to blame for their mistakes and collateral damage? Alas, the Bucky storyline really did nothing for me, but it did solve the villain problem by pitting our heroes against each other.  And it's always fun to have so many different MCU characters getting acquainted.   

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) - On its own, "Infinity War" is not a very good movie.  There are way too many characters, way too much sound and fury (but not enough Fury), and the only character who really has any depth at all is Thanos.  As the set-up for "Endgame," however, it's vital, and I like a lot of the choices that they made here. I like that they showed the Snappening in full. I like the different groupings of characters, including Tony with Strange and Thor with the Guardians.  I even completely bought Wanda and Vision and look forward to their spinoff.   

Thor Ragnarok (2017) - After two lackluster movies, the God of Thunder finally got to be the goofy headliner we all knew he could be.  I'm not as hot on the movie as the general consensus seems to be, because much of the humor never gelled for me. Still, Chris Hemsworth is better here than in any other MCU installment, and having Hulk along for the ride was so perfect.  The stylized visuals and comedic tone supplied by Taika Waititi were also a nice break from form. I'd love to see Thor have a few more adventures in this vein before Hemsworth calls it quits.  

Doctor Strange (2016) - A disappointment, considering the caliber of the cast, but still a pretty solid entry for the MCU.  The visuals are dazzling, concepts like the reverse battle sequence are fun, and a couple of the characters are great. Unfortunately, I never found much reason to sympathize or become invested in the character of Steven Strange, who starts out as a pompous ass and never really seems to do the work of redeeming himself.  He just goes and becomes a wizard, and gets caught up in all this other business, while personal growth gets totally sidetracked.   

Spider-man: Far From Home (2019) - It's fast, it's fun, and it admirably tries to do a lot of things simultaneously.  It just feels awfully slight, and doesn't really deal with most of the issues and ideas that it brings up in much depth.  It's a great example of a connector piece movie, helping to process some of the fallout from "Endgame" while setting up future Spidey movies.  Mysterio's great, but I didn't feel we got enough of him, and I will be very upset if this is the last we've seen of Gyllenhaal in the MCU. And I couldn't help rolling my eyes at those shameless credit sequences.     

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) - Yay for Yondu!  Boo for just about everything else. Nearly everything in this movie felt like filler.  Here's Peter Quill and Gamor's relationship not going anywhere. Here's Rocket having an insecurity-driven snitfit.  Here's Drax behaving like a boor. Kurt Russell is diverting, Mantis is cute, and it's always nice to see Sly, but this one really tried my patience.  Nice visuals and the last-minute save by Yondu make this worth watching, but not by much. Granted, I wasn't a big fan of the first "Guardians" movie either.      

Captain Marvel (2019) - Where is the rest of this movie?  Where is the rest of this character? If I were in the habit of giving out grades to movies, I'd be tempted to give this one an Incomplete.  The whole thing feels like a cash-grab prequel to an epic film that doesn't exist. You have to do better than this, Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially after "Wonder Woman."  You have to do better.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) - I barely remember anything that happened in this movie, but the whole Hannah John-Kamen subplot was terrible.  Wasp, despite being upgraded to a title character, clearly wasn't on equal footing narratively with Ant-man. Even the bulk of the action scenes were dull.  If it weren't for the midcredits scene, this movie would have no reason to exist.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Far From Home" Strays From Formula

Spoilers ahead for "Avengers: Endgame."

This is the weirdest "Spider-man" film.  On the most basic level, it's a teen comedy about Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his classmates going on a class trip to Europe together, and Peter having to juggle saving the world with keeping his identity secret and his plans to woo MJ (Zendaya).  On another, it's about everybody dealing with the aftermath of the last "Avengers" movie, and filling the power vacuum left behind by the death of Tony Stark. And on another, it's about living in the era of Fake News and omnipresent social media, where illusions are constantly in danger of supplanting reality.  There's also a lot of setting up for future Marvel movies, and a heavy reliance on elements from previous films.      

It's too bad that the joint custody of the Spidey movie rights between Marvel and Sony went kaput, because it feels like Spider-man is being positioned as a central player in whatever the next phase of the MCU is going to be.  Tom Holland continues to be effortlessly charming and fun as Peter Parker, and he's got a great supporting team around him. The parts of the movie involving Peter's friends and teachers are just as enjoyable as the parts involving him being a superhero.  Ned (Jacob Batalon), Betty (Angourie Rice) and Flash (Tony Revolori) are back, along with a new rival for MJ's affections, Brad (Remy Hii). A lot of good comedy comes from the hapless Mr. Dell (J.B. Smoove), who is leading the class trip - or so he thinks.  Happy (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) are also around to provide Peter some support.

A character who may not have Peter's best interests at heart is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who recruits him during the trip to battle Elementals, supernatural monsters that have crossed over from another universe.  A man named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) has crossed over with them, using advance technology to become the new superhero Mysterio. He befriends Peter and offers a sympathetic ear. And here's the part where I show off my nerdy bona fides and point out that Jake Gyllenhaal was in serious contention to play Spider-man a decade ago, and makes for a delightful new addition to the Marvel universe now.

As with the previous "Spider-man" feature, "Far From Home," this is a lighter, more kid-friendly outing.  The characters bounce around the map to different European cities including Venice and Berlin. Peter gets to tackle a few classic spy tropes as he tries to keep his superheroing activities under wraps during the trip.  There are a few dark moments, but they're brief and confined to dream sequences. There's a silliness to a lot of the action sequences, and even when the villains are at their most menacing, someone finds out a way to work in a joke or gag that diffuses the tension considerably.  The pace is quick and there's always something interesting onscreen to look at.

However, "Far From Home" left me a lot colder than "Homecoming," probably because it is so frenetic, and juggling so many different things.  I've gotten used to Marvel films feeling like episodic installments of a series, and "Far From Home" is good about actually progressing Peter's character development and marking the passage of time.  However, it doesn't really deal with many big issues in any depth. Half the population disappearing for five years is acknowledged, but kept in the background. Much of the other fallout from "Endgame" is kicked further down the road.  It doesn't look like we're really going to get into any of the thematic stuff Mysterio raised until next time.  

I feel bad about complaining, because "Far From Home" is a perfectly good summer action flick that does exactly what it sets out to do.  It puts Spider-man and Peter Parker in some new situations and environments, introduces some interesting new characters, and sells its spectacle while imparting a few good messages to boot.  I'll be looking forward to the next "Spider-man," but hoping that film can just be a "Spider-man" film instead of the hodgepodge of Spidey one-shot and "Avengers" epilogue this often feels like.  Usually MCU films focus on their heroes and save the wider universe tidbits for the credits sequences. "Far From Home" reverses this, and can't quite pull it off.   


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Podcasts Ahoy! 2019 Edition

It's that time again!  As podcasting has become more mainstream, the advertising has gotten more intrusive, everything seems to require signing up to some service to access, and there are more paywalls than ever.  However, I love the variety and the relative egalitarian nature of the podcasting ecosystem right now. Alas, Alan Sepinwall still hasn't returned to regular hosting status since the end of TV Avalanche.  There have been plenty of other shows to distract me though. Let's go in alphabetical order this year:

The Bechdel Cast - Hosted by Caitlin Durante and Jamie Loftus, the show uses the famous Bechdel Test as a jumping off point to examine the roles and relationships of women in movies.  It was jarring at first to hear the hosts mercilessly roast movies I've generally enjoyed, like "Amelie" and "Love, Actually," but the more episodes I listened to, the more I appreciated hearing these movies evaluated on a different rubric and from a different perspective than we normally get from the mainstream.  Why are female friendships such a rarity on film? Why is female sexuality so scary? It also helps me to better appreciate the films that generally do everything right, like "Bend it Like Beckham." 

Blank Check - I could honestly write an entire post about this one.  "Blank Check" started out as a "Star Wars" podcast where actor Griffin Newman and critic David Sims discussed the franchise together.  Eventually this morphed into a podcast about filmographies, specifically those of high profile directors who had earned "blank checks" during their careers to pursue cinematic passion projects.  The show can be divided up into pun-riddled miniseries, one for each director, and I really like that there have been some off-the-beaten-path choices in directors so far, including Nancy Meyers and Ang Lee.   The goal is generally to put the films they cover into the proper context, discussing the careers of the chief creatives, the filmmaking trends of the times, and background politicking. The hosts are consistently informative, entertaining, and insightful, and prone to the best kind of wild tangents. 

The Business - KCRW's weekly entertainment industry podcast is hosted by the Hollywood Reporter's Kim Masters.  The format of the show can vary from week to week, but it generally pairs some discussion of recent entertainment news with an interview from someone like writer/director Simon Kinberg, talking about why "Dark Phoenix" tanked, or cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who was recruited for the live action version of "The Lion King."  I like the show because it often spotlights creators and projects that are a little under the radar, like Bing Liu's documentary "Minding the Gap," or Dan Taberski's "Running from COPS" podcast. I also like that the Hollywood chatter really is business oriented, talking about the studios, agencies, and platforms that make the entertainment industry go 'round. 

Finally, there's been a nice new trend of official podcasts that are meant to be listened to alongside the shows that they are about, providing show notes and supplementary information, essentially.  This kind of podcast has been around for a while, but I wanted to single out the ones for "Chernobyl" and "The Good Place" in particular.

The Chernobyl Podcast consists entirely of interviews of series creator Craig Mazin by "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!” host Peter Sagal, one for each of the five episodes.  Mazin takes the opportunity to discuss how the show differs from reality, where the creators took dramatic license, and why they made certain creative decisions. And for a show where truth telling is so central, and there is such an emphasis on getting the details right, the podcast feels like an indispensable piece of supporting material to help get the full effect of the series across.     

The Good Place: The Podcast hosted by cast member Marc Evan Jackson, is a much more celebratory affair.  It's mostly built around interviews with the cast and crew, usually two per episode. However, what's nice is that many of these interviews are with below-the-line talent including editors, a set decorator, an animal trailer, and beloved visual effects producer David Niednagel, whose name has become a running joke in the show.  And because this is produced by NBC as an official piece of "Good Place" material, they have access to everybody. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by during the off-season, because why not?  


Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Rousing "Rocketman"

It's strange to see "Rocketman," an Elton John musical biopic, so close after "Bohemian Rhapsody," the Freddie Mercury musical biopic, as they both share the same director, Dexter Fletcher, and some of the same conceits.  They're both about gay rock stars that get into trouble with drugs and bad relationships, losing their way at the height of their fame before finally coming to their senses. "Rocketman" is a much more consistently entertaining picture, without all of the production issues and slapdash filmmaking problems that "Bohemian Rhapsody" suffered.  It does not, however, have the benefit of Queen's discography, or any sequence as electrifying as the Live Aid finale. A few come pretty close though.

The biggest difference from "Bohemian Rhapsody" is that "Rocketman" is a full bore magical realist musical, often using Elton John's most famous songs to stage fantastical production numbers as it charts his rise to fame and fortune.  The "Saturday Night's Alright" sequence covers Elton's early days performing in pubs with jazz musicians, and features dozens of dancing and fighting extras. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" marks his falling out with longtime friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).  The title song, "Rocketman," starts with a trippy suicide attempt and ends with him literally blasting off from the stage of a Dodger Stadium concert into the heavens, representing his elevation to global pop superstar.   

Taron Edgerton was a good choice to play Elton John, handling the singing and campy onstage antics with ease.  I found him dodgier in the quieter scenes, mostly because he's a very good looking actor playing someone who's supposed to look schlubby and is insecure about it.  Still, he delivers a strong performance. I give full kudos to Elton John for signing off on a much braver depiction of himself than anyone in Queen was clearly willing to with "Bohemian Rhapsody."  "Rocketman" makes it clear that Elton is homosexual through and through, and a good amount of the film is spent on his sexual awakening and relationship with early partner John Reid (Richard Madden). There is, as has been widely reported, a tasteful gay sex scene.  And as the opening bit lays out, Elton was also a rampant drug addict and alcoholic, who only had himself to blame for his substance abuse.   

There's a very personal, intimate feel to the narrative, and it's structured like a confessional or self psycho-analysis.   A framing device features Elton in rehab, dressed as a bedazzled red devil, musing over how he got to this point. Occasionally, this approach can feel stifling, as there's a dearth of major characters and a little too much compression of the timeline going on.  Aside from his family members, John, and Bernie, we don't really get to see Elton interact with anybody else in a personal context. His brief marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) is treated like a momentary lapse in judgment, and she barely has any lines.  However, Edgerton's Elton John is charismatic and engaging enough that he's able to hold everything together with the force of his personality alone.

And ultimately, this is why"Rocketman" won me over, despite my finding most of it pretty rote.  It's got a better sense of humor about itself than any biopic I've seen in ages. Even when Elton is at his lowest point, the movie doesn't stop dead to let him wallow or make major shifts in tone.  There's heavy material aplenty, dealing with Elton's awful parents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh) and his substance abuse, but it remains doggedly entertaining. The musical numbers are lively throughout, and really drive the movie once they get going.  I think the filmmakers could have gotten wilder with the fantasy sequences, but the movie delivers plenty of memorable visuals, especially in recreating Elton John's iconic glam-era performance outfits.  

The highs of "Rocketman" aren't as high as I was hoping.  During the "Tiny Dancer" number, where Elton wanders around a Los Angeles house party looking for love, I couldn't help but think of the way "Almost Famous" used the same song to much better effect, or how "Pinball Wizard" felt out of place outside the context of "Tommy."  A lot of the song choices aren't a great match for the action they're paired with, which is probably why so many numbers are truncated or feel perfunctory. "Bennie and the Jets" was a big hit, so they had to get it in the movie somewhere, even if it feels like an odd choice to back Elton's downward spiral. 

But on the other hand, the composition scene with "Your Song" is perfect.  And the bit with “Daniel” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” is cheeky and inspired.  And the "Rocketman" sequence really is something special. So, I recommend a watch, even if the movie has its rough patches.  It's a film that I don't think could have been made before 2019, certainly not in this form. A little compromise and a little eliding was to be expected. 


Thursday, October 17, 2019

1974 in Film

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

Lacombe, Lucien - A brutish young Frenchman is recruited by the invading Gestapo during WWII.  Lucien, played by non-actor Pierre Blaise, is an enigmatic figure, and it's never clear how much he truly understands beyond his immediate desires.  Louis Malle wisely never makes Lucien too sympathetic or his arc too redemptive. Rather, it's the potential that Lucien might find his better nature that keeps the viewer engrossed, as his situation becomes more and more dire.   I find Lucien an especially resonant character in the present day, as an example of an all-too common kind of evil.  

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - This is often billed as a departure from form for Martin Scorsese, his first real Hollywood picture, but it's the kind of film that I think only Scorsese could have made.  Who else would have put a character like Harvey Keitel's terrifying gun enthusiast in the movie? However, "Alice" really belongs to Ellen Burstyn, playing a complicated woman who has a lot more to think about than meeting the right man.  I love her stubbornness and uncompromising nature, both as a mother and as an artist. And sure, it has a Hollywood ending, but it's the right one for this story and this character.     

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - Can there be a more mismatched couple in all of cinema history?  An elderly German cleaning woman befriends a young Moroccan immigrant, and the two fall in love.  Rainier Warner Fassbender took his cues from Douglas Sirk melodramas, but was able to go much farther in examining the ins and outs of the unusual pairing.  Familial and social pressures, sexual concerns, and the prejudices of the couple themselves all come into play. The complexity and nuance of the depiction is especially impressive given the scant resources the filmmakers had - and even less time.

Young Frankenstein - One of the greatest spoofs ever made sees Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder tackle the "Frankenstein" movies with everything they've got.  Their comic takes on Herr Doctor and his creature are arguably as iconic as the originals (if not moreso), and there are such wonderful additions to the mythos - how can it be that Inga, Igor, and Frau Blucher didn't exist in the source material?  And seeing them pay tribute to the earlier cinematic era is a joy. The "Puttin' on the Ritz" number will forever have a special place in my heart, as it is impossible not to recall every time I hear any version of the song.

The Conversation -  A portrait of an isolated, paranoid man who slowly becomes consumed by his fears and obsessions, the film is one of the great psychological thrillers.  The filmmaking features spectacular feats of sound design, editing, and cinematography, including its audacious and memorable opening shot, designed by Haskell Wexler.  Gene Hackman does great work as Harry Caul, despite playing second fiddle to the film's technical achievements and bravura storytelling. I like that the film leaves so much unresolved for the main character, but still leaves the audience with a satisfying ending.   

The Godfather Part II - I never liked "The Godfather Part II" as much as the original "Godfather," probably because of the way that it's structured and the major conflicts.  It's much harder to watch Michael Corleone lose his soul, to commit sins and sustain wounds that can't be undone. However, it's also a minor cinematic miracle to find that so much of the film not only lives up to its predecessor, but surpasses it on every level.  The performances in particular are fantastic, and I'm sure the obsession with getting Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the same scene together stemmed from their work in this film.    

Chinatown - The noir films of the '40s and '50s were dark, but the neo-noirs of the '70s could go to nihilistic places that the originals couldn't dream of.  So much of the effectiveness of "Chinatown" comes from the work of Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, who thinks he's seen it all, only to quickly find himself in over his head.  The film's bleak vision of Los Angeles and its corrupt history runs counter to the usual depictions of the city, and John Huston's menacing presence in the film is arguably as important as Roman Polanski's - though Polanski was famously the one who insisted on the bitter, tragic ending.  

Edvard Munch - A three and a half hour docudrama about the life of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch that takes the approach of trying to creating a film using the same mindset that Munch painted his most famous works with.  Attempting to create a psychological profile of Munch as well as a factual one, the film spends a great deal of time on the hostility and the hardship that Munch faced as an artist, even going so far as to seek out his detractors.  It's an insightful look at how an individual artist interacted with the artistic establishment of his day, and the effect that this had on his work and career.    

A Woman Under the Influence - Of all the collaborations between John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, this may be the most impressive.  It's a fiercely personal, starkly psychological character study that keeps an unwavering focus on its heroine's ugly mental breakdown and the damage that she wreaks on those around her.  With a shoestring production, and a heavy reliance on Rowlands and Cassavetes' own family members, there's an unusual degree of verisimilitude to the performances that fuels their emotional impact.  And ultimately the movie is one of the most fearless feats of cinema I've ever seen.    

Female Trouble - Joyously vulgar, tasteless, and shocking. This one has my vote for the best John Waters film, thanks to the way ti memorably skewers American culture and middle class norms.  Structured more coherently than "Pink Flamingoes," it's much easier to appreciate the various send-ups and take-downs. The characters are also more well-rounded and given the chance to really shine.  The immortal Divine is enthusiastically repulsive and magnetic, playing the horrible heroine, and the film features a wide array of Waters' other Dreamlander collaborators in various roles.

Honorable Mention:
F for Fake 


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.