Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi

2017, d. Rian Johnson - in theatre (2 viewings)

[Non-Spoiler Section]

At this stage there's such a legion of Star Wars fans, two entirely different generations in fact, that no single Star Wars movie is going to service everyone.  A film catering exclusively to fans will alienate the general populace and likely met with critical apathy, a film too generic will bore the fanbase and critics alike, while a film built for critical favor could leave the fans feeling rejected and target the wrong general crowd.  It's a crazy tightrope to walk.  All Kathleen Kennedy and company can do is their best to bring the right teams together to make the best movies that try their damnedest to do all these things.  No matter what, people are going to complain on the internet, because that's what the internet is there to do, and despite whatever resoundingly positive favor there is out there, the negative voices will always get a chance to cut through the clamor and have a voice of their own.  It's the "Fair and Balanced" world that Fox News built, afterall.

But I say ignore those who complain loudly about their disappointment.  The Last Jedi is a Star Wars film through and through, and not just a damn good Star Wars film, but a damn good film overall.  One of the best Star Wars films and one of the best movies of the year.  It's not perfect, but, what it does is reinvigorate the franchise with a bold message about moving forward and not obsessing about the past.

The loudest complaining voices are those of people obsessed with the past.  They want their Star Wars to be Luke, Han and Leia almost exclusively.  Director Rian Johnson is clearly a fan, just as much as Rogue One director Gareth Edwards is, but where Rogue One was a love letter to the time and place and style of the original Star Wars, The Last Jedi pays its respects to the past, but barrels headlong into the future.  Johnson did not want to wallow in the past, not even the recent past of Episode VII.

I can see why some people are upset.  There was a lot of stock put into the mysteries of The Force Awakens...not that Lucasfilm spent a lot of effort to fuel the speculation about Snoke's origin or Rey's parentage, but a lot of people put a lot of their brainspace over the past two years into thinking about these mysteries.  Johnson's answers may be less than satisfying to some, a lack of payoff in their investment.  Likewise, the grand return of Luke Skywalker, now a Jedi Master and hero of the Rebellion against the Empire, a legend... he returns, but not as some may have hoped, even Mark Hamill had reservations about Luke's portrayal here (but Hamill kills it!  An amazing performance).  These combined seem to be the key elements of a great many disappointments, but looking past that is a film with more than a few things to say within a bold, exciting, character-heavy action/adventure/space opera franchise film.

If I'm being generous, The Force Awakens was about things repeating in cycles... if I'm being cynical it was just retelling Star Wars again.  The Last Jedi similarly takes a few of the structural elements of The Empire Strikes Back trilogy twin, but only enough to give a barely tangible sense of familiarity while Johnson remolds everything else around it.  Here Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn and Poe all grow as characters.  They don't end as the same people they were in the Force Awakens.  Likewise, series holdovers Luke and Leia aren't the same characters they were 35 years ago when Return of the Jedi ended.  Johnson uses that time and space to give the characters new life and meaning, which can be hard for people wanting to see them live in the same old light, or be more grandiose extensions of who we knew them to be.  Johnson creates interesting people here, not superheroes.  And if he's creating heroes, it's because of what people choose to do, the actions they take, not whatever abilities they have or what rank they hold or what family they came from.  A hero can come from anywhere.

The opening line of the title crawl states "The First Order reigns."  The Order's military might is highlighted here by Johnson, but always with the caveat that they are not infallible or unbeatable.  Their quest for galactic dominance has all but been secured, it's just the simmering revolution of the Resistance that plagues them.  They are the dark shadow over the galaxy and the Resistance is the fading light.  What the Resistance needs in this film is hope.  It's why they sought out Luke Skywalker, not because he's Leia's brother, but because his monumental triumphs over tyranny and evil have cache.  If he comes back, people will believe there's a chance, they will fight.  Luke, however, has other thoughts about who he is, and what he can contribute.

Little Orphan Rey is looking for her place, and for parental figures.  Her own parents left her young, and the briefly supplemental father in Han Solo was taken away from her by Kylo Ren.  So in Luke she seeks so much.

Finn, meanwhile, must face his own lesser instincts.  His cowardice, his reluctance, and his selfishness.  Most of this comes in the face of Rose, a technician who joins him on a quest that could be the difference between renewed hope and utter annihilation for the Resistance.  Rose sees Finn as a hero of Starkiller Base, like Rey sees Luke as a hero of legend, but over time both must accept the humanity of the men beneath the stories, weighing the truth of their past against the reality before them.

Poe Dameron, meanwhile, has adopted too much swagger, gotten too confident, to the point that what he sees as successes are anything but.  Leia puts him on a path to learn to lead, as opposed to just succeeding by pointing and shooting.  He has good instincts but doesn't think or plan too well.  Lessons will be learned.

Kylo is the product of failure and disappointment.  Every authority figure -- Han, Luke, Snoke -- underestimated him, if not failed him, repeatedly.  Likewise, he fails himself, repeatedly.  Kylo is a man who hates everything because he hates himself.  His conflict is similar to Anakin's, and to Luke's... the light side, the dark side - temptation from both ends.  What is the right path?  Who can show him the way?  He thinks, perhaps, with Rey, they can figure it out together.  And Rey, much to her horror, finds herself connected to Ben.  And like with Luke, she sees a myth, a monster built in her head, but must learn to accept the man beneath.

Facades. Idols. Heroes. Monsters. Death. Hope. Rebirth. Growth. Failure. Disappointment. More than just the battle of light and dark, The Last Jedi is deep and complex looking for the middle ground in between and what drives people to either end of the spectrum.   I suppose some were simply looking for more action, and adding more dense layers of intricacy to the Star Wars franchise, but what Johnson says here, quite unequivocally, is that these films need to be able to stand on their own, without being burdened by living up to the past.  There's a whole new cast of characters Johnson is determined to have stand out on their own (and he even introduces a couple more), not just as potential offspring of -- or stand-ins for -- Luke, Leia and Han.

What I've enjoyed about Star Wars since Disney took over is that the films are not built around set pieces.  Events don't happen just so that they can lead to an action action sequence happens because of the events in the film.  Here, because of the way the story is told, there's almost a relentless pressure.  Perhaps borrowing conceptually from Battlestar Galactica (the snake eats its own tail) the great ongoing series premiere "33" - one where the fleet must keep jumping away from their enemy only to face them again every 33 minutes - the Resistance similarly here is on the ropes against the First Order, and, it seems, out of options.  But this is what makes the film so enjoyable.  The more dire the odds that the Resistance and its team faces, the more it looks like they're going to lose, the greater the triumph will be when they don't, in spite of it all.  It's rather exhilarating.

But even with my overwhelming appreciation for the film, there still is a little disappointment...



I mean I would be lying if I said I wasn't expecting something terribly cool, and terribly powerful out of Luke Skywalker.  I dunno, something like toppling AT-ATs with Force pushes or hauling Tie Fighters out of the sky, or taking down Snoke's flagship in just an X-Wing.  But, as I said, creating superheroes wasn't on Johnson's plate.  And what he does with Luke here is far more interesting on a character level.

What Luke does wind up doing is the stuff of legend regardless, taking the bombardment of the First Order's entire ground assault team and surviving (even though he wasn't really there).  Despite the fact that strain and effort to Force project himself across the galaxy killed him, other than Rey and Leia, nobody knows for a fact that he's moved on to the next phase of Force life and so this legendary figure who already was bordering on myth is now something even greater.  And the fact is, despite Luke passing peacefully, he can return in the next film.  We know so little about the afterlife in the Force that if JJ Abrams and company do decide to use Luke as a Force ghost (and they'd be kind of crazy not to), they have an almost blank slate with which to work with and define the rules of.  It's actually more interesting, and exciting if we finally learn the meaning of Obi-Wan's words in Episode 4 "Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine".  That "power" Obi-Wan mentions never truly manifested in the original trilogy beyond him guiding Luke here and there.

The death of Luke is sad, primarily because we see him here at his lowest point.  He refuses to train Rey, he's disconnected himself from the Force, and he's pretty much given up on himself and the galaxy at large.  He thinks he has nothing of merit to contribute.  The legend people look for in him he does not see himself.  He's a Jedi Master by default, because there's nobody else around to become one, and he failed so spectacularly at it.  It takes a wizened Jedi Master, with Yoda's Force ghost returning, to council "young Skywalker" that failure -- and learning from that failure -- is what makes us stronger.  Yoda failed to learn about the presence of a Sith Lord in his midst and did the same thing Luke did, ran and hid away on an isolated planet.  Both Obi-Wan and Yoda were reluctant to train another Jedi in case it went awry again.  So scarred they were by Anakin turning to the Dark Side that they didn't want Luke to be another gone wrong.  Luke had the same experience with Kylo/Ben, and now treats Rey like he himself was treated, as yet another possible failure.  But Luke's arc in The Last Jedi is a redemptive one.  He knew he couldn't take on the entire First Order with just a laser sword, he needed to do something grander, and Leia in her most desperate hour, found her only hope had returned.  (Artoo even reminds Luke earlier that he was indeed the hope she and the Rebellion needed).

Am I disappointed that we don't learn anything of Snoke's origins?  Not at all.  Did we know anything about Emperor Palpatine when he cropped up in Empire, or again in Jedi?  No, no we did not.  And did it matter?  Not in the slightest.  The Emperor was just the greater evil, the grandmaster of the Empire, the Big Bad.  I'm not sure why we thought there was some big mystery to Snoke in the Force Awakens.  I suppose it's because of the way George Lucas structured the Original Trilogy and the Prequels, we've been trained to expect everything to be connected.  Darth Vader is Luke's dad.  Leia is his sister.  C-3PO was made by his dad.  R2-D2 used to be his mom's droid.  Everything seems to orbit around him.  That Snoke's past never comes to light (I bet it will in a novel or comic series, but I digress) doesn't really matter.  What we see from him is what we need to know, he has tremendous power (he's able to use the Force across vast distances), and tremendous ego.  Unlike Palpatine who was a master manipulator, Snoke is far more clumsy, not seeing that his abuse of Kylo Ren will be the cause of his pupil's betrayal, and believing his great power is enough to stop it should it happen.  And it happens so spectacularly.

Because we've been trained to see connections between everything Star Wars, the mystery of Rey's parentage was actually more of a tease.  Even in this film, Luke asks Rey twice over "Who are you?"  To have Rey's parentage be ultimately revealed (by Kylo Ren, so take anything he might say lightly) as a desperate couple who sold her for water, it's actually a good break from the whole prophesized lineage that the prequels thrust upon us, and that retroactively caused Luke's destiny to be somewhat foretold as well.  Rey is a nobody from nowhere, on her way to being the first of a new generation of Jedi.  A boy Finn and Rose met on Canto Bight we see again at the very end of the movie pulls a broom towards himself with the force, hitting home that the next generation of heroes for Star Wars can come from anywhere.  That's a very purposeful statement that needs to be made.  This Galaxy is huge, for everyone important to come from one narrow band of lineage and short connective threads becomes more implausible the longer it persists.

Speaking of Canto Bight, if there's anything that seems out of place in the film, this is it.  Finn and Rose go on this side adventure to find the Master Codebreaker (a cameo appearance from Justin Thereaux), but everything goes wrong, and they wind up with Benicio Del Toro's DJ instead.  It's not the search for the Master Codebreaker, nor DJ, nor any of the message about how the rich and wealthy of Canto Bight became rich and wealthy (arms dealers, selling to both sides, profiting from war) that bother's the almost prequel-esque, unnecessary (and, to be honest, unexciting) chase sequence through the casino city.  I think what we're supposed to get out of this sequence is that Rose starts to fall for Finn in that moment (as much later she reveals her love for him), but it doesn't come across particularly well (so that reveal is a bit out of nowhere when it happens) and Finn seems generally oblivious, and still fixated on Rey.

I like the idea of friendship in Star Wars more than romance... for Rey and Finn have both led pretty lonely lives, so their connection isn't a romantic one necessarily.  Same with Finn and Po.  And given that The Last Jedi picks up immediately after The Force Awakens pretty much any congenial humanoid contact (that isn't barking orders or controlling them) is still rather meaningful to Finn and Rey.  That's why the Resistance matters, because these are people connected to each other by more than just a systemic ranking structure or taking advantage of their desperation.  Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (an overwhelmingly awesome Laura Dern) share a moment at one point which conveys so much history that we may not ever know, but we catch the weight of it regardless.  Even Leia and Luke are more dear friends than family, and their reunion is fantastic, the connection between them, a lifetime of adventures shared, all conveyed without any specific words. "I know what you're going to say... I changed my hair."

There's so much that is great with this movie on a deeper level that I'm forgetting the surface level, which is just as amazing... the fight sequence with Rey and Kylo against the Praetorian Guards, Holdo's bold sacrifice, the opening bombing sequence, the final battle on Crait, Luke's last's all as epic as anything we've seen in Star Wars.  It's not an upping-the-ante, per se, but it creates exciting sequences that are story (and sometimes character) driven.  The fact that from moment one, the Resistance's fleet is on the decline, from one scene to the next more lives are lost, it's a palpable sense of dread and urgency every step of the way.  As Hux says, the First Order have them on a string.  Even their escape plan finds them penned in with no help on the way and nowhere to go.  It's as dire as Rogue One only Johnson's tone always offers the glimmer of hope, where Edwards was far more fatalistic.

Johnson also imbues The Last Jedi with a surprising amount of humour.  Poe Dameron's wisecracking in the opening moments at Hux's expense start as the two defining moments for these characters in the film.  Hux's self-seriousness gets the better of him and we learn that, despite his rank, people look down on him for it (Snoke teaches Kylo the importance of having someone like Hux in such a role).  Snoke tosses Hux around like a rag doll on the bridge of his own ship at one point, in front of all the crew at one point (I'm wondering if the lesson is that no matter how ridiculous someone may seem, don't forget how dangerous they can be *cough*Trump*cough*).  Luke is very sardonic, not a goofy little bean like Yoda became on Dagobah, but a surly old miser with a deadpan wit that could give two fucks.  There's physical comedy, wordplay, situational comedy...and it's mostly funny too (the drunken alien mistaking BB8 for a slot machine on Canto Bight was another good bit which has payoff later).  It's not that Star Wars hasn't had comedy before, but it's almost always been incidental, whereas here there's comedy moments, in place exactly for that purpose (Chewie having to face a flock of Porgs while he's about to eat a roasted one... unnecessary, yet still funny and charming).

Ultimately, the point of The Last Jedi is to show what a creator with a strong personal vision can do within the confines of a big franchise, just as Taika Waititi showed with Thor Ragnarok  this year.  As much as Abrams and Edwards tried to ape what Lucas did with their films, this to me seems much more in keeping with the George Lucas auteur way of making a film, specifically a Star Wars film.

 To be honest I was wondering if The Last Jedi was going to flame me out on Star Wars, too samey-samey, repeating patterns, but it's done the opposite.  It's reinvigorated my fandom, made me see that what's still ahead of me is the possibility of surprise.  There's always so much discourse over a new movie while it's in production and so much dissemination of trailers before it's release, that by the time we get to it we think we have a pretty good snapshot of what we're in for.  It's so damn nice (and FUN!) to be surprised.  As Luke said in the trailers "This isn't going to go how you think it will."

Monday, December 11, 2017

7 Sisters (aka "What Happened To Monday")

2017, d. Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) -- Netflix

In the not too distant future, scientists solve the Earth's hunger problem with genetically modified foods, unfortunately the GMOs also become the cause of an epidemic of multiple births...we're not talking just twins, but litters of 7 or 8 kids at once.  All of a sudden the Earth's population skyrockets astronomically putting a strain on all its resources.  The solution is a global 1-child per family policy.  If another child is born (or if multiple children are born) the other children are placed in cryosleep, waiting for a time where the Earth can once again sustain them.

Now, this whole situation raises a lot of damn questions.  Like, if multiple births was such an epidemic, wouldn't placing this vast sea of children into cryogenic storage have a pretty sizeable impact on energy and the environment.  The sudden demand for tens of millions upon tens of millions of "living graves" would be a huge, almost unmanageable venture.  But we're not supposed to think about that...this is all just set-up.

We meet Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) who has just lost his daughter after she gave birth to seven children.  Having inroads with some of the people at the hospital, the seven sisters are not reported to the Child Allocation Bureau, and Terrence raises the girls, giving them each the name of a day of the week.  They aren't allowed to go outside together, but at the age of seven, he gives them the identity of his daughter, Karen, and allows each of them to adopt the personality for the day they are named after.  This continues for 30 years, the girls living a sheltered life and yet "Karen" is a successful...erm...businessperson of some sort at a high of some type (sometimes details in this film are deemed too inconsequential to matter).  There's definitely some building animosity among the women after all this time, and some resentment to having to share the public identity, but they've been taught by Terrence that the safety of the family is important above all else.

So when Monday goes missing, they wait until the next day to investigate, with Tuesday heading out as Karen, unsure whether they've been flagged by the C.A.B. or not.  Tuesday finds out some information, but things start to go south pretty quick.  Tuesday is clandestinely captured, and the sibling's home is invaded by mercenaries.  It's rather shocking how quickly the cast of seven sisters is whittled down.

The film progresses adding little nuggets of conspiracy which don't present so much a mystery as a rather obvious roadmap of what's happened.  And then the film plays out pretty much as expected.  Yes this is a highly predictable film (which I presume is why they abandoned the title "What Happened To Monday?" in favor of 7 Sisters... it's not that big a question in the film.  We have a pretty good hunch by about halfway through what happened).  It's not unwatchable but it's wholly on the B-grade scale of genre films, sitting with the Underworld or Resident Evil franchises or your Luc Besson-produced "notbuster" action flick.

Noomi Rapace is tasked with the task of being the knockoff Orphan Black in this one, managing to give each sister a bit of their own distinct personality, but to be honest, director Tommy Wirkola doesn't give us nearly enough time with them for us to really establish who they are as individuals.  What would have been most fascinating is if the film gave us the world building back-story (which, again, is flawed but provides enough of its own in-world logic to draw you in) and then a quick 7-10 minute walk through of each sister as Karen on her day... so that we can see how they behave that's different from the rest.  Really we only get to see Sunday and Monday before the shit goes down, and it's not enough to invest us in their lives. 

The flashbacks with Dafoe are great, but they seem to miss a lot of the emotional aspect of their situation (the young actress playing the sisters is great).  In fact the entire film struggles emotionally, as siblings witness their sisters' deaths then have to move on...but it's almost too easy for them to do so.  I can only imagine how difficult it was for Rapace to perform all of the multiple sequences and she does a fairly good job at time, but also she's too often detached in most role, perhaps not entirely invested in each sister (or perhaps not entirely prepared to play them).

The screenplay to this seems rushed, with events happening without much of a natural flow or logic.  Glenn Close plays the Doctor/Politician who created the 1-child law, and seems too personally invested in enforcing it for a woman of her high status.  Her point is she's made the hard decisions so that humanity can survive, and we're supposed to be left to wonder if she isn't right, no matter how unpopular her actions may seem.  It's a faux-headiness the film tries to inject into its stunted action/sci-fi/mystery at both the beginning and end, but doesn't seem to be given much thought in between.

Seven Sisters would have been better served as a suspense/mystery story, rather than a misguided action movie.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Dark Season 1


We had a few rare spare cycles in our ever-shrinking TV watching schedule and it just so happened that Dark came out on the same day and came highly recommended from io9 (honestly, I didn't make it past the headline before we started all kind of just happened very quickly).  And, well, damn, this show is freaking amazing.

It's hard to describe Dark without getting spoilery, so I'll try for a paragraph then drop into light spoiler territory afterward.  But my heartiest recommendation is to stop reading now and just watch it to let it's multitude of mysteries unfurl and discoveries reveal themselves.

The influence of Lost is rife throughout Dark and yet, it's a completely different beast.  It has the same sense of layering mystery upon mystery with a set cast of characters, slowly revealing their pasts and how it affects the modern day.  Like Lost it has character drama that works independent of the central mysteries of the show, so there are always multiple layers in any given scene.  Unlike Lost, however, these layers of the personal and historical begin to inform the overall narrative thrust, often in unexpected - yet completely logical - ways.  Even as the mysteries begin to get solved, there's so much momentum to the character arcs, and so many smaller, curious pieces left unexplored, that you're investment never wanes.  Most shows that have tried to replicate the Lost structure wind up either drowning in their own complexities or have to abandon the complexities for something more straightforward for the long haul.  Now, Dark is only 10 episodes for its first season, so it remains to be seen if it can carry this propulsive strength through a second or even multiple additional seasons, but this is Stranger Things-level engrossing.

Okay, that wasn't very spoilery...but this will be:


Dark is set in the almost-there future of 2019 in a small German town.  Its chief economic supplier is the nuclear power factory, those iconic cooling towers often looming ominously in the background.  As the show begins, a man commits suicide in his attic art studio, leaving a note that tells the reader not to open it until a very specific date and time.  Then, months later, the man's son, Jonas, returns to school after spending some time in a psychiatric facility, only to find his best friend Bartosz is now dating Martha, the girl he kissed just before his father died. He also returns to a town riled with anxiety over the disappearance of a missing teenager known for dealing drugs around the school.  Martha's mother is the high school principal while her father, a police detective in town working the disappearance, is having an affair with Jonas' mother.  Bartosz' mother runs a hotel which is struggling in the wake of the disappearance, while his father is the current plant manager at the nuclear power facility, scheduled to shut down in 2 years. One evening, Bartosz, Martha, Jonas,  and Martha's older and younger brothers Magnus and Mikkel join them in the woods to search for the missing boy's stash of drugs.  They find the drugs near the entrance to a cave, but Franziska, a girl disliked by the other teens, has found them first.  A scuffle ensues when the kids' flashlights flicker and a foreboding noise erupts from the cave.  The kids all run, but in the end Mikkel has gone missing.

The show introduces effectively four different families, and at first seems like a teen drama, but eventually reveals that every character from various generations has a role to play, and that the characters are all interconnected in various ways.  The teens are just one component.  An opening narration hints at the connective threads using the visual of adjacent pictures and colored yarn stringing between them.

There's a theme of repetition, that time can cycle and that the events of the past can return again.  33 years prior, a boy went missing and was never found.  It was Martha, Magnus and Mikkel's uncle.  Now Mikkel is missing but a body is found in the forest the next day, face mutilated wearing clothes from the 1980's, a walkman laying next to it.  It's not Mikkel, and the police can't figure out who it is.  There's a strange type of mud next to the boy not native to where he was found, but Franziska's mother, the chief of police, knows there's that type of mud near her father-in-law's cabin, but she can't be sure there's a connection.  Franziska's grandfather has dementia but seems to ramble on about events repeating themselves and knowing how to stop it.

Martha's father is desperate to find Mikkel, and becomes increasingly reckless... deep in the cave he finds a steel door with a radioactive warning sign.  He suspects the boy may be on the power plant's grounds, or perhaps even that Bartosz' father knows something more about it.  But the power plant keeps its security tight and refuses to voluntarily let the police search the grounds, and wields its influence in delaying a search warrant.  Meanwhile a stranger to town sets up in Bartosz' mother's hotel.  He seems to wander around town knowingly, and his room is set up with a completely different set of connecting threads from the show's beginning.

Eventually we learn some of the parents history, with trips to 1986, and grandparents history in 1953.  The layers they reveal are incredible, and their role in the larger mystery of deaths and disappearances is integral.  It's how the show navigates both old wounds and repeating patterns that is its true brilliance though.  We see among the teens similar drama that their parents engaged in, and the parents cant seem to escape wounds made long in the past.  The grandparents cycle are that much further distanced and yet the threads still connect.  Long held beliefs about certain characters that seem to be a certainty at the start are called into question the more time we spend with them through the various ages.

By the end most of the mysteries are revealed and yet they just seem to ask more questions.  By the the half-way point it feels like the show is barreling towards closing a full circle, a satisfying 8-hour movie complete upon itself. However, by the end it turns out to be more a celtic trinity knot, and this may just be the first loop.  It's a complicated show, in part because of its large cast seen across multiple decades (it's often challenging to keep who's who straight, but rewarding to do so), but also because of the interwoven cause-and-effect that aren't always directly connected for you by the show.  What's even more brilliant is how effectively Dark manages to show you just enough to draw conclusions but not enough to do so conclusively.  It manages to give itself just enough leeway to pull the rug out from under you if it needs to.  It never does, not quite that dramatically anyway, but whenever the inferred logic is supplanted by the reality, it's just as logical.  This show doesn't get lost in its own complexities.

The cast is uniformly great, having to depend on a lot of child and teen actors.  Of course, I don't understand the language, so subtitles can be quite forgiving on line delivery (Netflix has an English language dubbed track, but I couldn't watch that past the first 2 minutes).... the emoting, then, is completely on point.  It's also a great looking show, heavy in shadows adding weight and darkness, with an almost David Fincher-like touch.

In this "Golden Age of Television" there are still surprises, like a German-language program with no discernible stars that can compete or even better some of the best television we have going.  Dark is a genre drama that interweaves the genre and a the drama in utterly compelling ways.  It's a show that doesn't dumb itself down, but it gives you just enough help to not get totally lost amidst its intricate knot work.  If there's anything disappointing about it, it's that we have to wait for more.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Crisis on Earth X

Supergirl, Season 3 episode 8 (part 1) - CW/Showcase, Nov 27, 2017
Arrow, Season 6 episode 8 (part 2) - CW/CTV, Nov 27, 2017
Flash, Season 4 episode 8 (part 3) - CW/CTV, Nov 28, 2017
Legends of Tomorrow, Season 3 episode 8 (part 4) - CW, Nov 28, 2017

I last year's "Invasion" crossover among the DC CW "Arrowverse" shows was quite disappointing.  My chief complaint was that it wasn't a cohesive unit.  Despite being a crossover, each episode still tried to remain a Flash or Arrow or Legends episode first and foremost.  The comic book analogy is when there's a big event comic, like Crisis on Infinite Earths or Invasion or Zero Hour where all the big, fun, important stuff happens in the event book, and then there are tie-in issues in the ongoing titles.  "Invasion" last year had no event book, it was just made up of tie-in issues, and thus the event was barely an event.

Creators/producers/writers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg (who was literally just fired for being a sleazebag) seemed to understand the faults of last year's "event" and tried so much harder this year with the two-night, four-part "Crisis on Earth X".  The fact that each episode opened not with the usual Supergirl or Arrow, Flash or Legends title card, but instead the "Crisis" title card alluded to this fact: this would be the event story, not the tie-ins.

"Crisis" was exactly what I had expected from "Invasion" last year... a seamless crossover that delivered a single epic adventure for a multitude of characters.  But this isn't just a 170-minute movie, it's a true comic-book styled event, where the status of the characters at that time isn't just as much a part of their story as the crisis they face.

Barry and Iris are getting married, which reunites Oliver and Felicity with team Flash, as well as the Legends who spun out from Flash and Arrow - Sara, Mick, Stein and Jax.  Stein and Jax are still fighting like family members because of Martin's looming departure and Jefferson's father issues.  Kara is reeling from the return of her boyfriend (who is now married), while her sister Alex is still upset following her break-up with her partner, so the wedding is a perfect opportunity to forget about it.  Oliver uses the wedding as an excuse to take a break from being Mayor, and under investigation from the FBI, and a new dad, and focus on his relationship with Felicity.  Obviously there's a lot of supporting cast members not invited to the wedding but most are not forgotten.

The introduction to Earth X, or the reality where the Nazis won WWII and many of the superheroes we know and love either don't exists or are the bad guys, we first see the Black Arrow (or whatever the Nazi Oliver calls himself) facing off against James Olson as the Guardian.  We know they're playing for keeps here when Oliver murders James without any hesitation.  Nazis suck you guys.  Throughout various cast members are seeded into the crossover: in the opening act Joe West gets to make a toast, and Wally is charged with protecting Joe and Cecile (effectively explaining why Kid Flash isn't part of the ongoing fight); in the second act Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog and Black Canary showing up after the Earth X-ers invade STAR Labs (and proving that even together they're still not a match for Oliver); in the third act Winn's doppleganger shows up as a hard-bitten General on the good guys' side, while Quentin Lance is a high ranking official on the bad guy's side; and in the third all the rest of the Legends come to the rescue, to join for the big finale showdown.  Even Diggle makes an appearance at the end, continuing the ongoing gag where he barfs after Barry moves him at super-speed.  Where last year most of the supporting cast were cast aside when it wasn't "their show" here there's no reason why characters shouldn't be all over this thing.

What I wanted most out of "Invasion" last year was character interaction, a sense of discovery as people from different teams meet each other for the first time, and this delivered in spades.  The best of which was Sarah and Alex hooking up during the rehearsal dinner, and having that play out in an exceptionally meaningful way (more for Alex than Sarah, because Sarah's cool like that) across all four episodes.  Alex, of all people, probably has the biggest character arc here, but a lot of characters have meaningful events by the end... Barry and Iris, Felicity and Oliver, Jax and Stein.  Hell even Leonard Snart (albeit a much different Leo Snart) is back to torment Mick.   This event doesn't leave our characters in the same place where they started, which is amazing.

As for the Crisis on Earth X story itself, well...hell, it's better than Justice League.  The basic strokes are Barry and Iris' wedding is interrupted by an Earth X invasion.  Their goal is to capture Supergirl and steal her heart to save her dying Earth X counterpart.  After that, their plan is to take over yet another Earth.  By episode 2 our main heroes are captured and deported to Earth X for episode 3, where they escape, meet the Freedom Fighters led by General (Winn) Schott, The Ray, and Leo Snart, and have to return home.  Episode 4 is the big showdown climax, because of course it is.

While there are moments -- as the CW shows always have its moments like this -- where the needs of the story more dictates the events than logic, it's a hugely entertaining crossover.  There's so much to delight in.  The fact is the crossover is so joyously LGBTQ positive, with Sarah proudly declaring to her father's Nazi doppleganger her bisexuality, the wonderful interactions between Sarah and Alex (every.time.), and the so adorable pairing of The Ray and Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller's new take on Captain Cold is even more delightful than the last one).  The show isn't even trying to make a huge deal out of it (otherwise that interaction between Mr. Terrific and The Ray would have been about being gay instead of their charming discussion of their superhero identities).

Likewise, for an event written by a guy who just got fired for sexual harassment, it's resoundingly awesome in its depictions of female heroes.  Not just Sarah and Alex, who make for a fantastic, and deadly, duo, but the trio of Zari, Vixen and Frost get to wreck a Waverider doppleganger, and Iris and Felicity tag-team to save Supergirl using smarts and moxie. Even the Earth X Felicity is a hero, just by being a good person amidst such evil.  Hell I even count it as a win that they remembered to bring back Clarissa, who has rarely been mentioned with all the talk of Lily and baby Ronnie.  There's a real sense of equality in this event, which is important when facing down against fascists and bigots.

I had to admire the event for not ever trying to make the Nazi Earth-Xers into anything remotely approaching sympathetic.  Oliver frequently tries to appeal to various opponents sense of humanity and finds them sorely wanting at every turn (including to the surprise reveal of Earth X Prometheus...probably one of the biggest surprises I've gotten from any entertainment in a long long time).  Thankfully there's absolutely no sympathy for straight up killing these top-tier a-holes, and there is even something mildly cathartic about it.  I mean, from a character arc perspective, Oliver has been wrestling with being a killer for quite a few seasons now, so it's a little uncomfortable seeing him do it with such relentless efficiency...but I feel no sympathy for the generic stormtroopers.  Barry on the other hand, when faced yet again with Eobard Thawn (somehow alive after the end of Season 2 of Legends), still can't bring himself to kill.  That even in the background we see the lethality of some characters and the non-lethal nature of others shows a remarkable attention to character detail.

It's almost impossible to not bring up Justice League when looking at "Crisis on Earth X" given the timing.  I mean they're two different beasts, but at the same time "Crisis" manages to entertain on an even bigger scale than Justice League on a fraction of the budget and time.  Sure there's hundreds of hours of character set-up backing "Crisis" up, but the payoff is huge, and constant, where Justice League flounders at even coming up with an antagonist with any real motivation or character.  Even at a fraction of the cost, "Crisis" still manages to deliver action sequences that, while maybe not as polished, are more dynamic than Justice League.  That even with the time and budget they had, Justice League's Flash effects are somehow inferior to the TV show.  "Crisis" legit feels like an event, Justice League feels like a small, forgettable story arc.

Looking at the Ivan Reis-drawn "cover" for Crisis on Earth X above, it's totally inspired by the late-70's/early-80's Justice League/Justice Society crossovers.  It sparks a fury of nostalgia, which the show legitimately harnessed and executed upon.  If the goal is to outdo themselves every year, I can't wait to see what comes in 2018 (especially if they get Black Lightning in the mix). But seriously, there's 15 heroes namechecked on the cover, with a few more even missing:

Everyone who appears:
1- Supergirl
2- Green Arrow
3- Flash
4- White Canary
5- Firestorm
6- Heat Wave
7- Vibe
8- Killer Frost
9- Black Canary
10- Wild Dog
11- Mister Terrific
12- The Atom
13- Vixen
14- Zari
15- Citizen Steel
16- Alex Danvers
17- The Ray
18- Captain Cold
19- The Guardian
20- Red Tornado
21- Iris West
22- Felicity Smoak
23- Kid Flash
24- J'onn J'onzz
25- Mon-El
26- Winn Schott
27- Joe West
28- Cecile
29- Clarissa Stein
30- Lily Stein
31- John Diggle
32- Kid Flash
33- Harrison Wells
34- Dark Arrow
35- Reverse-Flash (Thawn)
36- Overgirl
37- Metallo
38- Quentin Lance
39- Prometheus

That's an epic scale cast list we're not going to see again until Avengers: Infinity War.

Friday, December 1, 2017

10 for 10: "Netflix and chili" edition

[10 for 10... that's 10 movies TV shows which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie or TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of half-remembered scattershot thoughts? Surely that's doable?   ]

In this edition, 10 teevee programmes watched on Netflix.

1.Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23 - season 1 & 2 (Netflix)
2.The Crown - season 1 (Netflix)
3.The White Rabbit Project - season 1, 3 episodes (Netflix)
4.The OA - pilot (Netflix)
5.Chewing Gum - season 1 (Netflix)
6.Dear White People - season 1 (Netflix)

7.Maron season 1 & 2 (Netflix)
8.Friends from College - season 1, 4 episodes (Netflix) 
9. Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (Netflix) 
10. Big Mouth -season 1 (Netflix)


I remember seeing promos in 2012 for Don't Trust the B... and thinking "what the hell"?  From the mouthful of a title to the "James Van Der Beek as himself" it seemed like a show that was trying waaaay too hard to be part of the new wave of TV sitcoms that Arrested Development bore.  I gave it a hard pass.  Through the year and a half-ish that it was on television I saw people I knew who had good taste giving it a go and liking it, review sites giving it favourably passing grades, and I thought "how".  I mean, I have friends who watch Big Bang Theory and I know that's garbage, surely this goofy-titled poseur was just another hot pile in disguise, right?  I mean, I'm not a John Ritter fan at all, and I didn't think I'd be a fan of his kids either, nepotism and all.  But after coming to love Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones and learning she's not, in fact, even related to John Ritter, I needed to get more of a Krysten fix.  I hesitantly pressed play on Don't Trust The B... on Netflix and had a quick laugh very early on, plus saw  Nahnatchka Khan's name as creator (also created Fresh Off the Boat) and I was hooked.  Ritter's morally spurious Chloe is both just as nasty as her reputation suggests and nowhere near as nasty, really.  She could have been fairly one note, but I love how Ritter takes her on journies without ever getting "soft" (her on again/off again Aussie boyfriend/soulmate/nemesis is a show highlight).  Van Der Beek adds some "Sad Hollywood" humour and the extended cast of Dreama Walker, Eric Andre, Ray Ford as Luther (JVDB's assistant), Liza Lapria (Chloe's ex roommate and stalker), and Michael Blaiklock as the perv in the window across from them are all ridiculously fun.  This show hits it instantly with only a couple duds early on, and leaves a lasting impression.  I want a rewatch.

[12:46 -- oops]

Oh the Royal Family.  We shouldn't care, and yet, we do.  I don't know why.  There's something about Rulers and Monarchs that is so ... other.  Especially in modern times of democracies and governments, the idea of a monarchy and royalty seems solely symbolic.  Thankfully The Crown elucidates on that symbolism by taking us into Queen Elizabeth's early days as ruler, taking over after her father passes away and her uncle abdicates to be with an unlikable American socialite.  The show zeroes in on how the titular crown affects Elizabeth's relationships, with her husband Philip who expects to be king (and is sorely disappointed/emasculated), with Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Churchill's story takes on its own fascinating sub-plot of calculation and back-biting within his party to oust him), and with various members of her staff, not to mention the colonies she visits and her receptions, both the ones she's aware of and the ones her aides attempt to shield her from.  It's a phenomenal show, Claire Foy amazingly inhabits the role and expresses the weight of it tangibly.  Ex- Doctor Who Matt Smith puts in a great turn as Philip, his jealousy and pettiness combined equally with sympathy and love.  Surprisingly outstanding is John Lithgow in his Emmy winning turn as Churchill... it shouldn't be surprising that he's so go but he's above and beyond.  I was utterly engrossed at both the historical and fictional recounting of this time as well as with the care to show it in a reflective lens of modern concerns.  Just a beautiful production.


I miss Mythbusters.  I've been an on-again-off-again viewer of it since its inception, but it was in its final season when my daughter and I started watching it together.  It's science and entertainment, rolled into one, and highly educational while also being ridiculously silly.  It'll be back in some form soon enough, unfortunately The White Rabbit Project, which stars the Mythbusters b-listers Grant Imahara, Kari Byron, and Tori Belleci, doesn't quite hit the mark.  The basic premise of the show is to focus on one topic, find 5 or 6 prominent examples of the topic, look at the science of those examples, conduct some experiments and then judge which of them is the best based on whatever criteria they establish on the show.  The main problem with this is they go through their experiments much too rapidly on the show.  With 5 or 6 examples to get through every story and experiment feels rushed and the exploration factor, the trial-and-error part that Mythbusters did so well, is lost in the process.  Grant, Kari and Tori are capable, amiable hosts, but the premise of the show puts them in talking mode more than action/experimentation mode.  I really wish it were better.  As it is, I didn't get past the third episode, even with an enthusiastic 7 year old ready to watch.


The OA opens with a feature-length pilot about a woman (played by Another Earth's Brit Marling, also the show's co-creator) who famously disappeared as a teen and then returns inexplicably seven years later.  She has some oddities that surround her, mysterious scars, and she starts calling herself "the OA".  Meanwhile her adoptive family tries to reconnect with her with difficulty, and she begins establishing perhaps inappropriate connections with some of her neighbours (mostly all younger than her).  Eventually she starts to open up, both about who she is and what she went through, but her tale of lost time is a difficult one to believe.  The believers though, gather with her, and experience a touch of the supernatural.  It's all a little too self-serious, hitting the same tenor as Another Earth but leaning hard into its more bizarre elements (specifically leaning into Marling's more bizarre and frustrating behavior).  The pilot, around the 50 minute mark, takes a dramatic left turn, as the OA recounts her tale as a young girl in Russia.  It's a lavish production, a harrowing half hour story that seems at once a tangent and absolutely the reason why one should watch this show.  And yet, I haven't gone back to it.  I'm definitely intrigued, but the tangent being more engrossing than the main tale to me was problematic.  That said I'm not sure I was particularly invested, and I've not quite decided whether Marling is a good actress or painfully one-note.  The show's tenor doesn't exactly allow for a broad range from its lead.  The facebook reaction at the time it came out seemed to be "it's mostly good but what the fuck"...which leads me to believe it has a frustrating ending that may not make the journey worthwhile.... I need someone to sell me on continuing with it...


Haha, this show is great.  Just thinking about it makes me smile.  This British show is just goddamn fun.  Written and starring the formidable comedic talents of Michaela Coel as Tracey, it's a show about a repressed 20-something finally coming into her own sexuality it the the low-rent flats of suburban London, while still living with her mother and sister, both direly religious.  The show's explicitly frank sexual talk is utterly refreshing, and coupled with Tracey's ignorance, it's utterly hilarous.  It's a show that could easily fall into a cringe comedy trap, but because the characters are largely so open and honest with each other, the cringe factor rarely (I won't say never) manifests.  Tracey's just a supremely joyful and awkward person, naive but willing.  The supporting cast from her mother and sister, to her almost-kinda boyfriend and his invasive, liberated mother, to her in the closet ex, to her promiscuous friend and her suffering boyfriend, the show is full of amazing supporting characters, most delivering comedy gold.  (Tracey's sister having her own sexual awakening is just one of many, many highlights).  If you're not put off by sex or sex talk, give the pilot a shot.  If it doesn't hook you in then the show won't be for you, but it's practically genious.  So gloriously vibrant, fun, and riotously funny.  I don't think I've ever seen Coel before, but with this series, she's already a comedy legend to me... just a phenomenal spotlight for her.


Oh, the heavy stuff.  Well, heavy, but not, but still heavy.  Dear White People is an series extension of the film of the same name which I've never heard of before.  The series itself is brilliant, exploring issues of race in America, largely African American but not solely.  The series uses its microcosm of a black dorm on an Ivy League campus to explore the macro issue, without ever forgetting that some of its characters who seem to have all the answers are still, in effect, kids without a lot of real world experience.  I loved the exploration of different black thought, and it's not that the show manages to come from every possible perspective but it does effectively reiterate that there's not just one voice when it comes to the black experience, but it equally effectively reiterates that there are common experiences across the board that are largely a result of systemic and even unintentional racism.

The genius of the show is in how it plays out.  It starts with an event, a campus party, an un-PC party put on by the campus humour/satire publication (a Harvard Lampoon of sorts), and it approaches it from our main character, Samantha.  Or at least we think it's our main character.  She hosts a campus radio program with the same title as the show that seeks to incite and inform in equal measure.  But the next episode our lead switches to Lionel, the demure side character from the first episode, as he becomes fully aware of his homosexuality, and we see the party and events leading to it from his perspective, but advancing slightly.  Each subsequent episode retraces steps with another character, but moves things forward, by midway the rather lighthearted take on race relations becomes in your face and dire, as an encounter with campus security turns almost deadly and the show does an incredible job at hitting to the core of what the police violence against black people means, the lack of safety in the world, the crawling unease.  Eventually the show swings back to it's lighter perspective, but after that it never lets go of the fact that America (and many other places, let's not kid ourselves) still treat black people as "other".  The show explores the roots and continued fight for equality in a systemically corrupt reality.

It's not a straight comedy, it's not a drama, but it manages both incredibly well.  The cast is incredible, and many of the characters become instant favourites, such that we're eager to see the spotlight circle back on them but also disappointed that it's to the detriment of other favourites.  Just an incredibly well put together show.


I've reviewed Maron once before, back when IFC threw fans a bone and place a couple episodes on youtube.  In the years since Maron had four seasons and is now finis, but has been available on Netflix for some time.  I've slowly worked my way through the first half of the show in fits and starts, pretty much the same way I consume Marc Maron's podcast now.  The podcast has hundreds of episodes, each with a famous or semi-famous person, always with a cold open of Maron discussing his life.  The TV show flips that.  The show is mostly about his life with a bit of the podcast where he's interviewing a celebrity creeping in.  It's Maron's angst that leads the show.  Nearing 50 at the show's inception Maron's past the mid-life crisis, has done a ton of self-help, and is a much better person than he used to be.  He's not a slave to his demons anymore, but they occasionally return to remind him of who he was, which only surges him on to try and do better.  But old habits die hard.  Maron is a compelling central figure, a solitary man not looking desperately for love, a man only marginally burdened by his parents, a man whose friends are as messed up as he is, only generally more secretive about it.  Maron's life, especially towards the end of season 1 and the start of season 2 spiral out of control when a particularly destructive and invasive relationship begins and then decays.  It's a relationship I knew from Marc's real life told through the podcast but it's fascinating to see it play out in fiction.  Part of my fun was recounting to my wife the reality of the situation which was actually just as crazy if not crazier than the show.  There's a hint of cringe comedy to Maron, but most of it is Maron fighting with his own worse tendencies in a given situation, sometimes side stepping the cringe, and sometimes stepping right into it, it's not knowing which way it will go that makes it so satisfying, and funny.  With a tinge of DIY and a hint of melancholy, few other comedies have felt like Maron, and few others trying to find this balance are as successful at being funny.


Oh I was so looking forward to Friends From College as an exploration of how friends you made from one of the peak times of your life have grown or not grown with you, how friendships have evolved or stagnated, how those old habits and tendencies you have with those friends crop up every time you see them, and how those same things impact your significant other when they're invited to join in yet are perpetually the outsider.  Ostensibly these things happen in Friends From College, but the show is less a broad exploration than it is a very specific one, for this very specific group of friends.  I dunno, I just couldn't relate.  Nick Stoller has done some fun, funny, accessible films, but this, this was off putting, despite it's fantastic cast which includes Keegan Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse and Fred Savage.  The show opens with Key and Parisse engaging in a post-coital discussion in a hotel room, their long-standing relationship obvious by the familiarity they have with one another.  As the conversation progresses, these are obviously people who are in love with each other and still good friends after all these years, a real solid relationship to start the show on...except when it becomes clear that these two are not married to each other, and in fact have been cheating on their own spouces with each other since before either were ever married.  It makes the show wildly uncomfortable from the get go, and despite the likability of both actors, it's hard to like or sympathize with the characters at all, and it's hard to find something to root for... do we want them to break up their otherwise happy marriages/families (Parisse has a child, Key and Smulders are going through IVF to try to have a child) and friendships?  It's a no win situation for the show, even if Key and Parisse choose to never sleep with each other again.  After four episodes of this horseshit sneaking around and cringe-inducing situation comedy around covering tracks and friends finding out, I couldn't really take watching anymore.


The first Wet Hot American Summer Netflix series, First Day of Camp was great for how it played with the timeline of the original movie in relation to the actual timeline in real life...that is to say, it was old comedians attempting to play teenagers, the results were never not funny.  This sequel series Ten Years Later takes its cue from the end of the film where the characters promise to regroup in 10 years time, and we get to see where they all wound up.  The First Day of Camp succeeded in spite of its logistical challenges, bringing together its repetoire of now very successful actors and comedians, and having a script that juggled their availability in any one scene adeptly.  Ten Years Later feels less well planned, the logistics not working out as well, and rushed in spots.  The excuses they make for replacing Bradley Cooper with Adam Scott, for instance lends its own spot of comedy, as does the retroactive inclusion of two new players Mark Feuerstein and Sarah Burns and the continual flashbacks that insert them into sequences of the film or preceding series where they never were.  This would be more amusing if the show didn't spend so much time with them.  The cast of characters was large enough that spending (a lot of) time on two new characters only makes them stand out more as outsiders (and for them to be quite unlikable as well doesn't help anything).  There's an absurd plot involving George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan that also doesn't quite take off, primarily for how much cheap comedy circulates around them, and yet the show's under-arching plot pretty much hangs off it.  There's a lot of fun stuff in Ten Years Later but not nearly as much as First Day of Camp.  Like most comedy sequels, it's diminishing returns on similar jokes.


I can't say that Chewing Gum inspired Big Mouth, but these are two peas of the same pod, despite one being very British, the other very America, one a live action cartoon being about people in their 20's discovering their sexuality, and the other a highly animated cartoon about teenagers discovering sexuality as they go through puberty.  Both are incredibly frank and hilarious, although I might have to give Big Mouth  an edge largely for what it dares to do with it metaphors come to life.  Created by Nick Kroll and his childhood friend Andrew Goldberg (with Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) its a mostly fictional recounting of their pubescence, with Kroll playing Nick and frequent collaborator John Mulaney playing Andrew.  Andrew's puberty is hitting him hard, and he's shadowed constantly by the Hormone Monster (also played by Kroll), who's like the little devil on his shoulder telling him to get into trouble, only there's little sinister about it, it's just a personification of urges.  Nick and Andrew hang out with Jessi (Jessie Klein) who has her own Hormone Mistress played brilliantly by Maya Rudolph and, for some reason, Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) who is that kid who's just the filthiest kid, extremely annoying, you never want to be around them, and yet you're friends with them for some reason.  The show's exploration of pre-teen sexuality is very daring, but necessarily frank, and absurdly true to life, despite its grandiose metaphors.  At one point Jessi has a conversation with her vagina (as played by Kristen Wiig) and there's a sequence where Nick, still having not hit puberty, catches a glimpse of Andrew's post-pubescent crotch and can't think of anything's penises everywhere.  The casting is brilliant, the show is largely spot on (one episode's spotlight on Jay's relationship with his pillow is, perhaps, too weird, stretching the metaphor way past its breaking point), and it's full of quotable quotes (as often based on inflection as cleverness).  I'm a huge fan of Kroll, from his stand-up to Kroll Show to Oh, Hello on Broadway and now this... it's not just about how talented Kroll is, but the people he surrounds himself with.  Outrageous, and again, like Chewing Gum, not for prudes.  Watch the first episode, if it puts you off you won't want to continue.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

We Agree: The Babadook

2014, d. Jennifer Kent (no relation) - TMN

As David writes at the start of his 31 Days of Horror (you really need a "31 days" tag for that Toasty!) each year "Kent is not that much of a horror fan".  It's true.  I don't hate it but I also don't really enjoy it.  Large parts of "horror" exist only to try and out gross-out the viewer, most other parts of horror exist to jump scare an audience through a series of convoluted or obvious set-ups (like action set-pieces, both of these are the horror set-pieces a film builds itself around).  In both cases story and character are largely dispensed with.  Rudimentary frameworks for gags and boos.  I find most horror off-putting or tedious.  The horror I like most is ones that are mythology heavy, crossing into fantasy/sci-fi conceits with the level of exploration.  The 80's were rife with these, where horror creatures became icons...Michael Meyers, Freddie, Jason, Alien, Gremlins, Ghoulies, C.H.U.D.s, Critters, Leprichauns, Poltergeists, Chucky dolls... too many franchises to count.  Even still most of the big franchises would offer only the smallest amount of mythos-building.  What the average fantasy or sci-fi story would do in one film, you're often lucky to get half that over the run of an entire series of a horror franchise.  So, because I get bored, or put-off, or generally feel unfulfilled by horror, I stay away from it.

There have been some horror movies in the past 20 or so years that I really liked.  Most of them have been very meta in nature, such as Cabin in the Woods or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.  Even Bride of Chucky which was mid-90's alongside Scream, Wes Craven's New Nightmare or Halloween H20...those are kind of my stand-out horror flicks.  They're the ones that look at the genre and say "well this is stupid, we know it's stupid, we're going to fully acknowledge how stupid it is, and we're going to scare/entertain the pants off you anyway".  I mean, the scares are fairly light in these kinds of meta flick, but they are entertaining.

Every now an then I'd get suckered into watching some "new, great thing" in horror only to find it direly like all the old, tired horror I've seen before.  I assume this is what people who get bored by action movies feel like every time someone tells them how great The Raid or John Wick or the latest Fast and Furious are and how they take things to another level.  The Babadook was my latest suckerpunch.

For starters, it stars the great Essie Davis (star of the wonderful Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries available on Netflix), second it's directed by a woman (with my surname no less) which usually infers a different viewpoint for a genre film (since they're so male-dominated), and third it's Australian, so perhaps the tropes of horror aren't the same Down Under.  Now that the Babadook has become a pop-culture icon (with all that Pennywise/Babadook slash fiction and meme-ery blossoming) , I figured it was time to watch.

And jeebus was I bored.  Davis plays a single mother with a child who, to put it lightly, is a handful.  But he's no more a handful than most kids out there, she's obviously been depressed for a long, long time and as such has been light on discipline with the boy (I don't mean punishment, I mean more in setting boundaries and holding him accountable to them).  As a parent I can attest how hard it is to be mindful of your kid all the time. Even with a dedicated partner in parenting it's still brutally taxing, so as a single mother battling depression it's got to be utterly crushing when your child refuses to easily cooperate.

It probably doesn't help that this mother character reads her child ghoulish tales at bedtime.  I'm not sure why she thinks this is a good idea.  Pulling an unfamiliar book off the shelf, a scratch-line-illustrated, black and white pop-up book called the Babadook, she reads it to the boy and sends him off to his restless, nightmare-filled slumber.  She doesn't sleep well either.  Soon the boy is seeing the Babadook everywhere, and her world starts to fall apart.  Is it the sleep deprivation or the depression, or is there really a mythical entity that's trying to get in?

This is a tedious movie, one which I really struggled to get the message of.  Yes, parenthood, especially single parenthood is hard...doing it while combating depression probably makes it so a hundred fold.  But what is the Babadook supposed to represent?  The personification of you "not being yourself"? The biggest failure of the film is to establish the Babadook's mythology.  The children's book is irritatingly opaque in its story to suggest anything about what its motivations are (it wants to take over people..."Let me in" it screams... or is it "Let me out"?  This movie didn't leave much of an impact). 

I left the Babadook, as I do with most horror, feeling unfulfilled.  Effective horror for me leaves me either entertained or contemplative, or both.  I like a romp of action-horror, or a strong metaphor (still need to do that Get Out review), or a rich mythology to process.  Like David, I found the boy to be more irritating than sympathetic.  Davis does an excellent job appearing beaten down by her depression and lack of sleep and general life situation, but the editing and camera techniques designed to sell it even further are distracting, sometimes looking like cheap television. 

When Davis' character is finally overcome by the Babadook,it doesn't feel right... it's too overt.  The film's riding on subtlety, so that when it finally cracks, and the monster reveals itself, it's too cartoony, too over-the-top.   The resolution is similarly pat in a way that feels like cheating.

I wished I liked it. I wanted to like it, but it just didn't click.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Justice League

With Toasty taking an internet hiatus I better pull up my socks and post with regularity.  He's been keeping this thing floating for a couple years now, suppose it's my turn.  Come back soon David, I'm tired already...
2017, d. Zack Snyder (*cough*andJossWhedon*cough*)

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
The biggest problem Justice League had facing it was everything that Zack Snyder established before it.  Man of Steel was a big enough problem on its own: Snyder produced a decently interesting film, but his fundamental lack of understanding/dislike of the character made for a terrible Superman movie, one where a beacon of hope and altruism became a dour, glowering, brooding, put-upon Christ-like figure.  For the sequel, rather than tone shifting, Snyder basically doubled down on the brooding otherness of Superman, and pitted this sickeningly gloomy version of the character against a bitter and broken Batman.  If there's a bright spot to the 150+ minute Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justiceit was Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, something even more recognizable when Wonder Woman finally got her own film on the big screen (in fact the only not great part of Wonder Woman was the wholly unnecessary prologue/epilogue that shoehorned it back into the Snyder-verse).

The events of Man of Steel are integral to the plot of Batman V Superman, and likewise the events of Batman V Superman are integral to the plot of Justice League.  But Warner Brothers, following the wild success of Wonder Woman, and the critical lambasting of every other DC Comics-centric film they have made, determined Justice League needed to course correct...and since Justice League had already finished principle photography by that point, it was like making a U-turn on a cliffside highway.  Snyder had a vision for a 3-hour Justice League acting as "Part 1" set-up for an even greater "Part 2" menace.  The 3 hour run time would have given enough time to properly introduce three core members to the cast in Cyborg, Aquaman and Flash (as well as establish their own smaller realities and supporting casts) while also running through the gathering of the team and (blowing yet another possible Superman solo outing) shoehorning in the rebirth of Superman. 

By the time Snyder left the project (due to a personal tragedy) this past summer, he had already expressed that Justice League would be lighter AND that it was no longer going to be a two-parter.  When Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon as a replacement to handle the reshoots, everyone became very aware that the Warners were likely undercutting, if not attempting to eschew entirely the Snyder aesthetic.  The film that made it to theatres bears that out.

Justice League is a hot mess.  It's a film that's less cobbled together than stripped down.  Gone is the 3-hour runtime, in place is a rather brisk 1h 50 (plus 10 minutes of credits).  The film opens with the world facing the weight of Superman's death (though what it signifies completely flies in the face of what Snyder established in films previous), it tries to catch us up on Batman, Wonder Woman and Lois Lane some time later, but it's all quite rushed.  There's no time to think about the weight of prior events, something else is happening. 

All the dream sequences and all the foreshadowing of Batman V Superman were not for naught, but almost for naught.  They have no real weight or relevance in this film.  What was supposed to be a tried and true sequel now feels like the cinematic equivalent of a U.S. politician distancing themselves from a campaign aide who was discovered to have ties to Russia.  They would just rather you forget about the past altogether, but it's hard when the past keeps creeping into the film.  Despite only having 4 months to reshoot, edit, score and animate, I'd guess about anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of the film is made up of the reshoots, so there's totally a rushed feeling to this at times.  I'm sure if this had been all Whedon's vision it would have been completely distanced affair from Batman V Superman.  Likewise if this had been all Snyder's vision, it would have been much more polished (and utterly laborious).

What Whedon brings to the table is an understanding of comic book superheroes and what makes them fun. Snyder wants them to be capital-i "Important" while Whedon mostly thinks you should enjoy their adventures.  What Whedon also brings to the table is relentless quipping.  Every damn character now has quips edited in as asides (Batman has far too many, and while it humanizes Bruce Wayne, it demystifies Batman), to the point where it's always obvious and often annoying (it was pointed out to me that these were probably extracted from longer scenes in the editing process).  Ezra Miller's Flash is almost all quips, with not much else to his character.  At the same time, I appreciate his enthusiasm.

Whedon also brings us a Superman we actually recognize.  Death was probably the best thing to happen to Snyder's Superman, because he came back a much happier, sunnier, uncannily-vallier person.  Almost every scene of Superman is obviously from the reshoots, as evidenced by the now infamous CGI mustache-mask (Cavill was working on the latest Mission Impossible as the villain when the reshoots call came in, and the MI producers refused to let him shave it, so the producers had to edit it out with not enough time to make it look anywhere close to natural).  But in spite of Superman's creepy upper lip, damn, this is the Superman we've wanted Henry Cavill to be for 6 years now.

In fact all the main Justice Leaguers wind up coming out of this okay.  Everyone's getting the short shrift, here, especially supporting cast, but of the main team there's enough there to like, and even want more of.  The same can't be said for the villain, however.  Steppenwolf might as well just be a sharknado that the Justice League is fighting, he's just a force of nature.  There's no personality, no defining traits, nothing remotely close to drive or real motivation beyond plot necessity, and almost no emotional connection for the characters.  Think of the worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe villains... he's right in league with them, and probably beneath them. 

It's almost the worst case scenario.  While it would have been awful to have two bloated, Snyder-directed Justice League movies, at the same time at least it would be presented as a whole saga alongside Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.  No matter how bad it was, at least the vision would be fulfilled.  Like, imagine if Guy Ritchie stepped in for Christopher Nolan to complete The Dark Knight Rises... it's a flawed series but the consistency of vision makes up for it.  I don't even like Snyder's vision, and somehow I still kind of wish it were allowed to be completed.  Because otherwise we get this, where Steppenwolf, meant as the set-up for Darkseid, but is now just a generic nobody that closes out half of the damn point of Batman V Superman with such a whimper.

Justice League isn't a film you suffer through -- it's actually somehow kind of fun -- but I've been waiting for a Justice League film for almost 40 years (and others have waited much longer than I), and this is just barely serviceable.  This is a starting point, albeit a highly unfortunate one.  This is the WB recognizing that they were wrong and course correcting.  They messed up Superman, twice, they messed up Green Lantern, they've messed up the Joker, and they damn nearly messed up the Justice League (the box office is so underwhelming that, in reality, they did mess it up).  If it weren't for the resounding success of Wonder Woman (and the fact they have an Aquaman feature already finished shooting), I'd be certain they would plan yet another universe reboot in two years time.  But they're committed now.  They so desperately wanted to play catch up with Marvel that they've done just about everything wrong.  The fact is, even with the Wonder Woman/Justice League course correction, the entire DC Cinematic Universe is situated on an foundation that will always taint it.  No matter how good it might get (and let's be realistic, the odds are kind of against it getting really good), it's going to still have Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and, yes, Justice League to answer for.*

(*unless the Flash-based "Flashpoint" movie completely reboots the Universe)

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Netflix Thursday : November 2017

A day off work.  What to do?  Do I waste half my day traveling to and from a theatre to watch a movie?  Do I binge watch a season of a TV show I've been meaning to check out (or finish)?  Do I play some solo board games? Do I read some of my stockpile of comics? Do I continue slowly plodding through my current book? Do I fart around on my phone and the internet, just killing time?  Or do I work through my all-too-long and ever-growing Netflix queue?  A real Sophie's Choice?  Ooh, should I watch Sophie's Choice?

Colossal - 2016, d. Nacho Vigalondo

The film opens with brief prologue of a giant monster suddenly emerging in Seoul.  25 years later,  party-girl Gloria (a bewigged Ann Hathaway) gets dumped by her boyfriend after yet another night of, well, partying and kicked out of his New York apartment.  She returns to her parents furniture-less rental home upstate to help find herself, hoping that perhaps distancing herself from the wrong people will change her behavior.  She reconnects with Childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudekis) who has never left, now running his father's bar.  After a night drinking at the bar with his friends and an awkward interaction, she passes out at home.  When she wakes up she learns that a monster (the same one from 25 years earlier) has attacked Soeul.  It dominates the news, and everyone's world is a little different.  The next night, she gets blackout drunk, and the monster emerges again...not attacking so much as making weird gestures, and Gloria sees her own actions mimicked by the creature, but she's not certain if she's the cause, and her guilt weighs upon her.  She investigates and finds the manifestation is tied to a specific location and a specific time in her hometown.

I thought perhaps this was some form of allegory or metaphor, that the manifestation of the monster was reflective of Gloria's self-destructive behavior.  And in a way it is.  On another drunken night she shows Oscar and friends what happens, and it's confirmed, but she stumbles and she's the cause of more deaths.  Her recklessness affects more lives than her own, but in the process Oscar learns that he becomes a giant robot in Seoul as well.

To this point, Oscar has been very helpful to Gloria, very sweet and giving.  But after Gloria leaves the bar with his friend Joel, he takes a very sudden and very dark turn.  At first Gloria sees a reflection of her own self-destructive behavior in Oscar's actions, and then Oscar starts manipulating and controlling her by threatening lives.  It's here where the film falls apart, the rather light touch the film had to start turns ugly and dark in a very unpleasant way.  There's a backstory as to why Gloria and Oscar are connected like this to Seoul, why they manifest the monster where and when they do, but it's terribly silly and doesn't make a lot of thematic sense.  Oscar's statement "I'm the robot, you're the monster" doesn't hold water, metaphorically.

As Gloria has to fight Oscar to protect Seoul, it becomes really ugly (as, inexplicably Joel just kind of stands by to watch...Gloria gets no real support from any man in this story...and it's rather unpleasant once I realized that there's no other female characters in this film either).  Yeah, I get that some people are not good people, that their inner demons get the better of them, and that some people can wrest control from those demons while others succumb to them, but the way the film turns the metaphor into physical conflict is ham-handed.  I was hoping this would be all drama, all the way, that Oscar were truly a robot that needed to be reminded about his heart and that Gloria would see that she's not the monster.  In a way the latter happened with her becoming the hero, but it's unrewarding to see what seemed to be a metaphysical light-drama become a muddle drama-action.


Okja - 2017, d. Bong Joon Ho

Lucy Mirando (a perky Tilda Swinton) has taken the lead of the troubled Mirando Corporation from her unlikable sister, and seeks to reinvent the company with a new super-piglet found in Chile.  They've reproduced 26 of them and scattered around the world to be raised by local farming traditions for 10 years, ending with the Best Super Pig competition prize winner and the debut of new Super Pig food products.  Given the animal's size, yet low consumption, are meant to revolutionize food consumption and ecological footprint.

10 years later we meet Okja, a sweet and gentle giant, we first meet one with a bramble stuck in its paw, and gently begging for food.  She is raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather live on a conservation in the mountains of South Korea.  A moment of Mija in peril highlights the creature's intelligence and cleverness, and also her heart, compassion and bond with others.  I think Bong drew a lot of inspiration from My Neighbour Totoro in presenting Okja and her relationship with Mija.  It's certainly effective.

But Okja is not Mija's to keep, and with the 10 year anniversary up, the Mirando corporation takes Okja to Seoul before transporting it to New York for the big competition finale.  Mija runs away to rescue her leading to a big farcical romp in Seoul where activists from the Animal Liberation Front hijack Okja's transport, setting the creature free.  Mija manages to run off with the creature through town, causing much havoc.  In the end the ALF has designs to use Okja to expose Lucy Mirando's white-faced lies to the world, exposing their "natural super pig" as an actual genetically modified aberration.

Lucy is not a cackling supervillain, Swinton gives her a real well-meaning intentions, a real desire to help change the world, but through a through small deceptions.  It's when things fall apart and we meet her sister, who reasserts control, that we realize the machinations of big corporations, whether openly honest or deceitful, tend to succeed regardless as a result of the consuming populace's own willful ignorance.

Is this an anti-meat movie?  Not at all, actually.  What it instead is preaching, if anything, is awareness.  Just be mindful of what you're consuming.  The second half of the final act takes place in a slaughterhouse, a place where Bong could have turned the film into a real horror-show, with stark angles and lighting and skreetchy soundtrack, but it's all presented very matter-of-factly.  Though the animals are fictional, it's pretty true to the reality of mass-production slaughterhouses.  It's a film that doesn't pretend to have the do we feed the world with compassionate farming.  It knows the conundrum.  It ultimately is merely the story of a girl and her super-pig.  The weight of the reality surrounding it is up to the viewer to decide what to do with it.

It's a sweet, enjoyable, exceptionally well-crafted adventure film, which is always to be expected from Bong.  With a few tweaks (language mostly, but the extremity of a couple of scenes) it would practically be a children's film, although I imagine the heavy dose of reality might be somewhat traumatic for children, which is why it's not a kids film.


It Follows - 2014, d. David Robert Mitchell

A young woman runs out of the house at dusk in her underwear and high heels.  She keeps looking behind her.  Her neighbour is concerned but she dismisses it.  Her dad is concerned, she avoids him and runs back in the house.  The soundtrack, a pulsating, crunchy electronic score, kicks in, riddled with momentum, and Annie takes off with her family car.  The chase is on.  It ends on a beach in the middle of the night.  There's nobody else around.  At dawn Annie's body is in the same spot, horrendously mutilated.

Jay (Maika Monroe) has been on a couple dates with "Jake".  She has sex with him, after which he chloroforms her.  She wakes up tied to a chair in a run down garage where a clearly paranoid Jake explains the was passed along to him the same way he passed it along to her, it's something following him, it can look like anyone - friend, family, a complete stranger, a face in the crowd - but it follows.  Never go anywhere without two exits, don't let it touch you, and don't let it kill you or it will come for him again...try to pass it along.  Jake drops Jay off on her curbside at home and runs.  A police investigation reveals he's not Jake and that Jay didn't contract anything from him, not anything science can detect, but it's not long before Jay begins to understand his paranoia.

Goddamn this film is freaky.  No matter where she school, in the house, in her room, there's no safety.  She can't sleep, always on guard.  Her neighbour Greg takes her to a "Jake's place" abandoned house that seems set up for hiding out from  Cans and bottles hanging in front of the covered windows, a bed and supplies among the dirt and detritus, a stock of pharmaceuticals in the drug cabinet.   As Jay, her siblings and friends Scooby Gang their way through finding Jake, the camera pans around the premises, just scanning.

There's an awesomely weird sense of style to this film.  The grinding 80's synth score, the differently advanced technology (an e-Reader that looks like a make-up compact), the lousy black&white sci-fi films on TV, clothes that are modern and retro from multiple generations, the old picture tube TVs, the 70's decor of Jay's family home, the station wagon... as if it's reflecting upon horror films from across decades.

It Follows is an amazing suspense/horror film... an absolute classic of the genre.  It doesn't just live in the suspense of Jay's predicament, but establishes an awkward dynamic among the Scooby Gang.  The film builds a metaphysical entity with a past, and no clear method of stopping it.

(David's take)

Shimmer Lake - 2017, d. Orin Uziel

Oddly writer-director Uziel conscripted a bunch of typically comedic actors in a crime drama.  Rainn Wilson, Adam Pally, Rob Coddry, John Michael Higgins, and Ron Livingston are the most notible names in a solid cast of character actors muddling their way through a series of murders and betrayals after a bank robbery in a small Ohio town.

The film is told in four chapters, begining on a Friday and works its way back to Monday, the story starting out as fragments, but the puzzle eventually filling itself in the further back we go.  There are so many characters, so many common family names, it's initially a bit of a maze, but by Wednesday the connections and motives start to gel.  A bank robbery, a schlubby Joe on the run, two dull feds, a dead Judge, and the town sheriff, and a meth lab explosion all intertwine to form a rather engaging story, even if the mystery of it is rather obvious.

There's a bit of a Fargo feel (more the TV series rather than the Movie) except there's something off about our lead Sheriff played by Benjamin Walker.  Where in Fargo the Sheriff is our moral compass, the most upstanding person in the town, here Zeke is "the smartest person in the room" but there's an edge to his placid demeanor.  Small moments - a vile distaste for his sister-in-law's cooking for example - doesn't inspire the same smooth calm that we got from Frances McDormand, Allison Tollman, Carrie Coon or Patrick Wilson.  But then it's not Fargo, it's just Fargo-esque.

There's a sense of humour to the proceedings (with all these comic actors there would have to be), odd exchanges of inane banter, more than a bit of bumbling from our crooks after the robbery and even during.  I enjoyed how each day starts with a character waking up with a start, and the running gag of Pally's Deputy having to sit in the back seat of the squad car every day made me wish there were more than just four days being covered.  It's like jeopardy comedy where the big payoff comes first, and then the joke slowly builds to it's starting point.

It's a film that could've tried to be too clever for its own good with its structure, but it's just the framework it hangs an enjoyable story upon...I'm not certain it's ever even really trying to outsmart its audience or be too impressed with itself.  If anything the downside to its structure is its inability to have a coda, to see how things worked out for the schemers.